Program 1 Dinar Emas, 1 Bulan

13 mars 2013

The problem with Malay unity

Jacqueline Ann Surin

ONE of the exhortations to Malay Malaysian voters as the general election looms is to vote the party that will ensure “Malay unity”. Politicians and at least one member of royalty have called on Malay voters to put Malay unity above all else when they go to the polls.

And because Malay Malaysians are also constitutionally meant to be Muslims, there has been unsurprisingly another aspect of this public service announcement. Vote the party that will ensure Muslim unity and the cohesion of the ummah. And to Umno and PAS, the two parties that represent Malays and Muslims respectively: consider a merger so that Malay-Muslim unity can be secured.

But does Malay unity exist to begin with? Does Muslim solidarity? Was either ever present historically or currently in Malaysia? And when politicians, academics and royalty start to promote Malay and Muslim unity, are they peddling an ideal for the nation or a dangerous myth for the masses?

What unity?

The presumption behind Malay and Muslim unity is that either or both groups are monolithic entities. Further, that every member of the group shares the same historical roots, cultural identity, political and economic aspirations, and religious beliefs. After all, if either or both groups didn’t have enough of a cohesive identity and shared sense of ideals, then talking about uniting would be like asking water and oil to combine into one.

To begin with, are the Malays really culturally and historically similar to each other? The series of Found in Malaysia interviews tell us that many of the foremost Malay Malaysian personalities have different lineages. In brief, the Malays we interviewed had the following ancestries: Orang Asli, Javanese, Thai, Chinese,  Japanese,  Australian, Bugis, Arab and European. And because the notion of the “Malay” is a political construct that was initiated by the British, and continues to be a construct perpetuated by the current powers that be, the definition of Malay can shift from state to state.

What about political unity? Did the Malays in Umno unite when Tunku Abdul Rahman expelled Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad from Umno? Or how about when Dr Mahathir, then a Datuk Seri, expelled Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from the party and from government?

And then there’s the notion of Muslim unity. What kind of Muslim are the politicians and other talking heads speaking about when they espouse “Muslim unity”?  Again, the notion assumes that the Muslim world is one single block without variations in beliefs and identity. And yet we know this to be patently untrue.

The fact is, there are at least five major schools of thought in Islam – Ja’fari, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali – and a number of other minority schools of thought such as Zaydi and Isma’ili. Religious practices also differ between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The official and legal brand of Islam in Malaysia is the Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school of thought. But that doesn’t mean that other interpretations of Islam like that practised by the Ahmadiyah don’t exist, even if they are banned.

One other evidence that Islam’s adherents are not a singular block of unvarying believers is the fact that laws about Islam across the Muslim world differ, whether it’s about apostasy, family law, hudud or the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims.

What does this all mean? It means that when politicians and royalty like Raja Nazrin Shah speak about Malay or Muslim unity, they’re perpetuating a myth. There is diversity and disparity not just in Malays’ and Muslims’ political views, but throughout the Malay and the Muslim world. And this isn’t true just today. It’s historically true as well – just look at the different kinds of political leanings Malay Malaysians had in the past.

Why unite?

That’s not to say that some Malays and some Muslims cannot unite in the true sense of the word. They can when there is a solid cause which draws people together because of a shared ideal. But when unity is called for solely on the basis of one’s racial or religious identity as a Malay or Muslim, the basis for that unity is founded on shifting sands. Since there are so many kinds of Malays and quite a few types of Muslims, what kind of Malay or what kind of Islam are the adherents of unity advocating for?

My uneasiness with calls to vote a particular way or to merge parties for the sake of Malay or Muslim unity stems from the underlying, and often unstated, purpose of such encouragement. What are Malays and Muslims supposed to be uniting for and/or against?

Implicit in the call for unity is the need to armour up against non-Malays and non-Muslims. If the Malays don’t unite, the argument goes, non-Malay Malaysians will politically and economically overwhelm the Malays, no matter that the majority of our population are Malays and that Malays hold power in nearly all arms of government. And if Muslims don’t unite, the threat from non-Muslims, Christians in particular, will strengthen to Islam’s detriment.

And so, the rallying cry for Malay or Muslim unity can actually be heard as a clarion call for pitting Malaysians against one another. Hence, advocating for Malay or Muslim unity is really a call for disunity and distrust in Malaysia, where Malays and Muslims should only think about their own interest at the expense of other citizens.

Even more troubling for me is that the way to go is apparently to vote Umno or to merge with Umno. Yes, vote in, or merge, with the party that wants “ketuanan Melayu”, has not closed the gap between rich and poor Malays, is rife with money politics, and is trying to deny non-Muslims their right to worship using “Allah”. And yes, PAS needs to merge with the party that kicked it out of the Barisan Nasional in 1977 and whose politicians have been persecuted by the Umno-led government through the years.

How can any advice that is based on a myth, promotes disunity in multiracial and multireligious Malaysia, and advances the interest of a corrupt and authoritarian party be good? Of course, it’s left to be seen just who will take up such misdirected counsel. On my part, I would rather vote for a politician or a party that argues truth based on facts, has the interest of all Malaysians at heart, and that promotes equality, fairness, justice, prudence, transparency and accountability.

It’s true that because I’m not Malay and not Muslim, it’s not me that the politicians and some members of royalty are beseeching to. But honestly, one doesn’t have to be a non-Malay or a non-Muslim to know and want what’s best for our incredible nation.