Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, said earlier this week, in a podcast with former minister Khairy Jamaluddin (KJ) and Shahril Hamdan that migrants who arrived in Malaya should have assimilated and be made to be “Malay”.
He argued that this is “Tanah Melayu” but when the migrants arrived, they wanted to retain their identity, “looked down” on the Malays, and refused to assimilate. He claimed that these migrants wanted to keep their own language, and culture, while insisting on being connected with the country they originated from.
On the other hand, Mahathir maintained there were some – and obviously referring to his own Indian family, who came from Kerala, or those from the Arab world, who accepted assimilation and became “Malay.” And, Mahathir insisted that this was the only thing truly required for the nation at that time.
Our erstwhile nonagenarian former prime minister then gave the example of Indonesia where Chinese migrants were forced to assimilate and drop their traditional names. Mahathir says that this is the reason why the Indonesian language is spoken so fluently by the Chinese there.
When KJ seemed a little uncomfortable with these jingoistic comments, he referred to Mahathir’s memoirs. In his book, the former PM had written that he strived for our people to become “Malaysian first.” Mahathir then back tracked and said what he meant was that our people should be “Malay first.” And, that was what he intended in his book.
Before they left this line of discussion, KJ retorted that the Malaya/Malaysian model of integration rather than assimilation brought great benefits to our nation. That our people, speak Mandarin and Tamil, is an asset in the world, rather than a liability.
I watched in aghast.
Still reeling from the first 30 minutes of this chauvinistic ideology that Mahathir was peddling, the rest of the interview was littered with Mahathir’s “world-view,” his unique historical take on his successors and misgivings, the unsuitability of our current prime minister in his eyes, and the foibles that successive governments made after he left power.
Aside from Mahathir’s archaic ethno-nationalist views, which I found very disturbing as a Malaysian from a migrant background, his complete dismissal and refusal to accept responsibility for the corruption endemic within Umno while he presided over the party, was mind-boggling.
The culture of bribery within the party is said to have been forged during his over two-decade presidency of Umno. Mahathir had, within his means, the power to combat this malaise that was taking hold in his party, and as a natural extension, the nation. It is widely accepted that he ruled with an iron fist, and therefore he could have halted the avalanche of wrongdoings.
But in the interview, Mahathir claims that it was not his responsibility to address the growing corruption in his party, and that it was the purview of the “authorities” to act if they noticed irregularities. Mahathir flatly refused to shoulder any blame for the corruption problems we face now as a consequence of his leadership.
In an era when we need inclusiveness and acceptance, Mahathir harks back on inappropriate claims that Chinese and Indian migrants should have been assimilated to become Malay. Mind you, not Malayans or Malaysians, but “Malay.”
How does one morph and just become Malay? Mahathir’s argument is that if one follows the culture, embraces the religion, and acts like a “Malay,” they can eventually become Malay. As though all Malays behave and act in one and the same way.
I am grateful that my forefathers supposedly resisted this attempt, like Mahathir claims. Each of us is unique. We have our own background and a rich tapestry of culture that makes us who we are now. For example, although I do not read or write Tamil, my mother tongue, fluently, I speak it fairly well, and I am thankful that my folks taught me the language. And, I am richer for it.
I am appreciative that I understand some Malay and Chinese culture, because I grew up in a multi-ethnic nation with friends from all these cultural backgrounds. And, I am a product of Malaysia, a true melting pot nation.
But most of all, I am blessed not to live in a mono-cultural society, where one dominant race or culture is rammed down my throat to the point that I dismiss my own ancestry. And this doesn’t make me less patriotic. Just because my ancestors came from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, I am no less Malaysian.
If called upon to serve to defend my country, I would do so with an open heart and with absolute loyalty. And my country is neither “India” nor “Tamil Nadu” – my country is Malaysia and my people are Malaysians.
Perhaps KJ and Shahril, who have a large and devout following for their Keluar Sekejap podcast, should attempt to use the platform to help Malaysia find solutions, and bring inclusiveness to our nation; instead of wheeling out people who have been the architects of corruption, presiding over the education system’s breakdown, and who continue to stoke racial tensions.
To me, like many of my countrymen and women, “Bangsa Malaysia” is what we are.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.