THE historian’s lament is that he or she is often witness to mistakes of the past, and yet is unable to prevent them from recurring. In the end, the historian is cursed with the Cassandra complex and accused of being a tiresome doomsayer.
At the risk of being black-balled from dinner parties, I would like to restate that our country’s current state of affairs should remind us of our collective errors in the not-too-distant past. For example, just when we thought that talk of a unity government was dead and buried, this wearisome poltergeist has been resurrected to spook all and sundry.
One is forced to raise, yet again, the most obvious of questions: How can we work towards national unity as long as there remain politicians who continue to harp on and on about the myth of racial-ethnic unity?
How can we ever dream of a Malaysian nation that is Malaysian in character as long as we cannot make that simple leap beyond communitarian and sectarian politics?
Sculpture by Leonard Riem-Vi of Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill (© Stefan Jansson / flickr)
With age, I have begun to feel that the fight is lost and that our efforts are akin to the absurd labours of Sisyphus. But let us entertain a glimmer of hope at least, and in that spirit I would like to state my own preferences for what I would like to see in Malaysia.
The ideal politician
For a start, I would like to see a Malaysian politician for once.
By this I mean a Malaysian-minded politician who can genuinely claim to be blind to the distinctions of ethnicity, culture, language, religion and gender. A politician who is first and foremost a Malaysian citizen. And whose labour and effort are dedicated to upholding, defending and promoting the livelihood, well-being, honour and integrity of fellow Malaysian citizens, on the basis of a common Malaysian citizenship.
In other words, I would like to see a Malaysian citizen assume the role of politician in this country, rather than have communitarian representatives of sectarian interests dominate the political landscape.
Secondly, I would like to see a Malaysian politician who has the temerity and moral courage to state the simple fact that racial differences are an absurd fiction and have no basis in biology or history. This politician would accept that the ideological device of racial differentiation was introduced to Southeast Asia during the colonial period as a device to divide and rule Southeast Asian societies.
I would like to see a Malaysian politician who has the courage to admit that, as a nation, we have been conducting our politics for half a century on the basis of a colonial fiction that was fundamentally a lie. And that the time has come for us as a nation to grow up and admit that our settled assumptions about racial identity and difference have to be critically rejected for good.
Thirdly, I would like to see a Malaysian politician who has the courage to say that we cannot allow this country to be divided along sectarian cultural-linguistic lines. A politician who understands that we need a comprehensive, universal and inclusive national educational system that reflects Malaysia’s plurality while also uniting the nation under a common citizenship.
I would like to see a Malaysian-minded politician who has the courage to risk the wrath of his/her constituents by arguing for a Malaysian education model that brings together the diverse aspects of contemporary Malaysian society, culture and history.
In other words, an educational system that will be designed to foster the value of a universal Malaysian citizenship rather than to reinforce the sense of ethnic and religious particularism and differences.
I would like to see a politician who is prepared to have our history textbooks revised in order to reflect our diversity and the contribution of all communities to Malaysia’s development.
Fourthly — and this might be difficult for some of our politicians — I would like to see politicians who understand that politics is not a family business. And that the mantle of leadership of political parties is not to be passed from papa to mama to son to daughter, but left open for the public to engage and contest as well. As an appendix to that, I would also be happy to see a politician who can tell his/her son or daughter: “No, you don’t have to be a politician like me, keep studying and just be a good public servant and citizen, and I would be proud of you.”
Fifth — and this may be the most difficult one of all — I would like to see a Malaysian politician state clearly and with conviction that the instrumentalisation of religion, ethnicity and/or language as a tool for whipping up voters’ primordial sentiments is dangerous. And that we need to return to a national politics that is above all rational, objective and free of emotionalism.
Thus far, however, I have yet to encounter any of the above in terms that I can count as genuine or sincere.
The instrumentalisation of the vernacular language debate, for instance, is a case in point where political parties on both sides of the fence are deliberately standing on their soap boxes and playing to the gallery in the crassest of terms. And they do this at a time when the general standard of English in Malaysia has dropped so drastically that I have to reject academic papers by Malaysian professors who cannot string a single English sentence together without half a dozen spelling and grammatical errors.
This, then, is the absurdity of today’s Malaysian politics when it is patently obvious that our nation-building programme has gone off tangent and the existence of multiple educational streams actively and consciously divides our society further.
(© Lisa Risager)
In a situation where politicians can talk about national unity while also calling for ethnic-religious unity at the same time, the rational social scientist is left baffled. As a historian of contemporary Malaysia, all I can do is record the insanity and inanity of the times we live in, and to remind my students and readers of the mistakes that were made not too long ago.
Yet academic labour has its own limits, and the limit of rational critique is reached when we arrive at the frontier between reason and un-reason. That uneasy boundary is where I am left standing today, and it is an odd feeling to be a historian recording the collective madness of a nation that has lost its way.
Rather than more bridges crooked or otherwise — built by crooks or otherwise — airports, shopping malls and monuments, we need to build some Malaysians first. And for our sake, I hope this process starts sooner than later.
Dr Farish A Noor is a school teacher who realises that reason has its limits in Malaysia.