LAST weekend, most eyes were on the Umno General Assembly, where we saw a lot of fierce rhetoric that began full of fire and brimstone, and ended in the tepid waters of the status quo.
Despite all the posturing, Umno decided that it would keep all the benefits it had reaped from supporting the present government instead of resigning in protest and focusing on battling Bersatu in the next general elections.
This was awkward and a little bemusing, but hardly unexpected, given Malaysia’s old political culture of producing a whole lot of sound and fury, only to end up back at square one.
That same Saturday morning however, another summit was taking place. Smaller in terms of its profile, but in my humble view, vastly more significant and exciting in terms of its vision.
This was the Bangsa Malaysia Summit, organised by Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim).
Abim’s Bangsa Malaysia journey began in 2019, at their own general assembly, which I had the privilege of attending.
I remember being surprised that this Muslim-Malay youth movement (who some saw as having a conservative bent) would be championing such a multicultural, multiracial concept.
Two years later, Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, who gave the keynote address at last weekend’s Bangsa Malaysia summit, expressed the same surprise in his opening remarks.
It’s not uncommon for people less familiar with the organisation to only link it to its famous past president, Anwar Ibrahim, or to think of Islamist organisations like them as having narrow-minded views.
Abim however has recently been very consistent in driving a vision for Malaysia that is actually very refreshing – a vision that is starting to capture the imagination of Malaysians looking for a way out of the morass that our nation finds itself in.
The key problem with Malaysian politics is that every single major political party is stuck deep in mud.
Worse yet, instead of working together to find a way out that benefits the rest of the country, all they are doing is focusing on slinging that same mud at one another. No wonder no one is getting out.
Moving Malaysia forward requires a shared vision, a shared identity, and shared values that can bind the nation together.
I’m not sure about anyone else, but I’m personally done waiting for politicians to emerge from that mud to lead us in that direction.
The idea of Bangsa Malaysia is a concept that can provide these things. It emphasises our similarities rather than our differences, and what brings us together rather than what drives us apart.
In the words of ABIM President Faisal Aziz, “The unifying values of Bangsa Malaysia should include a united front against poverty, corruption, and conflict, as well as a shared resolve to protect and raise the dignity of all Malaysians. These shared values are the bases of the middle road that will keep our nation from falling into either the pitfalls of assimilation on one hand, or segregation and division on the other.”
Organisations that are Malay-Muslim based often shy away from the concept of a Bangsa Malaysia, because it makes it harder to score political points with their Malay-Muslim base, especially given the polarising political polemics we are all too used to.
As we can see from the quote above however, Abim does not need to make political considerations their be all and end all. Instead, they are willing and able to make values, ideals, and principles (the real VIPs) their be all and end all, even though this is the ‘harder road’ described by Nazir in his keynote address.
To this end, they are pushing hard this year to realise the vision of a Bangsa Malaysia based on Cosmopolitan Islam – an understanding of Islam that is rooted in the vast and inclusive cosmopolitan heritage of Islam in Southeast Asia.
Nazir commented on how Cosmopolitan Islam is a powerful narrative that can underpin Bangsa Malaysia, and said, “We stand to gain the most if we make diversity work in our favour, and if our society is inclusive as well as collaborative across borders of identity.”
I had the fortune of joining Faisal on an Astro Awani interview that aired last Wednesday night, along with President of the Gerakan Belia Sikh Malaysia Gurpreet Singh to discuss these issues.
If you watch the video closely, you might notice Gurpreet wearing an Abim band around his turban.
To me, this seemingly small symbol of solidarity actually symbolises the seeds of something much bigger.
Others, perhaps politicians in particular, might shy away from showing such overt signs of support for an organisation that is ethnically and religiously so different from their own. They might see such an act as a sign of weakness in terms of being a ‘champion’ of a particular ethnic or religious community.
Gurpreet however clearly saw wearing the symbol of a Muslim organisation on his Sikh turban not as something that diluted his own Sikh identity, but a symbol of strength, solidarity, and confidence in that identity.
Perhaps that one small gesture was more significant than all our words put together. It demonstrated how Abim’s strategy of inclusive engagement is really resonating with and inspiring other organisations and movements in the country - the end result being true bonds of friendship that weather storms better than marriages of political convenience.
It also shows how dedicated many elements in civil society are towards a true sense of national solidarity.
Other Islamist organisations like Ikram have also demonstrated a commitment to ideals such as Unity in Diversity and their dedication to civil society coalition Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia.
In the Awani interview, we were asked how these ideals from civil society might be transferred into government.
This is a complex question with multilayered answers; but I think it’s safe
to say that the answers with the most potential may be emerging from civil society itself, not the sectors most Malaysians are used to paying attention to.
If Malaysia is willing to look beyond old models, and give emerging actors and new ideas a chance, our shared future as Bangsa Malaysia may be very bright indeed.
NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). Twitter: @NatAsasi, Clubhouse: @Nathaniel_Tan, Email: email@example.com. #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy. The views expressed here are the writers own.