What is the Definition of a Malaysian?
What makes someone Malaysian? For most of us, the answer is obvious: if we believe in the rule of law, we believe the Constitution defines what makes someone a Malaysian and what makes someone a pendatang asing. If we believe in the rule of convenience, we believe that the government defines who is Malaysian and who is not. But although both definitions have their merits, I think ultimately both are wrong where it truly matters. Being a Malaysian is a state of mind, not a piece of paper or a government decree.
First, let's be clear: our legal status is certainly defined by the laws of the country. If I am a Briton living in Malaysia, I do not have any right to remain here without a visa. I am not entitled to the same rights as Malaysian citizens. Even if I think of myself as a Malaysian, even if I love this country, even if I would die for it, I can be deported if my paperwork is not in order.
At the same time, legal status is meaningless if the government does not enforce it. If the Constitution declares all Malaysian citizens equal under the law (which it does in Article 8), even if it even commands the government to protect the interests of all communities (Article 153), these rights do not have any legal effect without the cooperation of the government. If the government ignores the law, if it treats some people as Malaysians and some others as non-Malaysians, then no amount of paperwork in the world can change my effective status as a non-Malaysian.
But really, who defines the Malaysian nation? What defines who we are as a culture, as a people? If I have spent my whole life in Malaysia, if it's the only country I've ever known, if my friends are all Malaysians, if I speak Malay and Manglish as fluently as any native, if I would die for my country, can't I call myself a Malaysian? Maybe the government won't recognise me, and maybe the Constitution won't either—but how does that change who I am in any meaningful way?
As I've said before, we can spend forever blaming someone else for our lack of a Malaysian identity. But by placing the blame on others, we tacitly give up our rights as Malaysians. If we say we refuse to think of ourselves as Malaysians because the government won't recognise us as such, we implicitly give up the right to be treated as Malaysians. Why should we allow anyone to exercise such power over our very sense of who we are?
Many of us feel betrayed by someone. Many Malays feel betrayed by non-Malays who appear to ignore the still dire economic plight of the Malay community. Many non-Malays feel betrayed by Malays who seem to not notice or care about the political injustices meted out to them. That is fair enough, and I don't think we should expect people to change how they feel emotionally just for the sake of some sense of national identity.
But in spite of that, I do think we are only letting the other side win when we let them define ourselves on their own terms. Why should the Malays become obsessed with pursuing a Malay-only definition of Malaysianness simply because of a few bigots or chauvinists—why should they label all non-Malays as traitors and pendatang when hardly a handful actually hate the only country we all have? Why should the non-Malays irrationally pursue an agenda of "leveling the playing field" out of spite against government racism, when such reactionary measures would innately disadvantage Malays trying to break out of the poverty trap? Why should we become paranoid and insecure about who we are?
The actions of others cannot change who we really are, unless we allow them to. When we give up our identities as Malaysians for the sake of a narrow and parochial identity, just to spite the other side or to make ourselves feel better, we give up our right to decide who we are. We have allowed someone else to decide that for us. Our identity is sacred, and any reasonable human being should respect his or her own identity, and that of others. When we choose to define our own identities on others' terms instead of our own, we are the ones who lose. When we turn our back on being Malaysian, we turn our backs on ourselves—on who we truly are.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.