7 May 2017

On Being and Becoming Malaysian
Focus, Sunday Star
Efforts must be made to find ways to bring Malaysians from different racial groups together to form meaningful and enduring ties.

By Ananthi AL Ramiah, Miles Hewstone and Ibrahim Suffian. 

MALAYSIANS often think of their country as a rojak of cultures – all distinct, yet combining beautifully to create a well-balanced and tasty dish. However, closer scrutiny reveals that all these elements do not gel as well as they once might have; certainly, older Malaysians lament that the country is not what it used to be. While “harmony” and “unity” are common buzzwords, how do we actually achieve these idealised states?

It is simple, we are told: look past our differences and just be Malaysian; there is, after all, more that unites than divides us, and we are likely to be kinder to one another if we focus on our shared Malaysian-ness.

Nonetheless, simplistic solutions rarely address complex problems, and integration efforts that emphasise Malaysian-ness can, under certain circumstances, hinder rather than promote unity. In order to be Malaysian, we may first have to become Malaysian, and this may require a conscious, combined national effort. In other words, the Malaysian identity is not a premade garment that we can slip on, but rather something that we must jointly tailor in order to simultaneously fit a nation of Malaysians.

A first step in this process is to understand what people mean when they talk about being Malaysian.

When we surveyed respondents from the three main racial groups across Peninsular Malaysia, we found that, on average, the Malays felt most Malaysian, followed by the Indians and then the Chinese (the Chinese reported feeling Malaysian too, just not as strongly as the other two groups).

Most Malays felt identified about equally strongly as both Malaysian and Malay, whereas the non-Malays tended to feel significantly more Chinese or Indian than they did Malaysian.

If we believe that feeling Malaysian is a proxy for harmony, these findings may reveal a country in which the majority Malays are more invested in the Malaysian identity, and by extension, in national unity, than the non-Malays.

However, in order to investigate whether this is really the case, we need to assess whether the respondents who felt more Malaysian were also more integrated with their fellow Malaysians.

We measured this sentiment by assessing how favourably respondents felt towards people from the other two main racial groups.
We found that the Malays who felt more Malaysian did not in fact feel more favourably towards non-Malays, while the non-Malays who felt more Malaysian did feel more favourably towards Malays.

The Malays did not feel negatively towards non-Malays; the extent of their feeling Malaysian was just not associated with their feelings about non-Malays. Thus, feeling Malaysian is clearly not a universal panacea for racial prejudice; in fact, it seems that being Malaysian may mean different things to different people.

We found evidence for this asymmetry in our data: non-Malays who felt more Malaysian had a greater proportion of Malay friends which was also related to feeling more favourably towards Malays. But Malays who felt more Malaysian had more Malay (rather than non-Malay) friends. Thus, for the non-Malays, being Malaysian appears to be an inclusive identity that explicitly incorporates Malays, while for the Malays, Malaysianness appears to connote being Malay and being amongst Malays (see graphic).

This important asymmetry could stem from how racial identity has evolved in Malaysia post-independence. Some political commentators argue that we have seen a sharpening of racial and religious identities over the years. For the Malay community in particular, racial and religious identities have become inextricably woven.

In some other research that we recently conducted, we found that the Malay identity, which once described a diverse group of people, has become increasingly prescriptive in terms of how people should talk, dress, associate with others and think about themselves. Such a demanding identity can make it difficult to mix with people from other racial and religious groups.

This is very unfortunate because it stands in stark contrast to our finding that both Malays and non-Malays who have friends from other racial groups feel more favourably towards people from the other racial groups, independent of how Malaysian they feel. Thus, we must be wary of identities which accentuate our differences and make it harder for us to engage with one another.

Our findings raise the important question of what it really means to be Malaysian. Since different racial groups wear this identity in different ways, this presents a problem for one-size-fits-all integration slogans such as 1Malaysia, which has been promoted by national leaders with little discussion of what Malaysian-ness entails.

Ours is not an assimilationist model as practised in Thailand and, to a lesser degree, Indonesia, where majority ethnic or religious groups project their own language and culture onto the common national identity. Rather, our model seeks integration between people from different backgrounds.

But successful and sustained multicultural integration requires careful thought and dialogue, as is being undertaken in several countries, including the United Kingdom. It is important to recognize that identities are not set in stone; they should evolve to reflect our common history and values. Thus, instead of simply being Malaysian, we need to think in terms of jointly becoming Malaysian. Otherwise, we can end up perpetuating a kind of multiculturalism in which our differences define us.

Clearly, we need to further investigate these complex questions. However, the evidence so far prompts us to suggest that a national conversation – one that involves Malaysians from all walks of life and all racial and religious groups (and is not merely the preserve of the powerful) – on the question of national identity and multiculturalism is vital for the continued peace, prosperity and stability of Malaysia.

In other words, we need to get better at disagreeing with one another in order to have a conversation, in which our sense of shared national interests can help overcome prejudices and preconceived notions so that we can embark on a journey of national self-discovery that is both honest and effective.

We may never arrive at an answer that is equally satisfactory to everyone, but the conversation itself will provide insights into the things that people value and issues that are bubbling beneath the surface. Additionally, there is a need for concerted efforts to find as many ways as possible to bring Malaysians from different racial groups together to form meaningful and enduring ties.

This may ultimately be the most effective and sustainable way to promote integration. We are stronger together than apart, and we must continually negotiate and navigate that togetherness. In so doing, we would do well to remember the words of President J. F. Kennedy: “What unites us is far greater than what divides us.”

This article is the second of a four-part series on multi-culturalism in Malaysia. It is based on the findings from a recently-conducted research project funded by CIMB Foundation, which aimed to understand the challenges and promise of multi-cultural Malaysia. The research study and interviews, conducted by Merdeka Centre, was designed and analysed by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. We surveyed 1,504 adult citizens aged 18 years and older in Peninsular Malaysia, with a view to extending the survey to Sabah and Sarawak in the next phase. A report on the results and recommendations is available at www.cimbfoundation.com.

Ananthi Al Ramiah and Miles Hewstone, who led this study, are social psychologists from the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. Ibrahim Suffian is a co-founder and programmes director of Merdeka Centre.
All rights reserved. Copyright © 2022 CIMB Foundation (795634-H).

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