Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society
Polarization of Malays
Divisions among Malays are deepening and becoming increasingly acrimonious. Being the dominant group, tensions within it would affect the greater racial dynamics. Carelessly handled, it would inevitably affect or spill over to the other communities.
Polarization among Malays, like the earlier division between the races, is accelerating because the cleavage lines reinforce each other. The division between religious conservative versus progressive liberals Malays also coincides with economic class (poor versus rich), geography (urban versus rural, East Coast versus West Coast), cultural (those who look to the West versus the Middle East), politics (UMNO versus PAS), and education (Western or secular educated versus religious and Middle Eastern educated). There are exceptions, but they prove the rule. The Muslim Professional Forum is made up of Western-educated urban Malays, but their theological inclination is towards the fundamentalist variant.
The fundamentalist terrorist Hussein Nordin who blew up Bali was the product of the secular Malay College and obtained his engineering PhD from Britain. It is this confluence of cleavage lines that makes Malay polarization potentially explosive. It need not be inevitable.
There is another perspective. We can look upon Malays as not being polarized, rather as having vigorous differences in views and deeply held convictions. Looked at in this positive manner, we can pat ourselves as not being a society of sheep but of rugged individualists, courageous enough to express our opinions.
This vigorous diversity of views, properly harnessed, could be the savior of Malays.
The oft-expressed quest for “Malay unity” could be a curse; Malay unity could easily degenerate into Malay unanimity. Then we would become the metaphorical flock of sheep that could easily be led to collective slaughter by some charismatic but unscrupulous shepherd. The Germans under Hitler were certainly united—very united—and look at the destruction they wrecked unto themselves and the world.
Malay leaders incessantly lament at what they perceive to be the lack of Malay unity. There is a collective longing for the “good old days” when we were supposedly united. With that unity we were able to achieve many great things, like getting rid of colonial rule. UMNO leaders look back to the days when the party represented all Malays, and its agenda was also that of the race.
Even the most cursory review of history will disabuse us of this myth. Until the British came, there was no such thing as aMalay political entity. Instead there were a series of feudal fiefdoms under a sultan or nobility. Indeed that was how the British managed to colonize the Malay world by flattering those malleable individual little sultans. Malays were never organized as a single political or social entity. Instead we referred to ourselves as Johore Malays, Kelantan Malays, or other regional identities. The remarkable achievement of UMNO was to instill a sense of oneness to Malays. This unity was precipitated by the threat of a common external enemy: Britain’s Malayan Union initiative to turn the country into a dominion.
UMNO was formed specifically to fight this proposal. The Sultans and aristocrats had already accepted the concept, achieved through British flattery (if not bribery) in the form of exalted Imperial knighthoods, perfunctory visits to Buckingham Palace, and piddling pensions for the sultans.
This display of Malay unity was impressive, and remarkably effective. Impressive because it was achieved in such a short order, matter of weeks; effective because it forced Britain to withdraw its proposal and the sultans to rescind their consent. The Malay masses took on simultaneously their own sultans and the mighty British, and prevailed!
The British were formidable adversaries, but knowing the feudal nature of Malay society then, taking on the sultans was a far greater feat. It was the supreme display of Malay subtlety that the uprising against the sultans was played out not as a rebellion but a profound expression of loyalty. The Malay citizenry descended upon the palace in a mass demonstration of public homage such that the sultans who had gathered there earlier were unable to leave in order to sign the historic document. That was a brilliant tactical coup on the part of the Malay leader, Datuk Onn; rebelling by showering your love and loyalty! Completely counterintuitive, but it worked.
That unity was short lived. Immediately thereafter, profound differences broke out among UMNO leaders that ended with the resignation of its founding president, Datuk Sir Onn Jaaffar. Yes, the British tried the knighthood trick too on this great patriot, but he, unlike the Sultans, did not fall for it.
Talk of the gratitude of the masses; here was a leader who brilliantly took on both the sultans and the British simultaneously and prevailed, yet immediately afterwards the members promptly ignored his wisdom and advice. Malays and UMNO survived that “disunity” and went on to achieve greater heights. There were other Malay leaders who proved even more capable than the wise and seemingly irreplaceable Datuk Onn.
Malays should remember this when we think that at any time a certain leader is deemed or make himself (or herself) indispensable. A decade later, when UMNO led the country towards independence, even that very idea was not universally shared. Then too there were the lamenting choruses of “lack of Malay unity.” Many Malays, especially those in the upper levels of the civil service, were against it. The sultans too, were not exactly enthused, especially after seeing what happened to the Indian Maharajahs and Indonesian Sultans following the independence of those countries.
Datuk Onn went on to found another political party whose platform was specifically against independence. He felt that the nation was not ready for it. Many, including my parents, agreed with him. They saw what happened to India and Indonesia, and did not want Malaysia to risk it. They preferred to remain under the comfort of British rule. It was the humility of my parents that later, on seeing how well Malaysia fared after independence, they would readily admit how wrong they were.
The more important lesson from that era is that my parents were able to express their views so freely and openly. They were not afraid of losing their job or being lynched by their neighbors. Indeed, leading to the 1955 elections, there were vigorous yet civil debates in the villages on the merits and demerits of merdeka. There were no epithets of “Mat Salleh culup!” (derogatory term for Anglophile) or “Hating your own race,” hurled at those who opposed independence.
What a difference today! Now even senior civil servants are cowered into not expressing their doubts about polices and ministerial pronouncements. Everyone spouts the party line for fear of losing his or her job or contracts. The cabinet is reduced to being the Prime Minister’s echo chamber. That cannot be good for the nation. Those ministers enthusiastically echoed Mahathir’s decision to build the crooked bridge over the Johore Strait when he was Prime Minister; those same ministers now heartily supported Prime Minister Abdullah when he later canceled it!
The remarkable observation is that back then there was no angst that Malays would be destroyed by the apparent disunity. The fear then was to the contrary; that is, Malays would become a nation of sheep. When the leaders shouted, “Merdeka,” the rest would merely bleat their approval. The colonial government tolerated and indeed encouraged such divergent views. Some would attribute a sinister motive; the colonial policy of “divide and conquer.” I would like to be generous and attribute that to the sense of fair play of the British. It is precisely this sense of fair play that is so lacking among today’s Malay leaders and society. They view any dissension as treasonous.
Dissent was not limited only to politics but extended to religion, language, and other matters. On religion, there were the older conservative kaum tua versus the younger progressive kaum muda. Differences in language were no less vigorous, with one group insisting that Malays should stick with the Arabic jawi, the other opting for the roman script. Practical realities, not government edicts solved that particular dilemma; Indonesia opted for the roman script, and Malaysia followed suit.
Even then there were fierce arguments that jawi was more attuned to our culture, it being the script of the Quran. The roman script was denigrated as a symbol of Western domination of our language and culture. Again there were powerful emotional appeals about stripping ourselves off the colonial mentality, never mind that both jawi and the roman script were equally foreign to us. Adopting the roman script proved particularly prescient. It greatly facilitated the growth of Malay language and made its adaptation to the computer age that much easier. This point is worth emphasizing. Sometimes the best move is to simply go with the flow and follow practical realities instead of blindly following emotions or official decrees.
Next: The Unraveling of Malay Society