Malaysia has reached a chronic situation where the police are using the court system to suppress alternative points of view by banning closed door meetings of legally registered societies, where members of a governing coalition party are arrested on alleged terrorist links to a defunct organization, and where the prime minister uses inuendo to threaten sectarian retaliation against a community group. A high-ranking Islamic official is arguing Malaysia should be exclusively for the Malays, contrary to the constitution and principles of Islam, and the education system is used as a propaganda tool to spread racism and distorted views of Islam. The rule of law is not the same for all, where designated people are treated differently by police.
The themes and arguments within social discussion and outcomes of governance in Malaysia today set the country apart from the rest of the world community. Malaysia’s failure to sign the United Nation’s International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) put it in the company of Dominica, South Sudan, Myanmar, and North Korea. Institutionalized racism in Malaysia puts the country in the same category of the old South African Apartheid regime, that Malaysia once vigorously opposed. Prime minister Mahathir Mohamed is perhaps the only world leader to be publicly anti-Semitic today.
Today in Malaysia, government policy, decision making, leadership, and institutional development are all influenced by certain ‘sinister’ forces. These subliminal psychological forces are controlling political outcomes that are appearing more irrational and dysfunctional as time goes on. The divisive ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) narratives are now implanted deeply into the assumptions and beliefs of the ruling elite’s psych.
These beliefs are heavily skewing political decision making. This cognitive dissonance has been destructive upon community relations, nation building, national culture, and even the Malaysian concept of nationhood itself.
When comparing Malaysian governmental decision making with the outcomes of other nations, Malaysia can be seen as being outside the gamut of normality. Other governments across the world try to build community integration, enhance the national culture, and hold nationhood as something sacrosanct, whereas Malaysian leaders are for political ends allowing these things to deteriorate.
Thus, a national psychosis exists. This is the reason why reform is off the national agenda, as reform challenges the ruling elites’ view of the reality of how they see Malaysia. Through transference, political reform is feared as an attack on authority, status, prestige, and the very security of those in power. These fears are currently projected onto the DAP, a member of the ruling coalition, which is now seen by some in power as an ‘evil’ force.
Symptoms of this psychosis are strewn around the national narrative. This narrative has become an instrument of exclusion, where the roles of groups working towards independence have been largely rewritten to serve the perceptions of the leaders of today. The aspirations of Sabahans, Sarawakians, and Orang Asli (the true indigenous people), have been excluded. This was seen in one of the final directives given by the ex-education minister Maszlee Malik before he was sacked in appointing a non-Sarawakian Kamal Mat Salih as chairman of the board of directors of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), which has led to criticism and outrage by some Sarawakians.
There is no narrative of inclusiveness anymore in Malaysia. Today’s narratives are focused on severing empathetic ties between the various ethnic groups, replacing them with a biased single narrative akin to the film Tanda Putera, which according to critics gave a biased view of Malaysia’s First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman over the May 13 1969 incident.
With thanks to a mentality within the national education system that frames exam questions claiming Zakir Naik is an Islamic icon teaching ‘true Islam’, more than two generations of Malays now behave according to the beliefs and values incorporated within these narrow vistas of reality. This denies the cascade of alternative perceptions and views that would accompany a true multi-cultural nation. The current national narratives completely fail to encompass any evolving aspirations that promote any semblance of national unity.
What is completely missing from the current national narratives are any aspirations about the dreams the nation was founded upon. There is just a subliminal sense of loss, something is missing. An alternative sense of identity has crept in – divisiveness, exclusion, and hate. Today’s narratives lack any optimism. They are depressive, holding onto an outdated caste concept. Malaysia is now a prisoner of the paradigm of division, a culture of segregation manifested by an institutionalized psychosis.
Malaysians now live within a psychic prison that is full of illusions about enemies which don’t exist. People are suffering from hallucinations about the Jewish plot, the Christian plot, and the Chinese plot. Threats from communism have long disappeared in history. Paranoia is behind the disappearance of Pastor Koh and Amri Che Mat. Lack of transparency, the failure to introduce Freedom of information (FOI), and ministerial cover ups are based on fear that the people will see the shortcomings of government. The centralization of decision making, often within secretive circumstances indicates the government’s fear of scrutinization. This paranoia is displayed in the way ministers attack those who expose their shortcomings.
The ‘Eros complex’ hypocrisy of the governing elite is projected onto LGBT, Shia and liberal Muslims, who become the enemy of the state.
The narcissistic distain for other cultures was recently displayed when a school principal veep of an ultra- Malay party demanded that Chinese New Year decorations be removed from the school. This depressive display of force has been nurtured on the assumption that ‘we are the law’. Within Malay society, ‘Malay unity’ means that all must agree to the views and ideas of the elite. Dissent is considered disloyalty. Challenging the khat and Jawi in schools is akin to an attack on the national language. All must adhere to a political interpretation of Islam rather universal principles of Islam. Those who have alternative views are the enemy. Malaysia is in the depths of a repressive totalitarian-like cultural reformation that values conformity, obedience, and extreme conservatism. Citizens of Malaysia are smothered with a single dimensional view.
Racism has become so much embedded within Malaysian culture to the extent of delusion. Its now ingrained into the psych. Racism is the emotional precursor to repressing and discriminating against other groups. However, racism has been a cover for deep corruption arising from the discriminatory policies like the New Economic Policy (NEP). The anxiety generated by the ‘lazy Malay’ being raped and plundered by other groups fallacy revived by Mahathir from British colonial times was its justification. The ruling elite has always been projected as the saviour. However, this projection of being the savour is more about resolving intra-Malay political and power rivalries, than inter-racial conflict. It’s all been a convenient fabrication for maintaining power. This delusion has allowed one group rule the rest in a negative and grandiose manner. This schizoid trait has severely impaired Malaysia maturing as a nation.
Ketuanan Melayu must be seen for what it really is; a defence mechanism against change. The irony of Ketuanan Melayu is that it is not protecting and enhancing a rich Malay culture, but rather gutting it to the mercy of some alien tribal desert culture. The imposition of Arabism has destroyed much of the richness in the beautiful Malay culture that was once fondly treasured, even by non-Malays. Now there is hate. So many traditional Malay traditions and artforms have been discouraged and even banned, under the arbitrary declaration that they are un-Islamic. Hard-line Islamic policies are taking root throughout government institutions, leading to the belief that the more one takes on the artefacts of Arabism, the better a Muslim he or she will be. Government was not set up for the purpose of worshipping God. Government was set up to build and manage a nation. Reciting Rukun Negara would be much more appropriate than reciting prayers before government events and meetings.
Curing Malaysia’s national psychosis can only come from reverting back to the assumptions, beliefs and values that were around when the nation of Malaysia was created. This means breaking up the fallacies that are hindering the pursuit of nationhood. These include the fallacy that public enterprise can do what private enterprise can’t do. This is where the elite have gained their ill-gotten wealth and most state economic development corporations, and their subsidiaries are bedrocks of corruption. The fallacy of Fadhli-Ain which has encouraged blind following of ritual, should be questioned and more focus put on values pursuing Fadhli-Kifayah, where all life thinking, action, and relationships shows true devotion to God. Fadhli-Kifayah brings Islam into the community. It’s unselfish Islam and true da’wah.
‘Biar mati anak, jangan biar mati adat’ (better your children die than your traditions) is abandoned Malay wisdom. Malay culture is quickly being killed off by the Arab fallacy. Malay and other indigenous cultures originated from three distinct sources. Those indigenous to Tanah Melayu (the Malay Peninsula), Sabah and Sarawak, those who migrated to Malaysia from the Nusantara archipelago, and those who migrated to Malaysia while the Sultanates were riverine rather than territorially defined. Some of the migrants from outside of Nusantara over the centuries from China and South Asia formed a unique Baba culture that has co-existed with Malay culture for centuries. Once, Malays, Chinese, Indians and the other peoples of Malaysia celebrated Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Christmas, and Deepavali together as a symbol of unity, this is now forbidden.
The new Arabized cultural traits and inwardly politically defined Islamic view of the world has become a fence of exclusion. This is pushing younger Chinese into a China admiration syndrome which holds China’s accomplishments in awe, which China is now clandestinely exploiting for its own advantage. Expect this to become much more pronounced over the next few years.
Malay culture started to change when the cikgu (teachers) and civil servants were replaced within UMNO by an opportunistic rent-seeking Malay class and when Mahathir-Anwar ran amok Islamizing the government and civil service. This was also the time of the birth of crony capitalism which guaranteed the gentry would rule over the rest. Malay culture was sold out for greed. The rule of law became we are the law, where police need special permission to interview anyone seen as being a member of the gentry in any investigation.
However, the constructed truths created and manipulated by those in power have always depended upon economic prosperity. The government handed out millions of Ringgit to the people, gave out privileges, and extended credit so households could consume, so people could be controlled through debt and gratitude. Affluence bought silence, it kept the opposition weak, and enhanced the image of the government as being benevolent.
Government budgetary and fiscal problems, economic downturn, and rising cost of living are making it much harder for any government to placate the people, as has been done traditionally for decades. Its going to be much more difficult to buy into power in the future.
The country has been led by the same people for 50 years. The Pakatan Harapan government is still operating the old practices of feudalistic nepotism.
None of the present political parties, either alone, or in any combination can remedy this national psychosis. Bersatu members of cabinet have shown their disdain for transparency, in honouring their pledges, and have been implementing their own agendas. PKR ministers have been enjoying the trappings of office. They are changed people from the days they were in opposition.
The Malaysian Malaysia dream of Tunku Abdul Rahman is fading away into a Wahabi state with all the tribal trimmings, pushed by the Malay-centric parties on the people.
The only hope for a cure is for intellectuals, activists, writers, lawyers and other professional people, members of Royal families, along with ordinary citizens, led by those who once experienced a Malaysian Malaysia to come together to initiate change. This doesn’t have to immediately become a political movement, but a diversity of social and cultural organizations that refocus the narratives back to the old Nusantara values, society once cherished. This movement could advocate de-Arabizing the Malay language, and returning to Islam Hadhari (today) with its wider universal values. Kampongs need revitalization, where mosques become centres of vocational and community education. Cottage industry can be revitalised to develop local sustainable economies. This would also mean dissolving state economic development corporations and their subsidiary companies that are full of corruption and taking market-space away from local entrepreneurs.
The states need their sovereignty back. Political centralization must be reversed. They need to campaign for local government and Citizen Development Committees (LPPKN) elections, so that as many people as possible can participate in some level of governance.
The movement would be as much spiritual as it would be political focusing on the similarities rather than the differences between religions. Finally, history needs to be taught as it really was. A country without a deep sense of history is a country without a soul.
If such a movement could ever gain momentum, some of the old political partisans from the PKR, DAP, and political forces in Sabah would come onboard. This is not an impossibility. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party made a successful debut in Thailand’s general election last year, and is very quickly becoming a mass social movement aimed at changing Thailand’s current political paradigm.
An abridged version was originally published in Asia Sentinel