Saturday, 20 May 2017

Old Malaya, new Malaysia

An encounter, a recent study and a new book provide food for thought about what makes a true Malaysian.

LAST week, I decided to wear a simple blouse and knee-length skirt instead of my usual kebaya and batik sarong to work. I stopped by a local bank to run some errands.

The officer at the information desk greeted me in English and proceeded to assist me with my matters. A minute into the conversation, I was asked which country I was from. I was dumbfounded. I promptly answered her in Bahasa Malaysia and reassured her that I am, after all, a proud Malaysian.

She looked me up and down and said, “You are not dressed like a local woman, so I thought you were a foreigner.” That one day that I couldn’t be bothered to pull my sore biceps (I had an early morning gym session) into a kebaya, I was accused of being less of a Malaysian!

The incident got me thinking about what makes a true Malaysian. Is it simply in the language we speak, the way we dress, the rituals we practise?

A study commissioned by CIMB Foundation and conducted by Blavatnik School of Government and Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, tackled this national identity crisis in a systematic manner (to download the full report:

They surveyed 1,504 Malaysian citizens across gender, age groups and voting constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia, focusing on the three main ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese and Indian.

The most intriguing finding from the report is how we define the term “Malaysian” – for Malays, being Malaysian means being Malay, while respondents from other ethnic groups define being Malaysian as a more collective identity, by having more inter-ethnic interactions and relations.

I quote from the study “... Malays might be projecting their in-group ethnic identity onto the national identity, thus possibly conceiving of being Malaysian as being ‘the same thing’ as being Malay. Thus speaking in terms of being Malaysian to a Malay audience may not promote integration, and could potentially hinder it.”

It was further found that “respondents identified strongly with their religious groups, particularly the Muslims and the Hindus”.

This sub-section of the report is personally interesting to me, as through #bringbackthekebaya, I am an advocate for us Malaysians not to erase our culture when identifying ourselves with religion.

The study also highlights how minority groups feel about being Malaysian. Faced with discrimination, it was reported that “nearly half of Chinese respondents reported a strong desire to emigrate from Malaysia, while more than half of Indian respondents reported a strong willingness to participate in collective action.”

Relating the findings of this study to the incident above, I realised that I might be an outlier. I guess I still have my rose-tinted glasses on, where I wish to live in a Malaysia that is as clichéd as our “unity in diversity” tourism advertisements.

It would be interesting to view the data from the proposed second part of the study, where the research team aims to survey respondents from Sabah and Sarawak.

Lest we forget, as a country, we only became Malaysia in 1963.

Nation building is not simplistic. Race relations is a sensitive issue, especially in this month of May; yet as a country we have learnt to tolerate each other.

I personally think it’s time to “nudge” ourselves towards acceptance. The recommendations highlighted in the study should be implemented at the policy level, while at the same time Malaysians should also take the responsibility of reflecting on the kind of Malaysia that we want to live in and practise that compassion and acceptance in our daily lives. What makes me sad, however, is the fact that perhaps I was born too late to have witnessed this kind of Malaysia.

Having read Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim’s autobiography, I, KKK: The Autobiography of a Historian, I was made aware that we had better race relations in the early days of our nation’s birth.

We are, after all, the country that could. Prof Khoo and many other towering Malaysians have highlighted the fact that better race relations, a more liberal society and a desire for progress allowed them to not only become successful individuals but also contribute towards the nation, thus ensuring the nation’s success. Progress cannot come with us all being contented with our current situation; especially if we have regressed as a society.

Prof Khoo’s autobiography summed all this up beautifully: “The reality is that any new idea is considered wrong because it goes against prevailing opinion. No progress can ever be achieved in a situation like this.”

I personally think that we must do away with race- and religious-based politicking. We must re-set our aim towards a nation that is progressive, economically sound, and able to stand among developed nations of the world.

We can only do this if we work together, as Malaysians.

Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist and a runner and hopes to #bringbackthekebaya. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

Tags / Keywords: Lyana Khairuddin , columnist

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