National unity still elusive

Muthiah Alagappa


LETTER | As Sultan Nazrin recently pointed out, after 62 years existence and experience as an independent country, national unity in Malaysia still seems elusive. We are now more polarized, divided and distrustful of other races.

This will remain the case for as long as the government justifies distinguishing people by race and religion, and the country is claimed by one ethnic group. Leaders often deplore the lack of unity, but rely on and support policies that continue segregation and create disunity.

For true unity it is important that all segments of Malaysian society are treated as equal. There should be one nation for all people living in Malaysia. There should not be different classes of citizens. Everyone must consider themselves Malaysian and must think and act accordingly.

Affirmative action, if required, should be based on need and not race. The real issues underlying disunity in the country are race and religion. These issues should be addressed head on.

The prime minister has stated that in a true meritocratic system the Malays would be sidelined in their own country. Critical of the Malays, Mahathir seems to imply that Malays are incompetent and will lose out in a competitive system. I disagree with this assumption.

He has referred to the non-Malays as foreigners at the time of independence. He seems to subscribe to the asal-pendatang thesis which creates classes of citizens. The Barisan Nasional (BN) government, to its credit, abandoned this distinction. To its credit, the BN Government helmed by Najib Razak advanced the Satu Malaysia (One Malaysia) concept.

For a number of reasons, including the racial basis of the governing coalition and policy, as well as Umno’s interests, Najib could not implement the idea of One Malaysia. Hence, the concept remained a mere slogan.

There was much hope that the Pakatan Harappan (PH) government would implement the idea of One Malaysia. Indeed, the thinking underlying New Malaysia embodied that idea.

However, Mahathir, with the support of other PH parties, targeted democracy, endemic corruption and growing the economy as primary goals of government. Democracy, endemic corruption and growing the economy are indeed major problems to be addressed. But Mahathir seems to have disregarded the nation making idea that was espoused by many PH parties in the lead up to the last general election.

On nation making, Mahathir, who is in several ways a distinctive glue for the PH government, seems wedded to his past race-based policies. His stance, especially at the recently concluded Malay Dignity gathering, appears to have rekindled the notion among a significant number of Malays that they are the owners of the country deserving of privileges, and others are here at their forbearance and good will.

This approach and mindset could lead to the unraveling of Malaysia.

The peninsular Malays must be made to realize that Sabah and Sarawak have different histories and are different from West Malaysia. These states do not have majority Malay populations.

A country cannot be effectively served by a bifurcated legal system and definitions. Sabah and Sarawak also have control over immigration and are seeking a greater share (royalty) of the oil and gas revenues from exploitations in their territories.

They have demanded greater autonomy to govern themselves. This is evident from their demand to be treated as an equal in the formation of Malaysia, that has been acknowledged by Kuala Lumpur.

Insistence on an ethnic nation built on Malay dominance would be incompatible with this demand and could lead to the separation of Sabah and Sarawak from Peninsular Malaysia.

It is pertinent to recall the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. Rather than encourage further splintering, civic nation making would enable Sabah and Sarawak to continue as part of Malaysia..

Even in peninsular Malaysia, as Sultan Nazrin has ably demonstrated in his recent book, all ethnic groups have contributed to the development of Malaysia. Nearly all prime ministers , especially the first one, of the country accepted all citizens as equals.

Although the political parties of their governments were based on race, they evenly balanced features of civic and ethnic nations. It will be well-nigh impossible now to retract from this position.

For example, it is impossible to repatriate non-Malays to India or China. Born in Malaysia and residing here for several generations, they consider Malaysia their home. Most Chinese and Indians do not have connections in those countries which they consider as foreign.

Malaysia could seize the moment and become a leader in the international domain on how it accommodates and assimilates minority communities, paving the way forward for civic nation making when most of the rest of the world, including the United States and other Western countrie, are is in retrogression mode on the issue of nation making.

Continuing the goal of an ethnic nation would also argue for a reduction in the productivity base of the country. Corruption and cronyism, problems which the present PH government is trying to address, would become rampant.

The well-being of Malaysia requires the effort of all Malaysians. The Malays must become competitive with other racial groups.

Mahathir’s earlier affirmative policies have failed, and in fact have done a disservice to the Malays. He seems to think otherwise and that more time would produce desired results.

Although he has made important contributions, Mahathir’s policies on race-based affirmative action must be questioned to demonstrate their futility. Policies must be put in place to make the Malays competitive.

Malays are politically astute, and given the opportunity they will be economically capable as well. There are capable people in the Malay community who should not be tarred with same brush. The Malays cannot rely on government crutches forever. If the government hits a bad patch, they will be among the first to suffer

Mahathir’s race-based policies have created a multiplicity of views among Malays. Contrary to Mahathir, I view this as a positive outcome, not as a weakness. Not all Malays want race-based policies. Many have argued for a merit-based system.

Nevertheless, a significant number of Malays have been infected by the thinking that Malaysia should be a Malay country. The drawbacks of this idea have been highlighted above.

In the interest of moving forward to build a strong and cohesive Malaysian nation it is important to implement the idea of One Malaysia in which all citizens would have equal privileges and obligations. This would strengthen the commitment of all citizens to the country.

To cater to the significant number of Malays who seem wedded to the idea of a Malay nation until they can compete on equal terms, it is necessary to continue to provide constitutional protection for a fixed number of years (10 to 15 years).

It is likely that some Malaysians, especially Chinese Malaysians would not be happy with another period of race based affirmative action. To appease such concerns, sunset clauses must be introduced. Unlike the earlier period, upon expiry of the sunset clauses Malaysia would automatically become one nation without classes of citizens.

During the sunset period, measures must be introduced to change the mindset of the Malays to make them economically more competitive. Government affirmative action should gradually shift from raced based to need based. In 10 to 15 years there would be a true and cohesive Malaysian nation.

This staggered approach may not be ideal, but necessary in light of the current situation.

As Tun Dr. Ismail pointed out a long time ago it is important not to allow communal feelings to engulf, divide and destroy us. We need enlightened leaders who will think and act Malaysian.

MUTHIAH ALAGAPPA is a retired academic.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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