FORTY nine years ago, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman declared Malaysia’s birth, where “10 million people of many races…now join hands in freedom and unity”.
Yet, even as the Tunku proclaimed, “Merdeka! Malaysia!”, he acknowledged the contestations to Malaysia from Indonesia and Philippines that had to be overcome. Two years later, the vision of Malaysia was shaken again with Singapore’s separation in 1965.
What remains of the vision of Malaysia today? And how then do we celebrate Malaysia Day as Malaysians?
In many ways, what is Malaysia remains cloudy.
Although the Tunku declared in 1963 that the Federation of Malaya “now passes into history”, at times, it seems like Malaya still exists. Why else would our courts be hearing a Borneonisation suit by two Sabahans against the federal and state governments for failing to Borneonise federal agencies in Sabah, as agreed in the Malaysia Agreement 1963?
Meanwhile, Sabahans and Sarawakians were reportedly urged by former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad to be patient and wait for natural resources to be extracted and foreign investments to materialise before experiencing comparable development with the peninsula. This is in spite of the fact that Sabah and Sarawak’s natural resources have been crucial to national growth over the last few decades.
Recent weeks have also seen a few instances of gross slander against the culture, religion, and lifestyle of Sarawakians.
Over on Peninsular Malaysia, there are the recurrent pendatang slurs, alleging that Indian and Chinese Malaysians are immigrants unworthy of citizenship. I, for one, still grapple with why the place my ancestors happened to live many years ago matters more to some than where I choose to call home today.
Citizenship and immigration
Then again, there are still complicated questions on citizenship today. Take the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on new citizens and illegal immigrants in Sabah. There has been well-founded ire against politicians and government officials who may have manipulated the boundaries of Malaysian citizenship for political advantage. But it is unfair to blame the new citizens and immigrants caught in these stratagems, most of whom simply want a decent chance of making a living.
Back again, to Malaysia’s 1963 formation. Like the Borneonisation of the civil service, immigration control was part of Sabah’s 20-point agreement for joining Malaysia. This control served an important purpose. In a UK Parliament debate over the 1963 Malaysia Bill, a member of Parliament said the North Borneo government used “very careful immigration policy”. They admitted only those who could genuinely contribute to local development, thus building “true racial harmony despite the advent of party politics”.
This stands in stark contrast to the issues driving the current RCI.
And then there is the case of Bersih co-chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, banned from entering Sarawak since last year’s state election campaign. Evidently, immigration is no longer a prerogative of the state for fostering strong communities. It has become a tool of the federal government for partisan designs.
In fact, most political scientists wouldn’t consider Malaysia a true federation. A state cannot be federal unless it is meaningfully democratic.
A proper federal system would give the final word to the central government in some matters and to the state governments in other matters. But when a country isn’t fully democratic, the ruling federal government can exert dominance beyond its official portfolio. Malaysia has numerous instances of this — consider, for one, the fact that PAS-led Kelantan does not receive oil royalties, while BN-led Terengganu, Sabah, and Sarawak do.
Another insight from political science is that every federation that is both stable and multinational also gives different legal and cultural rights to different states, to accommodate historic practices and present needs.
Although much of Malaysia’s diversity doesn’t fall along neat geographic lines, it is clear that the Borneo states have very different ethno-linguistic configurations from those of the peninsula. In theory, Sabah’s 20-point agreement and Sarawak’s 18-point version illustrate the sort of legal differentiation that has facilitated stability in other multinational federations. But in practice, a federal constitution that heavily centralises power combined with authoritarian rule has diminished these state-specific safeguards.
Learning to be Malaysians
How then can we learn to be Malaysians? A crucial step toward any common destiny is understanding who you share this destiny with. Many of us don’t know who our fellow Malaysians are.
At a Southeast Asian Studies conference I attended in Durham recently, anthropologist Monica Janowski presented her research on a gorgeous story from Kelabit lore. Janowski has been studying the Kelabit since before I was born.
When Janowski told the story of the Kelabit’s ancestors Tukad Rini and Aruring Manapo Boong, I felt as I did while watching native dance performances at the Sarawak Cultural Village: I was jealous. Why hadn’t I seen any of this before? I had spent years in sekolah kebangsaan, but reading about tarian ngajat in a Form 2 history textbook was nothing compared to watching a ngajat lesung dancer glide across the stage with a 20kg mortar between his teeth.
This presents the government with both an obligation and an opportunity. The new education blueprint discusses in detail both the expansion of information technology in classrooms and cultivation of national unity in schools. Why not use the former to aid the latter? Travelling across the South China Sea is beyond the means of many Malaysians, but YouTube is within easy reach. If the abundance of Malaysia’s heritage can be filmed for slick Malaysia, Truly Asia videos such as the one below to attract non-Malaysians to our economy, surely it can also be showcased digitally to help Malaysian students to value their own.
Bangsa Malaysia videos would only be a tiny step — and may well become another poorly implemented gimmick — but we need many such steps if we want to get anywhere together.
We cannot depend solely on the heroic work of organisations like Gerai OA, the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, and Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia. Any government that wants to legitimately call itself the government of Malaysia needs to join in helping Malaysians appreciate each other.
This is what I celebrate on Malaysia Day: not a seamless federation, but all that we are and all that we can become, individually and collectively, remembered and forgotten. Because sometimes we need to pause and reaffirm the dreams that make us one people.
These dreams may be sentimental, but they’re also audacious and demanding — and worthwhile. I don’t know a better way to love my country, broken federalism, beautiful unfamiliar ethnicities and all.
To paraphrase American poet Langston Hughes: let Malaysia be Malaysia again — the land that never has been yet — and yet must be — the land where everyone is free.
Hwa Yue-Yi is a Malaysian student.