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Can Malaysians practise civility?


“CONFLICT is prevalent in all multicultural settings,” says Associate Professor Dr Alberto Gomes, an anthropologist at Australia’s La Trobe University. Quoting studies by other researchers, Gomes says it is common for different groups to have stereotypes about, or even dislike, each other.

This question of conflict and civility between different groups is relevant for Malaysia today given that it comes when the country is gearing up to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of our independence.

Gomes’s work is focused on asking how people in multicultural settings successfully avoid and avert conflict and violence. He has studied “civility”, what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “politeness” and “consideration”, in both Malaysia and India. The premise for his studies is, “The self and the other are not two separate extremes, but rather interdependent.”

Forms of civility

At a 17 Aug 2009 talk at University College Sedaya International (UCSI) in Kuala Lumpur themed Celebrating Diversity, Gomes says there are four forms of civility:

The quotidian — for example, exchanging fruit or food with neighbours, saying “hi” to strangers, and so on;

The organic — an inclusion of “outsiders” into a social and cultural network of “insiders”; for example, by calling an unrelated elder “pak cik”, or the concept of “mateship” in Australia;

The imposed — where there are national laws and policies designed to build community cohesion; for example, the UK’s community cohesion policy in northern England after racial riots there in 2001;

The sly — where an individual conceals or evades his or her true feelings to avoid reprisals, humiliation or oppression.

Honesty not the best policy?

Of the four types of civility, Gomes says the sly form is the most problematic simply because of its premise. “Honesty can lead to violence, and sometimes we need to mask our true feelings. The Orang Asli are masters [of sly civility], because [their] honesty could destroy them.”

The statistics lend weight to this hypothesis: there are only 150,000 Orang Asli in Malaysia, a mere 0.5% of the current total population. And, as Gomes says, their relationship with other communities, especially Malay Malaysians, has been one of submission to dominance. Over the course of history, the Orang Asli have been at the losing end of land disputes in which they have been displaced, and were also the targets of raids throughout the 18th century in which they were taken as slaves, says Gomes.

It is within this context that particular stereotypes about Orang Asli evolved among some Malay communities, and vice versa. In other words, to many Malays, Orang Asli are “dirty” and “live like chickens”, while to many Orang Asli, Malays “can’t be trusted”.

But because the Orang Asli are the less powerful in this relationship, they are the ones who lead a “double life” — having one set of rules within the community, but presenting a different face to outsiders.

Gomes observes that among themselves, Orang Asli are incredibly egalitarian, respectful of individual dignity (even a parent cannot force a child to do something the child is unwilling to), gregarious and non-aggressive. And yet to the outside world, they are shy and timid. What gives?

Orang Asli in Kampung Rembai, Selangor (Pic by Adzla @ Flickr)

According to Gomes, because they have been made to submit all these years, the Orang Asli have developed ways of manipulating their negative stereotypes to their own advantage. These strategies are non-violent, and are certainly civil, but speak of a troubled and troubling relationship with more dominant groups.

For example, Gomes recounts an incident he witnessed, in which a government official tried to teach the Orang Asli how to plant rubber trees. The Orang Asli feigned stupidity, asking, “What do we know about tree-planting? We are only ‘sakai’.” At one point, a community elder asked if the tree needed to be planted into the earth leaves first or roots first. The government official stormed off in disgust.

But when Gomes probed the community on their behaviour, he got a lecture on global economics. The elder said, “The price of the rubber will fluctuate depending on how much we are forced to plant it. What happens when we are sick? And at the end of the day, when we are hungry, we can’t eat rubber.”

Certainly, there are basic issues about Orang Asli well-being that have yet to be addressed. Indeed, an audience member during the 17 Aug talk pointed out that given the number of individuals employed at the Orang Asli Affairs Department, it seems that the Orang Asli are the single most managed community in Malaysia on a per capita basis. And yet, the department has not advanced or addressed Orang Asli concerns.

What about 1Malaysia?

Gomes’s analysis of civility between the Orang Asli and Malay Malaysians is instructive, because, as he says, “If a country can focus on the way it treats marginalised communities and improve how it treats them, the country will be a better place.”

There are also other questions to ask. Can the experiences of the Orang Asli help Malaysians figure out how to achieve a more inclusive Malaysia? Do other minorities have similar experiences — Indian Malaysians, indigenous peoples in East Malaysia, religious minorities, and so on? Do we extend the definition of “marginalised” and “minorities” to include other vulnerable groups — people with HIV, women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals?

How will all of this fit into the concept of 1Malaysia, which itself appears to incorporate imposed forms of civility?

Gomes says, “I agree that striving for equality must be a pre-requisite [for true civility]. 1Malaysia cannot work if people continue to be treated unequally.”

He continues: “It’s not always about statistics — it’s also about our narratives and stories.”

Indeed, the kinds of narratives we are seeing in this year’s countdown to Merdeka are all arguably about “civility”. For example, is it alright for citizens to demonstrate in the streets? Is it alright for Muslims to drink alcohol, or attend concerts during Ramadan? Is it alright for Malaysians to be lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transsexuals? In these cases, narratives and stories — not just statistics — are necessary to develop a fuller picture.

Gomes says conflict can be managed if the “right to dislike” another is balanced with a guarantee of “a place in the sun” for all communities. “… [P]eace is the norm in human affairs and relations, and violence is only an aberration,” he notes.

Perhaps the question to pose 1Malaysia then is this: Does the imposed civility packaged in the celebratory 1Malaysia slogans and Merdeka messages uphold equal opportunities? Do they guarantee a “place in the sun” for all Malaysians so that peace, in every sense of the word, becomes the norm in our independent nation?

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One Response to “Can Malaysians practise civility?”

  1. Azizi Khan says:

    Generally, Malaysians have no concept of “agreeing to disagree”. It is always about forcing an idea upon each other. When it doesn’t work, they are unhappy.

    Would you blame the average Malaysian when even top politicians subscribe to “you will do what I tell you to do” mentality?

    We have two classes in Malaysia. One are the masters. They are the moral guardians and they are deemed to “know everything”. Then we have the “rest of you” who are subservient and follow like the average goat or cow. This is what our politicians envisage 1Malaysia to be. A nation of herds wandering mindlessly. Lemmings anyone?

    Anyone who does not subscribe to this herd mentality are dealt with effectively by labelling them “anti”-[fill in your policy here]. We do not acknowledge that people can and will have differing opinions.

    Take for example that syariah lawyers mob who tried to take my right away to disagree with them for an archaic court ruling in this day and age that a woman should be whipped for consuming alcohol.

    The Pakatan-led Selangor government wants to take my right away to be a foolish Muslim and drink my woes away with alcohol or even make an honest living working for Carlsberg. The employee benefits I hear are uplifting even during the current economic crisis. 🙂

    Yes, we really need to agree to disagree. Really.

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