Malaysia

Unity is only a dream

So goes the narrative: We are an example of how a multiracial country can flourish. We find our strength in diversity. We are all Malaysians (or, at least, those from an older generation tell us stories about how race did not matter when they were children).

I ask myself daily how true this is. Do we simply happen to be citizens of the same state, or is there anything that truly binds us into a collective? Is national unity a reality that we are defending, or are we simply hoping that if we repeat it enough the narrative will turn into reality?

We tell each other and ourselves these stories, as if they are the truth, while extremism and discord are only aberrations caused by a vocal minority. "True Malaysians reject that," we say. But on what basis do we lay claim to be true Malaysians? We need to at least consider possibility that our stories are becoming increasingly fictional for the real Malaysian.

There will always be moderates and those who reject the division - no one denies that good Malaysians will always step up with a sane voice. But let's face it: we're preaching to the choir here. The majority of people with online access and who will spend time reading letters to the editor like these in publications like TMI are already convinced.

The problem is not with seeds of disunity being sown amongst moderates, but with the widening gap between the moderates and everyone else. In political terms, this is the voting split across the rural-urban divide. In intellectual terms, this is the divide between those who have access to and seek out alternative media versus those who rely on state-owned media.

By and large, that's what is shaping the reality of Malaysia, independent of the stories we tell. Malaysia can be a united nation if its citizens are made that way by the state – that was the noble purpose of nation-building policies of old (and at least the stated intention of 1Malaysia, which has become nothing more than an ironic gimmick).

The state can also, if it chooses, put in place policies that will put an end to a sense of collective destiny. Just think of what a few years of bad education policies can do to a whole generation of young Malaysians. It will produce an increasing number of people who are prone to (and in fact will be receptive to, or at least tolerant of) the provocations of disunity from extremists.

And therein lies the problem: what the state is able to accomplish in the hearts and minds of Malaysians who do not have the means to alternative ideas and the ability to question the economic, social and political realities they inhabit.

So the story we tell ourselves: that true Malaysians reject disunity and extremism, may just be a story. The real Malaysian may lie outside our narrative, exclusively within the state's sphere of influence, unaware of a reality outside of that.

I doubt anyone wants to read something with no hope, but if the dream of unity is only a dream, then I think we need to wake up before pouring energy and creativity into restoring it by attacking it in a way that confronts the reality (rather than trying to convince ourselves of a reality we prefer).

Think about what our commiserating in our usual spheres accomplishes (on Facebook, alternative media, etc). It only serves to retell the story we have heard so many times. If this continues while the rest of Malaysia never gets to hear it, we're passengers on the Titanic who keep praising its decor while ignoring the fact that it's sinking.

The “ordinary Malaysian” cannot save this ship if the majority are taking part in a different narrative. The fate of this ship is determined by the spread of information and education. Until the state lives up to its call by reforming education and increasing internet penetration while reducing its vice-like grip on the mainstream media (which would take years, if it ever happened), only the privileged few will even know how to incorporate the unity narrative into their stories.

I'm hoping the truth is not as bleak as I think it is, and if I'm wrong I hope people will point it out and wake me up from the impending nightmare. But if we're the delusional ones, then I'd rather we wake up and realise that unity is a sinking ship. – March 2, 2014.

*Kevin Soo reads The Malaysian Insider.

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