THE historian’s lament is that he or she is often witness to mistakes of the past, and yet is unable to prevent them from recurring. In the end, the historian is cursed with the Cassandra complex and accused of being a tiresome doomsayer.
At the risk of being black-balled from dinner parties, I would like to restate that our country’s current state of affairs should remind us of our collective errors in the not-too-distant past. For example, just when we thought that talk of a unity government was dead and buried, this wearisome poltergeist has been resurrected to spook all and sundry.
One is forced to raise, yet again, the most obvious of questions: How can we work towards national unity as long as there remain politicians who continue to harp on and on about the myth of racial-ethnic unity?
How can we ever dream of a Malaysian nation that is Malaysian in character as long as we cannot make that simple leap beyond communitarian and sectarian politics?
Sculpture by Leonard Riem-Vi of Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill (© Stefan Jansson / flickr)
With age, I have begun to feel that the fight is lost and that our efforts are akin to the absurd labours of Sisyphus. But let us entertain a glimmer of hope at least, and in that spirit I would like to state my own preferences for what I would like to see in Malaysia.
The ideal politician
For a start, I would like to see a Malaysian politician for once.
By this I mean a Malaysian-minded politician who can genuinely claim to be blind to the distinctions of ethnicity, culture, language, religion and gender. A politician who is first and foremost a Malaysian citizen. And whose labour and effort are dedicated to upholding, defending and promoting the livelihood, well-being, honour and integrity of fellow Malaysian citizens, on the basis of a common Malaysian citizenship.
In other words, I would like to see a Malaysian citizen assume the role of politician in this country, rather than have communitarian representatives of sectarian interests dominate the political landscape.
Secondly, I would like to see a Malaysian politician who has the temerity and moral courage to state the simple fact that racial differences are an absurd fiction and have no basis in biology or history. This politician would accept that the ideological device of racial differentiation was introduced to Southeast Asia during the colonial period as a device to divide and rule Southeast Asian societies.
I would like to see a Malaysian politician who has the courage to admit that, as a nation, we have been conducting our politics for half a century on the basis of a colonial fiction that was fundamentally a lie. And that the time has come for us as a nation to grow up and admit that our settled assumptions about racial identity and difference have to be critically rejected for good.
Thirdly, I would like to see a Malaysian politician who has the courage to say that we cannot allow this country to be divided along sectarian cultural-linguistic lines. A politician who understands that we need a comprehensive, universal and inclusive national educational system that reflects Malaysia’s plurality while also uniting the nation under a common citizenship.
I would like to see a Malaysian-minded politician who has the courage to risk the wrath of his/her constituents by arguing for a Malaysian education model that brings together the diverse aspects of contemporary Malaysian society, culture and history.
In other words, an educational system that will be designed to foster the value of a universal Malaysian citizenship rather than to reinforce the sense of ethnic and religious particularism and differences.
I would like to see a politician who is prepared to have our history textbooks revised in order to reflect our diversity and the contribution of all communities to Malaysia’s development.
Fourthly — and this might be difficult for some of our politicians — I would like to see politicians who understand that politics is not a family business. And that the mantle of leadership of political parties is not to be passed from papa to mama to son to daughter, but left open for the public to engage and contest as well. As an appendix to that, I would also be happy to see a politician who can tell his/her son or daughter: “No, you don’t have to be a politician like me, keep studying and just be a good public servant and citizen, and I would be proud of you.”
Fifth — and this may be the most difficult one of all — I would like to see a Malaysian politician state clearly and with conviction that the instrumentalisation of religion, ethnicity and/or language as a tool for whipping up voters’ primordial sentiments is dangerous. And that we need to return to a national politics that is above all rational, objective and free of emotionalism.
Thus far, however, I have yet to encounter any of the above in terms that I can count as genuine or sincere.
The instrumentalisation of the vernacular language debate, for instance, is a case in point where political parties on both sides of the fence are deliberately standing on their soap boxes and playing to the gallery in the crassest of terms. And they do this at a time when the general standard of English in Malaysia has dropped so drastically that I have to reject academic papers by Malaysian professors who cannot string a single English sentence together without half a dozen spelling and grammatical errors.
This, then, is the absurdity of today’s Malaysian politics when it is patently obvious that our nation-building programme has gone off tangent and the existence of multiple educational streams actively and consciously divides our society further.
(© Lisa Risager)
In a situation where politicians can talk about national unity while also calling for ethnic-religious unity at the same time, the rational social scientist is left baffled. As a historian of contemporary Malaysia, all I can do is record the insanity and inanity of the times we live in, and to remind my students and readers of the mistakes that were made not too long ago.
Yet academic labour has its own limits, and the limit of rational critique is reached when we arrive at the frontier between reason and un-reason. That uneasy boundary is where I am left standing today, and it is an odd feeling to be a historian recording the collective madness of a nation that has lost its way.
Rather than more bridges crooked or otherwise — built by crooks or otherwise — airports, shopping malls and monuments, we need to build some Malaysians first. And for our sake, I hope this process starts sooner than later.
Dr Farish A Noor is a school teacher who realises that reason has its limits in Malaysia.
Curmudgeon, Subang jaya says
Exactly! “In a situation where politicians can talk about national unity while also calling for ethnic-religious unity at the same time, the rational [person] is left baffled.” To govern is to choose, not to fudge, dissimulate, deceive. As the French say, “des deux choses, l’une!” Between two contrary options one must choose one. It is best done clearly, decisively, soon (not after 50 years of trying both “to have your cake and eat it too”), and also inclusively, in a principled way. The moral courage, simple human decency and rational clarity that Farish urges are urgently needed and long overdue. All politicians please note!
Even the PR politicians are not up to this … not even the so called Saviour of the Rakyat, DSAI himself. Its been almost 18 months now since the GE12, PR has failed to lived up to its promises.
Did they over promise? We are judging them BECAUSE they said they can make things happen. It’s time they do or say they made a simple mistake and move on to make things happen. Stop the BS stories and do their best for the people.
A good example is Anwar’s nonsense about the High Chapparal issue, they are squatters, PERIOD. No rights under the law. To do otherwise would make a mockery of the National Land Code. Again, Opposition lawmakers such as Karpal made a fool of themselves saying the CM can caveat the land. Caveat for that? It will be removed only. Maybe our politicians in PR are no different from BN. It’s only a matter of degree. Sooner or later it corrupts. Example? Ronnie’s statement about developing a park in Subang. Nice one Ronnie … it’s really nice!
Me, I would like to see our institutions form a more toothy check against each other, so that we won’t need to solely rely on praying/hoping/willing for the right politician to pop up.
Dr Farish A Noor,
We need a Malaysian like yourself to lead the country out of this mess. How about becoming a Malaysian historian/school teacher turned Malaysian politician. God knows we need people like you. Serious! I made the same plea to Bakri Musa.
Yew Kim Keong says
Well said Dr Farish A Noor, this is my wish to. The situation as it is now where those at the highest office, be they the PM or sultan, are unfortunately causing more division than unity. Well, this is not the work of politicians alone. Malaysians must do the right things right, speak against the wrong and unite.
Well written article, Dr Farish. I sometimes asked myself why as a Malaysian and born here in this country, am I not entitled to the same rights as other Malaysians? Why do some Malaysians get a certain discount when buying houses? Why is it easier for some Malaysians to enter university? Why some Malaysians can get government projects more easily than others? I am confused. I am Malaysian too but sadly, myself and my children will not have the same equal rights as other Malaysians. Why the discrimination?
Dr Farish, indeed you did provide me a little glimmer of hope … knowing that we still have Malaysians like you!
50 years already gone and with our current leaders (including the up and coming so called â€œprotegesâ€), our current education system, MSM and everything else are all “screwed up” with racial sentiments, I doubt we can out-do the US ! I mean, if US took a few hundred years to have Mr Obama as their president, I sincerely doubt we can have a true Malaysian representing Malaysia in the near future.
Having said that, we need people like you to help educate people like me to think with both our heads and hearts and not either one.
Humans will only change their way of life when they are confronted with a life and death situation.
Mister Potato says
Farish – yours may be the only sane voice in the wilderness. Ever contemplate a career in politics?
D Lim says
Yes, indeed “lost its way”. If we fail to think and get it right from the beginning, we may have to backtrack and think again before we embark on another journey.
Your ideals are just like mine, Farish. But I have become extremely cyncial through these years watching the deterioration of the educational system, partisan politics, attitudes of the civil service and the civility of the public/nation as a whole.
It will take trememdous political will to rebuild what we have lost and rebuild for a stronger, wiser and prosperous future … not for ourselves but for future generations.
Can we do that? Only my grandchildren (I have none now) can answer that. Having said all these, it is good to know we still have some reasonable and thinking people like you around town!
The more we talk about being who we are (Malaysian), the more we move ourselves from what we are in the sense that we will always look up or at other cultures. The sense of being Malaysian has been distorted so badly that when we do comparative studies with other countries, we feel puny. This perspective comes from the point that we never are proud to be who we are.
The point here is that, take with us the concept of Malaysia and not others. We exist together and there must be something we can do. For the politicians, just don’t twist facts by combining facts and ambitions (at times fiction) for most of the negative perceptions nowadays comes from them (although not all of them).
PH Chin says
Dear Dr Farish A Noor, your wish is my wish, too.
Let’s hope more “rakyat” come forth and stand up for a Malaysian Malaysia!
“This politician would accept that the ideological device of racial differentiation was introduced to Southeast Asia during the colonial period.”
I wish you wouldn’t keep repeating this message: it’s like subliminal indoctrination in some of your articles. If anybody is to tackle racism in Malaysia, the first step is to look in the mirror and say, “I am a racist and that is something I can change”, not “He [or she] made me do it, it’s his [or her] fault.” It’s not exactly empowering, is it?
I get the impression that South East Asia in antiquity was a battleground between very many enormous kingdoms, likely composed of peoples of different appearance. They would have been fantastic human beings to never have noticed that they didn’t all look the same.
The rest of the article is spot on, by the way.
Dr Farish is a true Malaysian treasure. Actually, I see Karpal Singh as belonging to that rare breed of politician that Dr Farish describes. In addition to the attributes that Dr Farish prescribes, I would add two other. In a Westminster type model, politicians become ministers, so we need competence. And to get elected and move people to a cause, we need the ability to connect with the ground. And finally courage; to make unpopular decisions, to speak the truth and expose those who play politics for personal gain, and those who do great damage to the community.
Andrew I says
Couldn’t have put it better myself, Curmudgeon. It’s like trying to be everything to everyone. Spineless, I would say.
“…a Malaysian-minded politician who can genuinely claim to be blind to the distinctions of ethnicity, culture, language, religion and gender. A politician who is first and foremost a Malaysian citizen.”
This is a terrible idea.
Not because it wouldn’t be nice if everyone just stopped seeing each other as individuals first and not their ethnicity, but because this statement attracts people who say they are blind to race and other distinctions, but are in actual fact suppressing them.
No. What we need are Malaysian politicians who do not make claims that they think for all Malaysians and then go about proving themselves wrong, knowingly or unknowingly.
What we need are Malaysian politicians who say, “Yes, I am [ethnicity ], I am a [member of the religion ], I do belong to the [class]. I am aware of my biases and blind-spots. These are my limitations. But my job is to serve you all.”
And after all that talk, they walk the walk. That would be amazing.