Published March 31, 2017
Almost 50 years after Malaysia's Rukun Negara
(National Principles) — belief in God, loyalty to king and country, upholding the Constitution, rule of law, good behavior and morality — were drawn up to foster national unity, a dark undercurrent is surfacing in the country. The Rukun Negara was supposed to be a way of achieving unity, preserving democracy and guaranteeing liberal policies in a multi-cultural nation after the race riots of 1969. The concept, a good account of the national character, is currently under threat. But the idea of a unified Malaysia has steadily gone awry over the years since the creation of the nation in 1963. Politicians are ratcheting up religious and cultural divisions. A more severe form of Islam is threatening the status quo. Non-Muslim Malaysians and progressive Muslims worry laws like the impending Hudud (Islamic criminal law) enactment will destroy Malaysia's unique identity.
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It is not easy to develop viable, multi-cultural societies. Tolerance imposed by law cannot create an identity. Today Malaysia has become a country where racism is spreading. Public discussion has become increasingly aggressive and people are less hospitable. The Rukun Negara has failed in this case. Malaysians have to ask themselves whether their inherited values are truly better. Do their ideas, traditions and ideology molded by colonial history really improve people's chances of living together peacefully? If the answer is yes then they must fight to keep it. The fact that refugees from Syria, Myanmar and Bosnia fled their countries and came to Malaysia speaks for itself. Malaysians understand that they have freedoms here unlike in the theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the growing restraints and taboos that have crept in of late have caused alarm. Split into several groups — Bumiputras (a term to denote Malays and the indigenous people), Muslims, non-Muslims, Malays, Chinese, Indians and others — Malaysians often don't know how to identify themselves. Some identify themselves as 'Malaysian' irrespective of race. They believe in Malaysian unity and the advantages it provides. Most believe the concept of Malaysia is wonderful and must be preserved in the face of the gradual erosion of social and institutional structures in place for generations. They should be wary of changing those structures. Will politics be the cause of the collapse of a unique Malaysian identity? Malaysians must decide. People use identity structures to describe themselves and to define their position in society and the world at large. Malaysia is not defining itself properly. Irrespective of race or religion Malaysians need to develop a collective will to fight extremism. Extremists should not be able to win elections easily and quickly. With their identity undefined, citizens are still divided into Bumiputras, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, West Malaysians, Sarawakians, Sabahans and so on. That has to change. Now when people talk about the Malaysian identity they are mostly referring to the people in Peninsular Malaysia, the Muslim majority, the Chinese and the Indians and so on. The standard narrative for the non-Malay and non-Muslim is that suffer state discrimination and they are disadvantaged. Their story goes that as they are Christian or Catholic or Buddhists they are not part of a Malaysia, which is largely Muslim. Malaysians have not worked out how to understand each other. The perpetrators of the deconstruction of liberal Malaysian state, far from being penitent, are now lecturing about morality. So, the Malay Bumiputras, who see themselves as overlords, have a particular responsibility for Malaysia. They make up the largest population in multi-ethnic Malaysia and have political control. They lie at the center of the Malaysian ideal. With that in mind, they are obliged to embrace Malaysian values, build a fairer society and not act on their own. It's always annoying when the majority believe that they can tell the minority what to do or to accept especially when these ideals are alien to them. If some believe that because of their religious beliefs they have the right to develop some sort of leadership concept or some sort of special morality or assume that they have a monopoly on morality, they are betraying their culture. People are now facing a new wave of fanaticism and are afraid. Politicians are taking advantage of this, playing off Islam against a national identity. To fall for this would be a fatal mistake. Malaysians are beginning to understand that what divides them is less important than what unites them. With a unity project as large as multi-cultural Malaysia, they know it is important to listen to everyone's concerns. It's ironic that Malaysians now must fight for things that they already had — tolerance and liberal democracy. Blaming others, seeing themselves as victims, looking back instead of ahead to the future, is not an option. The first transformation — from a backwater to a rapidly progressing Asian Tiger economy and developed status — was laudable. Malaysians crave social stability and for that they must learn to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The key to Malaysia's identity is diversity. It does not separate them but is rather the glue that makes them who they are. Malaysian society requires strong Malaysian narratives and Malaysia has more than one. If people listen, they will hear them all. Some are beginning to take heed. Democracy requires a lot of work. A modern, progressive Malaysia is a promise of the future.