First published in The Star Online

By Wan Saiful Wan Jan , (c) 2016, Star Media Group Berhad (c) 2016

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?

LAST Friday saw the launch of the second round of our Ideas National Unity Youth Fellowship (NUYF) programme.

The first NUYF was held last year. Between February and September, we took a group of 20 youth leaders to different parts of Malaysia to meet with local community leaders and to visit places that they wouldn’t usually visit. We also conducted workshops for them, training them on various transferable skills such as project management, media engagement and critical thinking.

This year we will do the same, but on a smaller scale. Unfortunately we only have money to take in 10 youth leaders, and the programme had to be shortened to just four months.

The spirit guiding the NUYF remains the same. We want the youth leaders to understand and imbibe the true spirit of Rukun Negara that says this country nurtures the ambition to guarantee a liberal approach towards our rich and varied cultural traditions.

We also want the youth leaders to appreciate what Vision 2020 means when it says that in less than four years we will be living in a society that is democratic, liberal and tolerant.

In short, we want to support these aspiring youth leaders to become a group of future leaders with a liberal mindset.

I am grateful for the support we are once again getting from the Department of National Unity and Integration at the Prime Minister’s Department for this programme.

And I am really glad that our good friend Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed, Deputy Home Minister, officiated the 2016 NUYF. I still remember sending a rather strong message to him when I heard that he was about to let go his chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee. But as it turns out, he has quickly found another place where he can once again give his best for the country.

I learnt a lot from last year’s NUYF. I see the programme as one that encourages the participants – and us, the organiser, too – to ask and explore challenging questions about unity in Malaysia.

I still do not have the answers to many of the issues raised last year and that is why I am excited that we have started the second round. I am hoping to explore the unanswered questions again this time.

One issue that came up last year, and I am sure it will be raised this year too, is about our identity. From an identity perspective, what does it mean to be a Malaysian?

In this newspaper last Sunday, two columnists commented about this very issue.

Datuk Zaid Ibrahim wrote, “since Islamisation was first introduced as a national policy more than 35 years ago, we have successfully ‘Islamised’ Malays and the country as a whole. Some people call this ‘Arabisation’ but whatever name it’s called, we have successfully transformed the Malays beyond recognition.”

Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai feels that foreign culture has encroached into too many aspects of our lives. He wrote, “Worse, some of us are even advocating that we embrace foreign culture in the name of religion or, in some superficial cases, pop culture. Please, we are not Arabs, Koreans, or African-Americans. We are Malaysians.”

The implication given by both writings is that it is bad to emulate and absorb cultures belonging to what is dubbed as the “other”.

I am not comfortable with this assertion.

As I quoted above, the word “liberal” appears in both the Rukun Negara and Vision 2020. Liberalism is most commonly understood as a political philosophy that puts individual liberty and responsibility as supreme.

Being a liberal means respecting the choices that responsible people make, and defending their right to make those choices even if we don’t like it, as long as it is within the law.

So 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?

As a Malay, I know for a fact that my culture has evolved over time. To give a simple example, these days we don’t dress like Hang Tuah anymore. If I go to town wearing the tanjak and carrying a keris, I suspect people would think I should get psychiatric help rather than saying “Ah, look, that’s a real Malay walking.”

Over time we have adopted a more Western dress code as our culture. Why is it okay to adopt jeans and t-shirts, but not jubah or tudung? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?

If the choice is made voluntarily, it is neither liberal nor moderate for us to deny others the freedom to choose. If a person chooses to be religious – or not – no one has the right to force him to do otherwise.

However, it would be wrong if the emulation is imposed by law. It is not the Government’s role to dictate what culture we must follow. This, we must oppose.

But surely the liberal way is to respect one’s voluntary choice to live one’s life in a certain way, as long as the person does no physical harm to others.

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1 Comment

  • salahuddin bin hamzah 2016 Mar 29 / 16:15

    I believe that HRH Sultan of Johor was referring to those who are too extreme in emulating foreign culture, not just parroting a foreign culture per se. Perhaps HRH saw too many people he met that were too extreme in emulating Arabic cultures, and even forcing their dress codes and most likely their mindset as well onto others. Hence HRH complaints against emulating foreign cultures, especially Arabic cultures , which are prevalent among the Malays.
    Personally, I do not see anything wrong with HRH’s comments. There are simply too many of us Malays who subconsciously wanting to be an Arab, more than anything else…subconsciously… Wallahualam

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