By Murray Hunter
With the Year of the Rat approaching on January 25 to be celebrated not by just Malaysia’s Chinese but traditionally the whole country, the vice-principal of SMK Pusat Bandar Puchong 1 school recently demanded that Lunar New Year decorations be removed from the school.
That is an ominous sign in a polyglot country whose races traditionally have celebrated each other’s holidays. Although in the quite recent past Malays, Chinese, Indians and the other peoples of Malaysia celebrated Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Christmas and Deepavali together as a symbol of unity, this is now forbidden.
It fits, however, with other growing attacks on minority religions and cultures. Despite the fact that freedom of worship is enshrined in Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution, that freedom is under threat along with a larger threat against non-Malays.
Although these pressures have been increasing, they are becoming disturbing. A high-ranking Islamic official is arguing Malaysia should be exclusively for the Malays, contrary to the constitution and principles of Islam. The education system is increasingly being used as a propaganda tool to spread racism and distorted views of Islam. The rule of law is not the same for all, where designated people are treated differently by police.
The themes and arguments within social discussion and outcomes of governance in Malaysia today set the country apart from much of the rest of the world community. Putrajaya’s failure to sign the United Nation’s International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 2018 put it in the company of Dominica, South Sudan, Myanmar and North Korea. Concern is growing that institutionalized racism has put the country in a category with the old South African Apartheid regime, which it once vigorously opposed.
Today, government policy, decision-making, leadership and institutional development are all influenced by forces controlling political outcomes that appear more irrational and dysfunctional as time goes on. The divisive ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) narratives are now implanted deeply into the assumptions and beliefs of the ruling elite’s psyche. Police are using the court system to suppress alternative points of view by banning closed-door meetings of legally registered societies, members of a governing coalition party are arrested on alleged terrorist links to a defunct organization, and the prime minister uses innuendo to threaten sectarian retaliation against a community group.
These beliefs are heavily skewing political decision making. This cognitive dissonance has been destructive upon community relations, nation-building, national culture, and even the Malaysian concept of nationhood itself.
Thus there is a growing national psychosis that has taken reform off the national agenda, as reform challenges the ruling elites’ view of reality. The reform promised by Pakatan Harapan when it took power in May of 2018 now is feared as an attack on authority, status, prestige, and the very security of those in power, as it was prior to the election on the part of the United Malays National Organization. Those fears are currently projected onto the Democratic Action Party, an ethnic Chinese-dominated member of the ruling coalition.
Symptoms of this psychosis are strewn around the national narrative, which has become an instrument of exclusion, where the roles of groups working towards independence have been largely rewritten to serve the perceptions of the leaders of today. The aspirations of Sabahans, Sarawakians, and Orang Asli (the true indigenous people), have been excluded.
This was seen in one of the final directives given by the ex-education minister Maszlee Malik before he was sacked for appointing a non-Sarawakian, Kamal Mat Salih, as chairman of the board of directors of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, which has led to criticism and outrage.
As the demand to remove the Lunar New Year decorations shows, today’s narratives are focused on severing empathetic ties between ethnic groups, replacing them with a biased single narrative. Given emphasis on “true Islam” in government schools, more than two generations of Malays now behave according to the beliefs and values incorporated within these narrow vistas of reality. The current national narratives completely fail to encompass any evolving aspirations that promote any semblance of national unity.
What is missing are any aspirations about the dreams on which the nation was founded. An alternative sense of identity has crept in – divisiveness, exclusion and hate. The country now lives within a psychic prison that is full of illusions about enemies that don’t exist. People are suffering from hallucinations of Jewish plots, Christian plots and Chinese plots.
In government, the centralization of decision making, often within secretive circumstances indicates fear of scrutiny. This paranoia is displayed in the way ministers attack those who expose their shortcomings. This depressive display of force has been nurtured on the assumption that ‘we are the law’. Within Malay society, ‘Malay unity’ means that all must agree to the views and ideas of the elite. Dissent is considered disloyalty. Challenging the teaching khat, or Muslim calligraphy and Jawi – Arabic script – in schools is akin to an attack on the national language. Those who have alternative views are the enemy.
Racism and cultural imperialism have become embedded within Malaysian culture to the extent of delusion. It is now ingrained into the psyche. Racism, however, has also become cover for deep corruption arising from discriminatory policies like the New Economic Policy (NEP). The anxiety generated by the ‘lazy Malay’ being raped and plundered by other groups fallacy revived by Mahathir from British colonial times was its justification.
The ruling elite has always been projected as Malaysia’s savior although this projection is more about resolving intra-Malay political and power rivalries, than inter-racial conflict. It’s all been a convenient fabrication for maintaining power, severely impairing Malaysia maturing as a nation.
Ketuanan Melayu must be seen for what it really is; a defense mechanism against change. The irony is that it is not protecting and enhancing a rich Malay culture, but rather gutting it to the mercy of some alien tribal desert culture. The imposition of Arabism has destroyed much of the richness in a Malay culture that was once fondly treasured, even by non-Malays. Many traditional Malay traditions and artforms have been discouraged and even banned, under the arbitrary declaration that they are un-Islamic.
These hardline Islamic policies are taking root throughout government institutions, leading to the belief that the more one takes on the artifacts of Arabism, the better a Muslim he or she will be. Reciting Rukun Negara – Malay national principles – would be much more appropriate than reciting prayers before government events and meetings.
Curing Malaysia’s national psychosis can only come from reverting to the assumptions, beliefs and values that were around when the nation of Malaysia was created. This means breaking up the fallacies that are hindering the pursuit of nationhood, including that public enterprise can do what private enterprise can’t. This is where the elite have gained their ill-gotten wealth and most state economic development corporations, and their subsidiaries are bedrocks of corruption.
Malay and other indigenous cultures originated from three distinct sources. Those indigenous to Tanah Melayu (the Malay Peninsula), Sabah and Sarawak, those who migrated to Malaysia from the Nusantara archipelago, and those who migrated to Malaysia while the Sultanates were riverine rather than territorially defined.
Some of the migrants from outside of Nusantara over the centuries from China and South Asia formed a unique Baba culture that has co-existed with Malay culture for centuries. The new Arabized cultural traits and inwardly politically defined Islamic view of the world have become a fence of exclusion. This is pushing younger Chinese into a China admiration syndrome which holds China’s accomplishments in awe, which China is now clandestinely exploiting for its own advantage. Expect this to become much more pronounced over the next few years.
Malay culture started to change when the cikgu (teachers) and civil servants were replaced within UMNO by an opportunistic rent-seeking Malay class and when Mahathir and his then-ally, Anwar Ibrahim, Islamized the government and civil service. This was also the time of the birth of crony capitalism which guaranteed the gentry would rule over the rest. The rule of law became we are the law, where police need special permission to interview anyone seen as being a member of the gentry in any investigation.
However, the constructed truths created and manipulated by those in power have always depended upon economic prosperity. The government handed out millions of ringgit to the people, gave out privileges and extended credit. Affluence bought silence, it kept the opposition weak, and enhanced the image of the government as being benevolent.
Government budgetary and fiscal problems, economic downturn, and rising cost of living are making it much harder for any government to placate the people, as has been done traditionally for decades. It's going to be much more difficult to buy into power in the future.
None of the present political parties, either alone or in any combination can remedy this national psychosis. Bersatu cabinet members have shown their disdain for transparency, in honoring their pledges, and have been implementing their own agendas. PKR ministers have been enjoying the trappings of office. They are changed people from the days they were in opposition.
The Malaysian Malaysia dream of Tunku Abdul Rahman is fading away into a Wahabi state with all the tribal trimmings, pushed by the Malay-centric parties on the people.
The only hope for a cure is for intellectuals, activists, writers, lawyers and other professional people, members of royal families, along with ordinary citizens, led by those who once experienced a Malaysian Malaysia to come together to initiate change.
This doesn’t have to immediately become a political movement, but a diversity of social and cultural organizations that refocus the narratives back to the old Nusantara values, society once cherished. This movement could advocate de-Arabizing the Malay language and returning to Islam Hadhari (today) with its wider universal values. Kampongs need revitalization, where mosques become centers of vocational and community education. Cottage industry can be revitalized to develop local sustainable economies. This would also mean dissolving state economic development corporations and their subsidiary companies that are full of corruption and taking market space away from local entrepreneurs.
The states need their sovereignty back. They need to campaign for local government and Citizen Development Committee elections, so that as many people as possible can participate in some level of governance. History needs to be taught as it really was. A country without a deep sense of history is a country without a soul.
If such a movement could ever gain momentum, some of the old political partisans from the PKR, DAP, and political forces in Sabah would come onboard. This is not an impossibility. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party made a successful debut in Thailand’s general election last year, and is very quickly becoming a mass social movement aimed at changing Thailand’s current political paradigm.
Murray Hunter is a Southeast Asia-based development specialist and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.