The dimensions for conflict perpetually vexing this strange political creation that the world knows as Malaysia are many. And they often go unmentioned — even unidentified and therefore unmanaged. There are various reasons for this.
First, to state the obvious, racialism, noted in the Constitution and adopted by the political parties in principle, in polemic and in practice, has obviously captivated the minds of Malaysians. Most of what passes for political discussion in the country today would stop any serious discussion in its tracks in most other places in the world for their lack of self-examination and for their disregard of the rights of others. Racial commentaries have become second nature to most Malaysians. This cuts across all ethnic groups.
This is also a country where religious claims are hard to distinguish in effect from racial diatribes. As a rule, while one cannot gain racial membership by choice, one can do so where religious affiliation is concerned. Religions, however, tend to overreach in their denotational claims. When power and political ambitions are involved, differences in doctrine and practices within the group are sharpened. Thus, since there are actively proselytising Islamist parties in Malaysia, silent but real tension must necessarily exist between what constitutes Muslimness and what constitutes Malayness. Past definitions of Malayness compete against present ones.
Within the Chinese or Indian communities in the country, just to mention the larger communities, it may surprise many to realise that cultural and religious differences are substantial as well.
As we go beyond identity politics, we enter a much more exciting world filled with dimensions of conflict that are often ignored. Perhaps because the country came into being in the midst of a guerrilla war against the Communist Party of Malaya, and was granted independence by a retreating colonial power caught in the global Cold War, the class dimension in social and political analysis was discouraged and downplayed.
While it is true that many nation-building measures undertaken in the early decades of nationhood were left-of-centre in principle, racial considerations tended to overwhelm their rationale. Nevertheless, health services in Malaysia, because of their class-conscious origins, continue — to a level envied by neighbouring countries — to provide much-needed aid to its citizens, whatever their class and ethnic background. This is not to deny that logistical challenges in certain areas do work against the general welfare principle.
But Chin Peng is dead and buried, and the international Cold War has been over for 30 years. The reasons why class parameters have not overwhelmed race and religion as the pillars for public discourses in Malaysia must be sought elsewhere. We do not need to look very far. Six decades of racial politics are hard to erase from the institutions and from the minds of Malaysians, and the resistance to any movement towards a new basis for nation-building discourse runs deep. It is in the way political parties function, it is in the way the arms (and legs) of government function and it is the way journalists (and most sadly, academicians) function.
The cultural diversity we find in Malaysia goes beyond race and religion, however. The political — and therefore cultural — history of the parts of the peninsula and of Sabah and Sarawak exhibits this. All these parts were controlled in very different ways, and when the British allowed for all of them to be put together, they realised after the failure with the Malayan Union that federalism was the only possible answer. It was the right answer because it promised acceptance of cultural diversity. Without that federal structure, the values of Kelantan would clash with those of Penang, Selangor, Perak, Kedah, Melaka and Johor, not to mention Sabah and Sarawak. But once that structure was denied, and that has happened over time, clashes in values and ideology worsened.
The tension between the rural and the urban can easily be subsumed analytically under economic paradigms.
The deep diversity of the country is further borne out by the fact that Malaysia is two-tiered, comprised of Sabah, Sarawak and the Federation of Malaya (with Singapore proving too different to be integrated without threat of violence breaking out, when it left in 1965). The Federation of Malaya was — and is — a federation unto itself.
Looking beyond the national borders, we see that the communities that make up the Malaysian population associate themselves with different corners of the world. The Indian, the Chinese, the Muslim and the Christian worlds — largely meaning the whole world — all stake a claim on the identities of Malaysians. But instead of embracing all of this, instead of saying “Malaysia, Truly the World”, Malaysians have been led to be near-sighted and to seek fault with whatever is different from them in their vicinity. This is a game with no winners.
To cut a long story short, Malaysia is a country made up of parts that each has its own historical experiences, often defined from afar. The fact that the parts have been able to come together relatively peacefully is a commendable feat. But the prerequisite for that feat has been the federal structure, which guaranteed the cultural space needed for a Bangsa Malaysia to develop. That space has been diminishing, pushed by racial and religious agendas in denial of the cultural and historical diversity of the country.
Once the country can admit that the dimensions of conflict stretch beyond race and religion, perhaps then it can start to attack the real issues at hand. These are often about wealth and opportunity distribution among the citizenry as a whole; regional sentiments and autonomy; and ideological and cultural differences.
Once they realise how happily diverse they are, then they may realise that giving due space to others is the best bet for peaceful coexistence. That is a much more promising attitude to adopt in interacting with others than being tolerant or even being accepting. The coming together of people is best done slowly and through gradual realisation of mutual benefits.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His forthcoming book is As Empires Fall: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2020).