Racial Unity and its impact on Malaysian Democracy
The survival of democracy in any pluralistic nation lies in the stability and ability of the government of the day to manage diversity. In Malaysia, diversity has been shaping the very essence of the country’s social structure and historical aspects. Most could agree that the richness in the country’s ethnic and cultural identities is actually a great asset that must be properly handled with wisdom. Realizing this fact, the call for racial unity must not sound rhetorical but practically pivotal.
Democracy is not just about the right to vote in general elections, nor is it limited to observing one’s right and freedom. It is very much about ensuring the creation and continuation of a government system that is legitimate, effective and representative of all the various segments that exist in the society. However, in a plural society, to embrace all democratic ideals is almost impossible.
John Stuart Mill, a political philosopher, in his book ‘Considerations on Representative Governments ‘, paints a rather bleak assessment on this notion of plural society and democracy. He states that “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the making of representative government cannot exist”. Is this so in the context of Malaysia?
This has been the challenge faced by the government ever since the country gained independence. Malaysia’s plural society is a mélange of various races, religions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Comprising of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, the richer ethnic diversities of Sabah and Sarawak such as Kadazan, Iban, Bidayuh, Dayak, Melanau and Bajau, this form of pluralistic social structure is far more difficult to manage. The promotion of the muhibbah spirit, as well as other policies that embrace the ethnic and cultural diversities, most importantly the creation of the Rukun Negara in 1970, are clear examples of the early initiatives.
From there onwards, government has continuously tried to address the issues and problems arising from the complex nature of the nation’s multi-ethnic background. Some have condemned the efforts on the basis that not enough has been done, but many have applauded every endeavour that has taken place. One must appreciate the reality that it is indeed an uphill task for any polity to juggle between dealing with the intricacies related to racial diversity and at the same time try to remain popular and relevant to all segments of the society.
The problem with racial unity today lies in the lack of sincerity among parties vying for power. The race card has always been at play when trying to get support in any political battle. The danger to this game is too obvious for all to see when short-thinking and emotions are not guided by wisdom, patience and spirit of acceptance. The effect will be disastrous to the survival of the nation and also to the credibility of any government. In short, much is at stake when there is no unity among the various ethnic communities in the society, since it threatens the beautiful promises of democracy.
To materialize the idea of racial unity, the jigsaw puzzle that appears in our minds is how to turn numerous racial groups into one common entity or identity. In the context of ethnic and cultural diversities, the pertinent question to ask is how do we manage these social characteristics and promote harmonious relationships among people with different backgrounds? The answer to this is many but for some, the most successful approach is by developing alliances and adopting a just power sharing among the various ethnic communities.
As evident elsewhere, unresolved conflicts in major plural societies occur when there is not enough conviction to open the door for different ethnic groups to be part of the process of managing the country as a nation. In Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy system, where the Federal Constitution serves as the guiding document to face head-on the prevailing social setting, the spirit of acceptance, accommodation and co-existence are the crucial operating principles.
Therefore, the right formula is that racial unity should be based upon the spirit of togetherness and mutual understanding. As a country that upholds this noble spirit, rooms for engagement with all different ethnic groups in the society must always be kept open. This is especially true given that democracy is all about giving the people their voice to be heard, not just through the ballot boxes, but also through continuous dialogue and discussions.
This positive engagement approach that we are promoting here will give a clear picture to any government what is really happening with the common people on the ground. Acknowledging the potency of the said approach, a good government will leverage upon these cultural and ethnic diversities as pillars of strength to build a better nation. When viewed from the opposite angle, any attempt to use ethnic and cultural differences as the trump card for sectarian political gains would be construed as a desperate attempt by the party that uses, or rather abuses, it.
To the public at large, let us celebrate the diversities that exist in our society as something that enrich the nation. We need to learn to know one another better, set aside prejudices and stand upon the spirit of muhibbah that was inherited to us by our forefathers. It was done not out of suspicions but out of trust and sheer belief that the future generation will be able to continue to uphold this important legacy and enjoy living in harmony. If others can appreciate what the country has achieved so far in managing our racial and cultural diversities, why can’t we?
Lastly, take heed in this Quranic verse: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things.” (Al-Hujurat, 49:13)
Hopefully, by doing so, we as a united nation, can prove John Stuart Mill wrong. Now, that would certainly be our sweet gift to world democracy, wouldn’t it?