BY NOW, I think almost everyone is familiar with the decision by Festival Filem Malaysia (FFM) to separate the categories for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay into Bahasa Malaysia and non-Bahasa Malaysia categories. The reason given by the organisers for this move was the need to uphold Bahasa Malaysia in films, thus a film needs to have 70% of its script in the national language for it to be considered an excellent Malaysian movie.
The debacle, protests, and resignations that followed this decision then necessitated our Communications and Multimedia Minister to intervene. As of time of writing, the FFM will have an inclusive Best Picture category, but there will also be a Best Film in the National Language category (where I assume someone would have the task of finely combing through the scripts to ensure it fulfills the 70% requirement).
The online discourse that followed the FFM’s decision has made for a bigger discussion on Malaysian identity. Ironically, this discourse occurs in the Merdeka month with the recurring theme of “Sehati Sejiwa” (One Heart, One Soul).
I have lived almost 33 years as a Malaysian. Yet, the only times I have confidently stated “I am a Malaysian” without needing any further elaboration, is when I am overseas.
I do not think that I am an anomaly. The moment we pass through the autogates that scan our red passports to legally allow us back home, Malaysians seem to prefer being boxed by ethnicity and more recently, by religiosity.
This year, we will celebrate our 59th year of independence and 53rd year of the formation of Malaysia. Yet, we seem to be more divided than ever.
Ironically, OlaBola, one of the two movies affected by FFM’s initial decision, is a movie that celebrates patriotic unity through sports.
The other is Jagat, a tragically beautiful movie about the reality of Malaysians who slip through the cracks of our policies as the country moves towards high-income nation status.
I happily paid money to watch both movies in the cinemas and was emotionally affected by both — my personal measure of good movies.
I even watched OlaBola twice, the sucker that I am for the audacity of hope in the Malaysia of my dreams.
Jagat made me lament the fate of Apoi, whether Malaysia has done enough to tackle the inequality gap. It also made me lament my privilege as a bumiputra in this country.
If these two movies do not represent Malaysia, I don’t know what does.
As we celebrate our amazing women divers, Pandelela Rinong and Cheong Jun Hoong, who brought us our first silver medal in the Rio Olympics, I see most of us cheering for Team Malaysia without the need to segregate our athletes into Malay and non-Malay categories. Shouldn’t this spirit be extended to all the other fields, be it films, fashion, art, science, social science, and most importantly, in our everyday lives?
Isn’t it past time we truly be proud of and claim ourselves as Malaysians?
While we’re at it, we must not confuse unity with hegemony. Malaysia was built on the very foundation of inclusivity, and the diversity in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society must be seen as our strength.
Such a clichéd call for tolerance, harmony, and unity, however, should not only be restricted at a cosmetic level. Nor should it merely be a dramatised script that we present globally and yet does not represent the reality locally. As we approach our 60th year of independence, Malaysia must begin the hard conversations on what defines our sociopolitical identity.
We must revisit discriminatory laws and even articles in our Federal Constitution that give special privileges simply on the basis of race and critically analyse current data on whether race-based policies need to be revamped, improved or discontinued altogether.
We must take the brave steps towards change for the better. After all, “Indeed, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” [Quran 13:11]
These hard conversations cannot occur without freedom of speech and collective discourse. We must follow up on the recommendations by the (now silent?) National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and take on our responsibilities as Malaysian citizens to shape the Malaysia we want.
The lack of political will must be confronted with voters’ aspirations towards a Malaysia that is inclusive and progressive. If the rakyat do not segregate by race, what power do our aspiring and even experienced politicians have to divide us?
Now is no longer the time to romanticise the past. Now is the time to build the Malaysia that is the great nation as aspired to by our founding fathers and mothers.
We must ask ourselves whether we aspire to the same dreams, or have we become too contented with privileges and our own personal, selfish hegemony.
We must start by calling out injustice, reducing corruption, and being accountable for our actions and words. We must prove to dissenters that instead of being confused, we are empowered when we no longer box ourselves into Malays and non-Malays, but as Malaysians.
We can start, by claiming that we all are indeed Anak-Anak Malaysia.
- Lyana Khairuddin is an academic with a local public university who runs to keep being optimistic about Malaysia. The views expressed here are entirely her own.