KUALA LUMPUR, April 5 — A group of Malaysian overseas graduates proposed today trading off some Malay rights in exchange for a better acceptance of Malay culture among the country’s other ethnic communities, saying this would help the country stay united and move forward.
The graduates, who were speaking at a unity forum here, said relinquishing these privileges would also help create and strengthen Malaysia’s unique identity as a multi-racial, multi-religious country.
Mohd Zairul Mohd Noor, 34, said in exchange for the rollback of Malay rights and privileges, other ethnicities should “absorb” more of the Malay language and culture as part of their Malaysian identity, without forgetting their own customs.
“We have [the] social contract, which means that Malays will be protected in certain things, in terms of education.
“Why are Malays hesitant to let go of privileges to other races?” the post-graduate student told the forum titled “National Reconciliation: Unity in Diversity” here.
But Zairul, citing researches in academic journals, said many Malays here were fiercely protective of their rights because other ethnic groups here like the Chinese and the Indians refuse to accept the Malay language and customs as part of their daily lives.
When approached after the forum, the youth explained that the idea for the trade-off was not to pit the Malays and non-Malays against one another but to push for a common language that he said would help establish a Malaysian identity.
“As a Malay, I can start on giving some of my privileges, and in return the Chinese and Indians can give some of their privileges, for example, abolish vernacular and have a common language for the nation,” the 34-year-old told The Malay Mail Online, although he said that non-Malays could still learn their own languages in schools.
Zairul explained that he observed Malaysians of Chinese and Indian ethnicity abroad wearing the Malay traditional costume baju kurung and said: ‘It means they really accept culture of Malays. Why not we go forward and adopt it as Malaysian culture?”
During the forum, another participant, Azrul Mohd Khalib, also stressed on the need for the Bumiputera to surrender their “special privileges” for the sake of fostering national unity.
“It’s time to let go because in the real world, outside of Malaysia, we cannot survive; whether as Malays or Malaysians, we cannot survive if we do not start practicing meritocracy. I think when it comes to national reconciliation, it has to address this critical issue of letting go of race-based policies,” the US graduate said.
Azrul cautioned, however, that the Malaysian identity should not be tied down to the dominance of a single ethnicity or group, noting that such discussions usually have a “Malay tinge”.
He noted the Indonesian experience under its first president Sukarno, where citizens then went through “assimilation” by erasing their ethnic identity and adopted the Javanese identity, before the Chinese community there rediscovered their ethnic identity in later years.
“Concerning Malaysian identity, we need to embrace the plurality and diversity of what Malaysia really is,”said Azrul, a social activist who also helps to coordinate the citizens’ initiative Malaysia for Malaysians.
Another participant, Ahmad Firdaus Arul Hisham, said Malaysia needs to take into account other cultural identities and even proposed a review of the definition of Malays in the Federal Constitution.
“In defining Malays, it includes practising Islam as part of a pre-requisite. I don’t think it should be the case. It’s highly dangerous and we should decouple it.
“If we are are looking at people from other countries like Bangladesh and they practise Islam, so they should be Malays?...What I am trying to convey here is they need to be able to preserve their cultural identities as Bangladeshis,” said the 22-year-old Australian National University (ANU) student.
Syazwani Suhaimy, 24, said knowing multiple languages could help bridge different communities, instead of creating language barriers that cause those from different ethnic groups to be “segregated” from a young age.
“Rather than looking for a common language that we all can speak, I think we should focus on being [multi-lingual]...Since primary school, everyone should be given the opportunity to learn other languages. Language is a door to learn more about the culture,” the Australian National University (ANU) alumni said during the forum.
Zaim Mohzani, a graduate from Australia’s Monash University, suggested that Malaysia take a leaf from the Multicultural Commission in the country’s south-east state Victoria, where integration of different ethnic groups is emphasised.
During the forum, which was attended by over 20 alumni from nine different countries, participants also discussed other factors that they said could be a hindrance to national unity, including the rural-urban divide, income gap, and the education system.
The networking session for Malaysian Overseas Student Leaders (MOSL) here was facilitated by Akademi Belia, a civil society organisation chaired by former deputy higher education minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah.