CLOSING THE ETHNIC GAP by Chandra Muzaffar
The reaction of a significant segment of the Malay community to Karpal's Singh's remarks about the power and authority of the Sultan of Perak and his earlier comments about the role of the Regent of Kelantan is indicative of the strength of the community's attachment to the monarchy. It is an attachment that is intertwined with the community's perspective on the history and identity of the land. For the Malays, the notion of 'Tanah Melayu' is intimately linked to the Sultanates which represent a genealogy of historical continuity that helps to define the Malay position in Malaysian society today.
Very few non-Malays appreciate Malay sentiments about the land and its identity. Not many of them understand the depth of Malay attachment to the monarchy. This is partly because they have never really accepted the fact that the contemporary Malaysian state is to some extent at least conterminous with the Malay polities of the past.
It explains why in spite of a general acceptance of Malay as the national language , Chinese and Indian Malaysians in the sixties adopted a lukewarm attitude towards its implementation in the school system. There was no enthusiastic endorsement of the legitimacy of Malay as the nation's lingua franca. When Malay was vigorously enforced from the early seventies in the public sector there was a great deal of resentment within the non-Malay population. This is why even today, the millions and millions of non-Malays who are fluent in Malay use it only for functional purposes and have not developed an emotional bond with the language. Their attitude is due in part to the failure of the Malay elite itself to accord the language its pride of place in the life of the nation.
If there was little empathy for Malay, there is perhaps even less understanding among non-Malays and non-Muslims of how critical the other more powerful symbol of Malay identity--- Islam--- is to the community's self-image and self esteem. Because of the intimate nexus between Islam and Malayness, there is often a tendency to associate the religion with the identity of the land. What is important is how this identity expresses itself, which is a challenge that the Malay-Muslim community itself will have to resolve. A knee jerk reaction within a segment of the non-Muslim community to any and every manifestation of Islamic identity will only undermine the quest for a more inclusive and universal approach to the religion.
Just as certain dominant non-Malay, non-Muslim attitudes towards the Malay attempt to preserve its identity have not been helpful, there are also certain sentiments within the Malay community which are inimical to ethnic relations. At the recent Malay Consensus Congress in Johor Bahru for instance attended by some 2100 delegates from 200 NGOs, there was a marked lack of understanding of how the present generation of non-Malays feels about social justice and fair play, or the lack thereof. There was little appreciation of the fact that the Malaysian Constitution which protects the position of Islam, the Malay language, the Sultans and the Malay community in general also promises equality to all Malaysian citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin or religious affiliation.
It is equally sad that in articulating the special position of the Malays which rests to some extent upon its indigenous status, the Congress made no attempt to champion the needs and aspirations of the non-Malay, non-Muslim indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak and of the Peninsula. In a situation where these communities ---specifically the Kadazans of Sabah and the Dayaks of Sarawak--- have become pivotal to the very survival of the UMNO led government in Kuala Lumpur, one would have thought that their interests would have also figured in the deliberations of the Congress. After all, their position as indigenous communities is also safeguarded in the Constitution.
How does one narrow this gap in sentiments and attitudes between a segment of the Malay community and a section of the non-Malay community? This is a crucial pre-condition for reducing ethnic polarization and forging national unity. To start with, Malaysians in all walks of life, especially those within the influential stratum, should adopt a more holistic perspective on the Constitution. In other words, they should understand that the Constitution is not just about rights and equality but also about the historical basis of the nation. More important, we should connect with the underlying spirit of the Constitution which is both dynamic and evolutionary. It is this spirit which the Rukunegara captures through its five principles and five goals enunciated in August 1970. They are in fact the guiding principles and goals of the nation as it evolves from a Malay polity to a genuinely non-ethnic motherland for all its citizens. In this regard, it is a pity that the five goals of the Rukunegara --- a just, united, democratic, liberal and progressive society --- have been largely ignored since the early eighties in both our education system and in the public media. The Rukunegara has been further reinforced by Wawasan 2020 proclaimed in February 1991 which again underscores an all-embracing multi-ethnic future for all Malaysians.
While emphasizing the Constitution, Rukunegara and Wawasan 2020 through social education may help to narrow the gap in sentiments and attitudes between the communities, there is perhaps also a need to broaden one's understanding of citizenship. In multi-ethnic societies in particular, the responsibilities that accompany citizenship should be given as much weight as the rights that are inherent in the concept. What this means in our context is that the non-Malay citizen has a responsibility to understand and empathise with the history and identity of the land and the characteristics associated with it such as its language, religion and the monarchical system. By the same token, as non-Malays demonstrate a commitment to the responsibilities of citizenship, Malays should also appreciate the significance of equality as the indispensable attribute of citizenship that all are entitled to. Of course, there are also shared responsibilities of citizenship from protecting the environment to combating corruption to reducing relative deprivation that all Malaysians should fulfil.
A deeper awareness of the responsibilities of citizenship is linked to yet another dimension of inter-ethnic relations that is seldom highlighted in multi-ethnic societies. It is something we have alluded to in this article: the importance of empathy between the communities. Empathy at the tangible level demands that Chinese business people take concrete steps to encourage Malays, Indians, Kadazans and Dayaks to participate in small and medium enterprises while Malay bureaucrats undertake to induct more non-Malays including Kadazans and Dayaks into the higher echelons of the civil service. When inter-ethnic empathy is expressed in this manner, it is quite possible that over time the psychological gap between the communities will close.
Underlying empathy is of course the principle of justice which is indisputably a vital prerequisite for forging better ties between communities in any multi-ethnic society. Invariably, justice in most multi-ethnic societies is viewed through one's own ethnic prism. The time has come to develop a transcendent perspective on justice --- a perspective that goes beyond one's own community. When non-Malays see the Malay position on the historical identity of the land and its symbols and institutions as just, and when Malays regard the non-Malay aspiration for equality as just, we would have reached a new level in our understanding of justice.
For true justice is not only universal; it has to be rooted in concrete reality.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
8 May 2008
[JUST] International Movement For A Just World 2007