National unity in the time of pandemic

Prof Shamsul Amri Baharuddin. -filepic

DURING the Covid-19 crisis, Malaysia has been experiencing moments of unity and moments of differences, noted Prof Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, head of the National Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

“The Covid-19 pandemic brought us together, and collectively we are willing to be subjected to lockdown for the sake of health and safety for all,” he told me in a WhatsApp chat.

“But what about the moments of differences when politicians are bickering about how the government is handling the crisis?” I asked the political analyst.

“PH’s (Pakatan Harapan) bontot (backside) is still burning. They can’t handle (losing the Federal government). They are in shock,” he said.

“They are frustrated and are taking it out on PN (Perikatan Nasional). They don’t take it out on (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad or (PKR president Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim. These are the people who made the mistake.”

The political analyst said the fact that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin “came out of nowhere” to become Prime Minister showed that they couldn’t read Malay politics well.

The National Professors Council (MPN) chairman noted that for some Malaysians, anything the PN government does is wrong. He considers it the “asam garam” (ups and downs) of everyday life and not anything that threatens the country.

But for most of the rakyat, this is not the time for politics, he said.

“They just want to survive Covid-19,” he said.

The 69-year-old professor, who has seen the history of our national unity unfold, gave me a quick Malaysian Unity 101 lesson over the phone.

After the May 13 ethnic clashes, the government established a Department of National Unity on July 1, 1969, he said.

“It was obvious from the beginning that the notion of ‘national unity’ that informed and was adopted by the government was conservative and old school in orientation. It was simplistic, mechanistic and literal.”

Unity, Shamsul Amri explained, is a complex issue and involves many facets and layers of horizontal and vertical social and ethnic relations and others factors. It is not generated simply by sitting together for dinner, shaking hands and jointly singing songs, he said.

The professor gave an example of a post-May 13 unity programme in Kuala Lumpur that he was involved in. He was 18 years old at that time, and the Royal Military College’s four-time annual talentime singing competition champion.

After May 13, the government organised a series of “durian parties” with live music provided by the Royal Malay Regiment Band that were attended by different ethnic groups. Shamsul Amri sang upbeat songs such as Cliff Richard’s Congratulations and Delilah by Tom Jones.

“The whole idea of the jamuan (dinner) was to allow people to meet each other. It was a way for the government to take away the fear that the Chinese will attack Malays or the Malays will attack the Chinese. So that the communities felt less harassed or suspicious of each other,” he said.

However, Shamsul Amri argues that the approach was too temporal and superficial.

“The durian was happily and quickly consumed, but perpaduan belum tentu (unity not achieved for sure),” he said.

“People came but you could not fathom what was inside their heads after such a violent and bloody situation that was still fresh in their minds. The bullet marks were still in the walls. But it was an attempt – psychologically speaking – to bring back peace and harmony, at least on a superficial level.”

Shamsul Amri pointed out the Malay root word for “perpaduan” is “padu” which means “solid”.

“This gives the literal perception that unity, or perpaduan, has to be compact and solid as a brick. Anything less is perceived as not achieving the much-desired unity,” he said.

He contends that it is imperative that the notion of national unity as defined in the last 50 years – in that simplistic, mechanistic and literal perspective – be redefined. It has to go through a serious paradigm shift since we have now a new standalone National Unity Ministry, he said

After a decade of analysing national unity in Malaysia, the National Institute of Ethnic Studies has established that the national unity which we experience constitutes three living processes that happen simultaneously in society: unity (perpaduan), cohesion (kesepaduan) and reconciliation (penyatupaduan).He explained that while unity remains the ultimate aim that we all desire, cohesion is what we have achieved over the years.

For example, we agree on many matters but there are those on which we have agreed to disagree. This is the result of social differences and not enmity. What we have disagreed on have become a set of “social deficits” that we have to resolve.

Reconciliation, he said, is the continuous effort we have made and continue to make to resolve the social deficits by creating integration platforms at various levels, each operated and grounded in the principles of “bargaining, negotiation and mediation”.

“Not all succeeded, but the few that succeeded brought positive results.

“Some people don’t like Jawi and khat or Islamic things. But the same people find halal acceptable because it helps them to make money,” he said.

The National Institute of Ethnic Studies has created three detailed policy documents using this new, redefined notion of national unity. Shamsul Amri said the reports clearly outline the new scope and responsibilities of the National Unity Ministry.

“Namely to continue to strive for national unity and integration that we desire through balanced maintenance of national cohesion, supported by a tireless effort at national reconciliation,” he said.

Will the PN government through the National Unity Ministry redefine national unity in Malaysia?

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