National Solidarity

This is a highly enlightening article by Dr. Wan Azhar bin Wan Ahmad (IKIM) which was published in The Star; answering the questions most people are asking about a “Malaysian Nation”. It has been a concept that has been debated for quite some time, with concerns on ensuring national solidarity. This is an intellectual article, proving the fact that to build a strong national solidarity, what’s important is the binding elements and not the adaptation of each cultures into a single new ‘hybrid’ culture.

A Malaysian Nation: Still Elusive?
Dr. Wan Azhar bin Wan Ahmad

Being a multiracial country, the formation of a ‘Malaysian Nation' has been the concern of many since Merdeka. It has become the talk of politicians of the successive ruling government coalitions, the opposition, academics, intellectuals, professionals, private bodies, NGOs and even ordinary individuals. A lot has been translated into action, some have shown positive impact while some have not.

There have been repeated calls asking members of our pluralistic society to preserve the unity aspired to and spearheaded by our forefathers; one such call to preserve unity has been to abstain from discussing issues that may spark misunderstanding and ignite racial tensions.

The rationale is very simple: without unity, there will be no peace. Without peace, there will be no prosperity and development. And none will benefit from any resulting outbreak of social anarchy.

But how many of us really understand what is meant by ‘nation'? The best answer is provided by Prof. Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. He observed that, since the 1950s, the concept and meaning of nation itself has not been reasonably clarified. Political leaders appear to have misconceived and misconstrued it for reasons only best known to them.

Some others say that its formation is to be left to take its own course naturally through the process of evolution, for example by means of inter-marriages and various other forms of social interaction either consciously planned or otherwise.

Many do not realize however that evolution alone is insufficient to turn such an idea into reality. Apart from the uncertainty with regard to its final shape, it takes a considerably long time to unfold.

Al-Attas illustrates using the simile of a big stone. The stone, if allowed to endure climate changes on land, will have a different shape altogether if left at the bottom of the sea. In both situations, the stone will have to withstand various forces of nature of different magnitudes, making its physical forms change over time.

If the same stone is found by a sculptor, and he decides to carve it into any form, he will certainly have almost complete control of it, at least in terms of its design and the time it takes to shape.

If national solidarity is akin to the stone, then apparently the best course of action is for all of us to become a responsible collective body of sculptors, working together closely to achieve the intended unity.

‘Nation', al-Attas explains, refers to the sentiment of solidarity, togetherness and unity, i.e. having the same aspirations shared by all in any given community. These may be summed up as working together based on common principles to forge a stable country conducive enough for all to face all sorts of current and future challenges as one.

But what kind of solidarity/unity do we mean here? Al-Attas continues that there are two types of unity: (i) solid; and (ii) liquid. The former may be described metaphysically as having three metal rods bound together with a rope, retaining the original characteristics of each. The rope must be present at all times, otherwise, unity will be in jeopardy.

The latter still refers to three metal rods, but this time they are bound by a metal wire. All are then put on a fire, and all will melt into each other to form a certain liquid. When it hardens, another entity emerges and it will remain in that shape forever, unless otherwise heated again.

What is it that brings out this sentiment of solidarity? There must be elements that unite those different races and religions. Without any definite sequence of order, they are namely: (i) religion; (ii) ethnicity; (iii) language; and, (iv) historical destiny. We need at least three if not all the four elements in order to turn any desired national solidarity into a reality.

The combination of all four or any three is capable of creating the liquid type of unity alluded to above. For example, what is it that makes the Arabs Arabs whereas we know not all of them are Muslims? They are Arabs because of three common elements: the same ethnicity, same language and a common historical destiny. Religion is not a consideration.

The same may be said of the Swiss regardless of their different race and language. They are known as a nation because they share three common elements: religion, historical destiny and European ethnicity. Language is of little consequence.

Unfortunately, in our Malaysian context, none of the four abovementioned elements are shared by all races. Of the three main racial groups, the Malays are largely Muslims, the Chinese are predominantly Buddhist, the Indians are generally Hindus. Therefore, all the three groups are of different ethnicities, religions and languages.

And apparently, being indigenous to the land, the Malays do not share the same historical destiny/experience with that of the Chinese and Indian immigrants.

Then, how are we going to create a Malaysian nation? In our multiracial and multi-religious society, the Parliament cannot legislate any law to enforce or impose for all to necessarily embrace a single historical destiny, or religion, or ethnicity.

Nevertheless, the Parliament may pass law by making language, specifically the Malay language, as the vehicle of unity among all races. In fact, this is the most viable solution to attain the anticipated national solidarity. This has been experimented and proven successful in Indonesia. Perhaps we can imitate this example.

A nation also must be based on a certain culture. What should constitute a Malaysian culture? In our context, it has to be justifiably based on the Malay culture as they are the people after which this country is known. Other races can certainly contribute to this ‘hybrid' culture so long as their contributions do not contravene any moral or religious principle, especially that of Islam, the backbone of Malay culture and tradition for centuries. Historically and constitutionally, the Malays and Islam are inseparable.

Interestingly, the above Malay-centric cultural foundation was established and agreed upon by all groups in a big conference held at the University of Malaya in the early 1970s. Eigthy papers were deliberated including presenters from Sabah and Sarawak. A Proceeding of the conference was even published by the Ministry of Culture at the time, reflecting the Government's endorsement on the agreements achieved.

Though this event was properly documented as a kind of social contract involving all, it would appear unknown to many. By virtue of our ignorance of this important occasion, we tend to raise the same issues and related problems again and again.

We are like the Greek god, Sisyphus who, after struggling to push the stone up a hill, for some reasons the stone rolled down again ONLY to be pushed up again and again. Indeed, we have arrived at a certain solution to our problems, yet we choose to ignore it and worse, we exhume the whole thing again as if no solution had ever been offered.

For how long should we remain trapped in this absurd tragedy? As long as a certain proportion among us remains obstinate in accepting historical reality, there will be no light at the end of the tunnel. One sub-continent philosopher said that we can never separate ourselves from history as it is history that gives us our identity.

One must understand also that justice does not necessarily mean similarity or fairness though the latter two are the constituent elements of the former. Justice means to put things into their proper places. With the economic and social imbalances among the various races, the least fortunate group(s) is entitled to more privileges, especially when they were the most to suffer in the early phase.

The concept of a Malaysian nation should not be demonized and demolished. The rope which binds us however, i.e. the ruling government at any given time, must be strong and wise enough, and have the mechanism and support from all segments of the public.

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