JUNE 19 — On the one hand there are the Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia Truly Asia, Vision 2020, the Economic Transformation Programme, the Government Transformation Programme, National Key Result Areas and the prime minister’s international call towards moderate Islam.
On the other hand is Malay First, Malaysia Second, Perkasa calling for jihad against Christians trying to take over Malaysia, the cow head and Allah controversies, the failure of the New Economic Model, legalised child marriage, female genital mutilation and the latest additions being the Obedient Wives Club and the Polygamists Club.
The former aims to project Malaysia as a responsible, progressive member of the community of nations committed to inclusive spiritual and material growth. The latter reflects the changing social realities on the ground, where there seems to be a regression of sorts towards a narrow backward looking society, distrustful of multiracialism, insecure about its own identity and religious practices, and hell bent on seeking comfort in extreme traditionalism.
At a deeper level, this points towards a fundamental shift away from the quintessential Malaysian belief in the middle way, where everyone understood the fragility of the peace between the races and instinctively stayed away from trampling on the sensitivities of others.
It can be argued that the real social contract post 1969 was not political in terms of an exchange of citizenship for special privileges, but one where the similarities between the races as humans took precedence over the differences.
And it had a lot to do with the generosity and welcome provided by the majority community in integrating the races at a people to people level. Like it or not, the way the majority community sees itself and the world determines the national discourse to a large degree.
At a time when the majority community was comfortable in its own skin, convent schools were popular for the quality of education they offered and open houses promoted true integration. The media played its part by highlighting the positives and suppressing the negatives.
For a period of time, coupled with steady economic growth this resulted in the emergence of the harmonious blend of tradition and modernity that came to be seen as distinctively Malaysian. The global success of Malaysia Truly Asia had less to do with the originality of the slogan and more to do with the fact that it was an accurate reflection of Malaysian social reality.
In retrospect, it was too good to last. With the advent of new media, the iniquities and injustices of the 90s were laid bare. As Malaysians were exposed to global best practices in the areas of politics and economics, this new generation of Internet savvy citizens were the first to be outraged. It led to the dramatic 2008 elections which forced the powers that be on both sides of the political divide to reassess their positions.
While both political coalitions jumped to take ownership of the progressive liberal agenda through slogans such as 1 Malaysia and Malaysian Malaysia, a justifiable fear that the erstwhile beneficiaries of the NEP would not take kindly to its reversal forced the ruling coalition to devise a two-pronged Jekyll and Hyde policy. A debate over competing policies of growth, welfare and distribution of resources, normal in any country was suddenly tinged with racial undertones.
More than anything else, this attempt to be everything to everybody at the same time, moderate and extremist, inclusive and separatist, traditional and modern, has led to the current situation. The majority community now feels under siege and is forced to adopt a defensive approach in the face of the negative portrayal of some of its erstwhile leaders and their policies.
Ordinary people are being forced now to choose rather than co-exist. Are you more proud of your race or your country? Will you go to your neighbour’s house for a meal even if she is not a co-religionist? How will you decide where to live, where to educate your children? What criteria will you use?
From a society that could effortlessly internalise, reconcile and even celebrate differences, symbolised most memorably by the sight of girls wearing the tudung on top of a pair of Levi’s, Yasmin Ahmad’s Petronas commercials, or the universal popularity of the baju, to today where Man U T-shirts are the work of the devil, religious belief is worn on the sleeve rather than in the heart and educational and housing patterns reveal progressive ethnic segregation.
The biggest clue as to which direction has more appeal to Malaysian society today will come in the next general election. In many ways by simply stating its commitment to a needs- and merit-based vision for Malaysia independent of race, the opposition has been able to actually appropriate the underlying meaning of 1 Malaysia to itself and to portray the ruling coalition as majoritarian and conservative, more 1 Bumi than 1 Malaysia.
This allows the opposition to ignore its own internal differences, or propose its own coherent, detailed vision for the country and rely on the rakyat merely deciding whether they want to be part of 1 Bumi or not.
Therefore the next GE should reveal the relative appeal of different worldviews, epitomised in a microcosm, by say the Sisters In Islam versus the Obedient Wives Club or Malaysia Inc. versus PKMM (Bumiputera Contractors Association). And it will determine the future social fabric of this country.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.