Thinking Liberally

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Do we want peace or unity?

It is possible that the attempt to create unity and integration, or the imposition of a ‘national’ identity, is actually one of the causes of discord and disharmony.

LAST weekend my team and I were at Tasik Chini, Pahang with the 10 Ideas National Unity Youth Fellows who were selected for this year’s programme just a few weeks ago.

We arrived at Tasik Chini Resort on Friday afternoon.

On Saturday morning we visited Kampung Gumum, an Orang Asal village, to meet with the local community there in order to get a better glimpse of their lives and the challenges they face.

I am most grateful to Tok Batin Awang and the Rukun Tetangga Club for their hospitality. We had a good time mingling with the locals and they certainly made us feel at home.

The rest of the time was spent in workshops and discussions with the Youth Fellows. We covered quite a lot of topics, ranging from understanding the Federal Constitution to planning and running a media campaign.

I conducted a session on understanding classical liberal ideas. Interestingly, one of the Youth Fellows asked me a question that was also asked by last year’s group of Youth Fellows.

The question was, if liberalism is about choice, then what if people choose to live their lives separately from others and just among their own ethnic groups? If people liberally choose to live in separate groupings, wouldn’t that be detrimental to unity?

The issue of national identity is not an easy one to address, especially in the context of multicultural and multireligious Malaysia. That question is certainly a valid one. And it is also one that I myself am still thinking about. So let me now think aloud.

The general assumption that we make when formulating policies on national unity seems to be that the groupings and divisions are detrimental to the country. I am not convinced by this assumption.

Is it really wrong for people of different identities to live separately from each other? For example, if I am Malay, is it wrong if I go to Malay schools, attend a Malay university, live in a Malay village, work for a Malay firm, and have only Malay friends?

It would mean I live a life that is separate from non-Malay Malay­sians. But, if that is my choice and I do not harm anyone with that choice, what is wrong with it?

It may be detrimental to the traditional conception of unity, but I do not see how it is detrimental to the country if it results in peace among the citizens.

If we envision a liberal society for Malaysia, then we must consider the possibility of respecting the choices made by those who want to live lives parallel to others rather than with them.

This means, if birds of a feather choose to flock together, then so be it, as long as they do no harm to others. It may result in a Malaysia with multiple identities and groups of people living parallel lives. Yet it will be a peaceful coexistence and no one gets harmed. Surely that is a good outcome.

In fact, it would be better than having a Government that intervenes to create a national identity. Usually, it is the intervention that divides. The imposed intervention becomes the problem rather than solution.

We should really ask ourselves what is it that we actually want for Malaysia? Do we want unity? Do we want integration? Do we want harmony? Or peace?

The assumption behind many of our current policies seems to be that unity and integration will create peace and harmony. This is a problematic assumption. I am not sure if peace and harmony naturally come hand in hand with unity and integration.

Perhaps it is time we consider the possibility that the attempt to create unity and integration, or the imposition of a “national” identity, is actually one of the causes of discord and disharmony. The intervention is the problem, not segregation.

Wouldn’t it be more peaceful if people are simply allowed to live their lives the way they want to, including parallel to each other if they prefer, as long as they do not physically harm others?

Just look at the various interventions to create unity that we have seen up to now. For example, forcing people to speak a particular language, giving a legal definition of ethnicity, imposing an official understanding of religion, calling for the halting of diversity in the education system, and more. Have any of these really produced a better environment for our country today?

More important than that, why exactly do we see “unity” as the end game? Shouldn’t we put peace as the ultimate target instead?

If peace is our final destination, then perhaps unity is not really as important as we initially thought. Even if people choose to live segregated parallel lives, as long as they do no harm to each other, we can still get peace. Isn’t that is what matters the most?

In such a situation, the Govern­ment’s role is not to promote integration but to maintain peace. Authorities should intervene only when physical harm is caused. At all other times, we should be allowed to live peacefully in any way we want and the authorities should leave us alone.

Would that be too radical to envision for this country?

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs ( The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Wan Saiful Wan Jan , columnist

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