The problem with ‘1Malaysia’: A musical-historical perspective

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The concept of a pure Malay culture is non-existent because cultures, essentially, are complex, and this is why the notion of ONE Malaysia is a myth, says Adil Johan.

A fiction, not a fact
A fiction, not a fact

Definition:

‘majmuk’: terdiri daripada beberapa bahagian yang bersatu; terdiri atau terbentuk daripada beberapa bahagian dan sebagainya tetapi merupakan kesatuan

[‘pluralism’: composed of many parts that are united; inclusive or formed from many parts but of a unified whole]

(translated from Kamus Dewan Online)

Music, history and pluralism in the Malay Peninsula

In my studies of Malay music history, I have observed that it is impossible to define a specific ‘Malay’ musical tradition. This is not due to an ‘absence’ of culture or a precedent of ‘stealing’ or ‘borrowing’ of other musical cultures as some falsely believe. Malay musical tradition is undefinable because it is so immensely diverse and varied. In short, Malay musical tradition is a majmuk tradition.

Like our pluralistic society, Malay music culture is a sum composed of many intertwining parts. Some of the styles of music include the inang, joget, zapin, asli, dondang sayang, and even the Javanese keroncong. Of course, local university syllabi on traditional music would include all of these styles under a general ‘umbrella’ of Malay traditional music, but I strongly reject this gross simplification.

This is because throughout history and across education systems, there is a myth of subsuming unity in culture or ethnicity. The truth is, all our cultures are complex and interwoven through complex processes of change throughout space and time. The Malaysian Archipelago or Nusantara is a beautiful example of pluralistic exchange across and within diverse cultures.

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Prior to the colonisation of European Empires, Melaka was a centre of cultural interaction between Chinese, Indian, Arabic and Southeast Asian peoples. Aside from precious spices, technologies such as musical instruments were traded while languages and religious ideas were shared. Skilled traders spoke in many tongues; while Malay was a dominant lingua franca across the Indian Ocean.

In short, our rich cultural history indicates that it is impossible to pin down one specific or pure Malaysian ‘tradition’. Our cultural history is rich and pluralistic and the character of the Malay Peninsula should be understood as such.

So, what is my problem with ‘1Malaysia’?

This is a concept that completely ignores our rich and diverse history in the region while undermining the unique balance of differences that we share in contemporary Malaysian society. The ‘1 Malaysia’ slogan is merely a corporate branding exercise that desperately tried to fit all Malaysians into an artifical ‘box’ of national identity.

I don’t even need to talk about non-Malays to discuss cultural diversity in our country.

Let us focus on the ‘ethnic’ group that I come from: ‘The Malays’. In my study of Malay culture and history, I have found our understanding of Malay ethnicity to be very misguided.

First, the Malay community is a post-colonial construct. Prior to colonial rule, the Malays identified themselves in relation to the numerous Sultanates (eg. Perak, Johor, Pahang). You were either an ‘orang Johor’ or ‘orang Perak’; not an ‘orang Melayu’. There wasn’t any concept of ‘bangsa’ or ‘race’ the way we experience it today. You would have been asked what kampung or community you came from rather than your ‘race’ or ‘nationality’.

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Second, people considered ‘Malay’ today can trace their ancestry to many ethnic groups across the Malay Archipelago, eg. Bugis, Minangkabau, Java, Aceh, Orang Laut and some can even be traced to Arab communities like the Hadramaut. One shining example is Parameswara, the founder of the glorious Malay sultanate of Melaka who came from the kingdom of Palembang in Sumatra.

Third, for current-day Malays; aren’t we all individuals with different cultural lifestyles and political beliefs? Let us not even talk about the supposed ‘urban-rural’ divide. In the cities, there are Malays who are devout and there are some who are moderately religious. There are Malays who support Umno and some who support DAP. Some believe in a neoliberal free market economy and some believe in an Islamic-welfare state. Some like tempoyak and some like ‘chicken chop’. Some absolutely love durian but some absolutely, hands-down, hate durian. Historically, I can say the same about music taste; some preferred keroncong over joget, while some loved both equally.

If we all ate nasi lemak three times a day, 365-days a year, we would be absolutely bored of nasi lemak. So, as Malaysians, we are blessed with a plethora of choices such as roti canai, chicken chop, char koay teow – and for our health, the occasional ulam!

So, that is my problem with ‘1Malaysia’. It is so far from the truth and so far from right. We, as a pluralistic or majmuk society, must embrace the differences and diversity of views and cultures that we have. This is something that is deeply embedded in the rich cultural history of this amazing peninsula. Malay musical ‘tradition’ is in fact, a direct reflection of this pluralism.

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As a Malaysian youth, I hope to see a political future of not one but ‘Many Malaysias’ converging in a harmonious symphony of flavours and voices. In order to see that, we need to overhaul our deeply flawed electoral process to ensure a healthy democracy and a fair political system that doesn’t reward a minority ‘1Malaysia government’. I know that most of us youth are sick and tired of the same old song.

Adil Johan is currently writing a PhD. thesis on Malay music history. His research focuses on Malay film music from the 1950s to 1960s and how it relates to the making of the Malaysian nation. He believes that politics and the arts are closely intertwined and hopes to contribute to the wealth of youth voices that seek a cleaner, fairer and more democratic Malaysia.

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Suguna Papachan
Suguna Papachan
4 Jun 2013 1.35am

I think Adli has touched something about where you come from, he mentions in the old days people would be known from where they come from e.g. orang Johor or Orang melaka came. In India too people were known which “oora” (country) you came from, people were keen to know which district you came from coz each district had their own distinguishing trades or culture or food. That’s interesting coz I’m for diversity. Race is bull … its an anthropological nightmare!!!! Its for the Nazis … it doesn’t work today … we are now so cross bred that we don’t know which leg fits which shoe … huh??? Exactly huh?????

AlexUB
AlexUB
2 Jun 2013 11.13pm

Dear Adil Johan, whilst I find lots wrong with BN I do not disagree with the concept of 1Malaysia. Seems to me what you said about embracing our diversity is precisely what 1Malaysia is all about. I am so encouraged reading your article and hope your most admirable views are shared by others. We can not fault everything that BN does and certainly I do not fault 1Malaysia. You do notice that it is 1Malaysia and not 1Malay so keep to your ideals…you are surely on the right track.