First published in Malay Mail Online

By Tunku Abidin Muhriz , (c) 2016, Malay Mail Online (c) 2016

Once again, the issue of identity and the state’s role in shaping it has come to the fore. Amid the latest round of commentary, my colleague Wan Saiful asks: “If a Malay emulates the Arab culture, an Indian emulates Korean culture, an Iban emulates German culture, or a Murut emulates Maori culture, what is wrong with that?”

I know some Malaysians who are upset by the idea that people should have the right to “reject” their “own” identity: such a person becomes, in their eyes, a “traitor to their race”. Furthermore, they will then try and stop people they know (often their own family members) from becoming “traitors.”

But I generally agree with the way Wan Saiful answers his question: essentially that if people choose to emulate a different culture because of their exposure to different experiences, there is nothing wrong with that. I would add, however, that other people in society should have an equal right to form and express opinions about that identity, so long as it doesn’t lead to violence.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different in our country, where the government and the political process more widely has assumed a monopoly over identity labels, and takes actions to enforce conformity to these labels.

It is this that lies at the crux of the ongoing perception of the Malays becoming “Arabised.” That may not be a very scientific term, but most people will know what is being referred to: the changes in dress, habits and customs of Malays that have taken place in recent decades.

Examples are that Malay women have covered up more and more, the words used for religious festivals have become more Arabic, the simple practise of shaking hands has become a minefield for those of us who have to greet many people, and the institutional memories in our great schools and the military of very different social practises are fast fading (I have written more specifically about some of these elsewhere).

Indeed, today’s generation of Malays will either condemn or be ignorant about rituals that were considered to be mandated by adat even two or three generations ago: only in weddings (with their berinai and merinjis) and royal ceremonies do many of these survive, but even then the voices of disapproval on religious grounds grows ever louder.

The irony is of course that centuries ago, the people who would have practised these rituals are unlikely to have self-identified as Malay: rather they would have prioritised state identities or what we now consider to be sub-ethnic identities like Bugis, Minangkabau and so on.

All that has changed, and race-based politics has brought with it political (and therefore electoral) rewards to defining a particular race, and this is why there isn’t a level playing field for those who wish to define their heritage in a way that political forces disapprove of, no matter the amount of historical evidence.

This phenomenon does not just affect the Malays. For example, the “Malaysian Chinese” label obscures the unique narrative of the descendants of those who settled in Kuala Terengganu in the 15th century when Admiral Cheng Ho called upon the port: their heritage is now subsumed in a more monolithic narrative for the entire Malaysian Chinese community.

This phenomenon makes it difficult for individual Malaysians to assert an identity outside the norm, and equally difficult to resist change: some half-jokingly refer to the “zaman Jahiliyah” — originally a term to denote Arabia before the arrival of Islam — to describe once commonly held societal norms best encapsulated by the movies of P. Ramlee.

But when romanticised figures like Hang Tuah have undergone a transformation in terms of why they should be considered heroes, and when these myths are used to legitimise today’s institutions and policies, it ceases to be a laughing matter.

When narrow definitions of identity are backed by the power of the state — through the education system, government agencies and religious institutions — it stifles the voices of those who wish to define their identity differently. It also enables bullying on social media.

Surely this contradicts our Rukun Negara which refers to “ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions”, and furthermore damages the ability of our young citizens to interact and compete beyond our country and region.

The power to define our “rich and diverse cultural traditions” must be returned to us if we are to stem the propensity of politicians and bureaucrats who use the powers of the state to dictate what it means to be a member of a particular race — or even what it means to be Malaysian.

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