Bangsa Malaysia: Worth fighting for

Faisal: 'A Bangsa Malaysia identity does not involve assimilation that dilutes our diverse cultures, but an opportunity to mould an integrated identity that is informed and inspired by the shared values and qualities of all the various ethnicities and cultures in our blessed nation.'

MALAYSIA has lost its way.

I don’t think I’m the only one feeling this way, as the year draws to a close.

We are adrift at sea, with no compass or guiding star.

Nowhere is this more true than in our politics. Some trace it back to the Sheraton Move, some to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s latest stint as Prime Minister, and some all the way back to his very first.

Politics today is all about fighting. We fight with our enemies. We fight with our friends. We fight until friends become enemies, and enemies become (usually temporary, fake) friends.

We fight so much that we’ve forgotten: What are we really fighting for?

Sometimes, leaders pay lip service, and say the right words. But actions ultimately speak louder, revealing how nowadays, all that anyone ever fights for is themselves.

What Malaysia needs is something worth fighting for.

Without a unifying goal, what will it matter who the leader of which party is, who the leader of the opposition is, or who the PM is even?

Without a moral core and a clearly articulated goal to work towards, any leader in any of those positions will behave in exactly the same way: selfishly.

Yesterday, Abim (The Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) held its annual muktamar (general assembly), where its president Muhammad Faisal Aziz delivered his keynote address entitled: Cosmopolitan Islam and the Forging of Bangsa Malaysia.

My first real introduction to Abim was at last year’s muktamar, where the keynote address was also on Bangsa Malaysia, demonstrating a sense of continuity and ongoing commitment to this concept even as leadership of the organisation changed.

I remember sitting there in Bangi last year, and being extremely impressed that a Malay-based Islamist organisation would champion such a cause so fearlessly.

I was impressed because championing the idea of a “Bangsa Malaysia” opens one up to a lot of backlash.

This discourse tends to open up debate about whether one is first Malay/Chinese/Indian and Malaysian second or vice versa.

When it comes to the question of identity in Malaysia, many have taken such a zero sum approach. Most do so to further narrow and selfish political gains.

Malaysia has a long history of leaders using ethnoreligious identity to stoke conflict for political gain. It is arguably the central tenet and issue around which Malaysia’s political landscape has shaped – or rather twisted – itself.

This is not surprising considering that the key political parties that shaped Malaysia over its formative decades have all been race-based.

2021 will be my 15th year as a columnist. In this decade and a half, I have been repeating ad nauseum that this race-based political structure has been the poisonous shackles that have held Malaysia back, decade after decade after decade.

If we don’t break free from it, we will never break free from the impasse, the mire, the merry-go-round of principle-less politics.

So it was with no small fanfare that I welcomed Abim’s call yesterday to finally forge a true Bangsa Malaysia.

Faisal quoted Amartya Sen and Francis Fukuyama, and spoke eloquently about the concept of cross-cutting identities, noting that it is extremely archaic and old-fashioned to think that we can have only one identity – or a hierarchy of identities that are ranked in some immovable way.

We all have multiple identities: ethnic, religious, professional, familial, geographical, and so on. We define ourselves not only by our ancestry and where we are from, but by what we believe, and what we do.

If we continue to believe that identities are mutually exclusive, then we will be forever trapped in a cycle of conflicting identities.

Finally understanding that we are all many things at once is extremely liberating. It frees us to develop various aspects of our lives and identities simultaneously, without feeling like one compromises the other.

In other words, it is a fallacy to think that being more Malaysian makes us less Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan or what not. We are all these things at once, and being one doesn’t make us less of the other.

Faisal said: “A Bangsa Malaysia identity does not involve assimilation that dilutes our diverse cultures, but an opportunity to mould an integrated identity that is informed and inspired by the shared values and qualities of all the various ethnicities and cultures in our blessed nation.

“These shared values are the bases of the middle road that will keep our nation from falling from either the pitfalls of assimilation on one hand, or segregation and division on the other.”

The fact that Abim, a grassroots movement steeped deeply in Malay and Muslim identity, should choose this path is especially significant, for the same reasons that only Nixon could go to China, as they say.

Dr Mahathir himself used to talk of Bangsa Malaysia, and some NGOs have long tried to champion the same.

I think however, that given the present context, as well as Abim’s credentials and positioning, we have a better chance to succeed on a wider scale now than ever before. Having gotten to know many of their leaders personally, I can personally vouch (for whatever that’s worth) for their sincerity, compassion, moderation, and true passion for national unity and progress.

The question of a Bangsa Malaysia has ramifications far beyond concepts of personal identity.

One key aspect of the idea of Bangsa Malaysia is that it remains something that is relatively undefined. The cliches are that Americans are all about freedom, Germans are all about efficiency, and so on. But what does it mean to be Malaysian?

Beyond some vague aphorisms about food and nasi lemak, I feel this question has yet to be adequately answered. And that lack of an answer has contributed significantly to the sense of aimlessness that we are experiencing as a nation.

If we don’t know who we are, how can we know where to go?

Let’s make 2021 the year we start answering those questions.

It’s not for me, or Abim, or anyone else to unilaterally decide in a top down way what it means to be Malaysian. This is a question that can only be answered together, from the bottom up.

It is a journey of discovering what our common values are, and what principles we want to strive towards as a united nation.

We should not expect Malaysians to feel a deep connection to some vague sentences put together by people from ancient history; a true sense of identity and connection to values and principles needs to be refreshed and redefined by every generation, to ensure that these values genuinely resonate. It is an evolving Google Document with multiple editors, not a PDF document.

When we know, clearly and deeply, what values and principles bind us as a nation, then we will finally have a way out of the mires and political impasses of today – something beyond narrow self interests to fight for. We will have each other.

Let’s make 2021 a year where we raise the banner of Bangsa Malaysia high, so that all Malaysians can look up to it as a symbol of hope, and a beacon to guide us out of this lost, hopeless despair.

Let’s make it a year where we will finally be free from being beholden to politicians who are themselves lost and unanchored, and find the confidence to lead ourselves instead – because once we recognise what it means to be Bangsa Malaysia, we will know the road we will have to walk, and we will find in one another the courage to walk it.

Nathaniel Tan works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). Those interested in helping out with building Bangsa Malaysia can contact him at The views expressed here are solely his own.

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