Can we move beyond talk of “unity” in racial terms towards being united for issues that matter, such as transparency and justice?
Last Thursday, I had an opportunity to highlight perspectives on national unity from the younger generation as one of the panellists at the National Unity Forum organised by the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (Asli).
It was an honour to be among such distinguished personalities such as YB Liew Chin Tong, Arthur Joseph Kurup, Zaim Mohzani, Faiz Ab Rahman and Michael Teoh. It was an honour, too, to be the only woman. We were all given 10 minutes to present our views, and here I would like to share mine with you.
Among the youths today, there is a general scepticism against the official narrative of “unity” as created by the government. In Malaysia, when we talk about “national unity”, it always comes with “conditions”: do not question, do not challenge – for the sake of “harmony”.
To many right-thinking Malaysians, this just doesn’t add up, when there are certain quarters still propagating the sentiment that non-Malays’ citizenship is a privilege, not a right. This is where the 1Malaysia narrative veers away from its ideal.
Why doesn’t it work? The problem is simple. Some of our political parties are race-based, with each party tasked to look after their own race. Does this model of governance work anymore?
But this is the language of the government and we should be aware of how concepts of so-called “unity” and “harmony” are actually being used by those in power to subdue dissenting voices.
Just recently, a day before Merdeka Day, Umno Supreme Council Member Ismail Sabri Yaakob asked Malays to unite by saying that “the race is divided into ‘Umno Malay’, ‘PAS Malays’, ‘PKR Malays’, and lately, ‘DAP Malays’. If we unite as one, others would not dare to challenge us.”
So based on this suggestion, “unity” is being used to strengthen one’s race within a nation (against other races?) as opposed to strengthening one’s nation as a whole – and if we have different views then we are “traitors”. Within the official narrative, there is little space for diversity in thought and values.
Youths, perhaps being just plain tired of the official narrative drummed into us since we could remember, are creating projects not so much with “unity” in mind – because that is already a given – but tackling the gaps that need addressing.
For example, Occupy Dataran as a movement to reclaim public spaces. Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur is a “public” park controlled by KL City Hall (DBKL), hence making it a non-public public park. People are not “merdeka” or “free” to use Dataran Merdeka, as Occupy Dataran participants were met with harassment and abuse whilst defending their right to be there.
The “occupiers” were not merely loitering at Dataran Merdeka but were organising talks and workshops. They experimented with participatory democracy through the People’s Assembly where anyone can give a talk, with simple ground rules established to facilitate the Assembly.
For example, if one agrees with a statement, then one raises their hands in the air. The People’s Assembly tried to imagine a new political culture beyond race, ideology and political affiliations. What if we’re race-less, what if we’re party-less? Are we then, less?
Another example is Epic Homes, an organisation that brings young people together to volunteer to build houses for orang asli communities. They come together for an issue – the lack of proper housing for the orang asli – and do something about it.
Projek Rumah Ibadat Kita is a community mapping project by kids in Brickfields, KL. These kids come from various religious backgrounds and map the religious institutions found in their own neighbourhood – Brickfields. Through this, they get to know about other faiths and bridge that gap.
These are some of the citizen initiatives done by young people and these initiatives are often non-hierarchical, non-racial. These are just a bunch of young people trying to make Malaysia a better place for all.
We are also beginning to see grassroots movements to re-claim the meaning of unity from the power structures that defined them. For example, as a response to the abuse towards certain religious institutions in recent years, Malaysia for Malaysians organises walks in the park, giving flowers or balloons to other Malaysians as a sign of solidarity, that we are all Malaysians and that “we are with you”. This is a new narrative celebrating the country’s social and religious diversity.
Why are there more of these groups growing? We are global citizens. With social media and the Internet, information is more readily accessible than ever before.
We are exposed to what’s happening around the world and this gives us a framework to look at what’s happening here in Malaysia. Young people want a new way of doing politics. And often, they are defining what being Malaysian means themselves.
So, moving forward, “National Unity” seems like an anachronism trapped in the past. I don’t know of any other countries in the world that still talks about national unity in the 21st Century. Our national discourse has hit a road block – we’ve been talking about it for the past 50, 60 years and we’re still obsessed about it.
But actually, the more we talk about “unity”, the more we are highlighting our differences. Because when we talk about unity, it is always in reference to a threat, and in Malaysia, that threat is usually another race, or another religion.
Unity means much more than getting together at open houses or watching Merdeka ads, Raya ads, Chinese New Year ads or whatever ads there are out there. Unity is about coming together based on issues that concern us as Malaysian citizens.
Let’s have a moment and think about this: Think about dissent as the new symbol for unity, as opposed to consent. We decide what we want to be united for: things that matter.
And, most likely, we’ll see Malaysians standing up for fundamental issues: transparency, equality and justice.
This is what, to me at least, it means to be “united”. Selamat Hari Malaysia.
- Sharyn believes that cultures adorn a society, much like a cloth tapestry. The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.