Bangsa Malaysia – A Dream Worth Fighting For

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After over 20 rounds of Transformasi Nasional 2050 (TN50) dialogues held at various locations throughout the country, Khairy Jamaluddin, the Minister of Youth and Sports and de facto TN50 coordinator, found that Malaysian youths desire to be known more as Malaysian rather than through their ethnic identities.1

This post-racial posturing is interesting though not altogether surprising. Firstly, every Malaysian under the age of 30 was born after 1987 into an era of high-performing growth and rapid development. They went to school under the aegis of Bangsa Malaysia and Vision 2020, both of which were forward-looking philosophies designed to usher the nation into the twenty-first century. This also means that turbulent episodes of our past, such as the Singapore Separation, Indonesian Confrontation, May 13 incident and even the Communist Insurgency that officially ended in 1989, would carry little meaning to this generation of millennials.

Secondly, while the contentious polemics of identity politics that drove those historical incidents are somewhat lost on younger Malaysians, they would still have been conditioned by the narrow ethno-centric narrative that is prevalent in the education system, the bureaucracy and the mainstream media.

However, growing up in the late 1990s and 2000s would also mean exposure to wider dissension, particularly online, and alternative narratives that challenge the “social compact” that the federal government propagates. Hence, for many young Malaysians, the broad label of “race and religious politics” symbolises the baggage of past generations and is further perceived to be the reason why there is so much social division today. For these Malaysians, it would not be hard to imagine that a post-racial paradigm could provide a solution for all the legacy problems faced by the nation.

Is Race and Religion Still Relevant?

Yet aspirations often and perhaps necessarily reflect naive idealism more than reality. While there are few Malaysians who would disagree with the notion of identifying with a larger Malaysian race where every citizen is equal within constitutional boundaries, the fact is that public life in Malaysia is driven by ideals that are polar opposites.

The legacy of decades of ethno-religious nationalism has seen the entrenchment of institutionalised discrimination in every aspect of life in Malaysia, from education to politics to the economy and even sports. And the consequences are plain to see – thinly veiled private-sector discrimination has resulted as a reaction to public-sector employment policies, cost of education is increasing as more and more parents veer away from free national schools to private schools, and the nation today suffers from an acute brain drain problem, with over one million Malaysians – mostly skilled and educated – now plying their trade overseas.2

Tellingly, most of these emigrants, most of whom are professionally employed, cited career prospects and social injustice as the two main reasons for their departure from Malaysia. In other words, discrimination is a key push factor that drives out many talented Malaysians, the bulk of whom are made up of ethnic minorities who feel victimised by the system.

Bangsa Malaysia should represent a nation where public policies do not discriminate but instead encourage, where freedom is valued over suppression and where competitiveness is a virtue and not an excuse for patronage and rent-seeking.

Deepening the frustration are the broiling challenges faced by young people in urban Malaysia. The typical young worker in the city starts off with a low-paying job that is barely enough to sustain fixed monthly expenditures such as house rent, utilities, study loan repayment for degrees that have added little value to their competitiveness in the job market, and, as necessitated by underdeveloped public transport infrastructure, often a privatevehicle loan repayment as well. Coupled with increasing costs of living, prospects look daunting for young Malaysians.

More importantly, racial and religious rhetoric offers no solution to any of these problems, nor do they even offer any constructive perspective. The general presumption that the Malays are poor and the Chinese are rich no longer hold true. The fact is that everyone is poor. According to the Department of Statistic’s Wages and Salaries Survey Report 2016, the median wage of Malaysian workers stands at RM2,000 a month. Ethnic Chinese workers earn a median wage of RM2,350 a month while Bumiputera (including Sabah and Sarawakian natives) workers are not far off with RM1,931. This means that no matter their race, half of all Malaysian workers earn below RM2,500 a month, which is a paltry sum when juxtaposed with the burdens of modern day life.

More and more Malaysians face escalating pressures and struggle to maintain the same standards of living that their parents enjoyed.

So What of Bangsa Malaysia?

As more and more Malaysians face escalating pressures and struggle to maintain the same standards of living that their parents enjoyed, everything will come to a head. The hegemonic ethno-religious nationalist narrative that has permeated Malaysian society for decades could be tolerated so long as socio-economic conditions improved. But as bread and butter problems become more prominent, the politics of race and religion will become less relevant.

In this context, the concept of Bangsa Malaysia can provide an ideal meta-narrative, although it should not be confined to being merely an elusive post-racial vision. Rather, Bangsa Malaysia should be about inclusive prosperity, social mobility and the empowerment of all citizens.

Bangsa Malaysia should represent a nation where public policies do not discriminate but instead encourage, where freedom is valued over suppression and where competitiveness is a virtue and not an excuse for patronage and rent-seeking. In short, Bangsa Malaysia should be about the upliftment of all Malaysians. Only then can it be a dream worth fighting for.

1 http://www.thestar.com.my/news/ nation/2017/04/18/youth-want-to-be-msian-first-next- generation-shares-its-true-aspiration-during-tn50- dialogue
2 https://www.aseantoday.com/2016/03/malaysias-brain- drain/

Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang.

 



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