By Pensyarah Bumi Malaysia
Everyone speaking the same language? Everyone sharing the same racial DNA? Everyone sharing the same religion? It was once written “… no scientific definition of the nation can be devised…” yet we have been perpetually bombarded with questions on what this entails. Since according to Bennedict Anderson, a nation is an “imagined community”, is “Bangsa Malaysia” an imagined community, where the similarities, kinship and loyalties are just are mere figment of the imagination?
It must be confessed that as a Muslim, this writer is uncomfortable with this concept of “nation”. It is difficult to reconcile the concept of “nation” to Islam since it was because Arab nationalism (“Middle East for the Arabs! Kick out the Turks!”) that Muslims lost Jerusalem. Furthermore, the Prophet’s (PBUH) last sermon specifically ruled out ethnic supremacy. It is unfortunate that these are not taken seriously in a country like ours that proclaims Islam as the religion of the Federation. There are still some quarters who insist that attention must be centred on the “malay” component rather than studying the wealth of liberating cultural traditions in Islam.
Benedict Anderson wrote that the concept of “nation” came about to trounce the cultural systems which were based on “religious communities” and “dynastic realms” in which the Western societies freed themselves from the shackles of feudalism and embraced this concept of “nation”. Examining this concept in the local context, did our forefathers free (or at least attempted to free) themselves from the shackles of feudalism? The jury is still out on this one.
Many books have been written as to how despite achieving independence in 1957, feudalism was still alive and well in this country and that was certainly not a peculiarity of this country alone since all post-colonial societies throughout the world suffer the ignominy of replacing Western colonialism with the hegemony of the local rich and powerful elites. The hegemony of the elites takes place in many forms and one of them is the construction of knowledge in which knowledge (and information” is to be constructed and disseminated for the purpose of perpetuating their hegemony. This is why any concepts and notions must be studied deeply and taken apart to discover its true purpose. The “Malay identity” for instance, is one of such concepts.
“Bangsa Malaysia” does not entitle any member of the community to look at some members of the community with suspicion. The bigot’s call of “we were here first” cannot even answer to the speech delivered by Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Sofia Sultan Idris in a conference on ‘Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason’ held on 16 Nov 2010 in Kuala Lumpur in which Her Royal Highness said that using the word “pendatang” to describe the non-bumiputera was “hurtful and ignorant”. In fact, when one studies further and deeper into the ethnic make up of this country, one would discover that that the word “Malay” is artificially enlarged to include certain ethnic groups from the Indonesian archipelago whose culture is anything but Malay.
Whatever pre-colonial and colonial notions of bangsa that one might have, one must face the reality that a new country came into existence in 1957. In fact, whenever anyone tries to bring up the nostalgia for the past, one should ask him for a guarantee that we could go to good schools and universities since access to good schools in the old days was only the enjoyment of the Malay nobility in the case of the Malay College Kuala Kangsar.
More importantly, there was no such thing as a complete “Malay unity” in the past. Malays were separated according to their State groupings, and ironically some of these State Malay societies were in full support of their British colonial masters. Further, when one tries to pin a united “bangsa Melayu” to the opposition to the Malayan Union, one needs to check historical records that the British only opened discussions with representatives from the Malay Rulers and UMNO , completely ignoring the voices of the Malay subaltern and the Malay Left and in fact many leaders of the Malay Left were imprisoned by the British during those days.
This writer feels that what seems to be the problem with the narrative of “Bangsa Malaysia” is the narrative of victimhood, as to how the Malays have been left out from development when compared to the other races. But this narrative has been torn to shreds by writings from several scholars who pointed out that that the Malay elites were also the culprits, similar to the British Colonial masters. For instance, the British did force upon the Malays the necessity of working the paddy fields for the benefit of the colonial economy. However, when some of these Malays wanted to turn to the more profitable rubber as a better cash crop, some Malay nobles lambasted them by insisting that the Malays needed to remain as paddy farmers so as to protect and enshrine paddy farming as a cultural identity of the Malays.
Furthermore, the late Prof Syed Hussein Alattas study that found the policy of the Western colonial powers in controlling and monopolizing trade while designating some local nobles as “middlemen” has had a severe on the entrepreneurship of the local community. Closer to this century we still see many cases of the rich grabbing all sorts of opportunities under the “bumiputera” ticket which ran against the spirit of Article 153. It is a tragedy that this type of discourse is absent from the public domain and it is even more tragic that in some institutions of higher learning, there has been an active effort to suppress it altogether.
So, let us start with the basics: “Bangsa Malaysia” entails the love for this country, and this must not be confused with the love for (and worship of) the politicians. “Bangsa Malaysia” should not be confined to the cringe-worthy and tasteless plasticky advertisements extolling the spirit of “muhibbah”. Above all, “Bangsa Malaysia” is not and should not be made into a politician’s political fodder.
Pensyarah Bumi Malaysia is the pseudonym of a scholar of Law, an educator, who is only too familiar with the exploits of the system that wrongfully rewards the incompetent. It is that very oppressive system that calls for the need of a pseudonym, in fear of a repeated jeopardy of this author’s livelihood.