Yesterday, PKR president-elect Anwar Ibrahim advised Malaysians not to defend bad leaders even if they were of the same race and religion.
“The attitude of some people now is that it is okay to defend individuals who go against religious teachings and do things like steal people’s money or engage in corruption as long as they are from the same race and religion,” the man who is in line to be the next prime minister said.
Anwar, of course, was speaking in a narrow, political context; and certainly he was hinting at former prime minister Najib Razak and the 1MDB scandal when he proffered this advice.
Nevertheless, I think it is good advice, for he is telling people to look beyond race and religion. I would have been more happy if he had taken it further and told Malaysians to apply this in all spheres of life, particularly now when we are celebrating Merdeka Day and National Day.
At the risk of sounding trite, I think it is time we start to consider ourselves Malaysian first. Enough of thinking of ourselves as Malay first, Malaysian second or Chinese first, Malaysian second or Indian first, Malaysian second.
Notice that, in saying this, I do not include the Dayaks or Kadazandusun or Ibans or others from Sabah and Sarawak. This is because they are much more mature than peninsular Malaysians when it comes to engaging with people and living in harmony.
There is so much that we in the peninsula can learn from the people of Sabah and Sarawak about tolerance, acceptance and respect for the ways of other people.
This year has been most remarkable as Malaysians voted for a change in government by booting out the Barisan Nasional coalition that had ruled, in one form or another, for 61 years and replaced it with the Pakatan Harapan (PH).
Let’s ride on this mood for change by transforming the way we think about ourselves and fellow Malaysians. Again, at the risk of sounding platitudinous, let me suggest that we consider ourselves Malaysian first.
As the PH government swept in on an agenda of change, I challenge it to work towards transforming the attitudes of Malaysians so that they think of themselves as Malaysian first.
That doesn’t mean we deny our ethnicities or our cultures. It just means that while we celebrate our individual ethnicities and cultures, we see ourselves as part of the wider national group.
A government is elected to lead. While it has to take cognisance of the wishes of the public, it has to show the way; while it has to be mindful of the situation in the nation and the world, it has to move the nation forward. It cannot say: “Oh, people are used to thinking along racial lines, what can we do?” or “This is the reality and we have to live with it.” That is not why voters elect governments.
So, I am asking PH government leaders to show gumption, to lead by initiating action that will encourage people to think of themselves as “Malaysian first”.
The “I am Malaysian” feeling is already there in many people, but, like in most other things, we are selective about when we let it show itself. On all the occasions that I have met Malays and Chinese and Indians from Malaysia overseas, we have been proud to refer to ourselves as Malaysians.
Those who have travelled abroad will not only acknowledge how we invariably identity ourselves as Malaysians, but also understand the joy of bumping into a fellow Malaysian, regardless of ethnicity and religion.
Why is it then that when we are back home, we revert to calling ourselves Malays or Chinese of Indians?
We need to bring that Malaysian spirit that binds us overseas into our lives in Malaysia itself.
For a start, it would be good for cabinet members to declare that they are “Malaysian first”. That includes Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who, when he was part of Umno, famously declared that he was “Malay first”.
Having done this, the PH government should get all the top civil servants – the secretaries-general, directors-general and department heads – to declare that they are “Malaysian first”.
Subsequently, it should encourage business leaders and heads of corporations to declare themselves “Malaysian first”.
Then comes the hard part: putting this into effect in the way they deal with fellow Malaysians of different ethnicities and religions. The civil service, corporations and businesses would need to incorporate policies and actions that demonstrate this stand in the way they interact with clients, do business and deal with employees.
It will be tough as we have for long become accustomed to seeing ourselves as Malays, Chinese and Indians living together – not as Malaysians living together. The nature of politics in Malaysia – growing up with mostly race-based parties – militates against seeing ourselves as one. The influence of religious leaders who tell us we should not befriend or work with people of other religions is another major barrier. The habit of supporting businessmen of our own race is yet another obstacle that we have to overcome.
It will be a transformative experience because it means everyone treating everyone else as a Malaysian, and not as a Malay or non-Malay or Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Buddhist.
I am not pollyanna enough to expect a total transformation, as that can only be a dream. However, I believe that even a slight change in this direction will do our overall well-being and our nation good.
And what better time to begin the change then right now as we celebrate National Day?
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT
* The views of the writer do not necesarily reflect those of FMT.