By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. Published in The Star 6 December 2016
Forcing us to mix may actually cause resentment and discord, instead of promoting harmony.
LAST weekend at the Putra World Trade Centre, one Umno leader after another rose to the podium to call for unity.
Some were calling for Malay unity, some for party unity, some for Barisan Nasional unity and a small number for national unity. They talked about different things but they used the same word.
The desire for unity is not new. In our own history, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra once said, “We are all Malaysians. This is the bond that unites us. Let us always remember that unity is our fundamental strength as a people and as a nation.”
Fast forward to more recently, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) was established on Sept 11, 2013.
According to a government website, the NUCC is an effort of national reconciliation to reduce racial polarisation and build a united Malaysian nation.
The NUCC was supposed to draft some sort of blueprint for national unity. But until today, I have not seen any real advocacy of such a blueprint to the public.
The NUCC submitted a report to the Prime Minister on June 19, 2015, and after that I am not sure what happened to it.
To me, the biggest hurdle to national unity is the structure of our political system. Our politics is dominated by ethnic-based political parties. Being ethnic-based, their survival is dependent on us, the voters, continuing to be divided along ethnic lines.
If voters are no longer thinking as different ethnic groups, then the ethnic-based parties will find it difficult to survive.
If a Malay feels that it is OK to have a non-Malay prime minister, if a Chinese feels it is OK to have an ustaz as their representative, if a Hindu feels it is OK to have an atheist as their spokesperson, then it would be meaningless to remain as a Malay, Chinese or Indian party.
The same applies to the Melanau, Bidayuh, Dayak, Kadazan, Seranis and so on.
Ethnic-based parties need society to remain divided along ethnic lines because otherwise they will not be able to survive.
This is why when any ethnic-based party feels weakened, they will work hard to cleave society.
This is Divide and Rule 101. The more successful you are at dividing society, the more likely you are to rule over them.
But even though the hurdle preventing national unity is not too difficult to identify, there are two bigger questions that should be, but are rarely, asked. The questions are: do we really need unity, and what is unity for?
Most frequently when people in Malaysia talk about unity, we talk about the different ethnic groups mixing with each other. The underlying assumption is that mixing is necessary to foster a “good” society.
I never quite understand this. Why do we really need to mix? Why can’t we just live our lives the way we want, mixing with only those whom we want, and meeting only those whom we want?
That is really how real life works. We talk to our friends. We share stories with people we are comfortable with.
We do not talk to strangers. We feel awkward when forced to go into unfamiliar territories uninvited. Forcefully “mixing” people is not natural and can in fact be the source of discord.
After all, do we want to have unity or do we actually just want to have peace?
Many people would say that all they want is to ensure Malaysia remains as a peaceful country. But if peace is our target, then why are we clouding it with the demand for unity?
Peace is something that can be achieved without a common language and without a common identity. You can wear your songket, speak Malay, eat patin masak tempoyak, while I can wear a kurta, speak Punjabi and eat rasmalai.
We don’t have to know each other or even meet each other. The country will remain peaceful if we leave each other alone.
Discord may occur, however, if either one of us is made to leave our way of life and adopt the other’s forcefully.
If I were forced to speak Chinese because that is the “national” language, I might get frustrated.
If I were forced to listen to Christian prayers every day because Christians are the majority in that place, then I might become angry.
Or if a school says that I cannot send my son there because we are not Buddhists, then it is very possible my whole family will grow up resenting Buddhism because of that religious quota. In all these examples, it is the attempt to impose a certain definition of unity that is creating discord.
If all we want is peace, then isn’t it a possibility that unity is irrelevant? If peace can be achieved by people living parallel lives, remaining in groups they are comfortable with, peacefully within the group and peacefully in relation to others, should we still divide them in the quest for the illusive unity?
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my).