What Does it Mean to be Malaysian?

   Last Friday I was honoured to speak at the oldest Catholic parish in the South Diocese (meaning, in Melaka, Negeri Sembilan and Johor). It was the “Church of the Visitation”, whose priest is Father Michael Chua. It was a joint event between the MCCBCHST (Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism), and the Diocese on Interreligious Dialogue.

I spoke on “What it means to be Malaysian”, in conjunction with Merdeka Day coming up soon. The highlights were that: to me, being honest with myself I would say that being Malaysian at this very moment in August 2008 is to be riding an emotional roller coaster simply because the nature of the relationship changes so often, in line with the major changes taking place at the political level. I showed a series of statements people had responded to me with, when I asked that question.

But I later said that this was an important and necessary time. Perhaps it is actually very very good that Merdeka this year is subdued and less flashy. Because it forces us to think. To think about the country that we really want to be, to have. The failures and the successes. I tried to do that last year with the Merdeka Statement, to create that sombre mood for deep thought and reflection. But the matter got condemned by certain quarters and the same “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” story again.

I ended by saying that being Malaysian means needing to come together in such forums to do exactly that – decide for ourselves what we want for the country, lest the politicians wrest away from us what we have in mind. Race and religion are politicised to the extent that we allow it to be so. Politicians say that the reason they argue along racial lines is because that’s what people are like on the ground.

I don’t buy that argument. I think politics is also and more importantly about enlightened leadership.

Anyway, all that is in my full text, which I am pasting below here. 🙂 Enjoy! (Or at least, don’t fall asleep)

MCCBCHST and Parish Ministry of Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs

Church of the Visitation, Seremban, Malaysia

21st August 2008


What it Means to be Malaysian

Tricia Yeoh


Good evening to all of you. It’s an honour for me to be speaking at the oldest church in Seremban. Thank you Father Michael for the invitation to speak. As introduced, I am Tricia Yeoh from the Centre for Public Policy Studies based in KL. We do public policy research and analysis, providing recommendations where appropriate, to Government but mainly form a platform for a variety of stakeholders in society.


Why it is important to articulate


I am speaking to you at a crucial point in the history of Malaysia, the weekend before the upcoming by-election in Permatang Pauh, something I am sure you are all following closely from here. Whatever happens on Tuesday will have deep political implications on the nation – how Parliament will change, whether or not Pakatan Rakyat will grow from strength to strength, how Barisan will react, the power plays between PAS, DAP and PKR, and finally whether or not Malaysia is ready for a new government. These are all important issues to weigh carefully.


But beyond the political mish-mash – and this is changing rapidly by the hour – I think it is even more urgent and pressing for us Malaysians to come together in settings like these. A gathering of Malaysians. Not merely to speculate upon whether or not Anwar really sodomised Saiful, or whether Najib was involved in the Altantuya murder, but more seriously – to do some deep reflecting within ourselves about what kind of Malaysia do we want to see in the future. Regardless of political power plays, regardless of who is in Government (Barisan or Pakatan), what is the vision that we Malaysians have for the country? Do we know what it means to be living in this same common space called Malaysia? Without a strongly enough articulated prescription from the grassroots, from the Joe Public, I fear that politicians will take it into their own hands to define what kind of Malaysia they will pursue.


Since March 8th, and the statements by Pakatan parties, we’ve heard a lot about how we should be moving away from a race-based political system. This is not a new concept. For those of us who are more advanced in the years would know that numerous attempts have been made to form multiracial parties in the past: Parti Rakyat, Parti Gerakan, others – they have failed. Several Barisan politicians I’ve spoken to would argue that politics should reflect the reality on the ground, thereby justifying divisional ethnic politics. My counter-argument is that politics should both reflect ground realities, and be about enlightened leadership. Either way, because a politician’s ultimate goal is power, he relies almost entirely upon the views and criticisms of his constituents.


What I’m saying is this: until and unless the man on the street at large show that they have strong distaste of racial politics, and have a clear articulation of what they do want to see emerging, politicians are not likely to follow suit.


Keeping it real: What it means today


Having said that, what does it mean to be Malaysian? We’ve grappled with this concept for more than 50 years and still haven’t found a concerted answer. In preparing for tonight I asked around for quick responses to the question, “what does it mean to be Malaysian, to you?” and I got a series of extremely varied responses. I will show this on the screen.


“…blind to colour, race or religion”

“…to be able to maintain our unique heritage in a multi religious and cultural land”

“…a chance to create a future together we can call home”

“…a future where we are creating a home for our kids to be friends and family”

“…being a people who will bring our uniqueness and diversity not into a melting pot where we cease to be who we are, but a mosaic where we can become better than we are in isolation”

“…being at home, feeling comfortable with this place”

“…being blessed with a lot of opportunities”

“…the possibilities are here”

“…born and bred in Malaysia, regardless of colour of my skin, religion or my tongue”

“…being in a country my forefathers chose as their home and now I choose for myself”

“…whatever you want it to be”

“…being able to identify with varying ethnic cultures that are not your own”

“…having shared the same experiences as many other Malaysians – speaking manglish, eating rojak, going to the mamak”

“…being part of an incompetent country”

“…being part of a country where the competitive advantage is mediocrity”

“…a Malaysian is a person who holds Malaysian citizenship, passport and identity card, that’s it”

“…living in a city that comes alive at night, where 24-hour restaurants and mamaks are in abundance”

“… I was Malayan when I arrived!”

“…I only began to feel a surge of genuine pride to be Malaysian after March 8th

“…It used to feel great being Malaysian but not anymore”

“…don’t tell anyone I’m Malaysian, please. (Just pretend you don’t know I am, will you?)”

“…is to be constantly tempted to leave, to be constantly pushed to grasp at smaller and smaller straws to stay.”


As you saw, some were positive, others were extremely negative and cynical. And yet, as we were reading through this list of answers I am sure that each of them struck an emotional chord within you. You would have experienced feelings of pride, hope, respect – and yet going down the list that of frustration, bitterness, anger and dejection. Perhaps this is exactly what being Malaysian means at this very juncture: a big bagful of emotions. I think we should be honest with ourselves here. I myself would describe being Malaysian in August 2008 as the following: confused, excited yet fearful and in anxious anticipation of what is to follow. Being Malaysian today is so emotional it is almost like (and worse than) a relationship with a lover.


Broad Themes of Malaysian issues


We all know the problems facing Malaysia today, which is causing all the confusion in our heads. But let me try to streamline the main issues driving the numerous present problems faced. Many of the issues deal with problems of race, religion, corruption, governance. My theory is that all of these revolve around two broad themes, and that all of Malaysia’s problems could be solved if we dealt with these two.


Taking a look at the numerous issues facing our country today, we can see that they could be nicely boxed up into two main categories: Identity (dealing with race and religion primarily) and power politics, or the lack of institutional governance. The two are of course closely intertwined. Let’s focus more on the area of identity.




  1. Vision 2020 envisions a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny. The JPNIN said that one should “empower national unity and integration through a Malaysian way amongst its diversified races amidst rapid development of the country”.

2.      In a book called “The Mahathir Years”, an essay was contributed by Karim Raslan, recounting a survey in which tertiary students were asked whether they were proud to be Malaysian and why they were proud. Compared to 10 years before, more students at the time of the survey were more proud to be Malaysian. This was done in the late 1990s. The interesting finding was that the majority of non-Malay students said they were proud because Malaysia is a multiracial country, whilst the majority of Malay students said they were proud because Malaysia is an Islamic country.

3.      In a Merdeka Centre study conducted on national unity, Malays saw themselves first as Muslim first, Chinese as Chinese first, and Indians (ironically being the most patriotic) as Malaysian first. Religion, ethnicity and nationality were the three defining bases of each of the three ethnicities.

4.      Other statistics and charts shown here are indicative of the worrying trend of ethnic inequality and ethnic polarization in Malaysia.


But we are not here to lament the state of the country, dire as it is at present.


My Take On It


There are several models one could follow, but this is the one I favour. Three points

about what I think being Malaysian should be, as follows. Note that I am touching

primarily on the issue of identity. (there are other ideals on the areas of governance and

economic development that I could speak on later.)


1.      Common values premised on equal acceptance of the other

This means focusing upon the core common values that tie us as Malaysians together. Things like these transcend any boundary, and pushing for the same thing would make us all Malaysian first, and then only any differences second.

What are the common principles that hold us so strongly together? What common values do Malaysians share? How can we realistically share the nation together, given varying cultural and religious needs?  The following aspirational values were ironically the foundations of Malaya at its independence. More reasonably, they draw upon all faiths and worldviews – it is difficult to fundamentally reject these.  

Social Justice. Malaysia should have social safety nets that adequately address socioeconomic inequalities, implementing a needs-based affirmative action policy without racial discrimination and thereby leading to equitable outcomes.  

Rule of Law. Malaysia should uphold the Constitution and respect the rule of law, with no exception (especially not political exception!). This includes fighting corruption and promoting transparency and accountability at all levels of governance: Federal, State and Local.  

Fundamental Liberties. Malaysia should ensure that fundamental liberties are accorded to each individual, following the Federal Constitution. These freedoms feed a grassroots, bottoms-up participatory democratic process through civil society engagement that lends itself to a thriving democracy.  

Peace and Conflict Resolution. Malaysia should promote peace and reconciliation between the state and the public, between one community and another, between nation and nation.  

Free and Fair Elections. Malaysia should practice free and fair elections at Federal, State and Local levels, eliminating all possible attempts of vote-rigging, to ensure citizens exercise their right to elect their leaders.  

Equal Rights/Equal access. Malaysians should all believe without a doubt that each of us are equal to the other, without bigoted prejudices against the other. This is the upholding of dignity of each. We are so accustomed to looking at the world in binary terms – dichotomy of one against the other, leading to a devaluation of the other. We must break this way of thinking. A Malay should be standing up for the plight of a Chinese. An Indian or Chinese should be standing up for a Malay. Needs transcend racial boundaries.


There are many other values that can be commonly shared. This is true national unity. Carving out these common values and principles should be the duty of all. Even if there are disagreements, let the contestation be about ideas and not race or religion. Healing our fragmented and wounded society means eliminating “race” and “religion” from our political discourse.  


2.      Celebration of individual uniqueness and diversities


This means basking in one’s individual identity and expression. The celebration of respective languages, festivities, cultures, religions. Sometimes there are competing rights that arise: the Chinese and Indians wanting to retain their language-based schools at the expense of national schools. As part of the government, I would revise the situation and not think in terms of dichotomies. I would encourage national schools with common spaces of interaction but introduce top quality compulsory language classes within such schools. The main reason many parents prefer to send their children to vernacular schools is because of poor quality of education, not of the fear of interaction. Individual cultural differences should be celebrated and yes, maintained. But this should be kept outside of politics, not within the realm of politics.


3.      A Common Future


The desire to achieve a situation of peace in the future has to be in existence, and not a false or created sense of stability that we have been taught to believe all these number of years. Instead, genuine peace and reconciliation between man and man, between man and the environment, between man and the State. In order to achieve any reconciliation, real dialogue needs to be fostered amongst different communities. Opportunities must be given to speak and interact with the other, creating platforms of understanding conducted in a rational manner. Prior to such dialogues, the premise must be set. Wisdom must be exercised. Criteria one and two must be achieved first, before any sense of a common direction can be achieved.


Present and Future


I choose not to be entirely disillusioned because I have no choice. Malaysia this year is changing in a way that nobody could have predicted before. This is the golden opportunity we as common men on the street have to articulate for ourselves finally, what we wanted Malaysia to look like – what we as Malaysians want to be, to feel, to mean. This year’s Merdeka Day will be overcast and less flashy than usual. But maybe that is okay. Maybe this is what we needed, to reflect deeply on what we truly desire – reforming, reshaping, reinvigorating. My challenge to you all is this: to give up is half the battle lost already. Raja Nazrin spoke at the opening of the Harvard Programme for Asian & International Relations yesterday, saying that “to be young and to be indifferent can no longer be synonymous”, quoting Benjamin Disraeli. I rephrase that to challenge all present – that “to be Malaysian and to be indifferent can no longer be synonymous”, in light of the great upheaval that is taking place in our country today.


What does it mean to be Malaysian? It means forging a way ahead, hand in hand no matter who is beside us. We should be able to stand shoulder to shoulder irrespective of ethnicity, gender, religion, language, and culture walking in the same direction. Anyone standing up strong for this identity should be commended, supported, upheld. May the voice of the peoples resound strong, as we as citizens take the lead and show the politicians what we really desire.


Selamat Merdeka.



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