Categorised | Columns

Divided we stand

LET’s think about the following key words in Malaysian politics: unity government, Sisters in Islam (SIS), Chin Peng, government or PSD scholarships, Utusan Malaysia, and the language in education policy.

What comes to your mind? Ethnocentrism? Religious fundamentalism? National disunity?

Who hasn’t lamented about why our nation cannot be spared such ethno-religious polemics? Why can’t we just concentrate on issues that concern everyone such as good governance, the loss of tax payer’s money in the Port Klang Free Zone project, and the haze?

You ask: why can’t we have national unity? Why can’t we be like other countries that speak a single language, go to the same schools, and have a single identity?

For some, the answer is simple: divide and rule. The British divided us so that we could not unite to oppose them. So did the Alliance. So does the Barisan Nasional (BN).

What is the force behind this political control? For left-leaning socialists, the answer is simple: capitalism. The capitalist class controls the government and exploits everyone else. You could, of course, replace socialism with other universal ideologies like environmentalism.

For the less ideological, the answer could be the sheer self-interest of corrupt politicians. In other words, human nature’s dark side.

Pursuing national unity therefore makes us feel good in two ways. First, it offers hope that this country can be better. Second, it allows us to feel wise, benevolent and righteous that we can transcend primordial feelings of greed and self-interest.

A brave new world

But hold on, what would our national life be after attaining national unity?

We would call ourselves Malaysians, rather than Malay/Chinese/Indian/Dayak/Kadazan.

We would all probably speak English, some Malay and perhaps a hybrid tongue.

We would all go to the same schools. We would sit together in restaurants and lecture halls. We would play and party together. We would date each other, colour-blind in our attraction. We would have more inter-marriages. We would have more multiethnic companies. No more ethnic segregation.

We would even have multiethnic partners in crime — no more Malay mat rempit, Chinese samseng and Indian gangsters —  but simply Malaysian criminals who would go after multiethnic victims and later be pursued by a multiethnic police force. No more ethnic profiling.

Mat rempit (Public domain)

What would we fight for in such a colour-blind society? We would fight for social justice, sustainable development and human development. We would eliminate poverty, crime and pollution.

We would make Malaysia a heaven on earth.

It would be a brave new world because we would no longer be tied down by our parochial communal identity.

Democracy = division

But how do we fight poverty, crime and pollution? Would we tax more or less? Would we have fewer or more laws and regulations?

And how about more divisive questions such as abortion, same-sex union and genetic engineering? Will we all have the same opinion on these issues? If we won’t, doesn’t that mean we are still divided? Indeed, would we not be debating passionately about these other issues as we are today about language and religion?

Hence, can we be possibly united? The truth is, it is only in a totalitarian state that we can be united on each and every important issue.

Democracy is about division. Political parties, the hallmark of modern democracies, individually represent different parts of society, even though they claim to represent the interests of all.

In any democratic government, there are no ultimate solutions on policy issues. All solutions are in a way temporary compromises that reflect the balance of social preference at a particular point in time.

Hence, diversity — be it ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural, sexual, class or geographical — is not a curse to democracy.

Notwithstanding the huge challenges, India with 22 official languages besides English is the world’s largest democracy. Compare this with China, where over 90% of the population uses the same written language and yet the country remains the world’s largest non-democracy.

Hence, national unity in a democracy is an oxymoron, at least in normal times. Yes, there are national unity governments during wars or major crises, but those circumstances are meant to be an anomaly, an exception to the norm.

I’ll be back (© Orion Pictures)
Indeed, unity is only necessary and possible when you have an overarching enemy.

Why is the human race divided by religions, for example? Possibly because God has not allowed another species — from this or other planets — to threaten our survival. If, however, there were other species that threatened us (think Aliens or The Terminator), the human race may not be so divided over religious doctrines.

Opponents, not enemies

Many Malaysians see PAS’s proposal to ban SIS as a symptom of political Islam’s intolerance, rather than as the failure of managing political diversity and division effectively that is common amongst most Malaysians regardless of faith and ideology.

After half a century of the Alliance/BN rule which stresses unity and stability, including through Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia project, many can only see the flaws in Umno’s hegemony. But Malaysians are generally blind to the flaws in authoritarianism itself.

Authoritarianism inherently suppresses competition and justifies it with the core idea of good politics for everyone. Singapore shows that authoritarianism may even eliminate corruption and bring economic growth more effectively than democracies.

Conversely, however, embracing democracy must go beyond the pursuit of collective goodness.

Healthy competition

Because we are all different and have competing interests, there are bound to be winners and losers in politics, not only among politicians but also among voters.

But that’s all right, as long as we are all allowed to compete fairly to persuade more people to embrace our preferences and interests. In other words, we aim to win by being more inclusive, while recognising that we can never represent all interests.

In doing so, we need not assimilate to become like each other. We also don’t need to condemn our opponents to hell or banish them from the land in order to compete effectively.

And because our opponents are not enemies, there is no need for unity with them to end any competition. After all, if Manchester United proposed to unite with Liverpool or Arsenal, what do you think Man-U fans would do? Indeed, democracy should be like sports — it’s about opponents, not enemies.

Khalid Samad
In this sense, I am less disturbed by the unity government proposal than by the proposed ban of SIS. The undebated resolution on SIS — no matter how Shah Alam PAS chief Khalid Samad explains it — suggests that the blue oceaners in PAS are not ready to embrace pluralism within Islam.

This is problematic because if it’s not SIS, then some other dissenting voice in Islam would be seen as enemies, rather than just opponents, who need to be banned and/or rehabilitated.

This, of course, is hardly ideal if one imagines a post-Umno Malaysia.

For unless we opt to have one-party predominance again, how will PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat — both Muslim-based parties — compete with each other? They can and must differentiate themselves as two equally legitimate Muslim parties — perhaps one liberal, the other conservative, or one economically right, the other left.

More importantly, politicians and voters must dissuade themselves of the notion that there can be Muslim or non-Muslim unity.

But the question is, do our political parties really believe in diversity, competition and democracy? Or do they secretly aspire to be another benevolent authoritarianism like Singapore?

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He loathes the idea of a homogeneous nation and wishes for disunity among and within the Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Dayak and other Malaysian communities. 

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9 Responses to “Divided we stand”

  1. OrangRojak says:

    “Hence, national unity in a democracy is an oxymoron, at least in normal times.”

    Not all democracies are flame fests between warring bigots seeking the destruction of the other. There’s no reason why a nation should not be politically homogeneous, in so far as they mostly roughly agree with what their politicians are doing with the matters that concern politicians. In Malaysia many politicians have historically acted as high priests of racist/religious clans hell-bent on total domination. It’s not democracy that’s to blame – it’s bigotry.

  2. Singam says:

    In what could be a damage control exercise, PAS has now announced that any unity talks must include PKR and DAP. While that augurs well for the Pakatan Rakyat, what does that mean for Malaysia’s democratic future? Will BN and PR merge into another super alliance that again ends up being dominated by Umno?

    I think not. 8 March 2008 was not 13 May 1969. The opposition parties are not under any kind of pressure to cooperate with the BN. It is the BN and Umno that need to shore up their support base.

    A unity government can allow the BN a somewhat less shameful exit from the Perak morass. A unity government would allow for by-elections to be left uncontested without loss of face. Meanwhile, Umno and MCA can work on seducing the weaker representatives of the PR parties and working their way to regaining the two-thirds majority during GE 13.

    But I have confidence that there are sufficient stalwarts in the PR parties to prevent such events from coming to pass. The rakyat are also thoroughly disgusted with the BN and will punish the PR if any attempts at cooperation result in loss of control. Should push come to shove, they may even return an independent to office should they see electoral collusion between the two coalitions.

    But that is only the mood today. Will the silent rage keep simmering or will it dissipate? That would depend on whether or not the BN keep shooting themselves in the foot.

    Keep going, Hisham and Nazri and all. Keep going, PRDM.

  3. Hong says:

    Division indeed is the lifeblood of democracy, but it can be argued that an effective democracy is one that can only be achieved once we have left ethnocentric politics behind. In this sense, the national unity that some of us have been banging on about is not about doing everything in muhibbah fashion or eradicating all differences in opinion, as has been suggested above.

    It is about the abandonment of race politics so that we may actually engage in discourse regarding our different ideas from a rational position supported by reason and evidence, and not one which resorts to an appeal to innate, immutable genetic or cultural characteristics.

    Unless and until we reach that point, all we are doing really is talking at each other rather than with, and the task of “managing political diversity” cannot begin in earnest.

  4. True Penangite says:

    I am very dissapointed with PAS. PAS after winning over non-Malay [Malaysian] votes has started to show its true color. Indeed, what BN told us is correct – a vote for PAS is a vote for Islamic state and banning SIS. Let’s vote BN back to counter PAS. It’s still not too late.

  5. tebing tinggi says:

    We all call ourselves Malaysians, we go to the same schools and we speak the same language. Then we can blend in the Malaysian culture and we can be known only as Malaysians. Is it imposible? Why can’t we then?

    Should we blame the system? Should we blame the political [parties]? Should we blame the government then, knowing the answer is very well within ourselves?

    The political [parties] just facilitate our requirement and the government just fulfills our request as required in the democratic culture.

    We can be what we want to be. If we want to be Malaysians, we will be [Malaysians]. If we want to remain as Chinese, Indians and Malays in Malaysia, we will be [these]. It’s all up to us, not the political [parties] to decide or the government.

  6. Arion Yeow says:

    I’d rubbish this article for failing to appreciate the importance of diversity despite its drawbacks but it makes a good point about focusing on more pressing concerns such as good governance, corruption and haze.

  7. Sharon Chin says:

    I interpret ‘unity’ as cultural tolerance and mutual respect, but this article makes a strange assumption about unity being akin to cultural same-sameness (homogeneity).

    I also disagree strongly that in the writer’s hypothetical ‘Brave New World’, “we would all probably speak English, some Malay and perhaps a hybrid tongue”. Why couldn’t we all speak Malay, some English and various hybrid tongues?

    “And how about more divisive questions such as abortion, same-sex union and genetic engineering? Will we all have the same opinion on these issues? If we won’t, doesn’t that mean we are still divided? Indeed, would we not be debating passionately about these other issues as we are today about language and religion?”

    Please. As we have seen, both opposition and BN MPs have been able to come together on such issues as Palestine and sexist, loutish remarks against women in Parliament. The ability to come together and speak out for what is right is the kind of national unity that matters. How can we even begin to talk about issues like abortion, legal gay marriage, etc, when we can’t even communicate fluently with each other in a single language?

    I really admire Wong Chin Huat’s lucid thinking and writing on the whole, but this article is a confused steaming hot mess.

  8. Karen Goh says:

    One-party predominance over half a century has brought about abuse of power that resulted in massive corruption in the country and wastage of resources. It is time to let diversity claim its natural order in the universe. If national unity equates one language, one system of education, one race, one religion, there would still be disunity and diversity as dissent is inherent in any society, even in homogeneous societies like Japan, Korea, Iran and Iraq to name a few.

  9. kahseng says:

    Hi Sharon Chin,

    I suspect you would not at all endorse authorianism.

    But your arguments confirm Chin Huat’s assertion that “Malaysians are generally blind to the flaws in authoritarianism itself”.

    How can unity be achieved when everyone has a different background, ability, and motivation? By authorianism, of course. Something like the Taleban banning singing and kite flying, or Nazi revolution.

    And where does unity end? Unity can only stop at one variety of everything, a uniform color and shape. USSR, China [and the] Talebans tried that.

    So homogeneity is not a strange assumption, it is the ultimate goal of unity lying just beyond the popular perception.

    While you disparagingly observe “we can’t even communicate fluently with each other in a single language,” unity-minded nationalists will gladly feed on such sentiment to first push for an all-Malay curriculum and society. That will prove impractical, and the authoritarian will simply dictate we all switch to English to survive the world. It is already happening.

    That “both opposition and BN MPs” have come together on divisive sexual and ethical issues underlines the danger of a unified voice among the powerful.

    The only protection for the minority from the oppression of the majority is in diversity and division.

    To use a funny example, MCA was wrong when it calls for Chinese [Malaysians] to bear more children to achieve political power. All we need – whether [we are] ethnic Chinese, Indian, or Malay – to ensure our rights are protected, is to ensure that those in power compete against each other on equal footing.

    “When elephants fight, the small ones are trampled.” That is an outdated, feudal, Malay-language proverb from days ruled by violent [people].

    If we assume the rule of law, then dividing the powerful is the best protection of our liberty.

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