Merdeka 56/50

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Can we challenge ourselves to come together across differences to craft the national identity and nationhood that we want, wonders Azza Basarudin.

merdeka and patriotism

Dear Tanah Air,

In a few days, Malaysians will again commemorate your birth as a modern nation. Your 56th/50th birthday.

Flags, parades, fireworks, cultural shows, and exhibitions are being perfected in your honour. More specifically, this year promises to be an exceptional celebration – a tour de force of patriotism, racial and religious unity and sovereignty.

Why, you might wonder? Well, where do I begin.

The much-contested outcome of the 13th general election. The incidents at Lahad Datu and Semporna. The Maznah Yusof @ Chetz case. The Syed Ahmad Alkaff, Surau and Buddhist meditation debacle. The Alvin and Vivian Ramadan scandal. The interrupted beauty pageant. Films like Tanda Putera and New Village. Non-Muslim students consuming food in the restroom during Ramadan. The cow-head incident. The ever-present Allah controversy. The threat to burn bibles. The list goes on…

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

Are you anticipating the upcoming celebration? Or, are you weeping instead? Perhaps, ambivalence is a more accurate interpretation.

Your liberation from colonial rule was a watershed moment in our history. It was an achievement that should be contextually and historically understood and reflected upon.

The rich history of anti-colonial nationalism and the struggle to shape the nation in its early years should serve as a reminder to us, your citizens, of what was fought for, and why it was worth preserving.

Let there be multiple interpretations of our history and the racial bargaining that went with it because history is not the monopoly of one person, political party or racial group and should not be a tool to determine who belongs to the nation and/or the degree of belonging. Every citizen has a claim to your history.

Dear Tanah Air,

It’s been awhile since I’ve felt you. But you permeate my thoughts and senses. Every fibre of my being and every moment of wakefulness.

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For the last several years, I have struggled to find positive and joyful news about you. Instead, I have been confronted with the harsh reality of the dangerous level of incompetency and bigotry functioning as legitimate characteristics for your leaders today.

The violation of personal choice and privacy are commonplace. Stories about gender inequality, moral policing, religious freedom, and sexuality rights are everyday food for thought.

I am anxious about the direction your leaders are taking you. I worry about how state-sponsored policies, corruption, violence and cronyism sharpens racial and religious tensions.

I worry that religious minorities are regularly incriminated for “insulting Islam and Muslims” and that increased surveillance and destruction of their houses of worship threaten their right to practise their faith.

I worry that bureaucrats are increasingly exploiting Islam by marking dissenting voices apostates and threatening them with punitive measures under draconian laws.

I worry that rising Malay supremacy is eroding the foundation of your pluralism.

I worry that politicians keep making embarrassing and illogical statements about anything and everything.

I worry that the profiling of the LGBT community – e.g., boys/men wearing tight t-shirts or carrying purses, tomboys – further marginalises them from society. I worry, period.

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

The casualties of an unauthorised war against the right to self-determination are plentiful – Lina [email protected] Jailani, Revathi Massosai, Kartika Shuharno, Azwan Ismail, Ariff Alfian Rosli – and remind us that much is left to be done. And in that spirit, it is necessary to reflect on the personal struggles of ordinary Malaysians who have been confronted with extraordinary challenges.

Most analysis of these cases relates to the failure of the legal systems and racial politicking that renders these individuals one-dimensional victims of the state and Islam.

What is missing is how these personal, yet very public, struggles demonstrate how subversive acts destabilise state policies, communal cohesion, and gender power relations.

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A nuanced reading of their struggles offers a constructive space beyond the binary of victimhood/agency and triumph/failure to understand how social constructions of Malay femininity and masculinity are central to nation building, population control, religious machinery, and Malay nationalism.

Can we revisit these stories of survival to generate new meanings and to ground alternative ways of being within your national borders and beyond?

Dear Tanah Air,

The theme for this year’s celebration is “My sovereign Malaysia: My native land”.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe both simultaneously.

Whose “native” land? The “My native land” portion of the slogan begs a reminder of the systematic discrimination and displacement of the Orang Asli.

Your leaders drive towards Vision 2020 and the unholy alliance between nationalism and capitalism has spurred the destruction of their ancestral lands, cultures and way of life.

Pour factors such as conversion to Islam, assimilation into mainstream society, and sexual violence of Penan women and children into the mix, and the race towards modernisation is built by trampling on the rights of minorities. Within this colonisation of Orang Asli and their lands, how are your citizens’ meant to take pride in the slogan “My native land”?

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

It is strenuous to keep hearing about the need for co-existence and tolerance. While I am certain there are pockets of spaces where these concepts still hold true, the plethora of racial and religious hostilities indicate they have long been forgotten.

Evoking the period of Muhibbah to combat racial discontent and wishing we could go back in time does disservice to the current context of struggle. This struggle is forged at a different historical juncture and while we learn from the practice of Muhibbah, the increasing intolerance masquerading as tolerance demands a strategic intervention.

The antidote to prejudice and hatred is critical and open dialogue in civil society without Big Brother looming and waiting for the right time to strike with threats of gag orders and/or detention without trials.

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Dialogues entail earning trust and respect and making a sustained effort to cross the bridge of difference and/or meeting in spaces-in-between, in spite of the difference.

There is bound to be discomfort, resentment, and even anger, but the first step is almost always painful. What other choice is there?

Dear Tanah Air,

On the eve of the 56th/50th Merdeka celebration, how would you pave the way forward humanely? What do you say to Malays who believe the nation belongs to them, and only them, and that others are merely long overdue visitors?

How would you untie the Malay supremacy cape that has come to symbolise the pre-requisite for “rightful” citizenship?

Should the state not take seriously insults against all religious groups? If utterances and actions can be construed as “insults” against Islam and Muslims, then the Chinese/Indian/Sikh communities should be accorded the same rights for “insults” against their belief systems. If not, the concept of “insult” should be dispensed with.

The gradual disengagement and eventual elimination of pedestrian notions of protectionism/Malay special rights that fan the flames of gender, racial/religious and sexual inequalities is crucial in the nation’s search for identity.

As your citizens wave the faithful Jalur Gemilang, appreciate the colorful parades, and enjoy cultural entertainments, we can choose to pretend for a day that we live in racial and religious utopia. Or, we can seize this moment to remember that we live in the shadow of an authoritarian state that uses its machineries to police its citizens, manufacture their consent and intimidate them into bending to its will.

Against this landscape, can we challenge ourselves to come together across differences to craft the national identity and nationhood that we want you to be in the 21st century?

Dare we dream?

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!


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