Malaysia: "Banging On" about "Bangsa"; or, National Unity Once Again

2005

Clive S Kessler

Despite its small size, the Gerakan Party [Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia], a component member of the governing Barisan Nasional Coalition, plays a notable role in Malaysian politics. More than any other, it has sought to 'square the circle' of Malaysian politics: to catalyse the development of a non-communal, rather than simply trans-communal, political culture and party organization, and thereby a genuinely 'post-communal' national society; not from opposition ranks - as has the Democratic Action party [DAP] with its call for 'a truly Malaysian Malaysia' - but from within the governing coalition.

For its part, the Barisan, like St Augustine embracing chastity, wants to overcome communalism 'but not just yet'. Meanwhile it seeks to manage communalism, and to ground its own legitimacy upon its unique ability to do so, while ensuring economic growth and promoting social justice in forms compatible with its own preferred 'economistic' logic and requirements. Yet, by this choice for gradualism and what it sees as realism about the tenacity of ethnic sentiments, the Barisan makes itself dependent upon the continuation, and upon claims of the existential primacy, of what it insists it abhors and is committed to defeating.

In mid-August, the Gerakan held a day-long convention on the theme of 'Anak Malaysia' and 'Bangsa Malaysia': the aspiration for a single undifferentiated Malaysian national identity grounded in the idea that all the nation's citizens, rather than being defined primarily by their sub-national ethnic identities and communal origins are, and should be considered as, simply Malaysians. Sensible as this might seem, by overriding the distinction between so-called indigenous and immigrant communities, the 'Anak Malaysia' concept ['child of Malaysia'] in the eyes of Malay nationalists in UMNO, the Barisan's dominant party, would undercut the idea of the 'bumiputera' ['indigenous child of the soil', as distinct from those of 'immigrant' origins] and the entrenched notion of bumiputera primacy in Malaysian national life.

The conference began promisingly. It drew participants from members of the Gerakan and other component parties of the ruling coalition, opposition parties and the general public; its various panel discussions were similarly diverse and inclusive. By lunchtime, positive and hopeful sentiments had been generated: that it was not just necessary but even possible and timely to overcome, if not yet the communal structuring of political organization and life, then certainly pejorative communal stereotyping with its pervasively damaging effects in everyday life. But this hopefulness was not to last.

At lunchtime the Minister for Education and head of the UMNO Youth, Hishammuddin Onn, arrived and agreed to shake hands, and be photographed, with the diverse members of a panel discussion that had just concluded: a winning gesture, and an unusual concession, from an UMNO personality. In a truly remarkable moment, he linked arms in solidarity, with among others, Lim Guan Eng of the opposition DAP. He then gave an especially warm embrace, as he was entitled to do, to the UMNO participant, a man of rather dark complexion, possibly of mixed Malay and Indian origins. Then, whether in a rehearsed 'joke' or spontaneous faux pas, he turned to the audience and, as if 'mugging' it in a 'Black and White Minstrel Show', chuckled with a wide grin, 'But I thought he was the representative of the MIC [the main Indian component party in the Barisan coalition]!'

In that moment the positive atmosphere of a 'post-communalistic' hopefulness was punctured. As the conference proceeded Hishammuddin and his deputy as head of the UMNO Youth, the Prime Minister's special adviser Khairy Jamaluddin, went down a different road: implausibly defending as innocuous the recent brandishing at the UMNO Assembly of a keris [the Malay dagger, long a symbol of Malay male pride, especially when wounded and dangerously driven to seek redress, and of minatory demands for Malay sovereignty, for national politics on Malay terms]. But, with keris in hand, 'Hishamuddin had uttered no threatening words' was the lame excuse. Everybody knows, and practising politicians better than most, that what may not decently be said in words may yet be uttered, and implied with great effect, in resonant symbolic action - a recourse about which Malay politics has never been na´ve or innocent.

Far from displaying any openness towards the ideas of 'Anak' and 'Bangsa Malaysia', the two UMNO Youth leaders instead developed arguments that the pro-Malay affirmative action NEP policies instituted in 1970 had failed to achieve their objective of ensuring adequate Malay participation in national, especially economic, life, and that the 'unlevel' playing-field that might yet enable them to do so would have to be extended at least until the year 2020. What had initially been a ten-year transitional provision when the national constitution was promulgated at independence in 1957 should now run for at least 63 years. There is nothing so enduring as short-term expedients.

One last chance was needed, it was claimed, to achieve the NEP's objectives. But how many had there already been, why had they failed, and who had overseen and been responsible for those failures? More, what could ever be the measure of success? There might never be a last try. And if something less than a one-third share in the economy, or even one-half, had seemed an equitable figure when Malays constituted about one-half of the population in 1970, what would seem justified by 2020 when they might well amount to two-thirds? Could anybody forswear now, or provide plausible assurance that nobody in 2020 might insist upon, recourse to the argument of 'economic proportional representation': that a group perhaps amounting to seventy per cent of the population should have a government-assured lien on seventy per cent of the national wealth? If anything, the UMNO Youth leaders seemed to be hinting at, rather than disavowing, such a possibility.

The effect of these UMNO claims upon those whose hopes had earlier been raised was demoralizing. What matters most, they were told, was stability, stability on the UMNO's and government's terms. Don't hope for any real change; and if there is to be change, it will come about only on the UMNO's terms. And no time soon. For those who may remember 1946 or 1957 or 1970 or 1990, well, don't expect to see any substantial change in your lifetime. This was a cruel recompense for the many non-Malays, exemplified by those who have rallied to the government through the Gerakan, who have long displayed patience, understanding and forbearance towards government policies for Malay advancement, both as a matter of social justice towards many Malays and as essential to social national integration and unity in Malaysia as a whole.

WATCHPOINT: Expect continuing and even intensifying controversy over further extension of NEP principles and objectives, about the contested terms of the intercommunal 'contract' agreed to before independence in 1957, and over the meaning of the term 'bangsa' [meaning variously, and confusingly, 'race', 'people', 'nation/nationality' and 'state']; but do not expect any great flexibility or openness from the UMNO, and especially the UMNO Youth, on these issues.

 

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