MAY 9, 2018, is said to be the beginning of “New Malaysia”. Nevertheless, like all sloganeering, “New Malaysia” is amorphous.

While most Malaysians are still in disbelief, reeling from the shock defeat of the Barisan Nasional government in the 14th General Election, the jubilant supporters of the new regime are rallying behind “New Malaysia”.

In espousing “New Malaysia”, it is necessary to discard the bad and ugly about the old regime.

But this still begs the following question: what should the reference point for “New Malaysia” be? First and foremost, the conceptualisation of “New Malaysia” should be in line with the Federal Constitution.

Any move to conceptualise “New Malaysia” that contradicts the Federal Constitution must be resisted.

The Constitution of 1957 represents the core of identity bargaining that has created a very specific type of ethnically differentiated citizenship based upon a fundamental distinction between Malays (Bumiputeras) and non-Malays (non-Bumiputeras).

Since the Malays are economically and professionally the most disadvantaged group, they were granted special provisions concerning the economy, education and property rights.

Malays have territories reserved for them, special regulations regarding commercial licences and concessions, and quotas in higher education (see articles 89, 152 and 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia). Non-Malays (in particular Chinese and Indians) were granted full Malaysian citizenship as well as some rights of religious and linguistic expression in a federation where Islam is the state religion.

This institutional compromise is the outcome of defensive strategies ascribable to reciprocal fears and mistrust, which still mark Malaysian society’s different ethnic groups.

What were the fears that troubled the different ethnic communities? Malays, being Bumiputeras or sons of the soil and therefore natives, feared that because of their obvious socioeconomic inferiority, they would be overcome by Chinese and Indian enterprise and would suffer the same plight as North American Indians.

Non-Malays, on the other hand, worried about the future of their flourishing economic activities and their cultural identity in a state with a strong Islamic influence. At this point, we need to add that in the framework of this constitutional compromise, public life goes on respecting ethnic-religious boundaries.

In view of these boundaries, non-Malays have nearly tacitly accepted the political pre-eminence of Malays in exchange for their own economic supremacy.

The institution of an elective monarchy symbolically endorses the Malay community’s political predominance over others, since becoming Yang di-Pertuan Agong is the exclusive prerogative of the sultans of nine states (out of thirteen) of the federation. A strict rotation system defined in the Constitution governs the accession to this office of the Chief of State.

Over the years, the compromise elaborated by the Constitution has proven problematic and on several occasions, new negotiated agreements have changed the character of our ethnically differentiated citizenship.

Despite contrasts and permanent tensions among the various communities, a collegial and consensual solution has always been reached.

After a period of sensational and dizzying economic growth in the 1990s, the social and economic differences between the Malays and non-Malays have been somewhat lessened.

The government then launched the Vision 2020 project whose main goal is to establish a bangsa Malaysia — a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny. Under former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, this project was replaced with 1Malaysia.

Politically, this meant bringing about a consensual, community-oriented democracy, guaranteeing the existence of a tolerant society in which Malaysians of all colours and creeds are free to practise and profess their customs, culture, and religious beliefs, and yet feeling that they belong to one nation.

In practice, this means that even in the future, Malaysia will be a multiethnic or multiracial entity based on the consensual separation along ethnic lines. However, the concept of citizenship becomes more inclusive through the concept of bangsa Malaysia and 1Malaysia that joins the various communities into a single civic body.

Through the pursuit of excellence, Vision 2020 introduces a less ethnic and more meritocratic idea of citizenship. Finally, we ought to bear in mind that the entire ethnic policy characterised by permanent negotiations and accommodations between ethnic groups’ representatives is grounded in the doctrine of
national harmony, the ideological instrument known as Rukun Negara.

This is precisely where the basic principle of unity in diversity is asserted — though ethnically different we are all Malaysians.

We are Malaysians precisely because we can maintain our ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. What is important in trying to conceptualise “New Malaysia” is not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Since 1957, our Federal Constitution has served us well, and the various policies that had been enacted had in one way or another tried to delicately balance the agreement between the various ethnic communities.

This is not to suggest that all is well but to caution that in building a “New Malaysia”, we should not go astray from the supreme law of the land.

Dr Azem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is the director of the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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