Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Singapore and It's Malay Heritage

A few years ago, I applied to Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore for my doctoral studies. My application was viewed favourably that I was eventually offered to study there with a full scholarship. Although I had to refuse the offer eventually due to personal reasons, the experience I had throughout the process was quite interesting.

When I came for an interview at NTU, the head of the division said the university needs "more Malay-male role models". I was quite touched by her remark. In fact, to be honest I was very surprised. Surprised because one of the myths many Malays in Malaysia believe is, Chinese in Singapore do not care about the Malays and would not want them to develop or improve in any way.

There are quite a number of other myths about Singaporean Malays embraced by many here in Malaysia. A classic one is the belief they are not allowed to fire life bullets when they go for military training in the national service programme. In addition, there is this deep suspicion that no Singaporean Malays, no matter how capable and qualified, are allowed to hold top positions in the military and police. And to top it all, is the Mahathir-esque belief that most Malays in Singapore are oppressed and so depressed that if allowed will migrate in droves to Malaysia to be with their Malay brothers and sisters across the strait.

I've travelled to Singapore a couple of times in the last two years. I've met quite a number of Malay entrepreneurs and professionals. These are highly educated and successful individuals whom I can't imagine would want to migrate to Malaysia even if offered money to do so. Those who went for military training have fired hundreds of life bullets each. And I was duly informed that there are in fact high-ranking Malay military officers in the Singaporean army.

In the years I've been teaching at IIUM, I've also had a number of students from Singapore. These students most often were among the best in every class. Their English immaculate, their Malay refined, and their Arabic splendid. Most of these students yearned to go back to Singapore upon graduation to work and contribute to their society. I have never met anyone among them who expressed desperation to remain in Malaysia for whatever reason.

With all this in mind, the least we can say they must be something good going on for the Malays in Singapore. Oppressed and depressed? I don't think so.

Many negative things were said in reaction to the statement made by the Prime Minister of Singapore in the aftermath of the US presidential election last year that a Malay cannot become the prime minister of the country at any time in the foreseeable future. I, personally however, did not find the statement harsh or offensive. I accepted it from a pragmatic perspective. The head-of-government of any country I believe should always be from the majority group. To have someone from a minority group will create unnecessary tension in the society which may proof detrimental to the stability of the country. For the very same reason, I don't think a Chinese or Indian non-Muslim can ever become the prime minister in Malaysia.

What about President Obama? With all due respect, Barack Obama is a minority only in terms of his skin colour and race, but in all other remaining aspects (religion, mother-tongue, education etc) he shares the same characteristics and background with the majority of the society. If Obama is a Muslim, who's mother tongue is Swahili (and speaks English with an African accent), schooled in a madrasah in America, would Americans vote for him as president?

As a Malay from Malaysia, what then are my views about Singapore? I am a normal human being with emotions and feelings, and in addition a keen reader of history. Deep in my heart Singapore will always be Singapura, the lion-city founded by Sang Nila Utama (not Stanford Raffles) in the 14th century. And just like any other Malay states in the Malay Archipelago, Singapore has a history that spans more than 700 years. For me then to read or hear from anyone that Singapore's history began in 1819 is rather annoying. And the images of Singapore that I enjoy best are not those of the city's modern skyscrapers or even the durian-like Esplanade, but the splendid Masjid Sultan and Istana Kampung Glam nearby.

If there are any Chinese Singaporeans who are reading this, if you are beginning to feel the above paragraph is some sort of revelation that I am in fact a Malay chauvinist, allow me to invite you to imagine a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine the city of Shanghai in China, governed and administered by Western powers today just like it was 100 years ago; imagine IF third and fourth generation Europeans are now the majority in the society, all the streets in the city are named in English, the medium of instruction in schools at all levels is English (Chinese is only an optional language course), as a result hardly anyone in the city speaks proper Mandarin; history of the city in the national school syllabus focuses mainly with events starting from the Opium War and the coming of the British in the early 19th century (with very little emphasis on what happened before that), Sir Charles Elliot is taunted as the founder of Shanghai, a life-size sculptor of him is erected at the heart of the city and buildings and hotels named in honour of him...

Even though you are not a Chinese citizen, but as someone whose ethnic background is Chinese, and in addition have read and appreciated the 2000 years Chinese history of Shanghai, when you visit Shanghai and witness all this, how would you feel?

The emotions I feel at times as a Malay visiting Singapore is a kind of sadness brought about by a sentimental lost. I'm sure many Chinese would feel the same way too in the hypothetical situation mentioned above. Nevertheless, these emotions, though undoubtedly negative, do not necessarily lead to antagonism and hatred. A strong sense of realism will eventually creep in that things of the past are confined to history, and everyone now must look forward to the future in the best interest of all. And harbouring thoughts about instigating revolutionary changes in the society's demography is definitely not an option worth considering. The Chinese-dominated Singaporean government has provided many opportunities to the Malays. This can never be denied and should never be questioned.

Having said that, I do feel the Singaporean government can do a bit more to appreciate Singapore's Malay heritage. An issue that I feel very strongly about is respect towards the Malay language. I've found most of the Chinese and Indian Singaporeans I've met; especially amongst the youth today have very little command of Malay. Most of the Malay words they know are those that are now part of Singaporean-English (Singlish), which are mostly swear words like bodoh (stupid), gila (crazy), and mati (die).

Now, even if there are political reasons for not wanting to encourage Singaporeans to learn Malay, would it make sense to do so for pragmatic reasons? Is Malay not the national language of Singapore's next-door neighbours? Wouldn't it be advantageous to have all Singaporeans able to speak, write and read Malay for their own convenience when travelling to and doing business in Malaysia and Indonesia?

I apologise if any of what I've written here offends anyone in any way. My intention is none other than to express my honest views. My apologies if there are any factual mistakes. I stand corrected.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

1Malaysia, 1World... 1Universe?

"One Nation, One People". This is the catchphrase Malaysia's Prime Minister Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak most often uses to explain his 1Malaysia 'philosophy'.

Hardcore UMNO supporters, and those who have no interest in international politics would probably think this catchy phrase was originally invented by Prime Minister Najib. Well, just google the whole phrase and you'll know the exact same phrase has been used by politicians in the US and the UK, in Singapore and Indonesia, and in various other countries like Denmark, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Liberia, Armenia, Bhutan, Israel, Guyana and most probably, many more.

And if you think the term '1Malaysia' is unique, read about what Ehud Barak did to garner more support from Israel's diverse communities for the country's national election back in the late 1990's. He created an electoral coalition called 'One Israel' to attract voters who traditionally did not vote for and had negative views towards his Labour Party.

Not content with constantly badgering people in Malaysia with his '1Malaysia' slogan, our honourable Prime Minister recently went international to call for a '1World'! Sorry Mr. Prime Minister, Michael Jackson had beaten you to this more than 20 years ago with his song "We Are The World".

All past Prime Ministers of Malaysia and politicians from both sides, past and present, talked about national unity, racial integration, religious harmony, multiculturalism etc. What they disagreed essentially was on how to do it. The real truth is, 1Malaysia is not something new, and as can be deduced from Ehud Barak’s 'One Israel', is not even original. The only thing new is the ingenious way it is written (putting a digit together with a word), and the practice of attaching the term to anything and everything – 1Malaysia Formula One Team, Amanah Saham 1Malaysia, 1Malaysia Earthquake Fund, and 1Malaysia Lantern Festival.

Many local varsities I'm sure are in the race to set-up the Institute of 1Malaysia in addition to various conferences, seminars, exhibitions, campaigns, promotions, opening ceremonies, and whatever else that can be organised in the name of 1Malaysia. All this will be done as if '1Malaysia' is a completely new philosophy that came from our current Prime Minister's brilliant mind that no one else in this world dead or alive had ever thought about before.

Don't get me wrong. As a Malaysian who truly and deeply loves his country, I appreciate any good ideas for the nation no matter from where they come from; the Prime Minister, government ministers, opposition figures, wives of politicians or any Ahmad, Ah Chong or Mutusamy in the street. What I do find appalling is excessive sloganeering with no concrete measures to support the grand ideas mooted, and worse, clear intentional actions done to the contrary.

With President Obama now a recipient of the Noble Peace Prize, Prime Minister Najib may now have an added motivation to continue with his quest for '1World'. And to do even better than Obama and other earthly pretenders, Najib and his spin-doctors should start working on his '1Universe' speech to be delivered at the inaugural 'Intergalactic General Assembly' later in the future.

Related article: '1World, 1Malaysia...different planet'