Malay-ness this, Malay-ness that

Dina Zaman
The Malay Mail Online
July 21, 2013

JULY 21 — When asked the following questions in a closed group on Facebook, “In a 1921 census, the Malays were a minority in their own country because of the British open door migration policy, which served their economic interest. (Hussin Mutalib, Islam and Ethnicity in Malay Politics). Zainah Anwar in a Star 2010 op-ed piece said, political power will always remain in Malay hands. Is this relevant still post-GE13?” the responses were mixed, though a majority disagreed with the sentiment in the question(s).

A number expressed that such sentiments were legitimate during that era, but today, this fear that the Malay race would be extinguished economically, psychologically and physically is irrelevant.

Gregore Lopez, academic, political analyst, activist and visiting fellow at The Australian National University, found the whole idea “… a little rich”, and many debunked the notion.

Yet communal politics is alive and well here. Every year, every month leading up to a by-election, general election, Malaysians are subjected to rumours and hatred is fuelled. Malay supremacy is at stake. The non-Malay bogeymen are out to sap the country dry. Is the 1921 census coming true?

Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, academic and Director of Project Dialog (a non-profit organisation dedicated to inter-faith dialogue) wrote in The New Mandala, a website, on the pathologies of Malay nationalism. Rahmat argued that the nationalist agenda of the country is at odds with the realities of Malaysian life.

“The problem begins with the nation-state ideal; for its coherence depends on there being a people deemed as the rightful owners of a land. It is rooted to the belief that territory is property — a thing to own — and that loyalty to the people means, among other things, the readiness to uphold the integrity of territory to ensure it belongs to the nation,” Rahmat wrote.

Islam, Rahmat as well as other political observers have noted, has repeatedly become a legal tool of uniting the Malays, and as well as control. For Muslims, Islam is already a way of life but for Malay Muslims, Islam has become an identity crutch. In another essay, we will discuss what Islamisation is about. But we must think: is the Islam practised in governance today holistic and healthy?

Gaik Cheng Khoo from the University of Nottingham Malaysia, is of the same opinion as Rahmat. “Constitutional patriotism is in fact growing, partly as a response to the concatenation of Islamisation and the discourse of Malay ethnic hegemony (ketuanan Melayu) which perpetuates identity boundaries between Malays and non-Malays and between Muslims and non-Muslims.” (2013 Constitutional Patriotism in Malaysian Civil Society)

For non-Muslim Malaysians, and non-Malay Muslim Malaysians, this divide is creating a chasm in their relations with their Malay counterparts. Khoo’s paper is a shrewd and objective analysis of Malaysians’ shared identities.

What is apparent is that the recent general elections was really not about racial votes, but rather about the discontentment of the middle class. “Today the BN is discredited, particularly among the urban-based educated middle classes and those who have not benefited from its policies, for its abuse of power and its corruption — especially its sponsorship of corrupt networks of patronage and its engagement in money politics.”

This sentiment is echoed by a sizeable number of even BN stalwarts who are of a different generation. Their patriotism cannot be denied, but they too want change from old politics. The current style of leadership is not in keeping with this social media savvy, articulate generation.

The latter is part of a global phenomenon, an effect from the failure of governments to meet the rising expectations of the newly prosperous and educated (‘The Middle Class Revolution’, Francis Fukuyama , The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2013.)

The middle class, whatever race, creed they are, will be the most powerful impact on politics. The numbers are burgeoning, and this is not a silent group. They are critical, articulate and financially savvy: they will support only the causes they feel passionately about.

Fukuyama quoted a 2012 report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies which predicted that the number of people in that category would grow from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion in 2020 and 4.9 billion in 2030 (out of a projected global population of 8.3 billion).

“The bulk of this growth will occur in Asia, particularly China and India. But every region of the world will participate in the trend, including Africa, which the African Development Bank estimates already has a middle class of more than 300 million people.”

“(The) middle-class status is better defined by education, occupation and the ownership of assets, which are far more consequential in predicting political behaviour. Any number of cross-national studies, including recent Pew surveys and data from the World Values Survey at the University of Michigan, show that higher education levels correlate with people’s assigning a higher value to democracy, individual freedom and tolerance for alternative lifestyles. Middle-class people want not just security for their families but choices and opportunities for themselves.”

Still, the issue of the Malay standing in our country’s politics is widely debated. For professionals like JVC (names have been changed to protect their identities) the question of whether Malays will impact the country’s governance is relevant. JVC is in his thirties, loves travelling and is widely read. He is proud to be Malay.

“My being biased is simply because throughout history, the Malays have always been a wonderful host. And this has always been taken advantage of. Our ‘guests’ over the years have become our compatriots, of which in itself a difficult issue to explain. I have no qualms about migration as I think this a basic human right. But being a traveller myself, I will always have that special respect for my host and the country I am in.”

The thing was, he observed, that it seemed that “Our ‘guests’ are unhappy with almost everything with the Malays. From administration to daily living.” He accepted the very fact that Malays were to blame for some of the quandary, but this did not mean that the Malays would have to forego their “rights.” And this is made complicated knowing that once we were a minority.

“Political hegemony is needed anywhere, much less by the majority. But more often than not, when you have the majority scraping for power, the nation would naturally be in turmoil. And to make it even more difficult, racial polarisation and the mixture that we have now in Malaysia. But to say that political power will always be in Malay hands is a bit childish. This country has gone through a period where non-Malays are controlling the economy and continued to doing so. “

The gist of the issue is trust. A country with mistrust among her citizens will never be short of issues, he concluded.

“Malay-ness” crops up every so often in discussions, and many times, shows the divide between class and education. “The Malays of Yore” that the writer Kam Raslan depicts in his stories are liberal, accepting of others, humorous and remind contemporary Malaysians of a past they would have only read or heard about, a past of a Perfect Malaysia.

And yet on the other hand, there are also many men and women of the same generation who share a deep mistrust of non-Malays. They are not lesser educated, but their political beliefs veer to the right. These prejudices are still apparent among younger, educated Malaysians, whose views have more than raised eyebrows during heated debates on Malaysian politics. This will be discussed later.

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