August and September are a good time to remind ourselves that it took Malaysians of all ethnicity and religious backgrounds to build Malaysia.
SEPTEMBER is usually a period of heightened nationalism and patriotism.
Besides the euphoria of the National Day celebrations on Aug 31, there is another national holiday to mark our nationhood with Malaysia Day on Sept 16.
It is a good time to remind each other and the younger generation and those who had forgotten about our history either innocently or conveniently that it took Malaysians of all ethnicity and religious backgrounds to build Malaysia.
For instance, the British declined to negotiate Malaysia’s independence without minority Chinese and Indian leaders at the table.
Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Tan Siew Sin had famously returned to Kuala Lumpur empty-handed as they were required by the British to bring Tun V.T. Sambanthan along to London for the Merdeka talks.
But it was Tunku Abdul Rahman who gelled all races together and convinced some colleagues in Umno that a multiracial coalition government was the right and effective way to administer a multi-ethnic Malaya.
Few today appreciate that Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), the first Malay party led by Ahmad Boestamam, had mooted independence, following Indonesia’s own declaration of independence on 1945. Umno was formed in June 1946.
Or that money from Chinese tycoons were imperative in funding the galvanisation for nationhood.
But this is not about keeping score of who did what.
This Merdeka and Malaysia Day season seems to have had an opposite effect on many.
It seems to have brought out an ugly side of some fellow Malaysians where they would rather identify themselves according to ethnic and religious lines instead of being part of a collective that we have always proudly identified with – Malaysians.
The fact that there was a “Perpaduan Ummah” rally two days before Malaysia Day is a testament to this troubling narrative in the country today.
This is compounded by the debate over khat and Jawi during Merdeka month and the current Buy Muslim First campaign which has been wrongly or deliberately billed as an anti-non-bumiputra products effort.
Then Jakim announced that it was forbidden for Muslims and non-Muslims to pray together to promote interfaith unity and understanding.
Jakim however does not have any qualms about receiving RM1bil annually for its activities – an allocation funded by taxpayers, including non-Muslims.
On a personal note, a debate over a certain religious preacher saw me losing a bunch of friends on the eve of Merdeka.
These are friends whom I’ve known for 40 years and at one time would have spoken up for me when my race and religion were being put down.
But a foreign fugitive has managed to drive a divide into four decades of friendship because he was able to elevate himself to the level of a Prophet – aided and abetted by a government and politicians I had voted for on May 9 last year.Many are consoling ourselves by saying that this is not the majority.
The majority of Malaysians still hold true to the belief that we are a sum of our parts.
That we are better than the bigots, chauvinists and racists.
Perhaps we need direction in embracing our national identity. Being Malaysian does not mean being less Malay or Chinese or Indian or Bidayuh or Iban, etc.
We will continue to uphold Islam as the religion of the Federation and the sanctity of other religions to be practised alongside it; and while some may have an issue with ketuanan Melayu, we are okay with kepimpinan Melayu.
We acknowledge that Mandarin is the most spoken language globally and should be mastered along with English.
However, despite this self-assurance, the dominant narrative, currently is that of conflict and division.
And if we are reliant on politicians to change this narrative then we are doomed as both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan are guilty of fanning this narrative.
It is up to the people to dictate our own narrative of a Malaysia that has always thrived on its diversity.
I remember a Malay friend who accompanied me back to my hometown in Kelantan observing why the races there seem to get along well.
“It is because you speak a common language, ” he said, alluding to the local dialect that is even spoken among Chinese and Indians within these communities.
So perhaps for a start we should take the effort to embrace Bahasa Malaysia as the language of unity.
It should not be acceptable that there are young Malaysians who are unable to speak the national language.
Perhaps media and advertising platforms should not accept classifieds which state “Muslim only” or “Chinese preferred”.
Perhaps businesses, including government-linked and public-listed companies, should be required to have a healthy ethnic composition.
A National Harmony Act, which was mooted 10 years ago, was meant to promote ethnic inclusivity and address ethnic exclusions.
But the fact that we need legislation to facilitate inclusion and unity is a sad state of affairs which I doubt our founding fathers had envisioned when they fought for our freedoms all those years ago.
Communications consultant Terence Fernandez is an award-winning journalist with over 20 years in media. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.