MySay: Malaysian identity contestation and political culture

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 27, 2018 - September 02, 2018.
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Malaysian identity has been and continues to be contested. With the stunning victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in the 14th general election, the contestation has become more public. This column argues that the PH victory has not resolved the issue. Instead, it has made the contestation more open. It can only be resolved when all parties subscribe to the idea of a civic nation state.

As the Malaysian political culture is ingrained in the racial politics practised in the country over the last 70 years, it is only likely to change gradually. Much will hinge on the efforts of the PH government and civil society to entrench the civic nation-state conception and the outcome of the next general election.

Human Resources Minister M Kulasegaran may have initiated the recent round by stating that the Hindus predate the Malay-Muslims in Malaysia and that as the original people of the country, the Indians cannot be considered pendatang. Umno Youth responded to this by calling for the removal of the minister. In addition, it opposed recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate on the grounds that it will undermine the position of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language.

Umno sees its primary role as protecting Malay-Muslim rights and securing their dominant position in the country. Hence, it has also opposed the appointment of non-Malays/Muslims as the attorney-general and the chief justice. And, former prime minister and Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak has argued that Malays are being sidelined in their own country.

It is pertinent to recall here that the previous Umno-led government subscribed to the view that the Malays are the natives of the country and support the history taught in schools, which begins with Parameswara’s conversion to Islam and his rule of the Melaka sultanate.

It is difficult to ascertain who the original inhabitants of what is now Malaysia are but it is important to remember that in recent history, the British colonial administration had entered into agreements with the view that Malay rulers had titles to their respective states. The sultans played a key role in the formation of Malaya. That the British considered the Malays the natives of the land is clear. Notwithstanding that, the British advanced the Malayan Union proposal, which would have granted equal political status to all citizens of the proposed country.

Umno was, in fact, formed to oppose that proposal on the grounds that as the native people of the country, the Malays would be disadvantaged by that proposal. In opposing continued British rule and seeking independence for Malaya, Umno forged an alliance with the Malayan Chinese Association and Malayan Indian Congress. In the process, the Malay leaders agreed to grant citizenship rights to Chinese and Indians resident in Malaya in return for certain rights and privileges for the Malays and Islam. Umno has since established itself as the supreme party within the Alliance Party and later the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The purpose of the above quick foray into history is to demonstrate that the Malays were indeed considered the natives of the land, but the intention at the time of Malaya’s independence was clearly to provide political equality to all citizens of the country. The key takeaway here is that no community has indefinite claim to territory. Hence, the question as to who the original inhabitants of the territory are/were is of little or no consequence. All citizens of the country have equal rights, obligations and privileges, and all racial groups have made important contributions to the establishment and development of the country.

Despite China and India being independent countries, it cannot be inferred that the Chinese and Indian Malaysians consider them as their home countries or that they can return to them at will. Many have little or no connection with those countries. Malaysia is their home and they cannot forever accept second-class status in their home country.

Based on the principle of one man (woman), one vote, Malaya and later Malaysia were intended to be civic nation-states, in which all citizens had equal political rights, opportunities and responsibilities. Umno’s effort to forge a Malay ethnic nation-state in Malaya and later Malaysia ran contrary to the understandings reached in 1957 and 1963.

PH’s victory in GE14 and the commitment of its key component parties to the idea of a civic nation state brought about an abrupt end to the Umno project of an ethnic nation state. However, the PH victory has not fully resolved the issue but made the contestation more open. Umno, now the primary opposition party in parliament, remains committed to the idea of a Malay nation state, in which non-Malay citizenship will be tolerated but with the Malays occupying dominant positions in government.

This makes for “do-or-die battles” with potential to undermine stability and democracy in the country. An ethnic nation state, by definition, encourages zero-sum competition. Ethnic nation making invokes race, religion and language in negative fashion. Secularism, pluralism and liberalism become dirty words and concepts. Instead of building loyalty to the nation from minority ethnic groups, it encourages them to advocate political alternatives.

In contrast, the civic nation-state conception encourages positive win-win competition and cooperation. The energy of all citizens can be harnessed and channelled towards common national purposes. Greater unity and harmony can prevail. The idea of a civic nation state will enable multi-ethnic and multireligious societies like Malaysia to exist without fear of violent fragmentation.

Contrary to common wisdom, a civic nation state does not open the door to secession and more new states. In fact, by allowing different groups to stay together, it prevents further secessions and stabilises the political map. Des-pite the right to secede peacefully, the Scottish people and the Quebecois, for example, have opted to remain in the UK and Canada respectively, demonstrating political development and maturity in these countries.

To facilitate such a political development in Malaysia, Umno must change its stance. In some ways, it is possible to argue that it has missed an important opportunity to make sweeping changes. At the last Umno presidential election on June 30, the party elected a leader who is committed to regaining supremacy for Umno within BN and for Malays in Malaysia.

Arguing for a return to racial politics, Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi defeated Khairy Jamaluddin, who seemed intent on opening Umno to all races. The issue is not just opening Umno membership but a commitment to move towards a civic nation state, in which all citizens would be equal. Datuk Onn Jaafar, the founder and first president of Umno, realised that to be viable, Malaya must rest on a civic conception. Although he may have lost the battle 70 years ago, he and his idea of a civic nation in which all citizens have an equal stake remain very relevant today.

Although it may be difficult for exclusive ethnic parties to be ethnically blind in their orientations and policies, Umno must strive to support the effort to make Malaysia the home for all its citizens. That way, despite being in the opposition, it can make an important contribution to the country’s political development.

It may take time for Umno to change its policy, possibly even another general election in five years. Defeat in that election would highlight to the party that it is out of step with the population and that it has to change its course on national identity. Until that happens, the basis for the Malaysian nation will continue to be contested. An Umno victory in the next election would put the civic nation-state project in jeopardy. The PH government and civil society must do their utmost to realise that ideal when in power. That will not be easy. In comparison, changing government, as difficult as it was, may seem relatively easy. Changing ingrained political culture would be much more prolonged and difficult, requiring constant vigilance and representation.

The political culture over the past 70 years has been shaped by the racial politics practised in the country. People and leaders have been ingrained to think in racial terms. Umno’s continued commitment to racial politics and supremacy of the Malay race is not conducive to the country’s political development.

Ethnicity can continue to be important but should not be a determining factor. The present political map can be maintained. Although enjoying a high degree of autonomy, Sabah and Sarawak will continue to be part of Malaysia. Malays will not be sidelined. Affirmative action for the poor and less educated of all ethnicities should remain a priority in building a strong, united nation drawing on the talents of all of Malaysia’s citizenry.


Datuk Muthiah Alagappa is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at American University, Washington DC. He was the inaugural holder of the Tun Hussein Onn chair at ISIS Malaysia and was visiting professor at University of Malaya from 2014 to 2017. He will be resuming the position in January next year.

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