ARE you a Malaysian or Malay first? This question reminds me of the famous Shakespearean line from Hamlet – “To be or not to be, that’s the question.”
Are we facing a dilemma here?
For Malaysian politicians, especially the Malays, this is something they would dread answering in public. If they were to say they were Malays first and Malaysians second, it can be construed as being racist. On the other hand, saying they are Malaysians first could sound a death knell to their political careers.
Some expats asked me if I am Indian or Malaysian first after reading the reports on this issue in Parliament last week. I had no qualms telling them I am a Malaysian first, which is what most non-Malays would probably say.
For these foreigners, this is not only a minor issue but also one that flabbergasts them. “I don’t see this as a big deal. I wonder why Malaysians love to associate themselves with their ethnicity more than nationality. We have people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds back home but we identify ourselves with our nationality first,” said an Australian.
I am sure all of us, irrespective of our racial origin, readily say we are Malaysians when we are abroad. This reminded me of some of the responses from our Malaysian leaders to this simple but impactful question.
In Parliament on Wednesday, Pasir Salak MP Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, who is known for his aggressive race-baiting in the past, ventured into declaring himself a Malay first to strengthen his argument that Malaysia is Malay land.
“I am a Malay first, and I am not scared to say this,” he declared without any provocation when debating the Agong’s opening speech, which touched on the need for Malaysians not to harp on racism.
Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin responded in 2013 in a very frank manner to the same question. “Of course I am a Malay first, Malaysian second. The Malays will shun me if I say otherwise. Everyone will normally say their race first. An Indian will say he is Indian first. Can (Lim) Kit Siang say he is Chinese second?”
Muhyiddin was then the Deputy Prime Minister in the Barisan Nasional government.
In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2010, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who was Prime Minister then, responded by saying: “Technically, if you talk about the Constitution, I am a Malay. But I am comfortable being a Malay in a Malaysian society.” That sounded very evasive to me.
Upon his release in May, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim gave Al Jazeera a rather long-winded explanation which I felt did not answer the question.
“To me, there’s no contradiction. If you ask me am I a Muslim first or Malaysian first or a Malay first, I am a Malay, I am Muslim, I’m a Malaysian. I am an Asian. I am an internationalist at that.
“I am a practising Muslim. I still consider Shakespeare a genius, international genius. And I associate myself largely with Shakespeare’s works and thinking. It does not erode my belief, nor my culture, nor my state or nation.” Isn’t that beating around the bush?
On the other hand, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng gave a straightforward response by saying he is a Malaysian when asked how he felt about a Chinese being made Finance Minister after 40 years. No one ostracised him for making this stand. On the contrary, many praised him.
It is pretty obvious that non-Malays prefer identifying themselves with their nationality first, probably due to the fact that this is the only land they know which they call home. It does not in any way alter their ethnic DNA or make them lose their identity or language.
In the sports arena, global reports say a Malaysian wins a badminton tournament when Datuk Lee Chong Wei captures any championship, not a Chinese Malaysian.
Similarly, when Malaysian cycling champion Azizulhasni Awang won an international meet, no one screamed that a Malay did it. All sportsmen are Malaysians first. Their ethnicity is of no consequence at all.
One has to wonder if this was merely political fodder used by politicians to show they are championing their race. If it was, they have obviously lost their plot in what is being termed as the New Malaysia. This kind of race-baiting has lost its effect in the country today.
As the expats told me, it’s just no big deal. Are Malays going to lose their special privileges as enshrined in the Federal Constitution if they say they are Malaysians first? Of course not!
All safeguards under the Constitution will not change just by defining themselves as Malaysians first. Article 153 clearly stipulates that it shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.
We are all classified as Malaysians in our international passports. Let’s move on to rebuild our nation that has been battered and bruised. No one will lose anything by calling themselves Malaysians.
K. Parkaran is a journalist and researcher. He was a senior reporter at the now defunct National Echo and deputy editor at The Star. He is now a producer at Al Jazeera TV.