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Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Malaysians of differing global views


Many Malaysian Chinese have aligned themselves with international trends and developments, especially as Mandarin has been transformed into a global standard challenging the English language.

AS the results of the Sarawak election trickled in on Saturday evening, it became clearer that nothing much was going to change. A solid Barisan Nasional government was returned, with Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud still in control.

Despite the early tweets and SMSes which flew around town implying Pakatan Rakyat was en route to forming the government, Barisan held on to its two-thirds majority, charging in over the last week, thanks to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak leading the campaign on the ground.

However, the victory confirmed one trend – racial polarisation, especially in the political sphere, is on the rise. Support for Sarawak’s Chinese party, SUPP, collapsed as the DAP made a near total sweep of the urban seats.

Of course, Malaysia has always been more an amalgam of tribes and peoples rather than a unified citizenry. We’ve retained our various ethnicities while also being Malaysian.

However, now the differences – especially across the racial divide – are becoming more pronounced, and there is a growing reluctance of the non-Malays to live with and accept Barisan’s version of the “social contract”.

Whether we realise it or not, the gap between us – especially the Malays and the Chinese – is steadily widening, despite our ability to still sit down and talk with one another over lunch or dinner, discussing heated issues such as education and corruption.

However, the common ground is fast disappearing, so much so that when we do talk – and I mean heart-to-heart – many in the Malay community are bewildered and exasperated by the seeming recalcitrance of the Chinese community.

Indeed, I’ve been asked many, many times: “What do the Chinese really want?”

Normally, I find myself answering by saying that I think it’s about dignity, equality and belonging.

Generally, I’ll add that the issues of language and religion will become less heated when we all share the same level of rights.

However, this is not a popular message and I can assure you that it’s difficult for many in the Malay community to accept such a proposition. Luckily, I’m not a politician.

More often than not, I find myself citing the example of the Indonesian Chinese and how, since having been given equal rights, they’ve become extremely proud of being Indonesian.

So what’s behind the hardening of the lines? Why are we drifting apart? Is there a way of bringing the communities back together once again?

First off, we need to acknowledge the extent of the gap between our different world views.

On the one hand, there is the conventional Malaysian Malay perspective which has been shaped by recent political history.

May 13 and the NEP are its totems, and these views have hardened over the years.

On the other hand, many Malaysian Chinese have aligned themselves with international trends and developments.

Mandarin has been transformed into a global standard – arguably challenging the English language’s hegemony, which has made the Chinese community far less isolated and more connected globally.

To my mind, there are parallels between the Malaysian Chinese’s retreat from Barisan and these differing mindsets.

They also suggest a fundamental shift in mood within the community – a shift which has been prompted by global events and sense of confidence arising out of the same events.

In the past, there was a sense of having no options and no alternatives – Malaysia, for better or for worse was stable, secure and safe.

However, times have changed and so have perceptions. It’s not that Malaysia is any less attractive, it’s just that there are now more alternatives.

Separately, the same story also applies for Malaysia as an investment destination – investors can afford to give Malaysia a miss, since there are now other alternatives.

We have to work so much harder to earn the returns we managed back in the 90s. Furthermore, the 2008 global financial crisis has shaken up the global balance of power between the East and West.

China is now the rising power, challenging the post-Cold War dominance of the US. Twenty years ago, Beijing and Shanghai were dingy backwaters.

Now, we are exhorting our children to learn Mandarin, and these two cosmopolitan cities are thriving with powerhouse banks and corporations.

Indeed, Malaysia is not separate and distinct from global trends. China’s extraordinary economic might and increasing global prominence is having an impact not just on our domestic economy but our socio-dynamics too. Similarly, with India.

Therefore, we need to embrace the change and the opportunities instead of rejecting them. Besides, we may have no choice.