What does it mean to be Malaysian? ― Na'im Brundage

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SEPTEMBER 16 ― Living in a multicultural country like Malaysia comes with many great benefits.

Among them are that we are constantly exposed to different cultural heritage, habits, languages, and most importantly of course food.

There is no doubt that the integration approach taken by the country to manage the different racial groups has been successful to ensure that we can live in relative harmony with one another in these blessed lands.

It is too easy to forget then that there was another alternative to the integration model. A different model that could've so easily instead been adopted by the country's founding fathers leading up to the nation's Independence Day.

Indonesia, for example, adopted a different approach altogether to managing the different racial groups in their country; they adopted the assimilation model that includes imposing restrictions and bans towards the cultural practices of the minority racial groups as it purportedly threatens their national Pancasila ideology.

These assimilation policies have now in recent years been reversed but the continued practice from the 1970s to the late 1990s has indeed played a massive role in contributing to the nation's ability to form a homogenous national identity that is unique to the country. That is in stark contrast to the experience of many Malaysians who until today still appear somewhat lost as to what it means to be Malaysian.

Unlike in Indonesia, all racial groups in Malaysia have enjoyed complete freedom to practise their own culture and religion without any fear or restrictions by the government as protected by the Federal Constitution. The integration model albeit comes with great freedom comes with one major challenge, ethnic identities taking precedence over the national identity which expresses itself in the form of racial issues.

Savvy Malaysians may notice by now that the issues touching on race and religion resurface periodically and continue to play a dominant role in Malaysian society. Contentious racial issues concerning Malay rights, affirmative action, vernacular schools, freedom of religion, and temple demolitions continue to take centre stage in national discourse despite whatever attempt was taken at the time to unite the country.

There doesn’t seem to be enough high-stakes badminton matches that can unite Malaysians for long enough to put these contentious racial-related issues at rest.

Some would argue that the answer to resolving these racial-related issues lies in the social contract. A mutual agreement that was purportedly made by the architects of Malaysia’s independence Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Cheng Lock, and Tun VT Sambanthan. They opine that the issues concerning race and religion can be resolved if everybody understood and respects the interracial framework that has been outlined in the Federal Constitution.

With this view, the special rights of the Malays, the citizenship of the non-Bumiputera, the position of the Malay rulers, and the existence of vernacular schools either being in Chinese, Tamil, or Malay language are all a part of the social contract and as such should not be questioned or debated as it has already been agreed upon and thus the matter is considered settled.

At a glance, it does seem that the spirit of the social contract, if understood and respected, may hold the key to achieve national unity. However, it is also entirely plausible that the racial tension in the country is not a problem that can so easily be solved with a few words written on pieces of paper.

Looking out into the world we can see that there is not one but many multiracial countries that are also grappling with racial tensions as we do.

Even the United States with its superpower status on the global stage cannot escape accusations that systemic racial discrimination still exists in 21st century America.

Much research has also extensively documented how Black Americans are still experiencing a different treatment from their white counterparts in the country. This goes to show that even countries that have forged a strong national identity for centuries still grapple with racial-related issues.

However, despite the issues of racial tensions being common in many multiracial countries around the world, it does not absolve us from finding a remedy for the ailments that are currently plaguing the nation.

Living in a multicultural country like Malaysia comes with many great benefits. — Reuters pic
Living in a multicultural country like Malaysia comes with many great benefits. — Reuters pic

Government and policymakers should step up their efforts to ensure that these challenges are met and finally dealt with. Our neighbour Singapore for instance has implemented many social engineering initiatives to reduce racial tensions that may warrant our close observation.

Policies such as racial quota schemes in public housing estates for instance have been successful at increasing the socialisation rate of Singaporeans from different racial backgrounds and eliminating racial enclaves throughout the country.

The country has also established the Presidential Council for Minority Rights with the main function to scrutinise Bills passed by Parliament to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial or religious community.

Progressive policies such as these are evidence that there is more the government can do to unite Malaysians of all creeds and races via carefully crafted social engineering.

It is high time for the country to seek new solutions to the problems we’re facing and to forge a strong national identity that can last and guide Malaysians for millennia to come.

Nasi lemak and roti canai are great but they’re simply not enough to be used as the glue to hold the Malaysian social fabric in place.

* Na'im Brundage is a political commentator.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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