If there is no recognition of the equal worth of citizens by the state and if citizens do not treat their fellow citizens with equality and mutual respect, the very idea of “my nation” or “my country” will become an empty one, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.” – WEB Du Bois
The African-American philosopher William Du Bois thought that ethnicity or the colour line defined the problems of the 20th Century. Were he alive in the 21st Century, he would be utterly flabbergasted that ethnic conflicts have continued unabated across the globe.
Some countries have done better than others in resolving or at least managing ethnic conflict. By most measures, Malaysia could be seen as a country that has overcome the worst manifestations of ethnic conflict – but the job is far from done.
Regime change in 2018 saw the emergence of the Alliance of Hope (PH) government, but it has been bedevilled by a palpable decline in ethnic harmony and even ethnic civility. I need not rehash the recent alarming and precipitous downturn in ethnic relations.
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What is disappointing is that the current government seems clueless to check the situation, or worse, may even be instrumental in its very deterioration. (See Francis Loh’s “The more things change, the more they appear to be the same…“)
This essay aims to show why the government needs to step up to earnestly implement the practice of multicultural citizenship and, even more urgently, to show how citizens themselves must be up to the task.
For a country like Malaysia, advancing and implementing multicultural citizenship simply means firmly practising the following:
- recognising the equal worth of citizens and equal rights of all individuals
- protecting the distinctive cultures of minorities
- protecting the cultural heritage of first nations such as the Orang Asli of the Peninsula and the Orang Asal of the Borneo states
- accepting the special status of Malays and other bumiputera as specified in the Malaysian Constitution
Why is consensus on such basic practices as listed above so difficult to implement by the government of the day or to be accepted by all citizens? I see no reason for this.
There is of course much more that needs to be done at the ground level, such as in schools, universities, our workplaces and all other sites of social interaction. Let me discuss a few of these.
First, let’s start with celebrating Malaysia’s ethnic diversity. By any measure, our country is a unique global site of cultural and linguistic diversity.
Educational diversity occurs from primary to tertiary levels of teaching and learning. Malaysia recognises minority languages, and primary education can be conducted in Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. The early years of vernacular education allow for the continued flourishing of distinctive minority cultures and distinctive ethnic milieus of learning.
While such vernacular schooling may tend to reinforce separate ethnically based social interaction, this need not jeopardise social interaction at all levels. Celebrating the social values and cultural attributes of each community contributes to the larger purpose of a strong multicultural nation.
A major controversy arose over the rejection of the Chinese language Merdeka University project in 1982. And the 1987 protest over the appointment of non-Mandarin-speaking senior assistants in Chinese schools led to political detentions.
However, with the promulgation of the Education Act of 1996, the liberalisation of higher education has eased ethnic tensions caused by educational policies. It also led to the mushrooming of private colleges, including the New Era College, which uses Mandarin as a medium of instruction.
The PH government’s delay in recognising the Unified Examination Certificate offered by the 60 independent Chinese-medium schools jeopardises rather than contributes to better ethnic relations.
It is laudable that a task force has been set up to study the matter, but a quick decision is surely needed. The UEC is already accepted by Malaysia’s private universities and hundreds of foreign universities abroad.
In addressing an issue such as vernacular education, the state must not lose sight of the larger objective of embedding into our teaching and learning processes the necessity of practising multicultural citizenship and recognising the equal worth of all groups and their cultures. All schools irrespective of language medium should practise and teach the importance of multicultural citizenship.
We can readily admit that multicultural interaction and learning has been found wanting in Malaysia. Some ethnic mixing occurs within all educational institutions but is severely constrained because of the lack of common interactive zones and social spaces.
This does not mean that there are no opportunities or common sites for Malaysians, regardless of ethnic origin to interact, as shown by Poet Laureate Usman Awang in his heart-warming poem Anak Jiran Tionghoa, discussed and translated into English recently by Wong Soak Koon.
Ideally, multi-ethnic social interaction should occur within schools and residential colleges and through sporting activities, cafeterias, societies, and associations.
However, the various ethnic groups generally tend to find their own comfort zones within schools, universities or outside campuses, such as in monocultural restaurants, mosques, churches, temples, and other mutually exclusive spaces.
Ethnic relations module
A major top-down policy in the early 2000s was the introduction of an ethnic relations module or university course as an instrument of cross-cultural learning.
However, the first module used by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) in 2006 sparked controversy because of its biased narrative of the 1969 race riots and the 2001 Kampong Medan incident of ethnic violence.
Prof AB Shamsul of the National University of Malaysia (UKM) was tasked with editing the ethnic relations module and, with the support of academic colleagues, produced a well-crafted module which is now used by all universities.
Shamsul also established the Ethnic Relations Institute at UKM, which helps to coordinate and receive feedback on the course.
But there are some criticisms of the module. A medical student intimated to me that most students aimed to just pass the exam and that the lecturer showed little passion in conducting the course. The student said the only appealing part of the course came from watching the movie Sepet (directed by the late Yasmin Ahmad) about an interracial romance.
In some 35 years as a university lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia, I had seen a decline in multi-ethnic student interaction and social learning because of deep, unresolved ethnic divides.
In the 1970s students were fewer and came from mostly English-based schooling. The different ethnic groups showed a great propensity to mix in the common sites of interaction. The environment for social learning was better because of moderate attitudes and fewer religious strictures, especially on Muslims.
By the 1980s a shift took place with large student numbers from two overall sets: those from more rural settings and those from the more urban environments. Moreover, students tended to polarise socially according to ethnic schooling streams. University associations reflected this. Cafeteria mixing became less evident. University policies premised on religious strictures also made mixing increasingly monocultural.
Since the mid-1990s private universities saw a large enrolment of affluent non-bumiputera students, while public universities became the predominant domain of bumiputera students and lecturers. The divide between public and private universities mirrored Malaysian ethnic divisions, and universities are hardly important sites of multicultural social mixing and social learning.
The ethnic relations module aimed at bridging ethnic differences through formal learning does too little too late.
Social learning has to start at least at the secondary school level, if not earlier. A social studies course stressing the value of multicultural citizenship needs to be introduced in all national schools. Alongside this, other policies aimed at enhancing social interaction could also be introduced as suggested by many studies on multicultural education.
Loyalty to the state
Malaysia is now arguably experiencing another cycle of precipitous ethnic relations. In a new important work, Identity, National and State-Building in Malaysia, KJ Ratnam, an emeritus professor, provides the insight that all individuals manifest layers of identity and will and can show their loyalty on a continuum to any one of these identities. One naturally shows loyalty to one’s family, one’s ethnic group, one’s religious group, football team and so on.
But most importantly, one also demonstrates one’s loyalty to the “terminal” entity we call the nation or the state. Conversely, the state must accord to its citizens reasonable, appropriate, responsive (and, implied here is “democratic”) institutions which are instrumental to the wellbeing and welfare of its citizens.
Finally, if there is no recognition of the equal worth of citizens by the state and if citizens do not treat their fellow citizens with equality and mutual respect, the very idea of “my nation” or “my country” will become a vacuous or empty one.Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
15 November 2019