At diverse crossroads


  • Nation
  • Sunday, 29 Mar 2015

Cutting across cultures: Dr Asma and Sim sharing their views in the talk on Evolving Cultural Assumption and the Language of Politics.

Malaysia needs to look for a common ground if it is to improve its race relations.

WHEN Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said there was a “Chinese tsunami” in the last general election, some were offended and hurt for different reasons.

Some felt it was inappropriate and unhealthy in multiracial Malaysia to single out and pick on the Chinese; while those on the other side lashed out with “Apa Lagi Cina Mahu” (What More Do The Chinese Want) meaning they felt the Chinese were ungrateful not to vote for Barisan Nasional.

Voter turnout was a whopping 84.8%. Although Barisan won 133 seats in parliament compared to Pakatan Rakyat’s 89 which allowed it easily to form the federal government, when it came popular vote, Barisan secured only 48% compared to Pakatan’s 52%.

Crunching these figures, Centre for Strategic Engagement (CENSE) director Rita Sim points out that 50.21% of the popular votes for Pakatan came from the Chinese and only 36.37% of the Malays voted for them.

On the Barisan side, she says 78.51% of their popular votes came from the Malays, and only 12.63% from the Chinese.

“If you look at this very carefully today, you will understand why Malaysian poli­tics has become so divisive and reached the level it is at today,” she said in her talk on Evolving Cultural Assumption and the Language of Politics.

“The Barisan side would want to try and win over the Chinese votes in the next general election but they will have to protect and preserve their Malay votes to make sure that this does not go over to Pakatan. They want to pull in more Malay votes if possible, because there is no guarantee the Chinese votes would come back.

“On the other side, it is the opposite. You have Pakatan trying to get the Malay votes. Pakatan’s votes came mostly from the Chinese and only 36% of their popular vote were from the Malays.

“PAS is saying Malay votes come in because of their party,” she says.

So to win more Malay support, PAS is going all out in pushing for the hudud law in Kelantan. But this is at the cost of Pakatan losing Chinese votes.

With the pull on opposite ends, Pakatan’s loose coaliton of DAP, PKR and PAS seem to be unravelling and coming apart.

Sim believes the “huge contestation” to win votes is one of the reasons politics has become so divisive in Malaysia.

“It is very interesting but hopefully we all won’t suffer in this great contestation,” she says.

In her talk, Sim also discusses the culture and concerns of the Chinese community.

She points out that by virtue of being a Malaysian Chinese, this already means that person belongs to a significant minority which comes up to 24.2% (seven million) of the country’s population.

The Malaysian Chinese, she stresses, are not a homogeneous group.

Some are Chinese-speaking and educated in Chinese schools making them Chinese literate; while others are “bananas” (yellow on the outside but white inside) who think, speak, read and write in English and are not Chinese literate; and then there is a third group that overlaps the two and they are trilingual and growing bigger.

One notable change, Sim says, is that in the past, about 95% who went to the Chinese schools here were ethnic Chinese, but these days Malays and Indian children make up 15% of the enrolment in Chinese schools.

“So the cross cultural ‘things’ are starting to emerge,” she says.

However, total enrolment numbers have dropped.

In the year 2000, there were 623,000 students in Chinese schools but last year that figure dropped to 571,000.

Sim says this could be due to various reasons like the low birth rate among the Chinese or parents sending them to private schools instead.

Because of the interest in China and Mandarin, a number of non-Malays in the country have now become fluent in Mandarin including the Prime Minister’s son Norashman.

Sim says when Norashman went on the radio and spoke fluent Mandarin, the older generation were impressed while the younger generation got offended.

When Astro ran a Chinese New Year advertisement recently with both Malay and Chinese lyrics and sung by both races, the reaction was similar.

“So we are wondering whether the younger Chinese feel that if others start using Mandarin that they are competing against them (hence, they don’t like it). It is quite a paradox we found,” says Sim.

The other speaker, Dr Asma Abdullah, who studies human behaviour and social anthropology, points out that to understand a particular culture and where it is coming from, it is essential to look at its value system and underlying assumptions.

Different cultures have a different intepretation of what is normal behaviour, she says, due to differences in languages, religious beliefs, values, norms and rituals, and these have an impact on how we see ourselves and others and how we relate to them.

“What one culture reveres, another may not. If I am very soft, gentle and don’t argue and carry that into the American workplace, I would be seen as not being a high flyer.

“But if I carry a Western work culture behaviour into an organisation like Mara, people there would think I am sombong (arrogant) or too assertive,” she says.

Asma says it takes developed nations about 200 years to get to where they want to be in terms of their knowledge and their economy but with Malaysia the transformation was at a rapid pace.

“We had elections in 1955 before we even learnt about democracy because the British wanted to ‘give’ us independence. We started looking at development in the 70s, so the climb has been very steep.

“Everything from human rights, plu­ralism and democracy had to be internalised at the same time. These were imposed on us from outside so sometimes the ‘body’ could not take it.”

She notes that some of these Western concepts are foreign to Malaysian values.

For example, she says Westerners would rank freedom, individuality, equality, privacy and human rights high in their value system, but Malaysians tend to favour harmony, hierarchy, respect for the older and power, obedience and collectivism more.

The Malay culture is also shame and guilt driven, she points out, citing the Malay saying ‘Apa Orang Kata ?’ as an example of Malays being driven by what others would say.

This concept is different from the Western way of thinking “This is me. I don’t care what other people say. I am the master of my own destiny.”

Asma points out that in an egalitarian society, it is a lot easier to talk about human rights than in a hierarchical society where there is a need to respect those with power and others who are older.

As for the cultures within Malaysia, she points out, Malays, Chinese and Indians are similar in valuing harmony and col­lectivism.

But there are also differences of values among the different cultures.

Malays rate faith in God as their top value but the Chinese rarely mention God.

After faith, the Malays value education, honesty and sincerity; while the Chinese rate achievement as top, followed by education, health, hard work and success.

Because of the differences in values, one image can have different interpretations, one within one’s culture and another between cultures.

“How would a message for Malays intended for Malays at a Malay cultural setting be received at a cross-cultural or inter-cultural setting and vice versa?

“We need to be aware of the values and assumption of our own culture and need to know what it is about our culture that can be discomforting to others so that we can frame it in such a way as to avoid being insensitive to them,” she says.

For Asma, the Malays are very accommodating, and it is necessary to manage whatever conflict through finding a common ground to collaborate.

“In Malaysia, we compromise because community is very important and this and harmony resonate very well with the values in our cultures.

“Trust and unity all start with common ground.”

She says there is a need to redefine these concepts rather than use terms “defined to us by others.”

She notes difficulties in integration when there are three streams of schools still in place and people do not mix around with other races and cultures.

“How many inter-cultural friends do you and your children have? The earlier you have common ground with others, the easier it is to forge relationships.”

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