As Malaysia progresses, doubt grows over national identity

Clad in national costume, Charissa Chong of Malaysia appears on stage during the 53rd Miss International Beauty Pageant in Tokyo on December 17, 2013. — AFP pic
Clad in national costume, Charissa Chong of Malaysia appears on stage during the 53rd Miss International Beauty Pageant in Tokyo on December 17, 2013. — AFP pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 18 — Fifty years after achieving nationhood, Malaysians are still grappling to reach a consensus over their national identity.

The racial, religious, cultural and ideological diversity that had previously been cause for celebration have turned into major blocks that have trip up this Southeast Asian tiger on its road to first nation status, according to several leading chroniclers at the 60th History Summit, which kicked off here yesterday.

The historians noted that despite various attempts by the nation’s leaders to unite its diverse peoples, Malaysians have grown more polarised over the years, resulting in the citizens’ failure to subscribe to a shared identity, unlike its homogenous regional neighbours.

Anuar Ahmad, a lecturer at the Faculty of Education in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) told the summit that there are at least four competing categories of Malaysians who each have a different and clashing grasp of what a “Malaysian nation ”— what historians term “nations-of-intent — should be.

“Firstly, there exists the obvious ethnic categories such as the Malay, Chinese, Indian, and others. Secondly, between the Bumiputera and the non-Bumiputera. Thirdly, there are the Malay Bumiputera and non-Malay Bumiputera,” Anuar said, quoting a 1996 study by Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin.

“From a political perspective, even among the Malay Bumiputera, there are the nationalist Malays and there are those who subscribe to religious ideologies, which he called radicals.”

Malaysia is now facing an Islamic religious divide, with the Malays recently split between the Sunni and Shia denominations, with religious authorities denying the latter’s historical influence over the Muslim community here.

There is also a rise of Malay and Muslim groups promoting the view that Malaysia had historically been dominated by the Malay-Muslim rule, and suggested for Islamic holy texts to be the paramount law in the country.

The term “nations-of-intent” was first coined by Shamsul, the founding director of UKM’s Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), in the same 1996 paper, to describe an idea of what a nation is intended to be by a group of people.

“By nation-of-intent, I mean a more or less precisely defined idea of the form of a nation... The idea must be shared by a number of people who perceive themselves as members of that nation, and who feel that it unites them,” he said in the paper titled “Nations-of-Intent in Malaysia”.

Dr Shamsul warned that attempts to promote a solitary version of Malaysia would alienate portions of the community that did not fall within the accepted boundaries. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Dr Shamsul warned that attempts to promote a solitary version of Malaysia would alienate portions of the community that did not fall within the accepted boundaries. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Prior to the arrival of immigrants from China and India, the initial occupants of the Malay peninsula had managed to share the same identity even though they came from different ethnic stock, said another historian, Assoc Prof Abd Rahman Ismail.

This was possible if one were to define a nation using a different approach, the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) lecturer said.

He listed three ways: a shared ethnicity, a shared socio-political background, and a shared culture, as with the Malays.

“The creation of the name ‘Malaysia’ which has the root word of ‘Malay’ clearly proves that ‘Malayness’ is considered the core of the identity in its long-term cultural and historical frame,” Abd Rahman said when he presented his paper, titled “Malaysian Land and Nation: Rooted in the Past, Stepping Towards the Future”.

Even before the Malay peninsula achieved Independence in 1957, the Chinese and Indian immigrant population had agreed to call themselves “Malays”, in adherence to the Malay land in which they now resided.

To support his argument, Abd Rahman cited as an example the People’s Constitution drafted by the left-leaning Putera-AMCJA, a coalition of two forces comprising Pusat Tenaga Ra’ayat (Putera) and the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) during the anti-Malayan Union protest in 1947.

In its People’s Constitution, Putera-AMCJA adopted 10 principles, which also included using “Melayu” as the title of any proposed citizenship and nationality in Malaya.

However, Rahman noted that the willingness by the non-Malay migrants to identify themselves as Malay, had effectively disappeared after the People’s Constitution was rejected by the British, the Malay kings, and Umno representatives.

Assoc Prof Dr Amir Hasan Dawi of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) described Malaysia as a late bloomer in the field of national identity, noting that the Rukunegara (National Principles) was only penned in 1970 -- a year after the fledgling Malaysia suffered race riots that claimed hundreds of lives and carved a deep scar into the national psyche as well as the landscape.

In contrast, neighbouring Indonesia came up with the country’s guiding principles, known as the Pancasila, almost immediately after it gained Independence from the colonial Dutch in 1945. The Pancasila has become a fundamental subject taught in the republic’s schools since then.

Tun Musa Hitam highlighted Malaysia’s need for a new historical narrative that can unite its people of diverse races. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Tun Musa Hitam highlighted Malaysia’s need for a new historical narrative that can unite its people of diverse races. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

In recent years, however, each of Malaysia’s different ethnic groups have become strongly attached to their racial identity, creating a “pluralist dilemma” for educators, leading to the creation of different historical accounts and interpretations contained in school text books, UKM historian Anuar said.

Anuar, who also sits on the school curriculum and text book advisory council, disclosed that demands for the inclusion of alternative interpretations of the history have been increasing.

Among the demands were calls to recognise the contribution of the communists in the struggle for Malaya’s Independence, and to play down the contributions of 19th century Malay heroes.

In his opening speech at the summit’s launch yesterday, former deputy minister Tun Musa Hitam highlighted Malaysia’s need for a new historical narrative that can unite its people of diverse races.

He noted that racial fragmentation within the country, like elsewhere around the world, has been worsening because the different ethnic groups dispute each other’s interpretations of the nation’s history.

Leading historian Shamsul Amri, in his keynote speech, warned against the need for a hegemonic narrative of history, as he suggested the teaching of social history in schools instead of the “history of winners and losers”.

The academic pointed out that the country was built upon the diversity of its people, and the public must recognise and respect their differences rather than trying to impose a uniform identity under the pretext of unity.

The absence of a concrete “Malaysian nation” identity had first caught the attention of then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, causing him to outline the creation of a united “Bangsa Malaysia” in his Vision 2020.

Datuk Seri Najib Razak had tried to continue the idea with his 1Malaysia concept introduced soon after he took over as prime minister in 2009, which stresses national unity and ethnic tolerance.

The historians will continue to sit down today in the summit’s second day, with prominent names such as Prof Datuk Dr Zainal Kling and Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Khim expected to touch on topics such as collective memory of Malaysians.

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