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.
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 SamadIn 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.