My Say: The way forward in uniting Malaysia

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 27, 2017 - December 03, 2017.
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The Muslim-only launderette issue provoked the opposition of several quarters who believe such moves will undermine unity and harmony in the country. The Johor royal household and the Raja Muda of Perlis came out strongly against it. The Council of Rulers subsequently issued a statement supporting the move by the Sultan of Johor and the Raja Muda of Perlis, and stated that Muslim-only launderettes could jeopardise harmony and stability in the country.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak chipped in a few days later to condemn Muslim-only laundrettes as it would undermine unity in our multiethnic and multi-religious country. However, he was also reported as saying Malaysians should have a choice, such as when it comes to halal food.

A related issue that attracted much public attention recently was the ban on the wearing of headscarves by frontline staff in some leading hotels. Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz slammed it as discriminatory and argued that wearing headscarves has become a norm in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Muslim-only launderettes and the wearing of headscarves should be routine business decisions in a market economy and a democratic country.

The prime minister, in addressing the laundrette incident, maintained that preserving unity was a foremost concern of his government. It has always been a vital consideration since independence in 1957. In the wake of May 1969, then prime minister Tun Abdul Razak emphasised that unity among the various races was a key goal of government policy and created the Ministry of National Unity.

The Sultan of Perak has also raised the issue of unity. In 2007, when he was the Raja Muda, he said, “Malaysians of all races, religions and geographic locations must believe without a shadow of doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun.” In 2010, he stated: “I long to see a Malaysia where citizens of various ethnic groups can live comfortably side by side, where our consciousness as Malaysians transcends our cherished ethic and religious identities …”

The question that arises is, why has there been limited or no progress, and possibly, even a setback in the making of a cohesive Malaysian nation? Admittedly, nation-making is a long-term process that may take several decades, if not centuries, with no end point. Furthermore, nations do not just exist, but are social constructs of political entrepreneurs. Thus, they can be made and unmade.

For example, after being part of the UK for more than 300 years, a significant percentage of Scots support the view that Scotland should be a separate nation, as underscored in a referendum in 2014. Although that majority opted to remain part of the UK, the aspiration for a separate nation and state remains.

More recently, political leaders in Catalonia in northeast Spain decided to secede from Spain. However, Madrid has not followed Britain’s path of a peaceful referendum, and has taken an approach that could lead to violence.

Closer to home, despite race and religion being brought to play in the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election, Indonesia seems to have made considerable progress in creating an Indonesian nation. The 1928 Sumpah Pemuda proclaims, “One motherland, one nation and one language,” and citizens identify themselves primarily as Indonesians. The Indonesian identity supersedes, without detracting from, the ethnic identities such as Javanese, Batak, Bugis, Chinese and so on.

So, why has Indonesia made more progress in this area than Malaysia?

Although promoting national unity is a key concern of various groups in Malaysia, there does not appear to be agreement on how that is to be achieved. Like elsewhere in the world, the basis for nation-making has a strong impact on national unity. There are three competing narratives in Malaysian nationhood: race (Malay nation), religion (Islamic nation) and citizenship (civic nation). Although the Federal Constitution implicitly defined the Malaysian nation on the basis of citizenship and race, it prioritised citizenship over race and religion.

After May 1969, however, race and increasingly religion appear to have supplanted citizenship as the crucial criterion. The Barisan Nasional (BN) government (in power since independence) and several other groups, including the Islamic party that has been in power in Kelantan for several decades, seem to prioritise racial and religious dimensions over citizenship.

The emphasis on moderation serves to smooth the sharp edges in the interaction among the many ethnic, racial and religious groups. Although the emphasis on moderation is positive and is a welcome development, it is a top-down approach that requires continuous reliance on executive authority. While this may suit those in power, it does not promote genuine long-term unity. In fact, those in power may attempt to use the goal of unity to enhance their hold on power, like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad tried to do when he was prime minister.

The emphasis on race and religion in Malaysia tends to prioritise and privilege Malays/bumiputeras as the original inhabitants of the land and cast others as perpetual immigrants. Although Najib has spoken out against the bumiputera/pendatang divide and has instructed his party and government not to employ such divides, the BN government’s approach to national unity has had the unintended effect of perpetually dividing communities. This is evident in Budge 2018, for example. Although it speaks of inclusive development, the government’s role and assistance in the budget are stipulated by race and religion.

In the government scheme, the well-being of bumiputeras is dependent on government and that of the non-bumiputeras depends on the tolerance and moderate behaviour on the part of the majority Muslim community. Despite being born here, and resident for several generations, non-Malays/non-bumiputeras can never hope to become indigenous Malaysians with equal privileges and obligations. This introduces and perpetuates a zero-sum mindset. The gain of minority communities is seen coming at the expense of, or as a favour or concession by, the majority indigenous community.

Further, political parties have been formed based on ethnicity, race and religion. Political mobilisation on that basis perpetuates and makes those divisions strong. Political leaders see their primary function as safeguarding/demanding privileges and concessions for their respective racial/religious communities, and their success is judged accordingly. Business leaders from all communities also have not been immune to racial considerations.

Even civil society groups and the public have racial/religious inclinations. It is a reality that ethnicity, race and religion have become deeply etched in the minds of most Malaysians, and are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Any effort to forge unity must take due account of this fact.

At the same time, despite its emotional attraction, it is important to recognise that race and religion cannot form the base for a united nation in a multiracial and multi-religious country that brings out the best in all citizens. By constructing almost insurmountable barriers, racial and religious criteria can permanently relegate certain groups to second-class status.

If defined broadly, race can be more malleable but religion is a formidable barrier that can be overcome only through conversion. Further, it is important to recognise that religious homogeneity cannot guarantee a united nation. Nor can it guarantee a high level of commitment to the nation from all segments of the population. Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan despite the fact that both were Islamic nations. Ethnicity seems to have been the more significant factor for the secession. A nation forged on the basis of ethnicity, race or religion can be subject to disunity and secession.

In a multiracial and multi-religious country like Malaysia, race and religion cannot form the basis for a united nation. Citizenship and equality must be the crucial criteria. All citizens must identify with, and be committed to, the nation. Such an approach can bring harmony to nation and state, minimise the probability of secession, and allow gradual peaceful change to the political map. Nevertheless, a nation formed on the basis of citizenship and equality will not be immune to challenges like secession, especially by those seeking to construct nations on the basis of race and religion.

Race and religion have a strong emotional attraction and cannot be overlooked. Here is where the interplay of nation and state comes into play. In seeking to preserve unity, the political structure of the state must allow genuine autonomy for certain groups to accommodate their special situations and sociocultural and economic demands. In certain cases, where demands cannot be met through autonomy arrangements, peaceful secession and independence must be contemplated.

Some may see this as opening the door to the disintegration of existing countries. However, I would argue the contrary. Despite the existence of enabling constitutional and legal provisions, the Quebecois and the Scots, for example, have not opted to become separate countries. Rather than open the door to disintegration, I would argue that the construction of nations based on the will of the people will enable stronger nations and states as well as gradual and peaceful change to the political map. Change is a constant. The challenge is to ensure such change is peaceful.

For example, secession attempts of territories like Scotland or Quebec are not seen as a security issue but of political development, to be determined by the outcome of a mutually agreed referendum. Such an approach demonstrates political development and maturity. Unity must rest on the will of the people and not be compelled by a government that privileges an arbitrary, unitary state.

Unity in Malaysia will be enhanced by an approach that privileges citizenship and equality. It will also be enhanced by a political structure that allows autonomy of states and as a last resort, if absolutely necessary, peaceful secession on the basis of a negotiated agreement resting on the will of the people.

Such an approach will not only address the racial and religious divides that plague the country but also the fault lines created by the 1963 Malaysia Agreements (separately known as the 18 and 20-point agreements) that paved the way for Sabah and Sarawak to join the Federation of Malaysia as well as the geographical separation of these two states from Peninsular Malaysia.

Pursuing this approach will foster greater unity in the country and make Malaysia an exemplary nation and state to be emulated by other multiracial and multi-religious countries.


Datuk Muthiah Alagappa is Visiting Professor in the Asia-Europe Institute at Universiti Malaya. He is a Distinguished Research Scholar at the School of International Service at the American University and non-resident Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both in Washington, DC.

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