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Sharing The Nation

Published: Sunday September 7, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday September 7, 2014 MYT 11:14:31 AM

Reassert the ties that bind us

Malaysia was built on an ideal – that the only way this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country can thrive and prosper is if all its people choose to live together peacefully and share the nation. 

THIS country belongs to all of its citizens. No one group owns it. Tunku Abdul Rahman pledged it. Tun Razak Hussein reiterated it. Our political leaders have all believed in it and it is on this basis that the independence era ethnic-based political parties came together in a coalition to run this country.

When this consociational arrangement broke down with the race riots of 1969, our political leaders came out with a formula that expanded the three-party Alliance into a grand coalition of 13 political parties from the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak. The New Economic Policy was adopted to redress the historical injustice of a majority population left behind economically. The Rukunegara was drawn up to rebuild a sense of national unity and purpose – of a government and its citizens committed to building a democratic, just and progressive society with a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions.

It was a promising vision. But this has broken down as well. For years now, ethno-supremacists have cynically used race and religion to manufacture fear and distrust to rebuild their declining support base and justify their unending demand for more and more entitlements. Dissenting ­voices within are excluded or silenced and those outside are demonised. These goings-on have battered the foundations of this grand coalition and crushed its centrist positioning in Malaysian politics.

There is a regime crisis today and our Malaysia is pulled apart by belligerent attempts of ethno-supremacists groups who insist that this country belongs only to Malays and Muslims – nay, to only Malays and Muslims who think like them. Others are labelled as pendatang and trespassers who should forever remain grateful to the Malays who have generously hosted them. Liberal Malays are regarded as traitors to race and religion.

It is thus not surprising that discontentment is nearing boiling point today. Significant segments of the population, including the people of Sabah and Sarawak, feel their rights are being trampled upon with impunity. More and more citizens are speaking out their resentment openly as they are made to feel unwelcome and unneeded in this country. On the social media, insults and invectives fly back and forth with no regard to facts or figures, to reality or rational thinking: Angry and obsessed with destroying, rather than building.

Instead of bridging this growing divide, some ministers are shockingly taking the side of the belligerents while others remain silent. To those despondent about the current state of affairs, this silence is seen as acquiescence.

It is no wonder that as we mark our 57th anniversary of Merdeka and prepare for Malaysia Day, many Malaysians – groups, indivi­duals, corporations – have launched campaigns, activities and advertising blitz, urging that we celebrate the diversity of Malaysia, that we uphold the Constitution and the Rukunegara.

This is the rakyat speaking out in the face of rising extremism – that we wish to live together and share this nation, that our multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural heritage is our wealth, our source of strength and prosperity, not a threat to our existence.

What I see in all these national unity and moderate Malaysia campaigns and messaging is a clear re-assertion that Malaysia belongs to all and a concerted effort to remind us of the wisdom of our forefathers who chose to devise ways in which we could live together and accommodate our diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, within a secular democratic system.

There’s the online campaign Kita Malaysia that is creating a buzz with its call to action to embrace and celebrate our diversity and differences and drown out the ­bigots. There is the much welcomed The Star campaign on Moderate Malaysia that has even moved the Malaysian flagship label British India to use the group picture of the newspaper’s progressive columnists as the store window display.

There’s the smart Astro Kitasama national blood donation drive. There’s the beautifully nostalgic photo exhibition of Kenny Loh’s “Born in Malaysia” launched by the group Malaysians for Malaysia in Publika.

There’s Negara-ku and its national campaign to reassert the values and principles of the Federal Constitution and Rukunegara. And there are the wonderfully touching “national unity” commercials by Malaysian corporate giants on television and YouTube. The fact that both Maxis and DiGi came out with similarly endearing “We’re Family” videos on how Malaysians call everyone “macha, uncle, abang, makcik” just show how we all feel the urgent need to reassert the ties that bind us.

These are all, of course, welcoming and heartening. But whether this annual outburst of “love thy nation” is enough momentum to bring about the change needed to delegitimize the politics of hate, fear, bigotry and exclusion remains uncertain.

But one thing is clear. All those behind these campaigns to keep Malaysia inclusive are telling our political leaders that if they do not have the political courage nor the will to build a Malaysia where each one of us can call home and feel welcomed in it, then we the rakyat will do it.

As one early post on the Kita Malaysia Facebook plaintively lamented: “I love this country but this government does not love me.”

I have many friends who talk about their unrequited love for this country. There is so much to love about Malaysia, not least the diversity of its people, food, and culture, its jungles, seas, and mountains, and the still strong traditional bonds of family and friendship.

What so pains many of us is the fact that the extremist voices, with access to funds to conduct all manner of activities and with no boundaries to their catalogue of brazen insults and bigotry, appear as if they are supported by this govern­ment, as never before. And we see the impact today of the space and legitimacy given to them.

One public opinion survey shows the majority of Malay youths believe Malaysians joining the barbarism of Isis in Syria and Iraq are in fact jihadists, not terrorists. On Facebook, pictures of young students dressed as jihadists at a boarding school in Kedah are making the rounds. A friend from Sarawak showed me a chilling Facebook post from “Jemaah ISIS Malaysia” that pronounced Sabah and Sarawak as infidel states and it is therefore mandatory (wajib) for Muslims to “slaughter” the rakyat there. Another friend’s son reported an imam at Friday prayers in London urging Malaysian students to embark on a jihad by going to Syria to join Isis.

If these latest developments, and the already confirmed cases of Malaysians fighting and dying in Syria and the arrest of others planning to embark on terrorist actions in this country are not enough to rouse this government to put a stop to the politics of hate and bigotry, then I fear what awaits us all.

This government continues to send all the wrong signals. Is it not mind-boggling that while those who preach hate thrive, a law professor in the country’s premier university is charged with sedition for his legal opinion and call to politicians to follow the rule of law in ousting a Mentri Besar?

As long as extremist discourse in this country continues unabated and unchallenged by those in power­ful and influential positions, then we should not be surprised at the escalating radicalisation we find in our midst.

Many of us believe the situation in this country is dire, a situation engineered by political leaders for political gain. Thus the sense of urgency among many ordinary Malaysians and corporations who feel compelled to stand up and speak out to challenge those who plot to divide us.

As we celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day, my deepest prayer is for good sense to prevail, and for the voices that want to build this nation to triumph over those out to destroy what we have built and stood for together, all these years.

> Zainah Anwar is the internationally acclaimed and award-winning co-founder and former executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS Forum) and the ­co-founder and director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She is a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Malaysia; nationhood

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