The following article is submitted to the Editorial of Malaysia Gazette by reader, Lutfi Shaari.
It is interesting to note that the Chairman of the Special Select Committee on Inter-State and Federal Relations, Hassan Karim told reporters earlier this week that we should stop the use of terms such as ‘Bangsa Johor’.
No Johorean that would deny that he or she is part of “Bangsa Malaysia”, but does that mean that they should no be called “Bangsa Johor” for example.
The 10 states that comprised the Federated Malay States and Unfederated Malay States were independent in name only and were subject to the rule of their British Residents.
Prior to the formation of Malaysia, the Johor Sultanate saw itself as a distinct political entity – with relative autonomy in certain matters of administration and economic development alongside its privilege of having a written constitution.
The “Bangsa Johor” concept, which was first introduced in the early 20th by Sultan Abu Bakar back when Johor was the Johor Sultanate, has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts since its reintroduction into the national conversation in 2015 by Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim as part of his proposed direction for Johor.
Groups that share a distinctive common background often have a common history that unites them and defines them as a people. Similarly, individuals would identify more with smaller local groups. So it is perfectly natural for people to have or take pride in a local identity such as “Bangsa Johor”.
Hassan Karim’s concerns over a state identity overriding national unity seems quite overblown. Any sense of shared history in Malaysia, is national, not state – look at our public-school curriculum.
The efforts of Johor to foster a complementary political identity by reviving “Bangsa Johor” needs to be applauded. The state should be able to celebrate its rich history as a fiercely independent entity–after all it was the birthplace of UMNO, the organisation which rebelled against the formation of the Malayan Union in 1946.
Our national struggle for independence from the British brought with us the idea of Malaysia as a nation. By the time Malaysia was formed in 1963, the new country had Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, Kadazan, Dayak, Bidayuh, Thai ethnic and many other ethnicities that had blended into the existing culture or developed their own languages, cultures and identity.
To call them simply Malaysians would be diluting this great diversity.
Every state has their own unique histories and cultures. This diversity is good for the national for many reasons. Exposure to different ways to thinking can often stimulate innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. But most importantly, diversity, is important to resilience. Take a look at nature, where biologists have found that artificial crops are often more vulnerable diseases because they lack genetic diversity.
This is not to say that we should deprioritize the creation of a stronger national identity. In fact, diverse state identities such as Bangsa Johor or Bangsa Kedah (as proposed by Johari Abdul) would strengthen our national identity. It promotes a sense of competition and pride between states, which ultimately contribute to the larger entity that is Malaysia.
The political identity of Malaysians has changed and that we see the federation as more centralized than it was then in the past. But this means that we should continue to keep our own local cultures and identities alive instead of trying to reduce them to a single Malaysian identity.
As the Chairman on Inter-State and Federal Relations, Hassan Karim should look at ways to improve the relations between the various states in the federation with the federal government. Aside from fostering a more diverse national identity, he should also take note that states as states foremost have an interest in safeguarding the interest of their own local interests.
This does not mean opposition to federal policy, but it also means that states should have a significant say in how federal policy affects them. Having a stronger state identity can help how federal initiatives can better be run – by adjusting them to the situation of individual states.
As a philosopher once said, “ambition be made to check ambition”, it is important then to realize that the needs of individual states in Malaysia should not be overruled by the ambition of the federal government.
So for now, let us embrace concepts such as “Bangsa Johor” or “Bangsa Kedah”, unless the federal government can provide a truly inclusive and fair identity for all.
Editorial note: The views expressed are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysia Gazette.