Malaysia Day: Who are we as a nation?

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  • Monday, 16 Sep 2019

When is Malaysia's birthday? It seems to me that the accurate answer is Sept 16,1963.

Aug 31,1957, is of course the day the Federation of Malaya gained independence from the British.

In comparing the significance of the two dates, I am inclined to think that perhaps Malaysia Day deserves more focus and celebration than Merdeka Day.

While the latter marks when we became independent of colonial powers, the former marks when we consciously, of our own free and independent will, decided to become one nation.

Merdeka is obviously an important moment in our history; but it is also an event that took place amidst an era of British decolonisation throughout the world. The before and after story of Merdeka starts with a British colony and ends with an independent Malaya.

Sept 16,1963, however, is that moment in history where we chose to come together, in a moment defined rather more by our own agency and purpose. The before and after story here starts with three separate states and ends with a united Malaysia.

Given this story and backdrop, as well as the pressing problems we face today in Malaysia with regards to unity, it has often seemed like Malaysia Day is very much neglected as compared to Merdeka Day.

I can only imagine the degree to which people from Sabah and Sarawak feel about this. After all, Merdeka was not the day that they became independent.

Almost from 1963 to today, there has been ever growing sentiment in East Malaysia that they are the neglected children of the Malaysian family.

Who can blame them? Time and again, they seem cut out from the national narrative, with the peninsula always consciously or subconsciously relegating East Malaysia to positions of diminished importance - if they think of them at all.

Sabahan and Sarawakian exceptionalism is fast becoming reflective in its politics.

For GE14, Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal made the decision to go his own way in forming a Sabah-based political party, Parti Warisan Sabah. The results there speak for themselves.

Amidst the unfolding political landscape in Malaysia, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) in Sarawak has recently reiterated its decision to not take one side or another in peninsula politics, also choosing to go their own way.

These political decisions do not take place in a vacuum, but rather likely reflect what is obviously voter sentiment on the ground.

At the root of East Malaysian exceptionalism is identity politics. When they are neglected by the peninsula, why should we be surprised when an East Malaysian feels like a Sabahan or Sarawakian first, rather than a Malaysian first?

Needless to say, East Malaysia is not the only place in the world in which identity politics is coming to the fore.

Indeed, in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit, the primacy of identity politics seems rather more the norm than the exception.

Not that we need to look so far abroad of course. We are obviously seeing the exact same thing play out in Peninsular Malaysia.

Coming out of the assembly at PWTC last weekend, a few things are becoming more and more obvious.

If Pakatan Harapan had played their cards a certain way, especially on the communications front, I think there was a good chance that Umno and most other Barisan Nasional parties might have faded quietly away over the last year.

They did not, and over a year later, we are seeing quite the resurgence.

Just to clear any doubt, I have never in my life supported Umno, and am likely to continue this position as long as they remain race based and tainted by decades of corruption.

That said, our own personal feelings should not compromise our ability to analyse politics objectively.

While it has been brewing for quite some time now, this last weekend's assembly at PWTC may be the most distinct and momentous turning of the tides since GE14.

Like it or not (and I personally lean towards not), my reading is that the perception now is: Umno and PAS are the ones breaking ground and leading boldly, pioneering exciting new spaces in Malaysian politics; while Harapan on the other hand seem to still be shuffling their feet muttering something bland about sharing prosperity.

Part of this is of course due to how the Umno-PAS tie-up takes a big step in addressing a key anxiety among a large Malaysian demographic: the fragmentation of Malay political power.

One important underlying subtext of the last year has been the comparison of Malay political power (split into five relevant parties) versus say Chinese political power (all concentrated in just one relevant party).

In my view, it is this subtext that has directly or indirectly blown up controversies related to race and religion recently.

I think the reaction of the crowds at PWTC and Malaysian netizens indicate that they see this tie-up as a step in the right direction. People tend to respond well to bold manoeuvres, such as the way in which Umno and PAS are doubling down on race and religion.

Harapan on the other hand has continued to waffle in no man's land. After GE14, instead of committing fully to showing how Malay interests would still be strongly protected in a multiracial political model (coupled of course with actual good governance), they decided to be timid and half-hearted, waffling between multiracialism and being "Umno Lite".

People never respond well to 'timid and half-hearted', and can tell when you're not playing to win, but just playing not to lose (which of course invariably leads to a loss anyway).

If we look at the shifting political alliances over the last two decades, the story is almost an amusing one. Friends become enemies, who become friends, and then enemies once again, and so on. Like I was told as a younger man: There are no permanent friends in politics, only permanent (self) interests.

The short explanation for all these shifting alliances is that in a (defunct and completely anachronistic) first past the post Westminster system, there are only two poles that matter - and eventually, everyone gravitates towards one or the other.

In our system, that's really the only thing that counts. Ideology, principles, values, and so on - all of that is secondary, and is shaped according to political convenience.

How else could PAS have gone from being vehemently anti-Umno and independent, to teaming up with DAP under Pakatan Rakyat, to teaming up with Umno - all in the space of two decades?

All that said, I don't think the right response to this new union is sound and fury.

One PKR stalwart who has been relatively quiet - a period some may have hoped (in vain) would mellow the man - came out firing on Facebook, sarcastically saying that the Tok Kadi performing the marriage between Umno and PAS should check the genders of the couple.

Not to be outdone, an Umno vice-president said they want to check the stalwart's gender instead.

Welcome, once again, to the lofty heights of Malaysian political discourse.

My guess is that for better or worse (worse, one assumes) the Umno-PAS tie-up is here to stay for a while at least, and that the Opposition is going to coalesce around them.

I would love to see Harapan respond to this development by redoubling their own efforts and governing well and demonstrating clear, exciting visions for the country, alongside engaging in a level of political debate at least somewhat higher than genital checking.

Of course, the announcement by the Finance Minister last Friday that yet another Harapan manifesto promise would be, at best, delayed was not a good step.

A fact that is sure to even further dampen Malaysia Day spirits is that said promise was to increase the oil royalties to Sabah and Sarawak from 5% to 20%.

It looks like this Malaysia Day is going to feature a lot of divisive rhetoric and even more (understandable) discontent from our East Malaysian brothers and sisters - who we should be celebrating today of all days.

The question is: what kind of Malaysia Days will we be celebrating one, two, five or 10 years from now?

I guess if we leave it to the current crop of politicians, regardless of which side of the aisle they sit, there isn't too much indication that there will be much change.

If we can institute genuine changes in our political culture, however, maybe one day we will see Malaysia unite once again, the way it did on Sept 16,1963.

NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant specialising in identifying the right goals, and using the right tools for the right job. He can be reached at

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