When we talk about unity, let’s include all the different races, religions and genders as well as the differently abled.
IT was a big week for Asean. On August 8, the regional grouping celebrated its 50th anniversary (Asean@50), further cementing the need for the 10 nation states to continue collaborating on trade, security and many other relevant issues.
In the same week, Singapore celebrated its 52nd National Day on August 9. This date is also a part of our nation’s history as in 1965, following political and economic differences, Singapore separated from Malaysia.
This coming August 31, Malaysia will be celebrating our 60th Independence Day, as the proclamation of independence of the country then known as Malaya was announced on said date in 1957. I am always cautious when I state this, so as to not offend those in Sabah and Sarawak, fully conscious that the Malaysia I have known all my life was formed on September 16, 1963, thus making Malaysia only 54 years old.
The reason I wax nostalgic about dates in history is to present a case for how complex history can be. We must now learn our lessons from this history, in our efforts in building this nation called Malaysia.
As my friend, Calvin Woo, succinctly put it during the Asean@50 conference, “Malaysia is our home, and Asean is the neighbourhood”. While there have been numerous calls for unity, inclusivity and progress lauded in many talks and conferences, I personally am of the opinion that 50 to 60 years of history surely must have gathered enough data to inform policies, for us to move forward in the best way possible, whether in Malaysia, Asean or the world.
Perhaps I am talking with naïve optimism, but Malaysia is my home, and I believe that we can be better as a nation. As with any family, skirmishes and differences are to be expected, and in some adverse situations family members may have left, as was the case with Singapore. Yet the co-operation that Malaysia and Singapore have through Asean has proven that differences can be negotiated in order to achieve a common good.
Moving forward, we must realise that when we talk of unity, we are talking about including every single Malaysian. During the panel on “Asia’s New Wave – Beyond Diversity” organised by Nikkei Asian Review on August 3, Datuk Seri Johan Raslan said out loud what has been on my mind for quite some time now.
“(In calling for inclusivity in diversity) we must not forget the differently abled,” he said. I would like to add that we must also not forget to include women – so often sidelined from “manels” (a popular millennial term used to describe all-male panels), policy-making and representation in national and regional politics, as well as those living with invisible lifelong disabilities such as people living with HIV and those living with mental health issues.
Malaysia today is at a very interesting, albeit worrying, juncture. On the one hand, we wax lyrical about a “Bangsa Malaysia”, made evident from the responses collected through #TN50 townhalls and many collective movements that promote unity – examples include efforts of Ecoworld and Star Media Group (SMG) via the #AnakAnakMalaysia movement; SMG and SunSuria Group’s #RideforMalaysia; SMG, Aset Kayamas and MRCB’s Raise The Flag; and the current effort by Projek57, #RideforUnity.
On the other hand, we seem adamant about pushing ourselves into categorical boxes. A Malaysian almost always has to be further defined by race and religion, whereas in the case of Muslims, certain aspects of our lives are also governed by state-sanctioned syariah laws. This means Muslims risk not being seen as equal before the law, as enshrined in Malaysia’s Federal Constitution.
Any anomaly or discourse on either race or religion is deemed publicly unacceptable and any outspoken individual risks being placed under the sub-category of heretic, or worse, liberal!
Where is the sweet spot for balance here? Even those of us calling ourselves “moderates” have had our voices curtailed through character assassination online and book banning, in particular the book Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation, Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, that if properly read cover-to-cover provides the academic discourse on the very issue of identity and the nation state of Malaysia.
When we call for unity for Malaysia, I think we must not forget to ask, “Whose Malaysia?” Surely if we were to appreciate our own history, we would accept the concept of “Bangsa Malaysia” without a second thought.
Yet, to implement this, we must be courageous in putting aside our fears and our egos. Policies need to take into consideration the multi-ethnic, multi-religious (and yes, this should include those who subscribe to atheism) make-up of our country, where targeted policies meant to empower a particular group must not end up discriminating against another, or worse, sidelining minority groups altogether.
I wish for all Malaysians to remember the exhilaration and unified spirit that we will be feeling when we cheer for our national team this coming SEA Games. Let us remember that we are indeed stronger together, and that diversity is indeed our strength.
And may there be no Malaysian left behind in our progress towards a better nation.
- Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist and a runner, and hopes to #bringbackthekebaya. The views expressed here are entirely her own.