Is there space for diversity that celebrates creativity and innovation in arts and cultures, for honest debates on issues concerning everyday lives, and the openness of space for democracy in Najib’s 1Malaysia, wonders CY.
Since the political tsunami of the 2008 general election, which dealt the BN government led by Abdullah Badawi a severe blow, Datuk Seri Najib Razak has been quietly building up his support and positioning himself to become the Prime Minister. Since his premiership, Najib has constantly propagated a new rhetoric to build an equal and performance-oriented governance and, in line with this, he has promoted his 1 Malaysia campaign. What exactly is 1Malaysia? Is it something real or just mere political rhetoric? To what extent is 1Malaysia penetrating into the rakyat’s mind? Are we buying it?
Despite 1Malaysia, my other observation on the recent development of communitarian activities provides an alternative view of Malaysia. I am not talking about activities relating to institutional changes at the level of government, electoral reform or overhauling of the political party system. I am referring to cultural projects and activities at the level of community. These community-oriented activities are emerging as another terrain of “politics” and have been around us to manifest a version of Malaysia different from the state-defined 1Malaysia.
Myth and power
Before we deconstruct Najib’s 1Malaysia, let us understand the construction of a myth from a linguistic perspective. When the French linguist, Roland Barthes visited a barber one day, he was given a magazine to read. The magazine’s cover had a picture of a black soldier saluting a French flag. To Barthes, the picture yielded a set of signifiers (the elements of the images) that produced a set of concepts (the signified) such as a French flag, a black soldier, and a uniform. The literal message or meaning of the picture was a black soldier saluting a French flag. This first stage of reading a picture or representation process is called ‘denotation.’
But Barthes argues that a myth is produced when a second layer of reading is constructed. The completed message (a black soldier saluting a French flag) functions as another level of signifier in a second stage of the representation process called ‘connotation,’ that is signifying an ideological and purposeful meaning of a message; in this case, French imperialism. This level of representation according to Barthes is the level of myth. (Hall, “Representation,” 1997)
Imagine that this completed message is the logo of 1Malaysia printed on a sticker or poster, visualised on an advertisement board and TV screens, or made into a song. At a glance, the first stage of reading its (completed) message involves a picture of a numeric ‘1’, a Malaysian flag, a group of children with different ethnicities, etc. (denotation) In my own reading, when a second level of reading is done (connotation), it carries a myth: Malaysian national culture is composed of diversities but united as one nation.
Myth-making can be successful when it is juxtaposed with the reality of our surroundings. A myth is an abstract idea: it is difficult to grasp; yet its presence can be felt around us when it is constantly being ‘pursued’ and ‘constructed’ via the media, the education system and the political apparatus. It provides a sense of reality especially when that abstractness is spotted within our everyday realities. Here, power plays an essential role in determining how a language (in terms of linguistic, media, visual images, voice/song) should be represented and fitted into a selected formulation of knowledge and culture within a particular historical juncture and institutional site in society. Thus, ‘myth’ becomes a reality when power is being used to determine and select a purposeful aim and desire.
Such construction of ‘myth’ is not new in Malaysia history. When Malaysia was colonised under the British, the colonial officials were constructing a myth of ethnic differences through its ‘divide and rule’ policy. In order to control the people (namely the Malays, Chinese, Indians and others) from getting organised and to maintain the stability of its colonial bureaucratic dominance, the British cooperated with the elites namely the aristocrats and the rich business elites from different ethnic groups. A myth was constructed and became an ideology about ethnicity. Thus, we have the perceptions of the rich Chinese taukehs, the poor Indians workers, and the lazy Malays or natives and many others. This was because the political trajectory of the time fitted to the myth making: the import of foreign immigrants with different cultures and religions into Malaya; the construction of “elites” as government officials; the economic disparities among different ethnic groups; and the cultural separatism among the various ethnic groups allowed for the myth of ethnic ideology to become a ‘reality’ of sorts.
Sadly, our history books have constantly implanted such selective history on the events that had happened during the colonial period. Other groups such as the left movements, the communists’ struggles, the workers’ groups, and many more have been sidelined from the struggles of nationalism and portrayed as ‘terrorists,’ anti-modernists, chauvinists, and so on.
In the post-colonial period, the newly born nation-state was involved in a struggle to construct its nation-building projects. Alas, colonialism persisted in a new form.
When Mahathir was the PM, his national ideology was Vision 2020, which aimed to make Malaysia an industrialised country by that time. Again, the time was apt as in the mid-1980s, the Malaysian economy (as well as Southeast Asia’s) was booming and a bright future lay ahead. In the name of economic prosperity – that is to achieve Vision 2020, stability and peace and order were the criteria that a nation needed. Thus, the myth of Vision 2020 saw the authoritarian regime crush the alternative voices of civil society, resulting in the decay of democracy, the development of crony capitalism and the privatisation spree that facilitated further corruption.
When Abdullah Badawi became the PM another myth was in the making, namely Islam Hadhari. This time the focus was on Islamic movements – PAS and other Islamic groups. Abdullah wanted an Islam that would not be stamped as fundamentalist in the eye of the globalised world. And the time was apt because of 911, the war on terror and Malaysia’s desire to be projected as a nation upholding progressive Islam. Unfortunately, his Islam Hadhari was overshadowed by a sequence of controversial episodes such as the conversions issues, the Muslims women’s rights issue, and many more.
At present, 1Malaysia is the latest product of myth making: it fits in with the present political scenario because Umno/BN has seen its own weaknesses. The rakyat have had enough of the politics of money. People want change. People want a nation which offers equality for all. People want equitable distribution of wealth. The myth of 1Malaysia attempts to provide for such demands.
Najib’s campaign for 1Malaysia is vibrant and consistent. The 1Malaysia logo can be seen everywhere. It had entered various public spheres – from public seminars for the civil servants, television discussions on the viability of 1 Malaysia, the 1Malaysia Formula 1 car race sponsored by the TuneGroup, Naza Group, Litespeed (UK), to the logos of 1Malaysia on Penang buses and advertisement boards.
During his inauguration speech in April 2009, Najib urged the nation to transform the country and came up with the slogan “One Malaysia. People First. Performance Now.” Based on his slogan, he is not merely encouraging a united, non-discriminatory form of governance, but also a governance that puts words into actions that prioritise the Malaysian people regardless of ethnicity, cultures, and religions.
Economically, he has removed the 30 per cent bumiputra equity requirement for 27 services sub-sectors – such as health and social services, tourism, transport, business, computer and related services – to produce a non-ethnic-based economic podium. Socially, on his 100th day of premiership, he promised to reform six National Key Result Areas namely crime reduction, quality of life, education, rural infrastructure and public transport by 2010-2012 (Sinchew daily, 27 July 2009; merdekareview, 12 July 2009).
Besides that, Najib has pronounced 11 new people-oriented initiatives, among them a 20 per cent discount for frequent highways users; 44,000 low cost houses; under the project of “Tekun,” a RM15 million funding provision for small business and hawkers and an additional RM1.5 million funding for developing enterprises among Indian Malaysians (merdekareview, 12 July 2009).
Politically, Najib has released 13 ISA detainees – subjected to conditional release – in mid-April. The then Home Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Albar promised a comprehensive review of the ISA. (Bernama, 4 April 2009) Najib has also announced that 16 September will be a national holiday to celebrate the birth of Malaysia that includes Sabah and Sarawak.
To what extent have such reforms reflected a vibrant, free, open, and dynamic Malaysia? None – as far as political openness is concerned. True, Najib released ISA detainees but between 7 and 25 June 2009, he detained four others suspected of involvement with ‘Jemaah Islamiah’ (JI) (Nutgraph, 17 July 2009). Najib still retains the ISA and the ‘reform’ of the act is to review the definition of “threats to national security and public peace” and the period of detention.
What is 1Malaysia?
According to my own reading, 1Malaysia consists of values that are ‘decent’. It is decent in the sense that it talks about values that undergird a workable society that prioritises orthodoxy vis-à-vis heterodoxy. According to Najib’s website 1Malaysia.com.my, 1Malaysia prioritises “perpaduan di dalam kepelbagaian (unity within diversity)”. Diversity becomes the backbone of the nation. This “diversity” is based on the experiences of the past when our ancestors were unified in fighting colonialism. With the backdrop of selective history, Najib applies it to the present time and encourages the nation to celebrate such diversity and use it to build a nation that is capable of facing global competition, economic development for the future. Here is the catch: diversity should be practised to the tune of unification in order to generate a stable nation. The differences of cultures, religions, genders, and ethnicities of our nation should prioritise “togetherness” through mutual respect, mutual understanding, open dialogue, and be united as one to bring about a developed and stable nation.
Thus, 1Malaysia consists of eight basic values namely a Culture of Excellence, Perseverance, Humility, Acceptance, Loyalty, Meritocracy, Education, and Integrity.
From a quick reading of these values, I have come to one conclusion: the commoditisation of morality and ethnicity. Morality has become a commodity to exuberate economic development at the expense of democratisation and freedom to express differences. For instance, to move forward, a construction of a culture of excellence is needed that emphasises meritocracy, the principle of accuracy (ketepatan), and performance-based leadership (kepimpinan berasaskan prestasi). The system of education functions as a mechanism to cultivate a culture of reading in order to ‘open’ up society’s mindset not for creativity but for the ability to gain knowledge to face challenges. Besides that, education (read: ‘vision schools’) allows for interaction that emphasises mutual values (nilai bersama) so that stability will be retained without chaos.
To build a trusting society, loyalty is a prerequisite – especially to the leader. But it requires a leader with capability. Critiques can be asserted but should be done in a proper manner within a proper timing. Thus a leader is someone who is capable of uniting and bringing about peace and order. Trust then should be followed by acceptance, which is defined as the acceptance of differences, voluntary without dissatisfaction. Tolerance is not the goal as it only accepts differences but cannot guarantee whether a person agree to criticism, wholeheartedly or otherwise. Thus, a nation with diversity such as Malaysia should act in unison as a group rather than be tolerant of one another as individuals.
In sum, Najib’s 1Malaysia is to make moral values as commodities to achieve economic development through the construction of a society undergirded by a capable leader (with centralised power) to ensure these values guarantee security, at the expense of dynamism, creativity, and differences.
Alternative terrain of politics
Thus far, I have talked about 1Malaysia as a concept that the powers-that-be are attempting to create: one platform of security for control. It seems that society or the citizens are powerless and passive. My other observation sees a sort of a resistance that manifests an alternative voice from the bottom-up reflecting another version of Malaysia.
Remember the recent production of 15Malaysia produced by Pete Teo and directed by 15 Malaysian directors? The production was an attempt to manifest to the audiences the many versions of Malaysia. The project attempts to encompass all the characteristics of Malaysian society. It provides space to articulate the reality of everyday life in Malaysia to manifest the people’s own version of their lives and histories. It covers the religious ignorance of Malaysians, the ethnic biases of both Malays and non-Malays, the potential love attraction between different ethnic groups among youths, the ugliness of corruption, sexual harassment incidents, the current political chaos in Malaysia, the hardship of everyday life caused by price-hikes of essential items, the water issue, the health issue, and many others. 15Malaysia showcased the realities of everyday life in Malaysia and the ‘many’ versions of Malaysia – the differences not only in ethnicity but in politics, the economy and social aspects.
The most important feature of 15 Malaysia was its honesty in expressing ideas and views without a constructed version of what Malaysia should and should not be. In his blog, Pete Teo asserts, “…did we change? Or had it been a myth all along? It does not matter. What matters is that we dwell in a cesspool of corruption, hypocrisy and stagnation. And since this is home, one is duty-bound to protect it from further dilapidation. So I recruited filmmakers, actors, musicians, activists and politicians to make 15 socio-political short films. We called it 15Malaysia.” (http://www.peteteo.com/weblog/?p=575) In a nutshell, the project allows diversity to speak for itself without interference.
In August 2009, a group of young artistes called Lost Generation Space (KL) in conjunction with Anak-anak Kota (Penang) organised a project called “Bangun” at the clan jetty of Penang. A series of activities were presented: workshops in poetry, dance, Chinese opera, installation art, mural paintings, performances, and presentations focusing on local history, heritage, community, and culture.
The unique feature of the Bangun project was that it manifested a bottom-up, community-oriented platform of exerting an alternative voice to illustrate people’s local history – in this case, the surviving heritage and people’s life histories. In addition it revitalised abandoned areas of Malaysia through contemporary arts practices. “Bangun,” is translated as “to rise up”, reflecting a sort of resistance toward modernisation and the encroachment of industrialisation that threaten the survival of old buildings, heritages structures and people’s lives. Through arts and music, Bangun attempted to insert the consciousness of the disappearing history of the clan jetties, its role in Penang’s development, and its people’s life experiences.
For example, one of the visual art performances presented a structure of bones, representing a renewed life of clan jetty inhabitants who migrated from southern China to Malaya as their homes. (Sinchew, 1 September 2009) Another presentation was by a Taiwanese installation artist: she constructed four fishing boats crafted with look-alike forms of characters that were yet different to represent Penang’s diverse languages consisting of Malay, English, Mandarin, and Tamil (Sinchew, 22 August 2009). In one of the mural workshops entitled “Beralun” by Aisyah Baharuddin, the message was among others to “increase understanding of the importance to encourage individual responsibility (of the jetties),” while the project on “Mapping the Penang Clan Jetties” involved local children linking their personal experiences at the jetties and mapping out the locations of the jetties in order to encourage understanding and appreciation of clan jetty culture and customs through the real life experiences of the younger generation. The project also involved marginalised groups such as former drug addicts of the Fallen Leaves Theatre Company performing their stories and struggles. (http://bangunproject. wordpress.com)
Such projects do not manifest one Malaysia but many versions of Malaysia, which is closer to the reality of people’s life experiences and diversities. Furthermore, they attempt to manifest a sort of resistance against the state’s creation of one national culture such as 1Malaysia that prioritises history from the centre. The involvement of children and former drug addicts manifestsing many versions of Malaysian history and stories besides the slogan of “perpaduan etnik”. Rather than focusing on economic development and stability, these projects tell the reality of order but also chaos and allow us to interpret and learn the differences surrounding our environments. They allow us to recognise our problems and challenges without marginalising the others and limiting ourselves into one version of a cosmetic construction of a ‘nation.’
The myth-making of 1Malaysia is to construct ‘a culture,’ ‘a nation,’ and ‘a history.’ The threat of 1Malaysia is that it develops a mechanism for the state to control our histories, our live experiences, our ideas, and our differences to guarantee the ‘quality of life’, ‘kestabilan negara’ (national security), ‘kemajuan ekonomi’ (economic development), and ‘perpaduan’ (national unity).
How about diversity that celebrates creativity and innovation in arts and cultures, honest debates on issues concerning everyday lives, the openness of space for democracy, and participation without fear and intervention, respect for dynamism without imposing one standard rule?
How about critical dialogues and debates, accountability and checks and balances, transparency, a free and fair platform for a holistic and impartial conduct of diversities?
As the Aliran singers once sang: “We will remember how you came into power, WE ARE NOT FOOLS, BUBAR, BUBAR, BUBAR, BUBAR, BUBAR.” Bubar indeed we will – for an honest, real, diverse, and lived Malaysia.
Aliran member CY is a regular contributor.
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