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Meaning of Merdeka in multicultural Malaysia: Reflections from a Cologne playground

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Merdeka means freeing ourselves not only from colonialism but also the noxious sentiments preventing us from becoming one community. Azmil Tayeb reflects. 

It is a cool breezy evening at the tail end of summer, a much welcome respite from the oppressive heatwave that has been sweeping through Europe in recent months. 

I sit with my friend at a park in Cologne as we watch over his 16-month-old daughter Ella tumbling around in the sandpit. She seems to be completely at ease with other children in the sandpit, most of whom look different from her. Among them are a girl of Turkish descent, a boy who is with a Ghanaian mother and another boy whose parents are from the Indian subcontinent. Ella, meanwhile, is white.

The sight of playing children with diverse backgrounds in the sandpit spurs me to reflect on the meaning of multiculturalism in Malaysia as I spend the Merdeka anniversary in the land of bratwurst and schnitzel. 

What is the reality of a multicultural society in present-day Malaysia after 62 years of independence? More crucially, why are we still plagued by stubbornly intractable ethno-religious issues that divide and sow distrust and suspicion among in our multi-ethnic society?

Merdeka, in essence, signified freedom and liberation, the unfettered opportunity for reinvention of self and the charting of a new destiny into the unknown future. 

Fast-forward 62 years: To what extent has Malaysia reinvented itself and charted a new destiny that unshackles it from the demons of its past? 

It is, of course, a rhetorical question. We are well aware that Malaysia has progressed by leaps and bounds in economic and material development terms. But when it comes to ethnic and religious relations it is as if nothing substantive has changed in the decades following independence.

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One reason for the cleavages found in post-independence Malaysian society has been the ethnic-based politics practised by the major ethnic groups represented by the component parties in the erstwhile Barisan Nasional government. 

The wave of Islamic resurgence that hit Malaysia in the late 1970s and the early 1980s further worsened communal rifts as religious and ethnic identities became inextricably intertwined. 

This was also the period that saw the ascendancy of the ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) ideology that sets the Malays above other ethnic groups. 

Instead of coming together with a shared history and a common destiny, post-independence Malaysia ends up coming apart as sectarian politics shapes the order of the day.

On 9 May 2018 concerned Malaysians had enough of the Barisan Nasional government and voted for an unprecedented change. For many, the changing of the guard represents the hope and potential for a sweeping social transformation that can finally move the country beyond the narrow, acrimonious ethno-religious politics of the past six decades. In other words, the outcome of the 2018 general election gives us a second chance for self-reinvention and the charting of a new destiny. 

Alas, more than a year after the historic election, clearly not much has changed when it comes to combating the toxic influence of ethno-religious issues in Malaysian politics. If anything, the ethno-religious situation has arguably worsened since the 2018 general election. 

From the controversy over the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to the Seafield temple riots to the Jawi/khat fiasco, ethno-religious politics is still alive and kicking in the “new” Malaysia. 

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Nagathisan Katahenggam writes that as soon as the euphoria of “Malaysia Baru” ended, ethno-centric rhetoric again reared its ugly head as it has been deeply embedded within society and has not yet been exorcised. 

Kenneth Lee, meanwhile, laments that this ethno-religious divide remains a stumbling block toward realising a truly harmonious multi-ethnic Malaysia in the post-2018 general election era. This is mainly due to unscrupulous politicians exploiting emotionally driven ethno-religious issues to further their political agendas. 

While the current political elites might still be mired in the old ethno-religious politics, what can we ordinary Malaysians do to reinvent the country in a form that genuinely celebrates diversity, namely by cultivating empathy and respect for political, ethnic or religious differences? 

One way is through the education system. Khoo Kok Heong argues that, instead of using the Chinese vernacular schools as a punching bag and seeing them as an impediment to national unity, Malaysians should appreciate the diversity of educational opportunities available. This is especially so in these vernacular schools, which have become more multi-ethnic over the years. In other words, national public schools are no longer the sole driver for national integration and inter-ethnic harmony. 

Nurfarhana Che Awang, however, places the failure to foster a sense of inter-ethnic unity in schools squarely on the woeful implementation of the national educational philosophy (falsafah pendidikan negara) at the school level – despite the inclusive and tolerant character of this philosophy. She contends that schools, in particular teachers and principals, should do more to cultivate inter-ethnic understanding among impressionable pupils. 

That said, studies have shown that more inter-ethnic interactions would lead to more tolerance and less prejudice. Lee Hwok-Aun’s analysis of five national surveys on ethnic relations in Malaysia shows that while most Malays and Chinese tend to have friends only from their own respective ethnic groups, the majority of them do prefer to live in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods (pdf file). 

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If people are given the chance to know and understand others who are “different” from them in a safe and non-judgemental environment – whether in schools, residential areas or workplaces – it would reduce the likelihood of inflammatory ethno-religious issues gaining traction in a multicultural society like Malaysia. 

So let this Merdeka Day be the time to liberate our minds from the stranglehold of ethnic and religious prejudices. Let it encourage us to find common ground amidst our diversity. Merdeka means freeing ourselves not only from the clutches of colonialism but also from the noxious sentiments preventing us from becoming one community. 

Let this be the day when we learn to develop empathy and openness for those who are different from us. Let us focus on and put into practice universal values that see a fellow being as part of the great humanity, unencumbered by differences in skin colour, religion, gender and sexual orientation. All of us bleed red after all. 

Watching the toddlers in the Cologne playground makes me realise that ideal multicultural life is possible when it is not tainted by deep-seated values of prejudices and bigotry learned over the years. We can surely learn a lot from the innocence of children playing in a sandpit. 

With that, Happy Merdeka Day, Malaysia! 


Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 August 2019
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