(Festive image by ba1969 / sxc.hu)
THE build-up to Malaysia’s 46th birthday began this year, for me, with an argument between two acquaintances. A West Malaysian acquaintance said the prevailing notion that Malaysia is 52 years old, versus its actual birth in 1963, is a matter of interpretation. An East Malaysian acquaintance angrily pointed out that this was an erasure of history and, by extension, the erasure of the lived reality of entire peoples in this country.
My parents were just about in their teens when the then-North Borneo attained self-governance. This was just over two weeks before Donald Stephens, later known as Tun Mohammad Fuad Stephens, put pen to paper to make Sabah part of a new nation. Sarawak had become independent about a month earlier, on 22 July 1963.
In the popular imagination, the birth of this country is sepia-tinted and distant, as in the famous Merdeka ad. But 1963 isn’t very far into the past. There would have been many in the generation prior to mine who were old enough to have doubts and questions over Malaysia. Yet they chose to believe that this new federation would give life to their hopes and dreams. From Banggi Island to Kangar, we took that step into a brave new world not as colonial subjects, but as free and sovereign peoples.
Of course, the truth is that even as we thought we could shape ourselves and this nation into a grand beacon of the postcolonial world, there remained unfinished business and conveniently ignored questions. The multiplicities of identities and the pressures of politics within and without were always going to be difficult to handle for an emerging nation. 46 years later, grappling with parts of our history we are told to look away from, are we any closer to the best we could be?
Who are we?
I initially thought of revisiting the question that ended my Malaysia Day piece last year, and expand the question to include the entirety of Malaysia: Who are we? It seems to me, insofar as the West-East Malaysia relations are concerned, we are still a nation of two halves. This year’s Merdeka celebrations continue to proclaim that Malaysia is 52, and Malaysia Day remains unrecognised federally.
Sabahans and Sarawakians shake their heads over Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor‘s whipping sentence and what’s now known as the cow-head protest, and say, “My God, how barbaric. That would never happen here.” They ignore the creeping fundamentalism and Muslim personal status laws that, for example, criminalise apostasy (to a tune of RM3,000 and/or imprisonment of no more than two years). Rightly or wrongly, they regard these as the sensibilities of the embarrassingly intolerant that have little bearing on everyday lives.
And yet, there are issues that seem to unite both sides of the South China Sea. The sexual violence perpetrated against Penan girls and women, slow-burning initially, now seems to be one of these issues. Unfortunately, not many people in Peninsular Malaysia are aware of the Sarawak state government‘s efforts to discredit the people and non-governmental organisations that sought justice for the women, and to bury the issue entirely.
Few in West Malaysia grasp the context in which the violence occurred, with the exception of Orang Asli, who understand only too well. Few grasp how Penan communities have become so vulnerable and disempowered. But then, given the prevailing political climate, how do we expect West Malaysians to be properly informed of what goes on in East Malaysia?
So, here we are. Were I to answer the question of “Who are we?” by looking back at the past year, the only answer I could give is that we are above all united by fear. Fear of the Internal Security Act (ISA), fear of the authorities, fear of the Other, fear of the unknown, fear of being taken for a ride, fear of caring enough to act. The injustices in this country are too close, too much to bear.
Who do we want to be?
Perhaps, as in 1963, the more important question is: Who do we want to be? Looking back, we could piece together some answers, or at least the beginnings of an answer. We could, perhaps, say:
- The tens of thousands of anti-ISA protesters who marched on 1 Aug 2009 wanted to be the kind of people who live their lives free from draconian laws and the last vestiges of colonialism.
(Pic by Nitin Ale / sxc.hu) The people in Baram running blockades against loggers and plantations companies want to be the kind of people who are agents of their own destiny.
- The people who voted for transformation on 8 March 2008 wanted to be the kind of people for whom change can no longer be equated with terror and the shadow of 13 May 1969.
- The Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and people of other faiths in Kota Kinabalu who continue to run food stalls next to each other want to be the kind of people who believe in what unites rather than what divides.
- The people who hold candlelight vigils despite police violence, who write letters, who visit temples not of their faith — perhaps they want to be the kind of people who remember that an individual’s suffering counts for something in this world.
Here too, one could ask: Who do the people who support the caning of Kartika want to be? Who do the people who dismiss the Penans as backward liars want to be? Who do the people who think that women deserve violence for not acceding to demands want to be? Who do the people perceiving those who do not fit into certain norms as threats, and act accordingly, want to be?
I will not presume malice on their part any more than I will refuse to acknowledge that our lives are complex. But in the end, intentions are just that: intentions, not the outcomes of actions. For me, I want to be the kind of person guided not by approval from a higher authority. I’d rather be guided by what my actions mean for someone already marginalised or who is not in a position buffered by privilege. I want to be the kind of person who remembers that violations of any individual’s human rights affect me, no matter how distant I may feel I am. Every violation makes this world a more dangerous place, makes people more fearful, and brings about an environment that makes it so much harder for me to claim my rights as a human being.
I am tired of seeing 46-year-old promises unfulfilled. There is so much more that we can be.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck
Yasmin Masidi works for an international NGO based in Kuala Lumpur. She spends her time doing as much as she can.
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