By Prof Dr Mansor Mohd Noor & Dr Pue Giok Hoon
Malaysia from time immemorial is a diverse society. However, contemporary Malaysian society is a super-diversity society where citizens of the world are also contributing and sharing the cake of the nation.
The Malay World is not a uniform indigenous group as they are composed of various ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious groups. They were perantau that migrate beyond their sultanate and empire to seek economic opportunity and make a living in the maritime economy.
As they are from the Alam Melayu, they are bonded by the geo-physical of the region and most importantly by Malay language as the lingua franca, culture, religion and eastern values of tolerance and non-violence. Under such socio-cultural root, inter-marriage with the locals that they migrated to is the practice.
The South China Sea and Malacca Strait are the civilisational platform that Alam Melayu interact and accept diversity from the Asian civilisations of China, India and the Arab World. Indian civilisation did have a foothold in the Malay Peninsula and Java was centre of Chinese Buddhism in the region.
Their voyageur, trader and diplomat often sailed to the major ports of the region to buy and exchanges good and products of one another. The prominent among them is Admiral Cheng Ho who visited Champa, Siam, Brunei, Java and Malacca who begins his diplomatic-commercial voyage in 1405.
The early settlers from India, China and Arab were integrated in the larger society, inter-ethnic marriage did take place in all the Malaysian states with Cina kampung in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Johor and Baba Nyonya in Malacca as they become subjects of each Sultan under the Malay civilisational canopy. Those who are Muslims such as Indians and Arab or converted to Islam were assimilated into the Malay society.
Colonial economic agenda
Colonial economic agenda to extract resources and profit for the British empire has organised economic vocation by ethnic groups and within each ethnised-economic vocation by sub-ethnic and dialect of that ethnic group.
A plural society that compartmentalised and segregated British vis-à-vis Asian and economic vocation by ethnic lines by the British has replaced the peaceful co-existence of diversity that have defined the life and sharing Tanah Melayu, Sabah and Sarawak together as part of the civilisational canopy of Alam Melayu.
The legacy of the Malay civilisational canopy continues despite the British’s plural society, where peranakan community was expanding in the Straits Settlement of Penang and Malacca, in Sabah and Sarawak inter-marriages between Chinese migrant community with the indigenous groups produced Sino-Kadazan and Sino-Iban in Sabah and Sarawak, respectively.
The culture of acceptance of diversity and inter-marriage across ethnic and religious lines are embedded in the indigenous society of Tanah Melayu, Sabah and Sarawak, be it Malay, Orang Asli, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, Iban, Melanau, Bidayauh etc.
Today, data indicate that inter-marriages in Sabah and Sarawak are far ahead than the data recorded in Semenanjung. Families in Sabah and Sarawak are truly inter-ethnic and inter-religious in composition compared with the Semenanjung. While in Semenanjung, inter-marriages are taking place with the Chinese and Indian and the non-Malay with the Malay but on a small scale compared to Sabah and Sarawak as religion and culture do divide them.
Chinese and Indian inter-marriages encounter a problem of identity for the children and the case of non-Malay inter-marriages with the Malay, the religious law is a conversion to Islam as the condition.
However, the children of these inter-ethnic and religious marriages from Semenanjung and from Sabah and Sarawak are not recognised and catapult them to the mainstream society and nurture as the pool of future Malaysian leadership to lead and define the nationhood. With their cultural and religious diversities, unity will not be interpreted as homogeneity but the integration of diversity will be the national objective.
The plural society of the British making has slowly being transformed with the implementation of the New Economic Policy and public policy that have intended consequences of eliminating poverty, economic vocation by ethnic line, residential segregation and sharing the cultural heritage of the nation since 1970s.
From 1990s, good governance and development has generated social changes in Malaysia from a poor to middle-class, an agricultural to commercial-industrial and the villages to cosmopolitan society.
The plural and multi-ethnic society was transformed into a diverse society as the cultures of modernity and acceptance of diversity internalised in the society where the sharing of universalistic norms, sharing of similarity and cross-cutting social relations beyond the ethnic and religion are taking place.
Malaysians of different ethnic groups are interacting among themselves not necessary as ethnic relations but social relations. In a socially differentiated society, they interact not vertically but horizontally by roles and as peers.
Thus, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, Ibans, Bidayuhs, Melanau may be proud of their ethnic origins but detailed studies have showed that they are differentiated not by the conventional argument of vernacular or English education but rather due to a generation gap which gives greater preference to Malaysian and global identities relative to ethnics.
Malays are differentiated by conservative religious orientation to progressive and so too the with the Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazan-Dusun etc. Thus, the urban, middle classes and gen Y are found to be progressive in orientation compared to the rural and the lower classes.
They are concerns with good governance, participatory democracy and development delivery that give greater care to them and the welfare of the masses.
Mainstreaming the children of inter-ethnic and religious marriages and the Generation 3 of the Malaysian society, irrespective of ethnic and religion, should be among the new grouping that be identified and nurtured of their leadership in governing and developing the nation.
This group has embraced the bangsa Malaysian canopy to reject the politics of ethnicity and religiosity, to demand justice, inclusivity and participatory democracy in governance and development to forge a national conscience in strengthening nationhood of bangsa Malaysia together.
The action of DAP in penalising their Gen 3 in accepting an olive branch to form a bipartisan government to implement government and institutional reforms as the national agenda before PN collapse, is being castigated for missing the opportunity for a national reconciliation to be made a history.
Malaysia is becoming a big family of Malaysians, but our political elite are still feeling safe and secured in a political model that is not only proven a failure but lead the nation to a trap of a failed state.
This is a political tragedy of contemporary Malaysian politics for our political elite is being socially blinded to their changing and socially differentiated children that have potential to spur the nation to a high civilisational height that even Hang Tuah would be at awe.
The writers are with Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia