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Self-identity conundrum mixed with anger

KUALA LUMPUR (UCAN): There’s something going on in Malaysia and it does not bode well.

Public discord and racial tensions overflowed on November 19 as over 15,000 people wearing the yellow of the Berish (Malay) 2.0 (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) spilled into the streets demanding that the prime minister, Najib Razak, resign over a huge misappropriation scandal involving tax payers’ money.

But apart from the anger against Najib Malaysians have not been happy campers. During the final parliamentary session of the year in late October, all eyes were on a bid to push through a controversial Islamic law that, if passed, would be set to further divide the country.

After starting off promisingly as a liberal, multicultural society half a century ago, what is emerging is a disturbingly insular and xenophobic state.

Muslims are adopting a conservative form of Islam, turning away from the moderate interpretations, while Christians in the two regions where they live are being treated differently.

There is open discrimination in education, government and business—the checklist of concerns is getting longer.

Citizens are classified according to race and faith. But because  Islam is the official religion of the constitutionally secular country, those professing that faith get special privileges and protection that is denied to adherents of other faiths.

A correspondent from UCAN in Kuala Lumpur points out that voices in Malaysia are grievance-fuelled, racist and bitter. People talk of migrating the whole time and many do, even the Bumiputra (an umbrella term for ethnic Malays and indigenous groupings that literally means princes of the land).

What is referred to as the Malaysian identity dominates discussion, people debate what this really means and many are skeptical that there is such an identity in a nation where religious and communal divides are emphasised.

Worried that Malaysian Muslims are adopting an Arab-based culture in an attempt to display outward piety, a member of the Malaysian royalty advised them to be either proud of their heritage or go and live in Saudi Arabia.

The ruler of Johor state said he would stick to his customs and traditions as a Malay because, he was born Malay.

“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practice Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you,” he said angrily.

In Malaysian Borneo people see themselves as part of their region first and Malaysia second. A senior politician in the peninsula caused consternation when he declared himself Malay first.

Historically, in east Malaysia at least, communities were interdependent and intermingled. This was evident at the tamus (open markets), where various communities came from their villages to trade in a spirit of goodwill.

It was a multilevel phenomenon that supported interaction for the common good irrespective of race or religion.

But that spirit is disappearing. Now political parties style themselves as guardians of the interests of a particular community or ethnicity, creating fears that not everyone can be a winner in Malaysia.

A court ruling that Malaysian Christians in the states of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo can use the word Allah in their worship, but are prohibited from doing so in the peninsula, splits the country’s Christian community, which subsequently now needs two versions of the bible, depending on where it is situated.

In this light, the championing by Najib of what he calls 1Malaysia is pure nonsense.

The government has failed to create a common, cross-racial and cross-religious identity. Everybody pulls for their own interests and the larger picture has become a fantasy of the past.

Differences between the various groups are emphasised and exploited by the people in power for the purpose of staying in power.

Malaysia has a unique place in southeast Asia and has the opportunity to play an exemplary role by promoting the common good of all citizens, as opposed to the vested interests of race and religion.

For those who grew up during the formation of the nation in 1963, Malaysia was a land with an open heart, a land of mixed cultures, but one spirit. It was a time full of promise. Has it been irreversibly squandered? Perhaps not.

Today, Malaysians live under an administration that has cracked down on media and civil society in a bid to maintain control over the government. It has imprisoned dissenters on allegations of sedition and charged local media organisations that cast the government in a negative light.

Malaysians have always managed to avoid despair and overcome their differences during difficult times in the past. Now is such a time to find that courage.

The hope is that brave new citizens will emerge with a unique identity based on tolerance, but it will require discarding many forms of currently strongly held prejudices.

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