Sold Out at the Altar of "Malay Unity"
I was not planning to write about Malay unity this week, but after a little talk I just had with my father, Iíve decided itís imperative to underscore yet again the very real effect so-called "Malay unity" has on Malaysian society. Malay unity as it is presently understood is fundamentally undemocratic, and fundamentally a threat to Malaysian unity. The notion that it is not just okay but morally right to prefer one Malaysian over another because of his or her racial identity undermines everything that the concept of a Malaysian stands for; it justifies racism, communalism and separatism.
In the first place, I cannot see why anyone would believe that the Malay community or Malays as individuals stand to gain from uniting behind one political party or one ideology. Malays are not a single-minded, homogeneous lot, any more than the Chinese or Indians are. To ask a Malay to subjugate his own individual beliefs to the tyranny of the Malay majority is ridiculous, and completely undermines the democratic right of individual Malaysians, Malay or not, to freedom of thought and expression.
If a few Malay strongmen believe they can really subjugate their fellow Malays and fellow Malaysians to the yoke of one single ideology, one single belief system, they will have to face the consequences sooner or later. We know what single-party and single-ideology countries turn out like; even the few successes like China are forced to tolerate differing viewpoints, if not differing political parties. You cannot force a man to believe something he does not have his heart in; there is no reason to think a Malay will stop thinking and stop believing in something simply for the sake of "Malay unity".
But enough of this focus on the Malays; this is just one side of the delicate equation as far as national unity and social cohesion are concerned. I want to relate something personal, something that affects untold numbers of Malaysian families, including my own. Many Malays often wonder why non-Malays are so reluctant to offer this country their loyalty; hardly any are ever actually serious in their wonderment.
My mother is not a Malaysian. She is a Filipino, although with a partial Chinese heritage. My parents met while they were pursuing their post-graduate studies in Thailand. They tied the knot two decades ago; they have brought into the world and raise four children, all of them Malaysian citizens. Over a decade ago, my parents made the conscious decision to bring their three children back to Malaysia, and have their fourth born there, because they wanted us to know our roots. My mother has lived in this country for twelve years, and spent close to nineteen years of her life raising Malaysian citizens; she has learnt the national language, made Malaysian friends, and settled herself here. If this is not the loyalty asked of Malaysian citizens, I donít know what loyalty you expect from us.
For the past twelve years, my family has made an annual pilgrimage to the Immigration Department, because my mother is not entitled to reside in Malaysia. Every year, my parents swear before a Commissioner for Oaths that they are still legally married, and on this basis, they renew my motherís "social visit pass" at the Immigration Department. A social visit pass, for the mother of four Malaysian citizens, the daughter-in-law of another two Malaysians, the wife of yet another Malaysian, and friend of many more!
A long, long time ago — so long I cannot remember, but about a decade or so — my mother applied to the Immigration Department for a permanent resident visa. My parents personally put all the necessary paperwork together, and my mother invested a lot of her time — time which could have been spent looking after her four young Malaysian children, or contributing to the Malaysian economy — in learning the Malay language. To this date, the Immigration Department has never even acknowledged receipt of her application.
My parents initially followed up on the application, but were told by the officers to await an official letter from the Department. They waited. And waited. Ten years on, they are still waiting.
Last year, my mother applied for a Canadian tourist visa. The process went without a hitch, until we came to picking up her passport. A Canadian embassy officer appeared and enquired about her "social visit pass". My mother confirmed that yes, in spite of everything, this wife and mother of Malaysians has yet to be allowed to stay in Malaysia. The officer shrugged his shoulders, as if he were used to seeing this sort of thing, and replied, "Okay — just checking!"
On the drive home, my father reflected on the ludicrousness of it all. If he were to die, if they were to be divorced, my mother would have no right to stay in Malaysia, no right to be the mother of Malaysians. A decade on, my family was still waiting.
Fed up with it all, my father decided that if his wife could not have a home here, he would make sure she and our family could have a home elsewhere. Two years ago, he applied for permanent residency in New Zealand. Today, before any of us have even set foot in New Zealand, the Kiwi government has welcomed us and given us the right to stay and reside in New Zealand for as long as we like, without any preconditions. We have no prior ties to New Zealand, and they welcome us with open arms; my mother has a rich twenty year history with Malaysia, and to this day, her request to stay here has yet to even be acknowledged.
This story is alas far too common; years ago, my father was warned by an acquaintance that his wife had waited in vain ten years for her permanent residency to come through. Earlier today, he decided to check in with the Immigration Department, just to see if they had ever done anything about my motherís application. He got the same brush-off of a reply: "Tunggu suratlah!" As he left the office, he overheard a mat salleh woman berating a young officer, in fluent Malay: "My husband is dead already, what should I do now? I have been living in this country longer than you have been alive!" Not far off, an Indonesian construction worker was conspicuously brandishing his approved application for a work permit, entitling him to reside here.
This sort of thing is no bureaucratic accident; this is intentional racism. This is the product of "Malay unity". What good is this talk of how Pak Lah is selling us out to the Singaporeans by giving them cheap sand, when right under our nose, the government is selling our citizenship birthrights out to any old Indonesian, while denying Malaysians the right to live in peace with their spouses, their families? When you endorse this idea that the end of Malay unity justifies the means, this is the result.
I donít begrudge legal Indonesian immigrants their right to live and work here; they are doing a job nobody else wants, and they are often unfairly scapegoated by a Malaysian society not willing to examine its own fractures and divisions. But I have lived for years with the shame of being a citizen whose own country will not even let his mother stay, in spite of everything she has done for her Malaysian family.
Itís easy to mock people like us for saying things like "I will never die for this country"; itís hard to accept that this country has never given people like us a reason to die for it. When my family migrates to New Zealand, they will not be looking back wistfully; they will be looking forward to a future where my mother is not forever in legal jeopardy, forever at risk of separation from us. The last thing on their minds will be a country obsessed with small-minded "Malay unity", obsessed with worshipping its keris-waving heroes while ignoring the countless non-Malays who gave their lives in apparent vain for a country which will not recognise the ideal behind their sacrifice.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.