Thursday, July 12, 2007

Malaysia - 50 Years - Moving Forward or Backward?

Taken from

Dear Citizen Lina…

by Farish A. Noor

Identities are funny things. They evolve, overlap and sometimes regress when we least expect it. Odder still, most of us – though we might not care to admit it – actually have several at the same time; and the dilemma faced by many of us living in this modern world is how to juggle several overlapping, criss-crossing, permanently mutating and at times contradictory identities at the same time, without having to make an appointment with the psychoanalyst.

Now the problem of living in modern postcolonial nation-states like ours is that in just too many cases the politics of identity has come to the forefront as the defining aspect of national politics as a whole. Malaysia is not unique in this respect and everywhere we look we see modern nation-states in crisis, or denial, because the citizens themselves are at odds over who and what they are. The bane of postcolonial development is the lingering doubts over nationhood, loyalty and belonging. Once the white masters in their funny pith helmets packed their bags and were shipped back home, the natives started asking the question: 'Now who has the right to stay?'

What is doubly odd about Malaysia (and here we are unique) is the way that the postcolonial set up envisaged a rather ackward and clumsy arrangement between two legal systems; one secular and one religious, to cater to the needs of all. Furthermore as we all know this happens to be one of the very few countries in the world where the racial and religious identity of one group – the Malays – has been defined by the constitution.

That the conflation of Malay and Muslim identity is artificial and has no basis in history is embarrassingly evident for all to see. Why, we just have to hop on the first AirAsia flight to Indonesia next door to see for ourselves that the same rule does not apply for them. Indonesians seem more comfortable with the idea that in the same family there can be Muslims, Christians and Hindus living under one roof, and unlike us they dont go around crafting slogans and jinggles for the ad campaign to sell Indonesia as some multi-culti happy land of harmony that is 'Truly Asia'. Moreover, it proves that our Indonesian friends are quite capable of living with Pluralism that doesnt have to be imported from the liberal capitals of the West. But try taking that road to multiculturalism in Malaysia and see what happens…

Well, in fact one among our number has done just that, though at a rather hefty cost to her well-being.

I am, of course talking about our fellow Malaysian citizen Lina Joy. Though I've never met her and have no idea what she looks like, I am disturbed by the fact that right now, as we stand precariously on the brink of our big fiftieth anniversary, the Malaysian nation has lost – some would say ejected – one of our own. At fifty Malaysia as a nation should be mature enough, wise enough, and gutsy enough to live with the realities of a complex plural society. Yet Lina's decision to leave Islam and to convert to another religion has irked many among her former faith community.

Legal technicalities aside, what surprised me the most was the reaction of some quarters who immediately pounced upon citizen Lina and denounced her as a traitor to her race and religion. Death threats ensued, with hatemail and slander aplenty. (Something Malaysians seem particularly fond of and good at.) Mobs took to the streets demanding their brand of small town justice, and warnings were issued to latte-drinking liberals not to stir the hornets' nest or revise the constitutional set up of the country.

It doesn't take much intelligence to see that behind this wayang kulit of inflated egos and boiling tempers were some other political motives at work. First and foremost one is struck by how citizen Lina was accused of being both a race traitor and an apostate at the same time, underscoring the fact that here in our quirky little tropical paradise being Malay is inextricably bound to being a Muslim. Of course any historian worth his or her salt would be the first to tell you that this notion raises a plethora of unanswered questions, such as 'if being a Malay means being Muslim, then what the heck were our ancestors who built all those temples like Borobudur and Prambanan, and their humbler cousins here in Lembah Bujang?' Swedish??

Such are the commonsensical fictions that guide our understanding of identity in this benighted country of ours that till today conversion to Islam is referred to as 'masuk Melayu' (becoming Malay). Following the same skewered logic that got us into this mess in the first place, leaving Islam is tantamount to abandoning the Malay community as well. Thus it hardly comes as a surprise if the groups who were most vocal in demonising our fellow citizen Lina happened to be the gung-ho rempit-types who are more than happy to harp on and on about preserving the agenda of Ketuanan Melayu as well.

Citizen Lina was accused of breaking the law, causing trouble, upsetting the neighbours and keeping hundreds of conservative die-hards awake night after night. Yet in the midst of this brouhaha we forget that this story involves the plight of a fellow Malaysian citizen whose only fault – if we can even call it that – was to ask to be recognised for what she is today. By making what had to be a difficult and costly choice for herself, however, what citizen Lina has done is remind us all of the contingencies of identity and how identities are constructed, rather than defined by narrow essentials. She is living proof that someone can be Malay and Christian at the same time, a fact rooted in our collective past which recurs again and again to spook the simplistic worldview of some today.

For all intents and purposes, Lina is a Malaysian like the rest of us. That she has been forced into hiding is a shame that all of us will now be forced to carry on our collective shoulders. Furthermore she also happens to be a Christian, and no legal hassling, soap-box dramatics, verbal pyrotechnics and rabble-rousing will alter that simple fact. I happen to be a Muslim not because it is stated so on some piece of paper, but because that happens to be my current existential status. The same applies to the rest of us, whatever our beliefs may be; and the same certainly applies to Lina, our fellow citizen.

I regret the fact that I am writing this without the benefit of ever having met Lina herself. Perhaps one day our paths may cross and I shall finally come face to face with this fellow citizen whose choice of belief proves my point that identities are crafted and decided by agency rather than the dictates of history and the circumstances of politics. When that day comes, I shall be quite happy indeed – for citizen Lina is proof that Malaysia is still capable of defining itself according to the will and agency of its citizens, and it is we, after all, who define what Malaysia is. To Lina, my fellow Malaysian, I wish a Happy Merdeka and all the best.

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