Commentary Politics

Tough to expect true unity in heterogeneous Malaysia

Multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia may have learned to co-exist but the tension surfaces when contentious issues on language, education and race are out in the open.

Written by Aziz Hassan

August 17, 2019.

Recollections & Reflections – A commentary by Aziz Hassan

THE old and very unsettling issue has resurfaced and understandably many have touched on it at social media platforms and via the conventional press.

As a result of recent incidents and statements, some are asking if there in fact is true unity among Malaysians or if they have merely learned to co-exist, the peace and quiet broken when issues such as those on race, language and education are raised and debated. Sure there are those who point to the spirit of nationalism shown when an athlete or a national sports team wins an international competition but that’s about the only time when Malaysians speak with one voice.

Some maintain that we had better unity when the schools system wasn’t as fragmented as it is now but maybe the dissenting voices could not be heard across the country then simply because there were not many public platforms available as now, with news being disseminated almost exclusively by the government controlled mainstream media. Furthermore, news outlets then were limited in numbers.

Which means that while not much was heard from the dissenters those days, dissent was always there, simmering but confined to just below the surface. Culturally too Malaysian are brought up to coat what they say in public, with the real feelings being held back so as not to hurt or rile up another race.

My own experiences while being with two media companies attest to discrimination and favouritism based on race but practised in subtle ways when editors gave out an assignment or when doing the year-end annual assessment. And you always knew something was not right when two colleagues began talking in a language others around them could not understand when the main common language on the floor was either Malay or English.

Further division can be seen in employment.

If the civil service is majority Malay, the private sector employs people based on the colour of their skin and there are more than enough examples of the latter with the country’s biggest companies.

What Malaysians are going through now must be a huge letdown for those who voted in the Pakatan Harapan government last year in the belief that a New Malaysia was on the way but there has hardly been anything new since.

Was there really going to be a New Malaysia? Not by my reckoning, for it was purely sloganeering aimed at winning over enough votes to kick out Barisan Nasional.

The fact of the matter is that Malaya was never a homogeneous country. Likewise Malaysia To understand better what it actually means one has to travel back in time to pre-1957 and what came with independence.

For a start politics began as a race based entity and has essentially remained so. So too the provisions in the federal Constitution which accommodate race and religion.

What happened after the formation of Malaysia in September 1969 and then the May 13 riots was simply more of the same and since then polarisation has been worse.

In comparison much is being made at social media about Indonesia and Thailand and Singapore too, which despite a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese, has a schools system that doesn’t accommodate mother-tongue education.

Malaysia is at the other end of the pole compared to these neighbours and the rest of the world.

Granted that Malaysia has a national language and a large Malay/Muslim majority but the country is also one that has allowed multiple languages to thrive. In some instances less prominence is given to the national language.  .

With economic power in the hands of the Chinese, the Malays will never want to lose their political power

A country has two main components – economic and political power.

In both Malaya and Malaysia the Malays have always had political dominance and power, during the governments of the Alliance and Barisan Nasional for almost 61 uninterrupted years and although community lost some ground in last year’s May general elections, many parliamentary seats remain held by Malay politicians.

But economic power has always been in the hands of the Chinese and whatever the expectations the liberals began to have after the last elections, only the most optimistic would believe that the Malays are prepared to relinquish their hold on politics.

Furthermore Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, apart from being known as an ultra-nationalist, is an ultra-Malay. At times he may have some scathing words against his race but he will never tolerate similar criticisms from outsiders. It is thus unthinkable that Mahathir will yield, although he leads a multi-racial coalition.

The best option now for anyone seeking a long-term solution would be for everyone to agree to revisit the federal Constitution. Apart from the politicians, community elders and scholars must be involved in the brain-storming process. Everyone has to be honest and deal with the issues front on and in the spirit of give and take.

Until and unless this is done, it’s highly likely that Malaysia will see no end in having to deal with unsettling issues on race and religion and remain a heterogeneous society with little common ground.

Unity in diversity? It’s just a slogan.




About the author


Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.