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Time to ditch narrow National Cultural Policy

COMMENT With the latest farce over the Festival Filem Malaysia (FFM) awards marginalising ‘Non-BM’ films, it has suddenly dawned on Malaysians that for all these years since the Eighties, Umno has still not abandoned its undemocratic ‘National Cultural Policy’ (NCP). Many had assumed (wrongly it seems) that Tourism Malaysia’s opportunistic ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ tagline meant that Umno had finally jettisoned this ‘uncultured’ policy.

Bravo to the Malay film makers such as Afdlin Shauki who have seen through and scoffed at this patently divisive policy. It is timely that true artists speak out against the narrow conceptualisation of culture in the NCP.

It is not coincidental that the director of ‘Tanda Putera’ is one of the few film-makers who support Finas’ ‘BM-based’ awards. During the Eighties, there were also writers such as Salleh ben Joned who took a public stand against the NCP and its practice of giving awards for Malaysian literature only to works written in BM.

Let’s revisit the National Cultural Policy

In my 2007 title, ‘May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969’, I produced a document from May 23, 1969, just ten days after May 13:

“...Ghazali’s (Shafie) assertion that Malaysian society must be ‘native-based’. This means a greater acceptance and use of the Malay language and the development of a unifying Malaysian culture which is inward looking and which... is basically Malay in character.” (FCO Telegram No 563, 23 May 1969)

Umno’s National Culture Policy was subsequently fixed in 1971 at a conference at which the representatives from the Chinese, Indian and other Malaysian communities were not represented. Only a token number of non-Malay academics were invited. At this undemocratic assembly, it was stipulated that the new ‘National Cultural Policy’ would be based on the following:

  • That the national culture must be based on Malay culture;
  • That suitable elements from other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture; and,
  • Islam is an important component in moulding the national culture.

During the 1980s, when the government attempted to implement this policy by banning lion dances and other non-Malay cultural forms in schools and other functions, there was an uproar from the Chinese and Indian communities. To date, Umno’s education policy remains committed to this policy of BM as the only language in all schools, and this is why Umno does not allow the progressive growth of Chinese and Tamil schools even when they are bursting at the seams with huge enrolments, including non-Chinese students.

The 1990s onwards have been relatively freer of such controversy especially when the government realized that revenue from tourism was not to be sneezed at and tourists were more fascinated by ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ rather than ‘Malaysia Mainly Mono - Malay’. The challenge of globalisation and the reality of tourism as a growth sector has forced the BN government to rethink its mono-cultural policy for the simple reason that mono-culture does not sell.

Tourists prefer the choice and charm that cultural diversity offers and would not want to come to a country that imposes Islamic symbols and restricts the cultural symbols and expressions of the non-Malays.

For example, the Thaipusam festival at Batu Caves now attracts more tourists than a similar event in Tamil Nadu. Likewise, some Chinese festivals like the ‘Nine Emperor Gods’ and the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ festivals are celebrated in a bigger way here in Malaysia than in China or Taiwan.

Modern realities

It was in June 1995 that then-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad espoused his ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ policy, emphasising Malaysian instead of Malay identity. It is appropriate at this stage for us to analyse the factors that brought about this change of attitude of the Umno leaders. For a start, the split in the Malay vote has been even more pronounced since 1990. The 2008 general election was an even bigger wake-up call for Umno.

But while the new slogan ‘1Malaysia’ is aimed at Chinese and Indian voters, Umno is in a dilemma over its populist Malay-centric ideology to woo the Malay voters. PKR has abandoned its race-based policies and so has PAS, thus putting Umno’s exclusive ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ on the spot.

This reassertion of traditional cultures by the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia has been a reaction to the restrictions of the national culture policy imposed in the 1980s. The same is true of the indigenous cultures in East Malaysia and even the Thais in the north of the peninsula.

The government’s promotion and spread of multimedia technologies and satellite television has also meant that Malaysians are impacted not only by Tamil and Chinese programmes but by global cultures 24 hours a day.

Globalisation and the privatisation of tertiary education have also led to the dominance of the English language in commerce and industry. In recent years, the government has even reneged on its own Malay-centric policy by enforcing the teaching of Maths and Science in English. In such an environment of its own making, it is strange that the government would still insist on imposing its restrictive national culture policy.

Ironies of the NCP

It is ironic that Islamisation has led to the banning or extinction of traditional Malay cultural forms like the Mak Yong and Wayang Kulit ostensibly because of their animistic and pre-Islamic elements. Meanwhile, Indonesia has accused Malaysia of heritage theft by usurping their folk songs such as ‘Rasa Sayang’, and musical instruments like the Angklung, and even batik, wayang kulit and other traditional dances.

It is also ironic that at the Umno general assembly in October 2010, their leaders were joking about their pendatang origins - Mamak, Bugis, Javanese and others. At the same time, it was revealed that while the Chinese at Kampung Pulai in Kelantan had been there for five centuries they are regarded differently and still do not possess land titles.

Vive la difference

In recent years, cultural diversity and democracy has been established by the world community (Unesco) as the basis of cultural policies for all countries in the United Nations. And while our Education Act and National Education Policy may be otherwise, the Malaysian Federal Constitution actually does reflect a spirit of cultural democracy.

The assimilationist approach has been thoroughly discredited as unworkable and unrealistic. It is now widely accepted in the world community that it is a multi-ethnic society that can function most effectively and harmoniously on the basis of pluralism, ie allowing and assisting ethnic minority communities to maintain their distinct ethnic identities within a national framework of commonly accepted values and practices.

The obligation is on the government to ensure equal treatment and protection by the law for members of all groups, together with equality of access to education and employment, equal freedom and opportunity to participate fully in social and political life, and equal freedom of cultural expression. The concept of pluralism implies respecting the very diversity of such a society as an enrichment of the experience of all those living within it.

Cultural pluralism is an integral part of present-day society. The global market with its free movement of goods, money and people only serves to reinforce this tendency. Different cultures are brought together on a large scale.

With globalisation, an emphasis on one’s own identity, culture and ethnicity does not automatically lead to violent conflict; this happens only when such emphasis is manipulated to that end. Living in the information age, it has become norm to be constantly faced with an onslaught of information and ideas.

No culture is a hermetically sealed entity. All cultures are influenced by and in turn influence other cultures. All cultures are in a state of dynamic flux, driven by internal and external forces. Most modern societies such as the European Union encourage proficiency in three languages. Multi-lingualism serves to open minds, stimulate intellectual agility as well as expand cultural horizons.

We are just four years away from supposedly becoming a ‘nation at peace with itself’ in Vision Perfect 2020. Isn’t it high time to ditch narrow-minded policies such as the ‘National Cultural Policy’?

DR KUA KIA SOONG is Suaram adviser.

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