August 30, 2008

Forging a Nation: Are We There Yet?

Posted in Malaysia, The Cause, Tricia's Writings at 2:20 am by egalitaria

  My article came out in The Sun today, in its Merdeka Edition. it compiles stories on different aspects of Nationality. Mine was titled “Forging a Nation: Are we there yet?”

This is what I wrote, which is also available here.

Forging a Nation: Are We There Yet?  by Tricia Yeoh

The Sun, Friday 29th August 2008

Numerous attempts have been made to articulate what “Malaysia” as a nation means. We’ve explored it in a dozen ways, and 51 years after Independence, we are still having teething problems. It doesn’t take a genius to observe that Malaysia is going through a turbulent period. We seem to be fragmented on all possible fronts: ethnic, religious, regional, socio-economic. Fractures also exist within these categories, and not just between them. Things that unite us do not go beyond sharing of festivals, food, costumes and flags – all surfacial and never quite digging into the deeper identity of a nation.  

Having said that, 2008 will go down in Malaysian history as the year of reckoning. What the March 8th Elections did for Malaysia was the beginning of the much-needed but also messy process of upheaval – of reconstructing identities, reviewing our values, revamping the nation as a whole. The way people voted in March signalled a change against a race-based agenda and towards one that embraces a multiethnic platform. But is this enough to define nationhood so clearly?  

Indeed, it is this moment that together, we will need to take stock of which elements we want to keep, improve or cut off completely in a national charter ahead. What is rotten must be willingly shed. What is precious must be maintained. What are new and refreshing ideas must lay the groundwork for the future. Some urgent, fresh vision is needed, or Malaysia will remain an eternal “could-have-been” nation of unrealised potential.  

Vision 2020 was supposed to have been Malaysia’s national charter. National unity, social justice, and social cohesion are all excellent ideals, but political bickering – which has worsened this year – has reduced these to utter rubble. Race and religion have unfortunately always been politicised, resulting as stumbling blocks to truly forging a great nation. These infiltrate almost every aspect of national discourse. It has stunted the growth of the country by reducing our unique diverse natures to mere tools in the hands of power-hungry politicians.  

There must be a clearer dream for the nation. What we have had in operation for decades on end have “worked” for us. Yes, Malaysia will still survive under the same model. But is that all we really desire, or is there greater potential that Malaysia should have by now harnessed? So much talent and energy reside within individual Malaysians, which has not been fully optimised. Multiethnic, multicultural, multi-religious Malaysia should rightfully be an international hub of trade, industry, education, religious discourse, tourism and culture. Why have we not achieved this, and further, what ought to be done at this crucial stage?  

First, race-based politics must be deconstructed as a necessary first step if Malaysia wants to move away from constantly having to retreat to ethnic bases for political mileage. Unity lies at the heart of nation-building efforts, and race-based politics through its very definition would contradict this. Promises to advance one particular ethnic group come at the expense of other groups.  

Second, some deep philosophical thinking and must be done, to chart out what the nation should be about. What are the common principles that hold us so strongly together? What common values do Malaysians share? How can we realistically share the nation together, given varying cultural and religious needs?  Although inherent differences will always exist, how can we share Malaysia not in a begrudging, contemptible manner; but in a way that joyfully and exceedingly embraces and affirms the other, celebrating both commonalities and differences alike? Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had the most difficult task of governing a multiethnic and multi-religious city. Surely there are lessons Malaysia can learn. 

The following aspirational values were ironically the foundations of Malaya at its independence. More reasonably, they draw upon all faiths and worldviews – it is difficult to fundamentally reject these.  

Social Justice. Malaysia should have social safety nets that adequately address socioeconomic inequalities, implementing a needs-based affirmative action policy without racial discrimination and thereby leading to equitable outcomes.  

Rule of Law. Malaysia should uphold the Constitution and respect the rule of law, with no exception (especially not political exception!). This includes fighting corruption and promoting transparency and accountability at all levels of governance: Federal, State and Local.  

Fundamental Liberties. Malaysia should ensure that fundamental liberties are accorded to each individual, following the Federal Constitution. These freedoms feed a grassroots, bottoms-up participatory democratic process through civil society engagement that lends itself to a thriving democracy.  

Peace and Conflict Resolution. Malaysia should promote peace and reconciliation between the state and the public, between one community and another, between nation and nation.  

Free and Fair Elections. Malaysia should practice free and fair elections at Federal, State and Local levels, eliminating all possible attempts of vote-rigging, to ensure citizens exercise their right to elect their leaders.  

There are many other values that can be commonly shared. This is true national unity. Carving out these common values and principles should be the duty of all. Even if there are disagreements, let the contestation be about ideas and not race or religion. Healing our fragmented and wounded society means eliminating “race” and “religion” from our political discourse.  

Third, although we prescribe the sharing of principles and values, we must acknowledge cultural, ethnic and religious differences. The practice of assimilation (one culture, one language) is not entirely healthy. Let ethnic and religious differences flourish through clubs, societies and extracurricular activities, and certainly not within the political realm.   

As we celebrate the nation’s 51st Independence (and 45th Malaysian birthday), we have no choice but to shed shackles of cynicism and continue dreaming big for the country. Malaysians have suffered the consequences of allowing our ethnic and religious differences to be politicised for far too long. Transferring race and religion out of politics would allow us to finally focus on what we commonly believe. This we must do, lest Malaysia remains as always a “could-have-been”, and a half-baked nation. Forging a nation means coming to terms with our past errors, but moving confidently ahead and bravely charting out a new direction that we must claim.  

Let us not just celebrate the freedom of self-rule, but the freedom of thought and ideals. Selamat Merdeka!  
Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She believes that the time is ripe for forging a nation. Race and religion are relevant but should be kept outside politics. Contact her at 

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