Malaysia, a nation integrated, and disintegrated

Within the Asean region, Malaysia stands out as the most diverse nation, divided along racial, religious, cultural, and educational lines when compared to our Asean neighbours, who are united in terms of ethnicity, language, religion, and social cultural markers.

These Asean nations have deep cultural roots that bind their psyche to a traditional ethos that transcends faith and tribalism.

Malaysia, on the other hand, is a plural variegated society consisting of a motley crowd of various ethnicities, ancestry, and religious beliefs. Malaysia was originally the land of Puerto and Deutro Malays that were part of the migratory waves from the Asian mainland to the Polynesian Islands.

With the setting up of various kingdoms in the Old Malay World (that encompasses present day Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines) migratory waves of people criss-crossed this region through successive kingdoms, such as Sri Vijaya, Majapahit, Jambi/Mataram, Melaka, Langkasuka, and Johor-Rhiau Lingga.

Because of these criss-crossing of peoples across this region via the Malay Peninsula, Tanah Melayu was populated by various ethnicities of the Malay stock, which initially professed animism, then Hindusim/Buddhism – the result of Indian influence in the mainland and in the Malay Archipelago – and Islam as the last major religion.

These religions form the backbone of the beliefs of Southeast Asia.

Bali, for example, embraced the Hindu faith and transformed it into a unique Balinese Hindu expression that celebrates the Hindu pantheon, but tempered with Balinese traditions and animistic beliefs.

The Hindu/Buddhist faith is the main religion of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and South Vietnam, while Islam is the dominant faith in Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Southern Philippines.

It was only during the colonial period that Christianity was introduced in this region, specifically Malaysia and Indonesia, by the British and the Dutch, respectively.

Missionaries descended onto this region proselytising the pagan natives, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, and the non-Malays in Peninsular Malaysia.

The churches of various denominations that are scattered throughout Malaysia and Indonesia testify to the impact made by the relentless and passionate zeal of the missionaries in spreading Christianity.

The beginnings of plural society, comprising different distinct ethnicities, came about during the colonial period when the British brought in Indian workers and sepoys from India, and encouraged Chinese immigrants to work in the tin mines to serve their economic and social interests.

They were absorbed into the Malayan milieu plural when the British, as part of the agreement for independence, granted citizenships and land titles to the immigrant population, specifically the Chinese and Indians, while acknowledging the special rights and position of the Malays as the indigenous people of the land, Tanah Melayu, which is named after them. The formation of Malaysia brought in more diverse ethnic groups of the Malay stock from Sabah and Sarawak.

Recognising the diversity of our plural society and the need to coalesce them into a unified whole, the government took initiatives to forge an integrated and unified nation as what our founding fathers had envisaged.

But somewhere along the line, things went awry and began to fall apart because of the emphasis on racial and identity politics by specific parties who wanted to hold on to power indefinitely.

As the rivalry became more intense and even belligerent, the various political parties, to gain voter support, sowed seeds of discord, chauvinistic sentiments, and Malay/Muslim imperatives to appeal to their specific ethnic groups.

The Malay political parties imposed on the Malay polity the sentiments of Malay/Muslim dominance (ketuanan Melayu) and the need to protect Islam and Malay rights that have been purportedly eroded by the non-Malays.

The Chinese and Indian political parties played on chauvinistic sentiments to safeguard their culture and language, while provincialism and tribal identity were the main contention of East Malaysian political parties.

As a result, the political landscape was racially fractured.

The division among racial and religious lines became more pronounced after the treachery of the ‘Sheraton Move’ that brought down the democratically-elected government of GE14.

And the two short-lived governments thereafter further exacerbated the racial and religious sentiments. The 15th General Election was the epitome of religious bigotry and racial schism when political parties played to the hilt these sentiments and threatened dire earthly and after-life consequences.

This is a nation divided and fragmented.

Previous efforts at integration and unification were not effective, simply because they did not address the root causes; only the symptoms.

Because of political expediency, the powers that be ignored the fundamental unification principle, which is the fostering of a mind-set that embodies the patriotic spirit and pride for the nation, as well as tolerance and respect as the basis of interaction among the peoples that call this country home.

Education and the use of a common language are the main ingredients for integration, but the existence of vernacular schools negates the efforts of a common educational system that would bring children of all races to study and play together.

As it is, they are segregated from Day One. The Malays go to national schools, while the Chinese and Indians prefer their respective vernacular schools.

As such, there is no common ground for the children and youths to interact and learn from each other, to build respect, tolerance, and understanding of each other’s way of life.

As it is, the current educational structure is introverted and insular, breeding unhealthy chauvinistic attitudes.

Although Bahasa Melayu is the national language, there is still a large swathe of the Malaysian population that cannot converse, much less write, in the national language.

This is even as Bahasa Melayu is the medium of instruction in schools and universities, and in all government communication. It is also the language of the Malaysian Parliament. Amazing that this situation exists even after more than 60 years of independence.

To ensure a future integrated Malaysia, there is a need for a strong political will to restructure the education system and promote the use of a common language that would integrate the various ethnic groups within a physical spatial configuration and mental continuum.

Beside the mental attitude of integration, there is also the geographical provincial attitude between East and West Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak have for so long, adopted an insular attitude of provincialism – Sabah for Sabahans, and Sarawak for Sarawakians.

While West Malaysians are subjected to immigration controls and work permits to enter and work in these two states, East Malaysians enjoy unrestricted access into Peninsular Malaysia, free to move around to work and avail themselves to all the facilities accorded to Malaysian citizens.

They are politically insular, supposedly insulating their people from the corrupt and polluted influence of Peninsular Malaysian politics, as though Sabah and Sarawak are pristine states, the epitome of good and accountable governance.

In fact, they exhibit the same malfeasance and misfeasance. At least in Peninsular Malaysia, the people can call to account those who are involved in such practices.

In Sabah and Sarawak, the people are often kept in the dark, while those in the know, are usually in cahoots with the perpetrators.

When people begin to question anomalies in governance, especially the inequality in the distribution of wealth, they dismiss such queries as “subversion” by Peninsular Malaysians who are out to undermine the harmonious relationship of the people of Sabah and Sarawak.

There is a dire need for Sabahans and Sarawakians to discard their provincial insular mentality and embrace a pan-Malaysian spirit of fellow citizenry.

God willing, the new coalition government will effect changes through affirmative action to bring about an integrated Malaysian nation that celebrates tolerance and respect for diversity without sacrificing the harmony of unity.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13. Main image is by the Information Department of Malaysia.

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