Evolution of Malaysia: Overcoming ethnic, religious challenges in nation-building

Malaysians with Jalur Gemilang

As Malaysia Day is celebrated today, I hope that it gives us a serious and productive introspection of where we are as a nation.

It should be celebrated with conversations of what we are, and can become, as a nation. It shouldn’t just end with feel-good sounding platitudes and soundbites until the next year rolls around.

We need to acknowledge that the narrative of Malaysia’s evolution is an intricate embroidery, woven with threads of diverse cultures, intricate political manoeuvres, and the relentless pursuit of a united nation. Our journey, from the tumultuous era of the Malayan Union to the multicultural modern Malaysia, has been a complex one, significantly influenced by the presence of ethnic and religiously-inclined politicians.

In the initial stages towards independence, the coalition of ethnic parties, as a united front, were in lockstep, moving collectively towards a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, and multilingual nation. The policies and process of assimilation, integration, and acculturation continue to shape Malaysia.

This article delves into the pivotal events and developments that have shaped Malaysia while highlighting the challenges posed by politicians with strong ethnic and religious inclinations.

After World War II, the Malayan Union, established by the British in 1946, faced immediate opposition from ethnic Malays who perceived it as a threat to their cultural and political autonomy. This opposition was aggravated by politicians who capitalised on ethnic and religious sentiments to rally support against the Union. Concerned about the erosion of their privileges and the Malay rulers’ influence, the Malays came together under the banner of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), shaping the political landscape for years to come.

Recognising the protests, the British restructured the Malayan Union into the Federation of Malaya in 1948, restoring some level of autonomy to the Malay rulers. This marked a crucial step in laying the foundation for a united and diverse Malaysia.

The struggle for independence gained momentum, with leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, leading the charge. On Aug 31, 1957, Malaysia achieved its much-awaited independence, a day celebrated as Merdeka Day. This marked the transition from a British colony to a self-governing nation. However, the journey toward forming a united Malaysia was far from over.

One of the most significant milestones in Malaysia’s history was the formation of Malaysia itself on Sept 16, 1963. This marked the expansion of the Federation of Malaya through the inclusion of Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore. The intent was to create a multiethnic nation with shared interests, though Singapore later separated from Malaysia in 1965.

The future of a diverse yet united Malaysia faced challenges due to the ethnic and religious inclinations of politicians. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971 was introduced to address economic disparities, but was met with mixed reactions.

While it aimed to level the playing field, it sometimes exacerbated tensions when politicians used it to secure support from their respective communities. Some undeserving politicians or their cronies abused it to earn economic rent at the expense of the deserving target groups.

The nation’s trajectory took a significant turn during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership. His policies were aimed at transforming Malaysia into an industrialised nation by the year 2020.

Despite his focus on development, ethnic and religious considerations remained ingrained in the political landscape, often shaping policies and priorities. Somehow, ethnic and religious polarisation became increasingly pronounced in the country, no thanks to irresponsible politicking for power and influence.

The 21st century presented Malaysia with the challenges of globalisation and a changing world order.  However, the impact of ethnic and religious politicians persisted, influencing debates on identity, minority rights, and cultural preservation.

The rise of digital platforms facilitated more extensive discussions, but also sometimes deepened the chasms, through misinformation, frustrations, and unaddressed fears.

All these factors distract the nation from progressing and confronting the real challenges of this century.

Hence, to move forward, the government needs to create a social, economic, and legal environment that will eliminate any internal or external threats to our collective efforts to build a true Malaysia.

We must be reminded that a remarkable feature of Malaysia is its cultural diversity, celebrated through festivals, traditions, and languages. The persistence of ethnic and religious influences, however, occasionally tests this unity.

Certain interpreters of Islam, for example, discourage Muslims from mingling and celebrating the festivals of others. This may create cracks in the relationships between Malaysian citizens. Efforts to promote a common national identity while acknowledging diverse backgrounds become a delicate task for policymakers.

As Malaysia ventures into the future, it continues to grapple with an assortment of opportunities and obstacles. The presence of politicians driven by ethnic and religious inclinations poses both challenges and avenues for growth. Striking a balance between preserving cultural heritage and fostering national unity remains a paramount task.

Navigating the political terrain away from divisive ethnic and religious approaches is another Herculean task in the evolution towards being truly Malaysia.

The evolution of Malaysia from the Malayan Union to its present state is a testament to the resilience of responsible citizens in the face of challenges posed by the ethnic and religious inclinations of politicians.

The responsible citizen’s ability to transcend these influences, while striving for unity and progress, defines our journey. Malaysia’s history underscores the importance of crafting a shared national identity that transcends individual ethnic and religious affiliations, paving the way for a cohesive and prosperous future.

If compassion and recognition of our mutual humanity remain, we will become a great nation through our collective efforts, unity, and cooperation.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.

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