In his Merdeka reflection, “selfie” to the nation means to indulge in self-examination or soul searching, and accepting dissent is the highest form of patriotism asserts Dr Mustafa K Anuar.
In the midst of proudly raising and flying the Jalur Gemilang at home and in government and business premises, watching the colourful parade that supposedly embodies the “imagined community” of Malaysians, standing in the cinema hall in respect of the Negaraku, and sticking miniature Malaysian flags on the bonnet of seasoned Protons, Malaysians, particularly Peninsular Malaysians, who celebrated the 57th anniversary of the then Malaya’s independence from colonial Britain could also do with taking a selfie.
A ‘selfie’, for the uninitiated, is a digital-age expression meaning taking a photograph of oneself with a smartphone with the intention of sharing it with friends via a social media website – although some selfie-adherents may be simply driven by narcissistic pleasure. But for the purpose of this article, “selfie” refers to the need for Malaysia as a whole to indulge in self-examination, or soul-searching if you like.
If the very purpose of achieving independence from Britain was to free ourselves from, among many other things, the yoke of colonialism, political oppression, economic exploitation and underdevelopment, ethnic divisiveness, human indignity and ignorance of human rights, then we as a nation have a lot more to do to give real meaning to Merdeka especially in light of incidents and issues that have unfolded over the last few years which have had the effect of rolling back some of the political, socio-economic and cultural gains that were made since independence. A wake-up call is required here.
There are several areas of Malaysian life that need to be examined critically, such as ethnic relations, religion, freedom and democracy.
Whether we like it or not, Malaysia is indeed a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multireligious entity – a fact that should have sunk into all of us Malaysian by now. And yet in this day and age, there are segments in our society that still harp on ethnic and cultural differences rather than similarities. In fact, they abhor difference. Period.
What is even worrying is that ethnicity, or rather the abuse of ethnicity for short-term political and economic gains, has permeated into almost all layers of Malaysian life to the extent of creating an immense fault-line that threatens to make national integration a Herculean task.
To be sure, ethnicity has defined many major spheres of life, such as educational, cultural, economic and political institutions.
Just take a simple example of application forms from some colleges, universities, business organisations, scholarship sponsors and political parties; membership forms from fraternity clubs and professional associations; and forms for house and land purchases: they all emphasise ethnicity as if without it, the information collected is inadequate and will cause the wheels of bureaucracy to grind to a halt. In many cases, ethnicity becomes part of an important calculation for reasons best known to these people.
At the other extreme, the economic backwardness of certain segments of the Malay community is often blamed on a particular ethnic community (and it often tends to be the Chinese, but if everything else fails, it’s the Jews), thereby causing unnecessary tension, suspicion and even hatred between ethnic groups.
It is also unfortunate that this ethnic blame prevents a vital and holistic analysis of the socio-economic problem where it can explore and consider several causal (or structural) factors such as leakages in the delivery system, political and financial corruption in the bureaucracy, diversion from, or poor implementation of, poverty eradication policy, etc.
Another example of the ethnic slant: there still exists political parties that purportedly accept diversity and coexistence in society, but ironically their survival depends heavily on championing the cause of their respective ethnic communities, rightly or wrongly, to the point of being xenophobic and ethnically divisive. This fact of certain parties wearing ethnic lenses applies to political entities from both side of the political divide.
But when ethnicity is mixed with religion, as is the case in our society, you get a concoction that may produce a volatile outcome where ethnic bigotry and religious intolerance or insensitivity impose themselves on the rules of social interaction. This is when, say, a Malay-Muslim wishing a Christian friend “Merry Christmas” may find herself walking into a religious landmine ― and at the same time wondering how brittle her faith can be. Here we have yet to talk about the issue of doing yoga, poco-poco or zumba.
And in a Malaysia where being Malay coalesces with being Muslim as prescribed by the Federal Constitution, a legitimate criticism (that coincidentally comes from a non-Malay) of, say, a Malay politician, Muslim religious leader or what are deemed “Malay interests” can easily veer to an uncanny combo of anti-Malay-equals-anti-Islam-equals-anti-monarchy spiel. This obviously makes an otherwise sober and civilised conversation on such issues problematic.
Incidentally, this purported protection of ‘our community’ at times can serve as a clever or crafty strategy to deflect criticisms, an ‘art’ that is also employed by leaders of other ethnic communities.
Indeed, it doesn’t improve understanding nor enhance the level of discourse if some people start instead to parade beheaded cow heads on the streets, throw a pig’s head into a mosque compound or wriggle tired bums in front of an activist’s home. Or worse, lob Molotov cocktails into the premises of certain politicians. It just produces more heat than light.
Furthermore, it appears these days that such a discourse on ethnic-related matters has the potential of being labelled as ‘seditious’, which is most unfortunate as many of the discussions and criticisms levelled against leaders, including Malays, of political parties and certain NGOs are made with the noble intention and genuine concern for the good of the country.
It brings to mind the rude irony of the present government maintaining and using colonial-era laws that are oppressive, such as the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which were enacted then for the very purpose of protecting the interests of the colonial British power against those of the colonised rakyat. As an independent nation, Malaysia must move on and replace these shackles of anachronism with liberating values that can bring the entire community to greater heights.
This may sound like a tired refrain, but freedom of expression is the cornerstone of the democracy that Malaysia perceives itself to be. Lest I may be misconstrued, I am not calling for total and unrestrained freedom here (because there’s no such thing as absolute freedom in reality). An independent rakyat deserve the right to express their views and also the right to make their leaders accountable for the actions that are made in their very name.
Besides, freedom of expression especially when it is articulated in civility is, at the end of the day, the bulwark against extremism of various hues.
In the larger interest of the nation, constructive criticism articulated in a civilised fashion must be jealously guarded by all. After all, if we may borrow an expression from elsewhere, dissent is the highest form of patriotism.