Flags are unfurled, but are we any closer to achieving national unity?
UNITY has been the main theme for at least 10 Merdekas since 1970, and this year’s tagline — Perpaduan Teras Kejayaan — continues this trend.
After all, it was unity — the coming together of the races — that brought Malaya its independence in 1957, and again for the establishment of Malaysia on 16 Sept 1963.
But aside from these historical displays of solidarity and 51 years of Merdeka taglines and colourful parades, have Malaysia’s multi-ethnic communities managed to bridge the racial divide? Or have the fault lines widened to encompass not just race, but socio-economic status as well?
Johan Saravanamuttu, Universiti Sains Malaysia professor of political science, says in an e-mail interview that pre-Merdeka, most people lived in segregated ethnic enclaves and rarely mixed.
Generally, the Chinese were confined to tin mines and towns, the Indians in rubber estates and railways, and the Malays predominately in the rural areas. This fostered a sort of “ethnic peace” that suited our colonial masters, but was not terribly healthy. There was no impetus to unite the races until after independence, Johan says.
Fast forward more than half a century later, and the geographic alienation of the communities has changed markedly. But are we closer to achieving national unity?
The Merdeka Centre’s 2006 Public Opinion Poll on Ethnic Relations revealed that on the surface, more than half of Malay, Chinese and Indian survey respondents say inter-ethnic relationships in Malaysia are sincere and friendly.
Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian“I think race relations between ordinary people are generally fine but remain clouded by lack of information, and are, to some extent, still influenced by old stereotypes,” says Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian in an e-mail interview.
“At the same time, the pattern of relationships people have between races remains transactional in nature because interaction is influenced by things like where people live, work and go to school.”
Ethnic groups in Malaysia are merely co-existing, carefully trying not to step on each other’s toes, rather than living harmoniously, Ibrahim says. Furthermore, he says there is an undercurrent of inter-ethnic tension that continues to exist along socio-economic fault lines.
Johan concurs: “Our fault lines are ethnic and cultural but have been greatly reinforced by socio-economic status (SES). But I’m not entirely convinced that the removal of socio-economic or status differences will completely overcome, say, the deeply embedded religious fault lines.”
Increasingly segregated nation
According to a Merdeka Centre survey, only 11% of Malaysians say they have frequent meals with friends of other racesRapid urbanisation is not only changing Malaysia’s physical landscape, but the social landscape as well. According to the Population and Housing Census 2000, more than 80% of the populations of Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Penang live in urban areas.
The National Unity Study of Young Malaysians, released by the Centre of Public Policy Studies (CPPS) on 18 April 2008, found that urban youths surveyed in Peninsula Malaysia were less optimistic about the progress of national unity than their rural counterparts. (The survey sampled 1,000 youths in all.)
It also found that Malaysians within the 18-to-24 age bracket have an aversion to mixing with people from other races. According to the CPPS, the median age in Malaysia is 23.9 years. And if the attitudes of Malaysia’s youth majority serve as an oracle to the future of Malaysia, then the development of race relations looks rather perplexing.
Aversion to the “other race” is not limited to the young. The Merdeka Centre’s survey showed that most Malaysians continue to see themselves not as Malaysians first, but as members of their own ethnic group. This is also apparent in the lack of trust between the major races, as revealed by the Malaysian Asian Barometer Survey (ABS), which was carried out in 2007and polled 1,200 people from Peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.
(Source: Asian Barometer — A Comparative Survey of Democracy, Governance and Development)
The results, as explained by ABS project director Dr Bridget Welsh during a seminar in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia on 18 Aug 2008, show sharp differences in trust according to ethnicity: 62.8% of respondents expressed high levels of trust in Malays, 49.7% of respondents did not trust Chinese, and 55.8% did not trust Indians.
So it appears that 51 years on, Malaysians of different ethnic groups are still wary of each other. It is no surprise, then, that only 11% of Malaysians say they have frequent meals with friends of other races, according to the Merdeka Centre survey.
This, says Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim, could be due to the prevalence of race-based politics, and ethnically dominant neighbourhoods.
Obsolete policies heighten racial differences
Speaking at the Malaysian Student Leader’s Summit on 3 Aug 2008, Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria said one of the post-Merdeka challenges was to unite Malaysia’s multi-ethnic community. And to do this, the government had to address the grave economic imbalances among the races.
Most Malaysians continue to see themselves not as Malaysians first, but as members of their own ethnic group“Because ethnic differences tend to be exaggerated among groups and classes with lower SES, they tend to have more play in these groups.”
The mechanism to do so was put into place with the National Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in 1970, and which was later extended to the National Development Policy (NDP) in 1990.
“The Malay community’s economic disadvantages were real. And many of the races, including the Indians and the Chinese, contributed to the drafting of the NEP,” said Denison, who is chairman of Suhakam’s economic, social and cultural rights working group.
But while the original aims were good, along the way, the NEP began to be looked on in a less favourable light by the non-Malays.
“The implementation of affirmative action for Malays and other bumiputera communities [via the NEP] has been riddled with incompetence, sheer dishonesty and abuse by government agencies. This has contributed to further ethnic polarisation in the country,” said Johan.
Between 1970 and 2000, laws such as the Internal Security Act prevented any intellectual discourse on the NEP. As a result, Denison said, “the NEP was not allowed to evolve” to accommodate the socio-economic changes.
Ibrahim added: “Measures that worked in the 1970s may not necessarily work as well today; hence the need for a continuous feedback loop that helps policymakers understand expectations, and develop strategies on how to attain them.”
Have race-based government policies outlived their purpose of correcting economic imbalance and uniting the races? Johan said the current government policies are not solutions to racial polarisation, and they do not help improve ethnic relations because the policies reinforce racial differences.
But economic parity, though still not completely achieved, has not proved to be the panacea for improving race relations.
“The perception of the non-bumiputera that this accumulation of national wealth would eventually not be distributed equally to them has damaged race relations tremendously,” says CPPS director Tricia Yeoh.
The theme for this year’s Merdeka celebration“In order to improve race relations, any policies that give an unfair advantage to a particular ethnic group, or that put any one group at a severe disadvantage, should be reviewed and amended. This would form the most important basis to improve race relations,” she says.
More than half of Malaysians surveyed by the Merdeka Centre say “government policies that promote common interests” are more important. This is perhaps an indication that Malaysians are ready for policies that promote equality rather than ethnic interests.
Johan, who is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says the Malaysian middle class are better able to overcome ethnic difference as they discover and fight for more common causes such as human rights and democracy.
And since civil society is composed mainly of the middle class, he says they have an important role in alleviating and mediating ethnic differences.
Ibrahim says ordinary Malaysians cannot be underestimated for their capacity to be moderate and considerate in their views.
“With enough political will and commitment of resources, along with careful persuasion, I believe that most people can be made to see the benefits of working for the common good in a new way, rather than pursuing specific ethnic interests separately,” he says.
Just as the major races came together to draft the NEP, Malaysians must unite once more to discuss and re-examine the NDP to make it more equitable, and to benefit all who are in need — regardless of race.
But we need to reach a certain level of maturity before such discussions can be carried out in a rational manner, free of hysteria. And even after 51 years of independence, Malaysians have yet to reach that stage.