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Nation needs spirit of solidarity rather than elusive elite-driven ‘unity’

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We need a multi-ethnic solidarity movement of workers, peasants, environmentalist and all those who desire the common good to shape the nation, writes Ronald Benjamin.

I came across an interesting letter by Dr Chandra Muzaffar in the online media dated 12 January 2018.

He lamented that the 13-point manifesto announced by Pakatan Harapan on 6 January 2018 does not contain one of the greatest challenges that have always confronted the nation – the challenge of promoting unity in our multi-religous and multicultural society.

It obvious that Chandra is concerned about the current exclusive Muslim ethno-religious polemics confronting the nation and the lack of appreciation by certain segments of society of the role of the Malay language as a channel for effective inter-ethnic interaction and the position of the Malay rulers in shaping the nation’s character and identity.

Chandra has pointed out the most fundamental challenges, and he seems to focus on unity, which is the first goal of the Rukun Negara.

We also need to analyse socio-economic inequality in our society. Malaysia has a complex political landscape of ethno-religious identities that are reinforced when the various communities are caught up with socio-economic insecurities or challenged by corruption and abuse of power.

It is obvious there is a chasm between the ideals of the Rukun Negara and the political reality in the country.

The question is, do we want to work on the current framework of unity that is limited to a certain document and shaped by elites or are we prepared to take a progressive approach that involves the wider segment of society, which would promote an alternative character of the nation – an approach that would give our Rukun Negara and Constitution its real meaning and intent?

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The nation’s character is currently shaped by elites who are from an ethnocentric political system where a term like unity is used as long as it does not challenge their political hegemony. The 1Malaysia concept brought about by Prime Minister Najib Razak is an example of how this concept failed when elites are threatened by corruption and abuse of power.

We cannot depend solely on these elites, whether they are from the ruling Barisan coalition or Pakatan Harapan. They do not address unity from the perspective of bottom-up socio-economic class divisions; nor do they consider the importance of equality before the law irrespective of social position – which constitutes unity in the real sense.

The current Pakatan Harapan’s pick for Prime Minister Dr Mahathir himself is an architect of division when Umno was threatened in the past. It is obvious that the political realism of ethno-religious identity has shaped Pakatan Harapan in its current form, and addressing unity in an honest sense would be an uphill battle.

Besides politics, today we find the law on sedition is used for perceived insults, when it fact unity should be derived from equality before the law and freedom of conscience. Counter arguments to put a situation right should not be regarded as seditious. How would national unity in a real sense be forged in this context of authoritarianism? The concept of unity propounded by the Rukun Negara seems to be elusive in the current political context.

Therefore the nation’s character on unity should be shaped by a bottom-up process rather than being elite-driven. I believe social activists, intellectuals and socialist politicians should create more programmes of solidarity that relate to the grassroots level rather than hoping for politicians to come up with manifestos that contradict their political nature.

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We need solidarity more than unity (because solidarity would help address the gap between the rich and the poor), equality before the law irrespective of status, and respect for diversity rather the uniformity that the religious elites would desire.

We need a multi-ethnic solidarity movement of workers, peasants, environmentalist and all those who desire the common good to shape the nation rather than depending on political elites who are more concerned about ethnic identity, positions and status.

Unfortunately, the conservative approach to ‘unity’ does not correspond to the reality of socio-economic inequality and social class divisions. Addressing this reality would require a focus on solidarity, which would provide a noble character to the nation.

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