On Pointe - Defining identity

TWO local films were not nominated for the Best Film category. The reason – the dialogue in the films are not in the national language.

There was a lot of debate, a few resignations, returning of previous awards in protest and a call to boycott the awards. Then it was announced that the Best Film category will be open to all entries regardless of language. A move that has not sat well with those with opposing views.

Plenty was said about the Federal Constitution, the Rukun Negara and national identity. Plenty was also said about segregation, which left different camps pitching metaphoric tents across from each other ready for battle.

While on the surface it seems unfortunate that such a kerfuffle happened, it raised very pertinent points.

The first is that Malay is the national language – no one is refuting that. But how does language measure or define what national identity is? And if a national language is to forge national unity, then how did it end up segregating in this instance?

There are two distinct thoughts on defining national identity. The first is a strict definition of common ancestry or belonging to a certain ethnicity. The second is a more malleable definition which has no fixed parameters.

If we were to follow the strict definition, we would be hard pressed to find true blooded Malaysians.

If we were to test the second definition and set some parameters what would they be?

Would we be defined by our language, the colour of our skin, our religious beliefs, the clothes we wear, the food we eat at home? And so on. Or do we opt for a more bureaucratic distinction of the mighty MyKad?

If citizenship is a major defining factor, Project IC throws cold water on that distinction.

How then do we define Malaysian-ness? And if we do not know the answer to that, then who defines what Malaysian-ness is?

We can look at it from a historical perspective. National identity was a political and economic mobilisation tool. If we were to strip away the political and economic reasoning, what creates national solidarity? Is it about constitutional patriotism? or does it include a set of common values like that of the Rukun Negara.

How do we translate what is in the constitution and the Rukun Negara into our national identity without ostracising or segregating people?

In a country as divided and fragmented as Malaysia, there are instances that bring us together like rooting for our athletes when they reach the finals of world class sporting events. So for a few days or hours, Malaysian solidarity is shouldered by our athletes.

After a few hours of patriotic and emotional Facebook and Twitter posts we quickly slide back into our identity crisis and the racial bogeymen assume their positions.

On one hand we talk about a national identity which is about unity and yet with the same swipe we segregate through race-based policies and politics. And because we ourselves depend on others to define what Malaysian-ness is, we find that instead of a common set of values that bind, it is political parties that define it based on what benefits the politicians, not the country.

National unity matters and it goes far beyond our love for food and supporting our athletes. We need to be able to make distinctions that national unity is not about which political party one pledges allegiance to or votes for. National unity is about Malaysian solidarity, and that can be in different forms.

Why is Malaysian-ness important? Well, in today’s context when someone talks about national identity and violating national identity, they assume a strict definition that perhaps does not fit contemporary Malaysia. But defining it also does not mean that it will be accepted by all. It may seem like a way to manage or regulate people, a form of identity politics.

So perhaps then we should go back to defining what our core beliefs, thoughts and collective principles should be as Malaysians. I would say, it should be championing everyday Malaysians, working together in a meaningful way for a better Malaysia.
Standing up to corrupt practices and not hiding behind policies that segregate. Perhaps then how we articulate our national identity or identities should be done in ways that work towards addressing injustices and inequalities and not based on ticking boxes on a form or putting up flags every August.

Telling the Malaysian story goes further when it is inclusive.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com