First published by Wan Saiful Wan Jan on 10 March 2016

National unity is an issue that is always talked about in Malaysia. Being a multiracial and multireligious country, perhaps that is something that we should expect. At times the debate surrounding national unity can become quite heated.

National unity is an issue that is always talked about in Malaysia. Being a multiracial and multireligious country, perhaps that is something that we should expect. At times the debate surrounding national unity can become quite heated.

The concept of national unity is a complex one. Many people, when they hear the phrase national unity, would immediate think just about the relationships between ethnic groups. But in reality national unity is a much bigger concept. Intra-ethnic dynamics contribute to national unity too.

Nonetheless it is understandable that so many of us generalise national unity into merely the relationships between the ethnic Malays, Chinese, Indians, and ‘others’. This is not at all accurate but that is the mould that many of us operate with when discussing national unity. We generalise in such way because we are heavily influenced by the way our political parties are structured.

I have always been sceptical every time I hear any politician from an ethnic-based party call for national unity. These are political parties whose survival is dependent on us being divided along ethnic lines. They exist in order to champion their ethnic agenda. Any pretence to be a national non-communal party is nothing but a facade.

The reality is, no matter what they say publicly, the ethnic-based political parties have no interest in creating a united Malaysia. That would be equivalent to committing political suicide. Ethnic-based political parties are only relevant when society is divided along ethnic lines. If society were united as one, the ethnic-based political parties would be irrelevant.

If we as citizens really want to see a more united Malaysia, we must demand that these parties start evolving into national, non-ethnic parties. They should be championing ideas regardless of ethnicity.

But political parties do not exist in a vacuum. It is a simple matter of supply and demand. These political parties exist because there is a demand for the agenda they are supplying. If there were no demand, they would cease to exist.

And that brings me to the question of what is the real hurdle for national unity in Malaysia?

I want to suggest here that the real problem is us. We are the ones who perpetuate division in society by giving life to ethnic-based parties. So many of us are still afraid to walk out from the trap of ethnic politics because we have been conditioned into believing that only those from our own ethnic group can help us. This is a fallacy, but it is this fallacy that dominates our society until today.

If we go out from Malaysia to a more developed country, we can see clearly how wrong it is to think that ethnic-based parties are needed to protect our rights as citizens. If you go to the USA, Britain, Australia, or Germany, none of the mainstream political parties are ethnic-based. In fact, if you try to set up an ethnic-based political party there, you would very quickly be rejected as a racist.

But here in Malaysia we are reluctant to grow up and be more mature about politics. There is always a fear that if we were to let go of ethnic politics, then what will happen to us if the others don’t let go of their own ethnic affiliations. For example, a Malay might be worried if he were to move away from his ethnic party, the Chinese may become stronger because they continue to support only Chinese parties. Similarly, a Chinese does not want to let go of his ethnic party because he fears the Malay parties will get stronger.

As long as we think on this line, we will never be able to move out from the politicisation of ethnicity. As long as we are stuck in that situation, we will never be truly united. Ethnic-based parties will continue to flourish as a result of our division, and they will sustain that division because that is the only way for them to stay relevant.

The problem stems from us. If we are brave enough to take the leap away from ethnic based political parties, then there is hope for a more united Malaysia. Until then, we will have to suffer from our own inability to grow up.

I was recently in a policy discussion on how to promote unity through the education system. We spent several days trying to come up with policies that can support unity, and to formulate a plan of action to implement those policies.

But no one was able to solve the biggest problem in the room, which is the dominance of ethnocentric thinking at the highest level of our policy-making process. When the politicians higher above are working hard to keep us divided so that they can stay in power, can we really expect our schools and colleges to be able to tackle the problems? Of course not.

That is why I feel that if we really want to see a united Malaysia, we have to figure out a way to reject ethnic-based political parties into irrelevance. Until we are brave enough to grow up and be mature in our thinking, we cannot expect to have a lasting solution to the unity conundrum.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)

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