Time for Penang to lead again

Penangites are one proud people. That is not even a controversial statement. They are proud of their food, their history and their geography.

Don’t get me wrong. They have every reason to be proud. Much that has been good for the country has come from the state. It is the place where newspapers are born; it is the school where many of the best educated Malaysians come from; and it is the home where cultures have blended so smoothly – be this in the mixing of blood, architecture, clothing, aesthetics, beliefs or food.

All these of which we are proud are true. But what of it? What are all these things good for if they do not make us active promoters of the values contained in that very special legacy, especially when that is necessary?

To me, what Malaysia and Penang has to offer the world is our history of peaceful multicultural co-existence. This is an endowment that many of us have forgotten over the last five decades. This is not due only to the racialist discourses that have formed the backdrop for the country’s policies, but also to the fact that the country was founded at a time of global insecurity; and the formula for independence was one of rigid inter-racial compromise created under pressure from the Cold War.

But much water has owed under the bridge, and just as nation building must happen in stages, political discourses as well need to shift.

What we are seeing today in Malaysia is a struggle being fought between Malaysians over how they should see themselves. Should they perpetuate the idea that they publisher can function only if their ethnic identities are prioritised; is paternalistic politics the best they can expect; should they imagine themselves a people forever limited by their ethnic diversity; or should they instead go beyond that and see themselves as a people who has already gone through the fire of inter-ethnic collaboration and integration something western countries are going through at the moment and who can therefore be comfortable with that diversity and celebrate the tolerance and broadmindedness that such a history brings?

Penang being what it is – a port founded at the edge of the peninsula; home to travellers from across the sea who knew much about the outside world; and therefore unavoidably cosmopolitan in essence requires that its people be true to its age-old slogan of Penang Leads, and show the way again, this time expressly proclaiming multiculturalism as a historical condition that we appreciate and that is both inspirational and a badge of honour. 

It is time that Penangites think up ways to propound and secure multiculturalism as a central social value of the future. The process has already started, really, and I am sure most of you would have felt that.

Let’s make that process conscious so that it can be broadly championed.

The ethnic and religious sniping that is still going on nationwide should become a thing of the past. That worthy transformation can happen today – if we want it. It’s all up to us.

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