Monday, August 22, 2016

The Otherness of “the Other”: Rethinking Differences, The Malaysian Experience

 Engaging Threads and Trends
Rainbow Paradise Beach resort
16 – 18 August 2016


There was a story of a father, his son and their camel. They were walking alongside their camel as they passed an oasis. The villagers found that amusing. What good was a camel if no one was riding it? 

Going through another oasis, someone inquired why the father was riding while the son was walking alongside.

“You’re heartless!” the villagers shouted at the father.

The father alighted and let his son on the camel. In the next oasis, the villagers chastised the boy for being selfish; he should be the one walking. The father and son were confused.

What do you think the ending should be? Should the father and son carry the camel  on their backs?

The story is perfect as an analogy in managing race relations, more so in Malaysia. Everyone has his or her view about it. All of us have our own profession and one more – as a critic on how we should be dealing with such relations. In a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation like ours, race relations are everyone’s business. In fact, that should be the case.

I am using the concept of the “Otherness of the Other” – which I plunder unashamedly from the postmodernist discourse to look at our “differences” today or how we perceive ourselves as “different”. We are looking at others as “the Other”, thus the difference as the “Otherness”.

I am borrowing the idea to understand the reality of race relations in this beloved nation of ours. “The Other” within the postmodernist concept could mean anything from the jaundiced view of the Eurocentric “First World” to the colonised “Third World”. It could be a “discourse of the periphery” eliminating what is left of “universal history” and the so-labelled “meta-narratives”. 

Postmodernism as a discourse harps on the problem of “representation” – probably appropriate when we deal with a concept like race relations in any nation. I would “appropriate” this postmodernist construct within our study of race relations for it is relevant to issues pertaining to perspectives and orientations.

Imagine using Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness as the prism of race relations. Postmodernist scholars would look at Conrad’s valorisation of Western reason and civilisation, while many of us would be moved by the morality play in the novel. 

The novel is a journey of “de-realising” the world. Translated into the film Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979, the world of Vietnam becomes surreal. Charles Marlow’s travel in the novel has become Captain Willard’s torturous journey into the heart of the Vietnam War. Both worlds, however, become nothing more than a realm of fictive or illusionary “appearances”. 

Coppola’s Vietnam leaves us with historical incongruity and a notion of a mere monumentalising of what’s left of human dignity and decorum, while Conrad’s Congo gives us a bitter taste of colonialist unreality and “unbelieveability”

Both Marlow and Willard are mere messengers – errand boys of sorts who are trying to understand the madness of the situation, both reflecting the heart of darkness, both meandering through uncharted  terrains, losing the familiarity as they go in deeper, losing even their souls in the process                                                                      
Imagine the journey into understanding race relations in the country. Or what happened to race relations in the last few decades. It is surreal to say the least for things were a lot less complicated back then. Things were much better too. 

That brings me to the novel Interlok by the late Abdullah Hussain. The controversies surrounding the novel, which was once used as a literary text in our secondary schools, remind me of the fuss surrounding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the United States.  Somehow the fate of both novels intertwined. Mark Twain’s book was published in 1884 without commotion until lately. It took 126 years for some segments of the American society to realise that the word “nigger” (mentioned 217 times in the novel) is derogatory after all. The book is considered a classic. In fact, Daniel S Burt in his book The Novel 100 ranked Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the number 14th greatest novel of all time. 

Abdullah’s novel was published in 1971, and it took 39 years for some of its detractors to realise that a particular word to denote the caste system is demeaning to Indians. He used the word twice in a significant manner. In the first instance, he mentioned the lead character’s position in the caste system; in the second, he was amazed at how the caste system was not evident in Malaya.

 I find it unnerving that the publisher of the new edition of Adventures    of Huckleberry Finn in the US is taking out the word “nigger” from the book. I would certainly disapprove if the character Shylock is removed from The Merchant of Venice simply because he’s a blood-sucking Jewish money lender. Shylock does not make Shakespeare anti -Semitic any more than Joseph Conrad or Henri Fauconnier as haters of Malays due to their depiction of Malays in Lord Jim, Almayer’s Folly or The Soul of Malaya. In two of Conrad’s novels and that of Fauconnier’s, the indigenous people of Malaya are not shown in a good light.

I am sure Abdullah had no intention of hurting the feelings of the Indian community when he wrote Interlok. The circumstances resulting in the publication of the novel warrant some attention. Upon the urging of the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) organised a novel-writing competition to commemorate ten years of independence in 1967. One of the novels worthy of a consolation prize was Interlok.  The other three were Sandera (Arenawati), Merpati Putih Terbang Lagi (Khatijah Hashim) and Pulanglah Perantau (Aziz Jahpin). 

Abdullah Hussain
Interlok stands out as the only novel that truly encompasses the spirit of Merdeka. It is a story of a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious Malaysia. In spirit and deed, it is a truly “Malaysian” novel. In fact, if there is any local work that should be labelled a 1Malaysia novel, it has to be Interlok. 

Abdullah was a prolific writer. He wrote 20 novels, the first being Dia…Kekasihku (1941) and the last Imam (1995). But he had a soft spot for Interlok. He spent more time researching for Interlok than for any of his other novels. He read countless materials, met numerous people, poured over maps and landmarks, and learnt proverbs and words of the various communities depicted in the book. It is after all a story of three families – that of Seman, Ching Huat and Maniam, with the last two hailing from China and India respectively. There are four chapters in the novel; the first three narrate the stories of the three families representing the major races of the country, and the last chapter is the “interlocking” one in which the fate of the three families are intertwined in a fledgling nation. 

In every chapter, Abdullah begins with a theme based on proverbs from the three races, each proverb manifesting the psyche of its people. For the Malays, he used two controversial proverbs that have been blamed for the backwardness of the race: “biar lambat asal selamat” (better late than never) and “tidak lari gunung dikejar “ (there is no necessity to chase a mountain for it  will not run away).For the Chinese, he used the proverb, “kalau tak berwang, ke mana pergi terbuang” (without money, you’re easily discarded), while for the Indians, it was “hati yang tetap akan mencapai kemenangan” (a determined heart will win). 

The story of the Indian family begins with the patriarch’s journey that starts in July 1901 from a small village in Tricur to the port of Nagapatam in Kerala, India, and then to Penang. Maniam had lived in destitute with his wife Ambika. Inspired by the success of his neighbour Pillay, who had been to Malaya, Maniamis determined to leave for “the land of gold”. His journey is one of trials and tribulations. His wife leaves him for another man and he starts a new family but it is tough all the way.

It is a story of a typical immigrant, not unlike the difficulties faced by Chin Huat from a poor village in China. Maniam and Chin Huat came, they integrate and they prosper in their own ways. Together with Seman, they are the unsung heroes of a new-born nation. They weather tragedies, despair, sadness, yet they endure. The theme for the interlocking chapter is “bersekutu bertambah mutu” (united we thrive).

 I agree that Maniam enduresa worst fate than Seman or Chin Huat. When the community heard he had a wife in India, the entire estate ostracises him, not knowing that the wife, Ambika, had been forcibly taken by his own neighbour. Maniamis saved by Musa, a poor young man who is determined to marry his lover as soon as he has enough money. Both Maniam and Musa set on a path to redeem themselves. Musa goes through a traumatic experience for not being accepted to work at the estate (where the workers are Indians) and the tin mine (Chinese). With Maniam’s help, he gets a job at a shop doing menial work. Later Musa joins Maniam in the estate.

Race relations is a touchy subject. Its depiction in a novel can be contentious, as proven by Interlok. Abdullah was neither a social scientist nor a historian. He was a story teller. He wrote fiction, not the annals of the people of Malaysia. Interlok is not flawless but it is an audacious attempt to understand one another. Imagine finding faults with Roots or Chesapeake. Those are novels even if they are based on true events.

As evident in the furore over Interlok, the journey into race relations in this country is getting scarier. Not unlike River Congo in The Heart of Darkness and the river in Vietnam where Captain Willard and gang were supposed to hunt for Colonel Walter E Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the relationship among the races is getting murkier. 

While Interlok does not carry a postmodernist underpinning, Hujan Pagi by Literary Laureate A Samad Said represents a grand postmodernist tradition where typographical and linguistic games are played to the fullest. The main character in the novel, Lokman, a journalist working for the daily Hujan Pagi, lives in two incompatible worlds – on the one side, the real world of office politics in which he is harassed by domineering political masters, and on the other, his own “imaginary” self. Within him, the distinction between hallucination and reality blurs.

Hujan Pagi, not unlike Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a modern fable shrouded by a chronicle of memories. In both novels, there is no formal reality, only a world of signs where “magical realism” is plugged from what was before reality. What we see in both novels are images, deconstructed and remodeled according to the grand paradigm of postmodern confusion.

Politicians matter in Hujan Pagi, as much as they are redefining race relations in this country.                                                           

Perhaps I’ll take a more realistic, pre-postmodernist approach in sharing what race relations mean to me. I grew up in a kampung some 27 kilometres from Muar, in Johor. This is a story of my relationship with Ah Tai. 

Ah Tai’s father was a fishmonger who lived next to my father’s barber shop. My father was a rubber tapper in the morning and a village barber in the afternoon. Two rows of shop houses defined what my village was all about. The shops still stand. But many of the proprietors have long gone. Ah Tai’s father died when he was 17. He went to a Chinese school and I to an English school. The truth is that I didn’t even know his real name. We were part of the gang sungai (river gang) who took a dip in the river near my house at the slightest excuse.

There were a few Chinese boys other than Ah Tai, together with Malay and Javanese boys, swimming and splashing till darkness engulfed the village. We were race-blind back then. Perhaps we were too innocent to understand anything else rather than friendship and joy. We were in and out of one another’s homes. It was in my village that I learned about “Others” or “the Other” – about those who were not of the same race as I am and of different faiths and beliefs.

Festivities were festivities, no encumbrances attached, no conditions upheld. Hari Raya was a joyous occasion for all, regardless of who you were. Chinese New Year was a happening for everyone. We looked forward to such occasions. We were mostly poor but we made use of our situations to enrich our friendships.

We enjoyed Bangsawan as much as we longed for the coming of Wayang Cina (Chinese opera). TV was many years away so entertainment came in the form of such theatrical productions and funfairs. Despite the fact that Wayang Cina was performed at the temple ground during the Hungry Ghosts Festival, many in the crowd were Malays. Back in Muar in the 1960s, to appease the audience, Wayang Cina was performed in a mixture of Hokkien, Teochew and Mandarin. 

We went separate ways when we grew up. We worked and raised our families. We seldom met. There were times when we did but they were brief. We exchanged pleasantries. We talked about our children. But there was something that we didn’t need to talk about – growing up together; the great times we had together; friends who have aged like us or those who have died. 

What has happened to the theatrical performances that we had all enjoyed together, the Wayang Cina and Bangsawan? I was in Penang recently when a friend and I stopped to watch a street performance of Wayang Cina. It was almost 9.00pm and many chairs were empty. We were the only non-Chinese in the audience. There was bewilderment in the faces of some members of the audience when they saw us.

Wayang Cina (pekji or potehi), as my kampung folks would label it, is nothing new to me. I grew up spending a lot of time watching it with Ah Tai and others. My classmate at Peserian Primary English School,Koh Cheng Joo, lived next to a Buddhist temple in Semerah, Batu Pahat. For us, it was a chance to make extra money, helping the performers and musicians back stage or buying cigarettes for them. Otherwise, we were just milling around enjoying ourselves and watching amoi (young girls) in the crowd.

I am also familiar with Bangsawan, the classical theatre genre that was popular before the advent of Malay films. The way I looked at it at the time, it had many similarities to Wayang Cina: the lavish background, extravagant costumes, dedicated performers and boisterous atmosphere. The only difference was that Wayang Cina was religious-based while Bangsawan was merely an entertainment. 

A performer known to everyone as Tupai (squirrel) was one of the better-known actors in the Wayang Cina troupe. No one remembered his actual name. He usually played the female role, which was common in the genre. He had the mannerism and voice to play a decent lady (qingyi) or a questionable one (huadan). He sang well and could play the yangqin (a Chinese string instrument), xialuo (small drum) and the two-stringed erhu (fiddle). He could have been a one-man Wayang Cina.

Tupai was almost 40 back in 1964. He came from Penang and joined the troupe when he was twelve. Like Bangsawan, the dialogue of the Wayang Cina could be improvised. The language used could be colloquial. Unlike the more established Peking-style opera, performances in Hokkien were less regimented or formal.

Even at the age of 78, he was still performing. During times when the young would not be attracted to the wayang world, Tupai was precious to sustain the tradition. He settled down in Batu Pahat later. I met him a couple of times before he died a few years ago. His passion had never ebbed. His spoke about his seven decades in the wayang travelling the entire length of the Peninsular and Singapore.  

It wasn’t easy to play a character in Wayang Cina, we learned from Tupai. He had to go through an hour of make-up to prepare him to play an empress or a dowager. As he smoked one stick of cigarette after another, Tupai’s face was painted with great care and mastery. Then he would have to put on the mang, the official costume for kings, queens and officials of the court. The headgear was not only elaborate but heavy. The costume was an integral part of the wayang – extravagant, stylish and notoriously colourful. Tupai would sweat in the heat and swore a lot under the costume. But he endured it all, the price he had to pay to be liked by the audience. The dress worn by the performers indicated their importance and differentiated their social status at a glance. The wayang was rich in symbolism.

Tupai reminds me of the orang muda (heroes) roles played by Rahman B, the son of Bakar M of the Bintang Timur Opera. Both of them took their profession seriously. Like Tupai, Rahman B was a man of many talents. Both prepared for their roles in a mixed state of paranoia and studiousness but with a high degree of commitment. While Rahman B was later declared Seniman Negara, there wasn’t a centimetre of news in the Chinese newspapers of Tupai’s death. 

We loved to see Tupai perform. He was no Tupai on stage but an empress in the court of the Ming Dynasty or a scheming concubine. There were times when he played male roles too, those of a court official or scholar for he always played dignified characters. Many fondly remembered him as the best dan (female character) in the troupe, in fact the most glamorous qingyi ever to grace the stage in Semerah. 

But reality has now set in. Things have changed. Those make shift stages meant for wayang are not attracting younger audiences. Wayang Cina survives because it is still part of a religious ritual. Bangsawan troupes have folded. Despite gallant attempts by Rahman B to revive the genre, Bangsawan is a good as dead

These days the young would rather watch EPL matches, surf the Net, enjoy Ola Bola in cinemas or chase Pokemon Go.

We are losing the beauty, stylisation, exaggeration and extravagance of the wayang – both Wayang Cina and Bangsawan

It was the incredible world of Wayang Cina and Bangsawan that fired my interest in all things stage. Back then I would not find myself out of place watching Wayang Cina. I discovered the same extravaganza in Bangsawan. Bintang Timur Opera that came to my village in the1960s was owned by Bakar M, whose children Rahman B, Rahim B and Rohani B, as well as his daughter-in-law Rohaya B, were the stars of the troupe. Rahman B was a dashing young man, a popular figure in the troupe, always playing the hero. He was the orang muda while his sister Rohani B was the primadona or seri panggung

That was the golden era of Bangsawan. I was too young to understand what the fuss was all about but I was the nearest boy in the vicinity of the Bangsawan playground. I helped them buy provisions and cigarettes. I was the penarik tirai (curtain puller) every evening, making sure the tirai hutan (curtain that depicts the jungle) was lowered when either Nenek Kebayan or Jin Afrait appeared.

And I had a crush on Rohani B back then. She was a beauty and a lady with grace.

Thanks to the two wayang, I have become involved in culture and the arts over the last 50 years. I was one of the theatre activists of the 1970s, the proponents of the so-called “theatre of the absurd” in the country together with Nordin Hassan, Dinsman, Hatta Azad Khan, Mana Sikana and others. I wrote scripts, directed, adapted novels and short stories for the stage, and I also acted. The 50-year journey of my involvement in culture and the arts is to be published as a book by DBP: Jejak Seni Johan Jaaffar – Dari Pentas Bangsawan ke Media Prima Berhad.

But it is not Wayang Cina or Bangsawan that helped to define me as a person, an activist or artist. I wasn’t all alone succumbing to the lore and romance of the theatrical performances. I was enjoying them with my friends made up of Malays and Chinese. 

The way I see it, the world of the Wayang Cina and Bangsawan was a representation of “configurations” that had moulded us, providing the worldview and gestalt – a German word to mean our ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world. For someone who grew up in a village some 27 kilometers from the nearest town, the world of Wayang Cina and Bangsawan  provided the first representation of chaos – and the real threads and trends, if you like. But it was a beautifully crafted chaos, replete with extravagance and style. It was showbiz, pure and simple.

It was the underlying “innocence” that mattered. We were merely spectators of a spectacle on stage. The innocent didn’t die until very late. But like a postmodernist discourse, we viewed “plurality” as the dominant character. The one that we expected and should cherish.    

How I wish things had not changed. But sadly, even in my village, there is very little interaction among the races now. Perhaps it is a national thing. We are more acutely aware of our differences now than ever before. Our people are drifting apart.

This is not an easy time for us, politically and economically. We are being challenged as never before as a nation. I may be wrong but as we celebrate our Hari Kemerdekaan this 31st August, we as a people are far from being Sehati Sejiwa (One Heart One Soul) – the theme of last year’s celebration. We are drifting apart as people. 

It amounts to this: we are simply too polarised even to accept the reality that we have to live with one another. And things are getting worse. The racial card is being played at the slightest provocation. Identity contestation as far as race is concerned is the rule of the day. Tolerance is a virtue lost amidst a widening racial divide.

Which is sad. This is not the route we intended to take or the one envisioned by our forefathers. We have become a nation defined by differences - not strength in diversity but diversity as liability.

We were never like this before. I have never seen a Malaysia so divisive as this. Every issue divides us, even insignificant ones, matters that we can just brush off as petty or minor. But no, we harp on them ferociously, spending precious time and resources. And spewing lots of anger and intensity.

We should not be in this sad state of affairs in the first place. We are so near to our goal – to achieve a developed nation status soon. Four years from now, we ought to be among the league of First World nations. We should be preparing for that momentous occasion when our people will be enjoying a reasonably high income and better quality of life. We dreamed the dream to be one of the most successful nations in the region. 

We have worked hard to achieve that. Our founding fathers have set a high standard for excellence in every endeavour. We have charted our destiny with determination and tenacity. We can’t renegade on the promise to provide the best for our people, to ensure a better future for a nation of rainbow colours, to prove the exuberance of diversity.

This is not an easy country to govern. We could have faltered spectacularly like many other nations. Our racial mix is potentially explosive. We have made mistakes in the past and we have rectified them to the best of our ability. May 13th,1969 is the past. Only those with sinister motives would evoke the black spot in our history. We can’t use the past as a bogeyman to justify our ends. We have decided to move on. We can’t play the racial card forever; we have to wake up to new realities.

As we embarked on the journey of the new century, we faced new challenges, which is understandable. But we are forging ahead with distrust in our bellies and anger in our minds. We developed a mentality of “Us” versus “Them”. We have become suspicious and allow identity contestations to overrule our judgement and good faith.

We are venturing into the realm of extremism, linguistically, culturally, religiously, and worse, politically. It looks like we are guarding our “interests” more than the “bigger” interests of the nation. It matters no more if our actions will affect others. We want to carve a name as heroes of “our” people. In doing so, we trample over other peoples’ rights and beliefs. We don’t bet an eyelid doing that, in the name of our “people”.

Many are taking the extreme route regarding race, religion and politics. The way I look at it, the voices of reason and understanding are fast fading away. 

We have come to a stage where we need to relook at race relations in this country. Things must have gone really bad for us to set up the National Unity Consultation Council (NUCC). But even before the Council could start work, it was condemned by many quarters. Everyone worth his or her salt had views on the Council. It soldiered on despite the odds to come out with an interim plan for unity. Things have not been easy for the Council. The difficulties reflect that of the nation itself. While we acknowledge that there are problems pertaining to unity, we are not really addressing them truthfully and sincerely.

Tolerance begins at home. It starts with the heart. The belief. The sincerity. We can go into a deafening discourse on what went wrong, but that negates the fact that we are all stakeholders in nation-building. We are all equally responsible for our deeds. And the future depends on us.

The frightening “R” word (racist) in any multi-racial society is now being thrown about at the slightest excuse. The word has an ugly connotation. It is more than just one person believing that his race is superior to that of others. It is about prejudice and discrimination that make it dangerously unacceptable. What used to be the “F” word of race relations is now being worn with pride by some people.

We see the culprits in all races. There is no use pointing fingers at any one race. The social media is not helping. The intensity on issues pertaining to race at times has gone to a dangerous level. Left unchecked, things can spiral into collective hatred and anger.

There lies the role of the Constitution. Perhaps by default, there is nothing about “Bangsa Malaysia” mentioned in our Constitution. But still, it is incumbent upon the people to respect the rule of law and the system that we subscribe to. We are a democracy, the power of a vote is sacrosanct and the government of the day is elected democratically as required by the Constitution. As the people, we have a role to play. And we have responsibilities too. The craft of governing is entrusted to the representatives we have elected, yet upholding the democracy is our role. We have to protect the system of parliamentary democracy at all costs. That is the social contract between the ruler and subject, as famously enshrined in Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) between Sang Sapurba (representing the ruler) and Demang Lebar Daun (the subjects).

Loyalty and subordination (or insubordinations) have certainly taken different forms in the modern world. Things have changed so much since Sejarah Melayu was written by the royal chronicler Tun Sri Lanang. 

Today’s leaders and rulers are being scrutinised as never before. People’s expectations are simply too high. Voices of discontent, if any, are heard loud and abundantly clear now than ever before. The demand for transparency is deafening, to say the least. The Internet and social media have changed the relationships between the rulers and subjects, spectacularly if I may add. It is under such difficulties that governments are operating now. And it is under an atmosphere of cynicism, skepticism, even distrust by which the people are judging their leaders these days. We all know inflammatory rhetoric polarises, even draws blood. I am not just referring to Malaysia. Replicate that all over. The business of governing isn’t easy anymore.

The way I look at it, being “moderate” is an attitude. Moderation is not just a concept. It should be a way of life. We need more than just an idea, an ideal or a pronouncement. We need a workable attitude pertaining to understanding and respect.

Our strength as a nation is our readiness to accept differences and to allow space for identity contestation, but not to the extreme. Diversity matters to us. More importantly, we have to speak up as one, for the future depends on how we build the nation today. 

I must say I am envious of the Indonesians when it comes to nation-building and the portrayal of loyalty and nationalism. In 2012, many found the decision by Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture to drop English from its primary school curriculum as perplexing. Not just English, but social studies and the sciences too were dropped.

What is happening in Indonesia is worth serious attention. While the rationale behind the move is interesting, Indonesians are eons ahead of other countries in the art and craft of nation-building. The path to nationhood was a difficult one for them and independence didn’t come the easy way. They take pride in the making of a negara bangsa (nation state) and, despite the changing political and social dynamics post-Suharto era, the principle that continues to bind them as satu negara, satu bangsa, satu bahasa  (one nation, one race, one language) has not changed.

The five pillars of the Republic, the Pancasila, are taken seriously and these have not been modified with regime changes. The Pancasila is sacrosanct to Indonesians who practise it religiously. Nationhood is serious business.

More importantly, Indonesians believe that education is the key to unity. The people can speak various languages and hundreds of dialects but Bahasa Indonesia is the only language for the schools. They were condemned for being fervently nationalistic and marginalising vernacular education in other languages back then. The decision was perhaps the right one for them. Today, the richest, the most cosmopolitan and the most successful Indonesians speak one language anywhere they are, whether in San Francisco or Timbuktu. Just like a farmer living at Desa Wates, Kebupaten Kediri, Jawa Timur.

There is no necessity for identity contestation among the races or ethnic groups. Their identity is the language they communicate with each other. That is a classic and true manifestation of the credo Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or “unity in diversity”. 

For the detractors, the decision to drop English at sekolah dasar (primary schools) is baffling considering the importance of the language in today’s world. Depriving young children of another language is regarded as a wrong policy. Children, after all, pick up any language fast. There are others who argue that by doing so, the gap between the rich and the have-nots will further widen and encourage greater class divide. 

It is apparent that the latest policy has nothing to do with the importance of English. The ministry’s position is that students need to learn and master the national language first. As for the other subjects dropped, again the rationale is still nation-building. It is the best opportunity to nurture rasa kecintaan pada negara (the love for the nation) at that level. Other subjects can wait. One must remember, the idea to uphold Bahasa Indonesia as the language of unity was part of the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) declared on 28th October 1928.

Many advocates of that curriculum believe now that nilai leluhur (good values inherited from the forefathers) are fast losing their lustre. With the fall of strongmen like Sukarno and Suharto, the centre is barely able to hold together the demands of ethnic groups and regions, not to mention new openness and press freedom. The only hope is symbolism, which the Indonesians are very good at preserving.

Language is the ultimate totem pole of unity. The national ideology, culture and values are critical for the survival of Indonesia. Even its education ministry is known as Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan. Culture, as you can see, is a critical part of “education”.

Perhaps we can understand the logic behind the latest policy if we care to understand the complexity of Indonesia and its people.

We can’t be like the Indonesians, some would argue. They are different. But remember this: they don’t need a campaign to get people to raise the Indonesian flag. They don’t argue in social media if audiences in cinemas have to stand up during the playing of their national anthem. In our case, everything must be told, discussed, argued and we spend millions of ringgit on such campaigns.

We used to accept the ideas of Muhibbah and Perpaduan and memorised the Rukun Negara without complain. Now there is a whole new debate on the need for such things. Jingoism is not acceptable anymore.

We are living in a totally different world now.

It is even increasingly more difficult to label ourselves as “Malaysians”.

How do we unite? Education is one. But understanding the politics and sensitivities of the needs and demands of all races, having one school system is almost impossible now, which is a pity. Education, like everything else in the country, is politicised. For now, nothing will ensure that all our students are to be taught under one roof. 

Despite our best efforts to ensure that they go to the same school, we have allowed parallel education to flourish. Our children are going to different schools from a young age. Interaction is minimal. That leaves us with national schools, which are supposed to provide secular education for our children. The philosophy as spelled out by the Ministry of Education is that these schools are supposed to develop the “potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner” so as to produce Malaysians who are “intellectually, emotionally and physically balanced and harmonious.”

Humans drive education. Policies don’t. We can have a great education plan but it will fail if stakeholders at the schools are oblivious of the bigger picture. Our national system is not perfect. But we must have done something right over the years or else we would have failed miserably on the education front. Our education system is not the best but we can’t fault the ministry involved for not trying hard to achieve better results. There are simply too many forces beyond education be deviling the system and putting pressure on educationists.

Our hope is in national education. Revamp the system if need be, or let it go through a total overhaul. Perhaps it is about time to relook at the system in totality to pave the way forward in education planning.

National schools must be the school of choice. No two ways about it. There is a need for the ministry to draw a line between secular and religious education in its schools. It is critical at this juncture to do so. 

Had Usman Awang still live, he’d be 87 this month. He died on the morning of November 29th in 2001 at the age of 72. His popularity transcends race. He was a truly Malaysian writer who spoke the language of the people. Usman was an institution. 

He was born July 12th 1929 in the sleepy fishing village of Kampung Tanjung Lembu, Kuala Sedili, Johor. He carved his name as a sasterawan (man of letters) but he was also a journalist and an editor. More importantly, Usman was the spokesperson of his time and the mentor and spiritual leader of many writers and cultural activists.

Usman, better known by his pseudonym Tongkat Warrant, perfected the use of Bahasa Melayu in literature. He was our Shakespeare, a wordsmith extraordinaire, the creator of beautiful phrases and the coiner of words that lasted the test of time.

He joined the police force in 1946 for about five years. The experience changed his personality, world view and psyche. He had never complained about those difficult times being a policeman when the communist insurgency was at its peak. But what he saw helped mould his view on humanity.

He wrote Tulang-tulang Berserakan (Scattered Bones), his only novel, the story of a sympathetic policeman whose heart was with the people. It was a novel written with conviction and the belief that the entire enterprise was nothing more than to protect the interests of the colonial masters. Leman, the main character, was touched by the suffering of Chinese farmers uprooted from their surroundings to new villages. 

Usman never shied away from the belief that the powerless must be given a voice. “Giving power to the powerless” was his mantra. It was an era of collective consciousness about self-realisation, self-esteem and dignity. It was a consciousness that permeated across borders. It was the time of the voices of angry writers. And the demand for independence. 

Usman was very much involved in people’s causes during the later part of his life. He was a romantic who believed in the goodness of people and in an idealistic world. His works are full of sadness, frustrations, betrayal, sacrifices and, of course, goodness of the heart. But he was a man who believed in finding solutions to the ills of society by engaging, talking and understanding.

Malaysia would probably be a better place if Usman is still the conscience of the nation. We would find solace in his wisdom and conciliatory approach. Just think what a sasterawan can do to heal a nation so divided and full of hatred. Usman was that and more. 

We miss him even more in trying times like these. And we miss Yasmin Ahmad and her films that reflect our united colours of unity. We brushed aside Interlok and we allowed politics to interfere in our daily lives. Many of us are agitated, angry, annoyed, pissed-off, even devastated. But Malaysians have perfected the art of being a silent majority.


Is there hope?

I have only these to suggest:

     1.   Respect the Constitution
     2.  Go to the same school
     3.  Rebrand “Unity”.

In short, go back to basics.

As you see, I am taking a long arduous route to understand what seems to be so simple – the question of differences. Nation-building is an arduous process. It is never meant to be easy. But beyond race relations, “differences” in the form of “otherness” are taking centre stage now. Everything is becoming surreal now, even by postmodernist standards.

We can always blame the past for the woes today. We can always argue that we are inheriting the problems of yesteryear. But the past act as a reminder. The past is the past. The present matters. The future is critical for us. We build the future now, not tomorrow.

The journey to nationhood is littered with landmines, not unlike the journey taken by Marlow and Captain Willard. The two characters are searching for something – but they went into the heart of darkness. And lost their souls in the process. We can’t afford to shape our realities with merely our dreams and ideals. We cannot lose all sense of normality believing in our fictional and nonsensical ideals.

Differences must be addressed, no two-ways about it.
I don’t have a magic formula for finding the solutions to our woes. But we must put an effort to make the changes.
For only we –The People – can make the difference.

God Bless Us All.

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