Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

One Anthem, One Country, One Love

Written by johnleemk on 2:06:55 am Jan 29, 2009.

The year is drawing to a close, and the Christmas break at my university has afforded me some time for introspection. As we look to what a new year beckons, I wonder what is to become of the Malaysian nation. It has been over five decades since we became a free nation — but a nation of what? As we move toward a two-party system and a more open arena for vigorous debate, we cannot forget the ties that bind us together. We may argue and we may quarrel, but we must always do so out of love for our shared nation and our shared dreams of peace and prosperity. The true social contract which governs us is the one which we all adhere to unthinkingly because we have accepted it without question; it is that simple rule of love for our fellow man, of respect for the people we share our great country with.

In my spare time, a guilty pleasure of mine is going on Youtube and searching out renditions of different national anthems. I am always interested in seeing how different countries approach this national symbol. Singapore's often amuses me, if only because it seems odd for them to have theirs in Malay. (I should add I am impressed that the Singaporean leadership has been firm about keeping the anthem, one minister calling anyone incapable of singing Majulah Singapura "mentally retarded.") At first glance it seems quite strange for a country to have an anthem in a language that most of its people cannot understand.

However, in my idle browsing, I have found how other ethnically diverse nations handle their anthems very interesting. Canadians typically intermingle English and French verses when they sing their anthem; New Zealanders sing their anthem first in Maori and then in English; the South Africans combine two different patriotic songs comprising five different languages and create an anthem which I suspect very few South Africans understand in its entirety. It is fascinating, and it has made me wonder why we in Malaysia seem reluctant to embrace our unique heritage in the same way some of these other countries have.

Obviously, a national anthem is just one way of measuring tolerance and respect for diversity; it is not at all the only way. But there is just something stirring about watching a video of New Zealanders or South Africans at a rugby match and seeing all the players—most of whom are actually white, mind you—singing the non-English verses of their anthems as heartily as they sing the English lines. And you can learn quite a bit about national attitudes too just from reading Youtube comments; the New Zealand videos are often full of comments about how inspiring they find their anthem, while the South African ones have a surprisingly large number of racist remarks from both black and white. All this raises the interesting hypothetical: how would life be like if we had a national anthem in more than one language, and why is it that we don't?

Without an ability to peer into alternative universes, we can only speculate. What would our country be like if we had an anthem in Malay, Chinese and Tamil? Would it command the same kind of respect that Negaraku does, or less, or more? Would Malaysians sing this national anthem as fervently as they sing the one we have? Would this multilingual anthem divide us, as it seems to have done in South Africa, or bond us, as it seems to have accomplished in New Zealand? These are all unanswerable questions, but thinking about them is fruitful because it makes us ponder why our country is what it is today.

And after some pondering, my conclusion is this: we may not have a multilingual anthem, but our anthem symbolises the successful incorporation of our varied peoples into one nation, one people. All of us can sing the same anthem in the same language, with the same feeling of pride; there is no confusion, no lack of comprehension, as there surely must be in Singapore or South Africa. Malay is not the native tongue of many of us, but it is a language we call our own and one we learn to speak almost as well as any native; the Malay rulers are not the ones who ruled over our ancestors, but we accept their sovereignty over us as Malaysians. And as with these other national institutions, Negaraku truly is ours, because we have made it so — because we have accepted it as a symbol of our nationhood.

But then if we have accepted these facts of nationhood, why the confusion about our nation, about who we are? It is tempting to lay the blame on some larger fundamental fault line dividing us along racial or religious lines; it does look that way at times, and it is a plausible argument. But I think I am a bit more optimistic than most in this area, because I believe most Malaysians have come to an informal modus vivendi; we have agreed to live and let live. Seriously, how many of us are agitating to overthrow the Agong because a Malay ruler cannot be a Malaysian ruler? How many of us are trying to ban education in Chinese because to be literate in Chinese is to be unMalaysian? How many of us are trying to stamp out the Malay or Tamil or Chinese identity? The answer is not zero, but neither is it significant — not in this country of 27 million people. The vast majority of us are happy to just be living in peace and living with one another; we may not agree entirely on what Malaysia is, we may still be hurting from past wounds, but we are not interested in picking a fight, not interested in aggressively and radically destroying the national identity and social contract we've slowly built over the past fifty years.

The problem, quite simply, is the very few but very vocal radicals who do not subscribe to this modus vivendi; who actively seek to undermine the foundations of our nation. These are the people who try to drum up support for a vast revision of our national symbols and institutions out of some misguided belief that someone is being persecuted. Some Malay radicals would have us believe that the Malay community is facing the imminent threat of cultural and economic extinction; some Chinese and Indian radicals would likewise prefer it if we thought that the government is out to subjugate and virtually enslave its non-Malay citizens. While things are not hunky dory, neither of these wild claims is even plausibly true — and yet the fear they create in us is enough to make us doubt ourselves, and doubt the real social contract that has governed our society for as long as anyone alive today can remember: to live and let live.

Clearly, there are problems with our country, problems that must be addressed. But to borrow an apt quote from Bill Clinton, there is nothing wrong with Malaysia that cannot be fixed with what is right with Malaysia. The solution to unequal educational and economic opportunities is not to worsen the situation by enforcing further racially discriminatory policies; it is to give everyone the same chance, to help the unfortunate gain access to the same opportunities everyone else has, to live and let live, as we have in the past and must in the future.

My wish for the new year is that we will learn to see past the misleading rhetoric of those few extremists who seek to polarise us, and learn to focus on the ties that bind us all together. We only have one country, only one tanah air. Our anthem is not Negara Melayu, and neither is it Huayi de Guojia, or however you say Indian country in Tamil; we make no distinction between Malay and non-Malay. This is Negaraku — yours, mine and ours —an anthem in our language, for our nation.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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