Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rojak is Good for Nation-Building

Rojak buah - a popular Malaysian salad

The first of the nine challenges posed by Vision 2020 is that of creating by the second decade of the next century a united Malaysian nation which is ethnically integrated and harmonious. This amounts to an admission by the Government that, more than three decades after independence, we are still not a nation in the full sense of the word. Those of us who would agree with this belong to two main categories. There are non-Bumiputeras who believe that the officially sanctioned “Bumi/non-Bumi” dichotomy is the root of most of the obstacles to the emergence of a true nation. And there are the Bumiputeras who claim that we are not a true nation because we don’t have linguistic and cultural unity. It is not my intention here to discuss all the reasons that have been offered to the absence of true nationhood. I only want to look at the linguistic reason advanced by the Bumiputeras, and to discuss it in relation to literature. Since literature is part of culture, what I have to say may have some bearing on the thorny issue of “national culture.”

One of the many responses to our Prime Minister’s call for a critical discussion of his Vision 2020 is a booklet I’ve just read called Wawasan 2020 dan Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia (Vision 2020 and the Building of a Malaysian Nation). Published by the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia), the booklet is the result of a dialogue held last year by a group of UKM academics. The views expressed in it can be considered representative of the dominant thinking among the Malay intellectual elite.

All the academics in the dialogue more or less agree that the two main reasons for the failure of a true Malaysian nation to emerge are (1) the unwillingness of the majority of non-Bumis and a section of the Bumi elite to show a genuine and full commitment to the national language; (2) the persistence of cultural pluralism despite demands by the Bumi literati for a full implementation of the National Cultural Policy. The academics are particularly concerned about the continuing presence of the language of our former colonial masters. They lament the fact that English is still very visible everywhere in this country; on TV, in the print media, in all forms of advertising, on shop signs, at the cinemas, in bookshops and other places. In the private sector, English is the dominant language of communication. Private colleges with English as the medium of instruction are allowed to function freely.  These academics further complain that even the younger generation of non-Bumis who were educated in the National Language prefer to speak English or their own language when there is no official compulsion or expectation for them to speak in the National language. With TV-watching  constituting a large portion of their leisure time and English newspapers, magazines and books their preferred reading material, it is not surprising that English is their usual medium of communication.  But what the UKM academics are really sad about is the fact that a sizable section of the Malay elite, especially the businessmen, prefer to speak in English not only to non-Bumis but among themselves too. What’s worse, they even think in English!

The Government is taken to task for compromising on the issue of national language; for allowing English to be so visible in many areas of public life. The Government, it is repeatedly stressed in the dialogue, must apply the law rigorously to ensure that only the National Language is used in situations where such use is legally enforceable. It is even implied that the Government should extend its legal powers, presumably through new acts of Parliament or amendments to the present National Language Act, to ensure that the status of Malay as the sole official language is respected. The implication is strengthened by the proposal that there should be a National Culture Act to correspond with the National Language Act. Such an act, it is argued, would ensure the end of kebudayaan rojak (Salad culture) – a colloquial expression for “cultural pluralism” or “multiculturalism.”

One of the academics is sceptical about the fifth challenge posed by Vision 2020, that of creating a liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians respect each other’s creeds and customs. He wonders if this is not an approval of kebudayaan rojak.  Another even more uncompromising academic actually accuses the Prime Minister of inserting the dangerous idea of “democratization of culture” in his Vision 2020. This same academic categorically asserts that “nasionalisme Malaysia bererti … nasionalisme bumiputera, dan Wawasan 2020 perlu dikudung oleh nasionalisme bumiputera ini.” (“Malaysian nationalism means … Bumiputera nationalism, and Vision 2020 must be buttressed by this Bumiputera nationalism”) He also prophesies that if the present widespread use of English is not checked, “bangsa Malaysia pada tahun 2020 ialah bangsa yang fasih dalam Bahasa Inggeris.” (“the Malaysian nation in the year 2020 will be a nation fluent in the English language”) (I didn’t know that to be fluent in the lingua franca of the world is a bad thing.)

The booklet as a whole strikes me as a rather regressive document which shows that ethnocentric thinking is still very strong among the Bumi intellectual elite. They are not yet psychologically liberated to use a phrase from Vision 2020. The document weakens even more the little faith that sceptics like me have in our ability to meet the challenges of creating a united nation which is ethnically integrated, and a mature democratic society which is psychologically liberated, liberal and tolerant. The suggestion in the booklet that non-Bumis who don’t speak the National Language all or most of the time are ipso facto not Malaysian in spirit, and those Bumis who are bilingual are renegades, is nonsense. And the allegation that the non-Bumis are more conscious of their ethnic identities than their identity as Malaysians is only worth entertaining if the UKM academics are prepared to be honest about the Bumis’ own sense of identity. Aren’t they also like the non-Bumis in this respect? One of the academics actually admits it, and I commend him for his honesty.

On the question of cultural pluralism, we must be realistic. As realists have often pointed out, kebudayaan rojak is inevitable given the multi-ethnic nature of our society in which no one race truly dominates in terms of numbers. Anyway, what’s wrong with kebudayaan rojak? Malaysians like rojak. It’s good for them, and it helps nation building. Unity in diversity is certainly better for the vitality of our cultural life than the imposition of an artificially conceived national culture through legislation. A living culture, as everyone knows, grows naturally; it cannot be programmed or legislated according to an abstract recipe. And it is disingenuous of the UKM academics to blame linguistic diversity, in particular, for the failure of a true Malaysian nation to emerge. There are other factors, mainly political, which are really responsible.

As far as English is concerned, its widespread use can, under the right conditions, be good for the nation because like Bahasa Malaysia, English cuts across ethnic differences. Why regret the fact that our country has more than one lingua franca? Isn’t it better for unity and integration? I’d even be reckless enough to argue that in the present state of affairs, English is perhaps a better medium of integration, certainly among the middle and lower middle class Malaysians, than even the National Language. Why? Because it is not identified with any particular ethnic group. And if we confine ourselves to the middle and lower middle classes, more non-chauvinists are found among English-speaking Malaysians than among speakers of the other languages.

This is something that could make our English language novelists, poets, dramatists and essayists more sensitive to the dream of true nationhood and more alert to the evils of chauvinism. The ability of the National Language to bring about national integration is not in question here. But national integration is a very slow process; we could do with any help we can get in making it less slow. The English language, I think, can be a help here. And it doesn’t really matter that English is largely the language of the elite and its potential as a medium of integration is mainly confined to the middle class. This is after all the class from which most of our leaders come. And in the slow process of true nation –building, our leaders must show the way instead of being led by the masses in the name of political expediency. 

1 July 1992


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