Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The things we share in common by Chandra Muzaffar

At the beginning of a new year, it is good to remember the many things that we share in common in our multi-ethnic society which sometimes appears so divided.

I have described in brief the ten areas that unite us Malaysians. They are arranged in a certain order here. There may be other areas which are equally important that may have escaped my attention.

National Identity.

All of us identify ourselves as Malaysian in relation to people from other countries. It is an expression of our national identity. In this regard, the ‘One Malaysia’ concept is an attempt to give meaning to this sense of identity by promoting institutions, activities and programmes on a massive scale that emphasise oneness. Klinik 1Malaysia and Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BRIM) would be among the many examples.


Our national flag, the Jalur Gemilang, our national anthem, the Negaraku, and our national flower, the Bunga Raya, would be three outstanding examples of national symbols that all of us Malaysians identify with.


The Yang Di-Pertuan Agong --- our Constitutional Monarch --- is a national institution insofar as his Office transcends the religious and cultural boundaries within Malaysian society. He is also above party politics. Parliament is another institution that belongs to the entire nation. The Judiciary would be in the same category. The rule of law, though a process, can also be considered an institution that all Malaysians can identify with.

Apart from these institutions, one should also empahsise the family as an institution that all Malaysians cherish. It is the most fundamental unit of society, vital for the well-being of any nation.

Documents of Destiny.

All the above institutions, with the exception of the family, are recognised in the Malaysian Constitution which is our primary document of destiny. The Constitution takes into account the historical basis of the nation and its contemporary setting; the position and the interests of the various communities; the rights of the citizen and the obligations of the State. It is a fair, balanced document that all Malaysians can identify with.

The Constitution should be read in conjunction with the Rukunegara, our national charter, another document of destiny. Its five principles and five goals go beyond ethnicity. They resonate with all Malaysians.
So does Wawasan 2020, Vision 2020. It’s our third document of destiny. The nine strategic challenges of Wawasan 2020 elaborate upon some of the goals of the Rukunegara and add certain new ones. Again, no Malaysian will dispute the relevance of Wawasan which is a clear articulation of the nation’s mission.

National Language.

The Constitution acknowledges Malay as the national and official language of the country. Since the Malay language has played the role of a lingua franca, a medium for inter-ethnic communication, for centuries, it is eminently qualified to facilitate interaction in today’s multi-ethnic Malaysia. Greater efforts should be made to ensure that the language becomes the first language of all Malaysians, regardless of their cultural background. In this connection, it makes sense to call Malay, Bahasa Malaysia, for the purpose of promoting national integration, just as Indonesian nationalists deliberately named their national language, Bahasa Indonesia, with the same objective in mind. Bahasa Malaysia, as a term for popular usage, does not in any way undermine the linguistic character of the Malay language.


Like Bahasa Malaysia, sports also facilitates interaction among Malaysians of different ethnic affiliations. They come together spontaneously to support our sportswomen and sportsmen, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, sports has succeeded, as few other endeavours have, in lowering ethnic barriers in our society.


If sports is a unifier, so is food. Malaysians share a common passion --- some would say obsession --- for food. They delight in the cuisines of communities other than their own. As a result, multi-ethnic dishes have evolved which are uniquely Malaysian. In their love for the variety of cuisines available in this food paradise of ours, Malaysians have found a common bond.


Though in our formal traditional attires we differ quite a bit, our working clothes are strikingly similar, depending upon our occupational stratum. At the same time, the batik has acquired a multi-ethnic clientele, just as many non-Malay women today don the elegant baju kurung. Even before all this, the legendary sarung had ceased to be associated with a particular community.

Attitudes and Values.

Beyond attire, food and sports, there are attitudes and values which we Malaysians share. We are a friendly people. On the whole we are helpful and hospitable. We are tolerant and accommodative.

There are many other common values embodied in our religious and cultural philosophies which have not been emphasised enough in our education system and in the popular media. Malaysians have not been made aware that in spite of all our religious and cultural differences, we do share certain moral standards and ethical principles. All our religious and cultural philosophies require us to live in harmony with nature, to be just and fair to our fellow human beings, to be honest and upright, to be kind and compassionate.

Of course, in reality it is not just good values that we share. We are also guilty of common vices. In a multi-ethnic society like ours we witness all the while how both virtue and vice transcend ethnic boundaries. However, as the late Syed Hussein Alatas reminded us, “It is not the solidarity of vices but the unity of virtues that we should encourage.”


Finally, what holds us together as a people is a common appreciation of our rich diversity. Every Malaysian knows that there are so many different languages, cultures, customs and religions in our society. This tremendous diversity in our social landscape is a reality that no Malaysian can ignore. It has shaped our individual and collective consciousness for decades. It has become one of our most enduring invisible psychological bonds.

While we are conscious of what unites us, we are also deeply cognisant of what keeps us apart. At the most fundamental level, we have different concepts of what the nation’s identity is and how it evolved. Our perspectives on politics, the economy, culture and ethnic relations are often coloured by the ethnic lenses we wear. Our differences extend to our solutions and our remedies for the challenges that confront us.

But as we commence a new year, let us focus for once upon what unites us as a nation and as a people.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.

Petaling Jaya.

1 January 2013.

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