Assimilation vs Integration: Dr Mahathir’s latest bellyache about the Chinese

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By Multatuli Murtadi

I would have let Dr Mahathir’s Mohamad“chopsticks “ remark pass if he had not tried to defend the indefensible in his City Plus Radio interview (6/1/22). His remarks on assimilation originally appeared in his recently released memoirs.

Mahathir’s latest bellyache about the Chinese not assimilating into the Malay culture is nothing new. He failed in trying to impose his “National Culture Policy in 1971 but he has not given up. He is at it again.

Just because he has denied his Kerala ancestry – root and branch, does not mean others have to follow suit. Most of us have more pride in our roots and more dignity that we will not sell our heritage for thirty pieces of silver – in his case the alleged billions. One suspects his motivation for denying his ancestry but not everyone is so Machiavellian. Not everyone will sell his mother just to win votes.

In his City Plus Radio interview he said that “in other countries foreigners who wished to become citizens of a particular nation would adopt the local culture and eventually abandon their own culture.”

Two things: 1.  The Chinese and Indians here are not foreigners. Some of them have been here longer than many Malays. 2. I know of no country, where to gain citizenship, one must give up one’s own culture.

By the way what is Malay Culture in the Malaysian context, but a mixture of the cultures of the peoples of the Indonesian Archipelago – Bugis, Acheh, Batak, Mandaling, Minang, Sundanese etc and indeed also the Malays of Rhiau and Deli. 

Surely given time, a truly Malaysian culture will evolve which is not Malay or Muslim culture exclusively but which also embodies elements of the cultures of the Aslis and the Natives of East Malaysia as well as that of the Indians and Chinese.

Culture cannot be forced or legislated; it comes about with the intermingling of the different races over a period of time.

Malaya is where the monsoons meet. The winds brought the Chinese from the east and the Indians from the west and even people from further afield. It also brought the people of Nusantara to our shores. All of them brought their cultures and made this place the great melting pot which is today Malaysia. It has made us what we are. We are a colourful patchwork of the many cultures from different places. Given time we will weave a tapestry that is uniquely Malaysian.

Given time . . . that is if the bigots allow us that.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but do you expect peoples from two ancient civilizations to dump their cultures and adopt wholesale, one which is much younger?

Have we Malays also not taken from others? Where does our symbol of royalty the Yellow Umbrella come from, just to mention one most obvious example.

What about the many words in our vocabulary from South Asia. Are our foods not heavily influenced by Indian cuisine – mamak is not Malay but it is part of our culture today.

Is the Malay culture also not influenced by Islam – a foreign import? Many of the local Malay practices have their roots in Siam (now Thailand) especially in the border states of Kelantan, Kedah and Perlis.

More recently we have learned to give “ang pows” except that ours is green. I can’t remember ever receiving a “green packet” as a child. Have we not borrowed from the Chinese?

Be more Malaysian, Mahathir demands but it depends on his definition of Malaysianess.

If it means assimilation into the Malay culture then it will not happen. In any case why should the others assimilate? What about the natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the Orang Aslis? They do not demand that the “foreigners” (including the Malays) adopt their ways.

As expected from Mahathir his stand on culture is a political one; it’s calculated to win brownies points with the bigots and religionists. In his failed National Culture Policy, Islam is one of the criteria for acceptance as a national culture. In other words, Middles East cultures are acceptable but not those of people who have lived here as long as we have.

Does that mean a Borneo Native culture is not acceptable just because they are Christians? Or the Aslis because they are animists?  

Another criteria was indigeneity but here the government forgets that a very large percentage of the natives are not Muslims. Going over the National Culture Policy 1970 (a brainchild of Mahathir and his then trusty lieutenant Anwar Ibrahim), one senses how incomprehensible it is. On the one hand Makyong  (which has been practised in Kelantan for centuries) is banned, yet ballet is permitted. I remember as a child we celebrated Mandi Safar. I don’t see that anymore.

Mahathir brought up the example of the Tionghuas in Indonesia (that’s what the Chinese are called there). Despite the many terrible things that has happened to that community, the Chinese did not give up their culture. Today under a more enlightened and inclusive President Joko Widodo, the Chinese are allowed to practise their culture openly.

If Indonesia failed despite the Chinese making up only 3% do you think Mahathir and his fellow travelers can succeed where non Malays make up nearly half the population (taking in the Natives of Borneo and Aslis).

Race and religion are the calling cards of racial bigots and religious extremists.

In Malaysian politics they are vote getters for unscrupulous politicians who have nothing else to offer. Mahathir is not the only one, most of the Malay leaders are of the same ilk

Rather than pulling out this hoary chestnut it is better that our Malay leaders tell us how they are doing to lift Malaysia out of the quagmire they have got us into.

Rather than try to fan the fire of the Malay bigots over this non-issue, why not tell us Malay rakyat what you will do to lift us out of our poverty. This is an All-Malay Government, so there is no one else to blame.

The nasi lemak seller and the satay man is not bothered if his customers use chopsticks or their hands to eat. He even uses the smattering of Chinese he possesses to make a saleto put food on his table. Is he being unpatriotic or unMalay?

Even in cases where assimilation is forced on the people (in the Indonesia of old) it will not hold and it soon unravels.

Rojak tastes better with more variety of fruits and if allowed to absorb the juices of the mix, it is an unbeatable combination.

Mahathir’s mono culture is dull and will not work. I will not give up my mixed Mandaling/Karo heritage whatever little of it I practise. I want my children and their children to know what we are, unlike Mahathir who in one generation turns from Malayalee to Malay.

Whatever his sins, at least Najib accepts that he is Bugis and has championed integration over assimilation.

As GE-15 draws nearer expect more of this kind of nonsense from politicians bankrupt of ideas on how to make our country more inclusive, prosperous and progressive.

Assimilation vs Integration

I would have let Mahathir’s “chopsticks “ remark pass if he had not tried to defend the indefensible in his City Plus Radio interview (6/1/22). His remarks on assimilation originally appeared in his recently released memoirs.

Mahathir’s latest bellyache about the Chinese not assimilating into the Malay culture is nothing new. He failed in trying to impose his “National Culture Policy in 1971 but he has not given up. He is at it again.

Just because he has denied his Kerala ancestry – root and branch, does not mean others have to follow suit. Most of us have more pride in our roots and more dignity that we will not sell our heritage for thirty pieces of silver – in his case the alleged billions. One suspects his motivation for denying his ancestry but not everyone is so Machiavellian. Not everyone will sell his mother just to win votes.

In his City Plus Radio interview he said that “in other countries foreigners who wished to become citizens of a particular nation would adopt the local culture and eventually abandon their own culture.”

Two things: 1.  The Chinese and Indians here are not foreigners. Some of them have been here longer than many Malays. 2. I know of no country, where to gain citizenship, one must give up one’s own culture.

By the way what is Malay Culture in the Malaysian context, but a mixture of the cultures of the peoples of the Indonesian Archipelago – Bugis, Acheh, Batak, Mandaling, Minang, Sundanese etc and indeed also the Malays of Rhiau and Deli. 

Surely given time, a truly Malaysian culture will evolve which is not Malay or Muslim culture exclusively but which also embodies elements of the cultures of the Aslis and the Natives of East Malaysia as well as that of the Indians and Chinese.

Culture cannot be forced or legislated; it comes about with the intermingling of the different races over a period of time.

Malaya is where the monsoons meet. The winds brought the Chinese from the east and the Indians from the west and even people from further afield. It also brought the people of Nusantara to our shores. All of them brought their cultures and made this place the great melting pot which is today Malaysia. It has made us what we are. We are a colourful patchwork of the many cultures from different places. Given time we will weave a tapestry that is uniquely Malaysian.

Given time . . . that is if the bigots allow us that.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but do you expect peoples from two ancient civilizations to dump their cultures and adopt wholesale, one which is much younger?

Have we Malays also not taken from others? Where does our symbol of royalty the Yellow Umbrella come from, just to mention one most obvious example.

What about the many words in our vocabulary from South Asia. Are our foods not heavily influenced by Indian cuisine – mamak is not Malay but it is part of our culture today.

Is the Malay culture also not influenced by Islam – a foreign import? Many of the local Malay practices have their roots in Siam (now Thailand) especially in the border states of Kelantan, Kedah and Perlis.

More recently we have learned to give “ang pows” except that ours is green. I can’t remember ever receiving a “green packet” as a child. Have we not borrowed from the Chinese?

Be more Malaysian, Mahathir demands but it depends on his definition of Malaysianess.

If it means assimilation into the Malay culture then it will not happen. In any case why should the others assimilate? What about the natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the Orang Aslis? They do not demand that the “foreigners” (including the Malays) adopt their ways.

As expected from Mahathir his stand on culture is a political one; it’s calculated to win brownies points with the bigots and religionists. In his failed National Culture Policy, Islam is one of the criteria for acceptance as a national culture. In other words, Middles East cultures are acceptable but not those of people who have lived here as long as we have.

Does that mean a Borneo Native culture is not acceptable just because they are Christians? Or the Aslis because they are animists?  

Another criteria was indigeneity but here the government forgets that a very large percentage of the natives are not Muslims. Going over the National Culture Policy 1970 (a brainchild of Mahathir and his then trusty lieutenant Anwar Ibrahim), one senses how incomprehensible it is. On the one hand Makyong  (which has been practised in Kelantan for centuries) is banned, yet ballet is permitted. I remember as a child we celebrated Mandi Safar. I don’t see that anymore.

Mahathir brought up the example of the Tionghuas in Indonesia (that’s what the Chinese are called there). Despite the many terrible things that has happened to that community, the Chinese did not give up their culture. Today under a more enlightened and inclusive President Joko Widodo, the Chinese are allowed to practise their culture openly.

If Indonesia failed despite the Chinese making up only 3% do you think Mahathir and his fellow travelers can succeed where non Malays make up nearly half the population (taking in the Natives of Borneo and Aslis).

Race and religion are the calling cards of racial bigots and religious extremists.

In Malaysian politics they are vote getters for unscrupulous politicians who have nothing else to offer. Mahathir is not the only one, most of the Malay leaders are of the same ilk

Rather than pulling out this hoary chestnut it is better that our Malay leaders tell us how they are doing to lift Malaysia out of the quagmire they have got us into.

Rather than try to fan the fire of the Malay bigots over this non-issue, why not tell us Malay rakyat what you will do to lift us out of our poverty. This is an All-Malay Government, so there is no one else to blame.

The nasi lemak seller and the satay man is not bothered if his customers use chopsticks or their hands to eat. He even uses the smattering of Chinese he possesses to make a saleto put food on his table. Is he being unpatriotic or unMalay?

Even in cases where assimilation is forced on the people (in the Indonesia of old) it will not hold and it soon unravels.

Rojak tastes better with more variety of fruits and if allowed to absorb the juices of the mix, it is an unbeatable combination.

Mahathir’s mono culture is dull and will not work. I will not give up my mixed Mandaling/Karo heritage whatever little of it I practise. I want my children and their children to know what we are, unlike Mahathir who in one generation turns from Malayalee to Malay.

Whatever his sins, at least Najib accepts that he is Bugis and has championed integration over assimilation.

As GE-15 draws nearer expect more of this kind of nonsense from politicians bankrupt of ideas on how to make our country more inclusive, prosperous and progressive.

(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)

By Multatuli Murtadi, Kelantan

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