#BangsaMalaysia dialogues

Meaningful definition: Malaysians from all walks of life, and all parts of the country, need to come together and start the conversation about what it means to be Malaysian. — 123rf.com

THE concept of a #BangsaMalaysia is not new. It goes at least as far back as Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad’s Wawasan 2020, which included the formation of a national identity.

Other groups and civil society organisations have championed the formation of a #BangsaMalaysia identity over the years, but so far, traction has unfortunately been limited.

Two factors that have contributed to this – one, the fact that there has yet to be a broad based movement for #BangsaMalaysia that truly cuts across multiple segments of society; and two, how political elites have generally been opposed to the idea.

A lack of political will to implement and push a #BangsaMalaysia narrative may be related to race based parties that believe their relevance might be lessened should such a national identity become dominant.

A fragmented civil society landscape has also hampered the creation of such a national identity from the ground up.

This fragmentation mirrors the fragmentation of society over the past few decades. Where some expected the internet to be a great unifier, it may instead have encouraged echo chambers and the tendency to surround oneself primarily with those who think and speak like ourselves.

The good news is that it is not too late to reverse this trend. There are many Malaysians who want to see a united #BangsaMalaysia. The big question is: how do we make it happen?

I think if any individual or small group tried to give a top down definition of what #BangsaMalaysia should be, that definition would be meaningless.

Perhaps the only meaningful definition of #BangsaMalaysia would be one which is defined together from the bottom up. This process would involve the coming together of Malaysians from all walks of life, and all parts of the country, to start the conversation about what it means to be Malaysian, and what the shared values that form the core of our national identity should be.

We can’t expect everyone to have the same views on what those values should be – but if we have enough of these conversations with enough Malaysians, maybe we can identify which values keep coming up most frequently.

These most frequently cited values would essentially constitute a common ground that can be subscribed to by the largest possible number of Malaysians. They would represent both the diverse aspirations of ordinary Malaysians as well as their vision for a better Malaysia.

To get a truly representative picture, we’d need to engage the entire spectrum of communities that make up our beautifully diverse nation – including (but certainly not limited to) the majority Malay-Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Dayaks, Orang Asli, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, teachers, lawyers, engineers, small traders - from Perlis to Johor, Penang to Sabah, and everywhere in between.

Besides conversations on shared values, this may also be a good time to have meaningful discussions about national policies.

Sometimes, national policies are overly influenced by political calculations or other narrow interests. This is something of a tragedy, especially when there are at least hundreds of Malaysians who are experts in their policy sectors, who I bet could craft extremely good rakyat-centric policies.

This is a long and involved journey of course, but like every other journey, it begins with a single step. It may be worthwhile to convene conversations with policy experts, perhaps starting with some big picture discussions about the roads Malaysia has taken so far with regards to specific policy sectors, and then, more importantly, what roads we should be taking moving forward.

I personally would really love to hear from experts in fields like health policy, economics, education, the environment, migration, international trade, foreign policy, and so on, about how we ended up where we are, and where we should go next.

While many think tanks and similar groups have organised similar initiatives, most of them are limited to a particular policy sector, and to the best of my knowledge, none have been organised as part of an overarching, comprehensive national initiative where each policy sector is seen as one piece of the grand Malaysian puzzle.

Both these dialogue initiatives are deeply linked to the concept of social capital. Needless to say, talk that stays only talk is of limited use. What we want is talk that leads to greater mutual understanding, and even more importantly, relationship building.

These types of relationships are absolutely vital when it comes to solving our nation’s problems. For instance, there is a tendency for conflicts involving race and religion to flare up quite frequently. When they do, the public domain is flooded with voices from either extreme, and most attention is focused on the angriest, loudest people.

Those angry and loud people though, do not necessarily represent the middle majority of Malaysia, who prefer peaceful

resolutions to conflict that are borne out of an atmosphere of mutual respect.

When more relationships have been built between leaders of different communities, it becomes so much easier to pick up the phone and have conversations that can then lead to joint statements and leadership that emphasises resolving conflicts, and providing an alternate centre of gravity.

This kind of diverse leadership can be an important element in defusing highly charged conflicts and championing moderate narratives.

In the policy sector, greater dialogue between policy experts can perhaps lead to a policy bank - a ready to go set of policies for Malaysia that can be drawn on by anyone leading the country.

The more voices there are at the policy making table, the more likely the emerging policies will represent the best, most comprehensive solutions to the problems at hand, and avoid pitfalls caused by having blindspots.

Engaging meaningfully with so many diverse groups on both nation-building and policy formulation will surely be a gargantuan task - but not one that is impossible, in my humble opinion. Given how video conferencing has become the new normal, it is mostly a matter of who has the time and energy.

I am delighted to report that indeed, some have already taken up the mantle. It’s going to require a lot of drive, but hopefully the first few dialogues in this spirit will help create enough momentum and interest to keep the initiative alive!

Nathaniel Tan is working with POWR and Abim on Siri Dialog #BangsaMalaysia. Past and future dialogues are available on www.bit.ly/ProjekBangsaMalaysiaFB. He can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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Nathaniel Tan column


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