In what appears to be a subdued celebration — in contrast to the recent 50th Merdeka bash — of the 44th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia, the New Sunday Times (16 Sept 2007) splashed a front page headline, 'Bonds of Unity', the full story of which was carried inside on pages 6 and 7. It featured an interview with Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Dr Maximus Ongkili, the guy who's in charge of national unity and integration.
Some of the minister's responses need urgent reaction. Or at the very least, more questions need to be raised.
For instance, when first asked this question, “Where are we today in terms of national unity?”, the minister went on a long and winding road to arrive at a reply. He said that of all the states in the Federation, the Federal Territories, Selangor and Penang “face a major challenge in terms of unity”.
“This is where,” he said, “the urbanites live, where expectations are high, where the difficulties of life are pronounced, because while you have the middle class, you also have squatters. People in these areas are more vocal, very competititve in looking for jobs and education oppportunities for their children. They talk a lot and they question a lot.”
There you are: these are euphemisms – newspeak if you like – for a simple answer to the “erosion of national unity”. But why the erosion after 44 years of Malaysia? Is it because of stiff competition for scarce resources that is often coloured by ethnic considerations? Why would poverty or lower income among the squatters be necessarily seen in ethnic terms when poverty, like material wealth, cuts across ethnic boundaries? And are we to conclude that a citizenry that is vocal, concerned and critical is a recipe for national disunity – compared to those people in smaller towns such as Sitiawan, Cameron Highlands and Mentakab who “don't make noise” (p.6)?
Another thing, Ongkili also mentioned Kelantan as one of those places where ethnicity isn't a problem. But he was quick to say that although there's no “racial problem”, “it's a political problem”. “Political problem”? Why? Is it because the state is in the hands of opposition Pas that it therefore doesn't merit consideration for an accolade?
While he rightly pointed out that the problems of ethnic unity are due to factors of “economic competition, relations between people of different faiths on matters involving religion, income disparity, and disparity between the races”, he, however, omitted fundamental factors such as institutional racism and the politics of ethnicity that is often played by the ethnic-based parties in the ruling coalition and, to a certain degree, some segments of the opposition.
Another thing that arose from the interview was the minister's take on “the strong level of integration and unity among the people in East Malaysia”. He attributed this apparent plus factor to “inter-ethnic marriages and economic activities that all races are involved in, so you seldom have a problem”. For one thing, is he suggesting that inter-ethnic marriages are the antidote to problems of national unity? Isn't this response a wee bit simplistic? And what about those guys from various ethnic backgrounds making money from state-generated projects? Why should they quarrel among themselves if the stakes are high and they are given sufficient opportunity to make hay while the sun shines?
Be that as it may, the minister, like many others in the Federal cabinet, is inclined to remind us that “We should be grateful for what we have achieved thus far.” Sure enough, we should count our blessings that our country has achieved substantially well in terms of ethnic relations. But this doesn't necessarily discount the fact that we are also, if not checked, on a slippery road to ethnic and religious disharmony because of certain political shenanigans. The ministers concerned should also be grateful to their constituencies for having voted them into power despite these shortcomings.
Malaysian Media Monitors