Unity and integration

INTEGRATION has been elusive since achieving independence some 60 years ago although our founding fathers had laid out the blueprint to integrate the various races and ethnic groups who were separated by race, language, religion, occupation and cultural background.

Integrative sentiments were evident when the three main races in Peninsular Malaysia, Malays, Chinese and Indians, had forged an alliance and understanding among themselves to negotiate and petition the colonial government for independence.

As a pre-requisite for independence and towards achieving an integrated society, a social contract was drawn up giving citizenship to the Chinese and Indians, establishing Malay rights and reserve lands, recognising Islam as the official religion of the nation and freedom of worship for all other religions. In addition, the founding fathers embarked on social reengineering to ensure the equitable distribution of the nation's wealth and opportunities.

They realised that for integration to succeed the different races must be welded through a common educational system, a common language and shared cultural, commercial and social experiences. This would allow the people to interact with each other through learning, playing and work.

Education is a crucial part in the integrative process that could mould the young minds into a cohesive whole through developing a common understanding and reciprocal respect.

It was feasible in the English language schools where children of various races learn and play together and converse in the same language.

But after the implementation of Malay as the medium of instruction in national schools, Chinese and Indian parents began sending their children to vernacular schools. As a result there was racial polarisation in the educational system with Chinese parents sending their children to Chinese schools, Indians to Tamil schools and Malays dominating national schools.

Thus, from day one, the children were segregated, negating the efforts at integration. As a consequence of this multi-stream educational system, the chasm between the races got bigger. Such a racially isolated upbringing leads to polarisation in other spheres of life and very much so at the tertiary level.

Occupational distribution is racially biased with Malays dominating in the public sectors, while the Chinese and Indians are in the private, corporate and professional sectors. Admittedly, the Malays have begun to encroach in these non-traditional sectors.

There is in general a racial bias demographically, with the urban and upscale habitations inhabited by the Chinese and some Indians, while most of the Malays are entrenched in the rural areas and the Felda enclaves. In short there is minimal interaction in living and working space.

Another major factor that encourages segregation is the race-based political landscape with each party representing the interests of its ethnic enclave. In fact there is more than one party vying for the support of the main races. There are three main political parties representing the Malays, likewise the Chinese and Indians. It is a free for all in Sabah and Sarawak. Even the so-called multiracial political parties are each dominated by one racial group.

Such dispersal of political parties does not encourage integration and grouping of such parties under a coalition gives only a superficial semblance of unity without any genuine effort at integration. It is not a common political ideology or aspirations that bind them to a common cause but rather the need to be in power.

Such differences in political ideology have brought about a bigoted attitude and intolerance to all others who do not subscribe to their beliefs. Bigotry is a hindrance to racial integration. Religious bigotry has caused dissension not only among the races but also within races, especially the Malay-Muslim community.

Then there is the rearing of provincial sentiments in Sabah and Sarawak stoked by political opportunism and adventurism. The welling of this sentiments undermine government efforts to integrate Peninsular Malaysia with Sabah and Sarawak.

To expect a truly integrated society with one common language, a single educational system, an aspiration and expression of loyalty to the nation that transcends racial, religious and provincial sentiments as well as political differences, is neigh impossible.

It is too late because the existential ingredients of communal life and aspirations were not addressed at independence when these existential elements were still malleable into a cohesive whole. But now they have calcified into their respective chauvinistic and provincial moulds that prioritise vested interests over national unity.

There is a serious need to address these issues to prevent further disintegration. As a start we should look at the tenets of the Rukun Negara as a basis of unity and integration because it could foster mutual respect and understanding among the various communities. Then there is a need to downplay and minimise the racial tensions and bigotry in our political engagements and expressions and minimise discriminations by treating all Malaysians as sons and daughters of the soil. Patriotic sentiments would emerge through the implementation of these measures which would lead to a lasting integration of the mind and the body of Malaysians.

Datuk Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com