Perak state has been in political limbo since February, when the Barisan Nasional coalition, which rules nationally, tried to oust the opposition alliance, which won the state in general elections last year. Perak could well be the metaphor for Malaysian politics, as both the B-N and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat vie for support in multi-racial Malaysia, at a time when the nation is grappling with questions of racial harmony, nationhood and identity.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Malaysian author Dr Farish Noor, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
NOOR: I think what we're seeing in Malaysia is a dangerous trend where Malaysian citizenship is becoming something less valued. In the Malay community for instance one gets the distinct impression that Islam is far more important than even Malayness, and of course being a Malaysian citizen is somewhere down the line as the third or fourth priority. And you see this also in other communities, the Malaysians of Chinese or Indian origin seem to demonstrate the same lack of faith in the idea of Malaysianess and Malaysian citizenship. This is also the net result of three decades of Islamisation where the state actually played a very instrumental role in foregrounding Islam as the defining feature of Malay identity. So in a way this has actually contributed to a lack of faith in being Malay and a stronger faith in being Muslim. The opposite is the case in Indonesia, where Indonesians seem to be proud of being Indonesian, they're proud of being Javanese or Sumatrans who happen to also be Muslims.
LAM: Is it my imagination or is the Malaysia of today a far more complicated, far more complex society compared to the Malaysia of my childhood?
NOOR: That's true for most of us who've actually witnessed Malaysia change. Like yourself I've lived abroad for half my life and every time I return to the country one is struck by the perhaps superficial, but nonetheless important changes that one sees. The urban landscape of Malaysia has changed, you do see the ethnic ghettoisation and the religious ghettoisation. And of course just looking at the urban geography of the country, one of the complaints of the Hindu Rights Action Force in Malaysia was that in a space of a year almost a hundred Hindu temples were destroyed while a hundred mosques were built. This radically changes, alters the way Malaysia looks. What was once as you and I know a very heterodox, very eclectic, very rich urban landscape has now become something far more homogenous. The markers of identity have been replaced with either universal symbols of capitalism, the ubiquitous Kentucky Fried Chicken or the McDonalds around the corner, or the symbols of a new more homogenised Malaysian identity that seems to be increasingly defined by one ethnic group, the Malay Muslims.
LAM: What surprised me also in recent years is the rise of a group, albeit a small group of if you like disillusioned, possibly disenfranchised Malay youths. Now for outsiders they would think the bumiputras have everything. A case that springs to mind would be the Mat Rempits for instance, the young kids who race on motorbikes. What's your take on that situation?
NOOR: Well the Mat Rempits are actually a symptom of I think a national developmental program that went off the rails from the 80s onwards. And it's interesting that you identify them as disenfranchised, because I would agree with that entirely. Of course for people in places like Kuala Lumpur, the Mat Rempits phenomenon is just a nuisance, these are boys on motorbikes racing in the streets at night. But if you look at their profile, many of them tend to be poor; they seem to be aware of the fact that they've already lost the economic rat race. I mean none of them are going to be corporate managers or millionaires, lawyers; most of them won't even get respectable jobs. But this is their way of claiming that urban space, the streets to themselves. They are a nuisance and deliberately so. They don't have an articulate voice, that's why all you hear the sounds of their motorbikes, but that's their way of speaking I suppose.
LAM: It's a subconscious claim.
NOOR: It's a subconscious claim, it's a claim that's articulated not through violence but through being a nuisance, by behaving badly and they know they're behaving badly by deliberating flouting traffic regulations and claiming the streets, making it impossible for people to drive. And that's their way of claiming Kuala Lumpur for themselves. So it is in many ways an act of resistance from a segment of the Malaysian public who are perhaps not politically educated and lack the political vocabulary. We need to study these developments much closer rather than simply summarising them as a bunch of hoodlums or unemployed youth. Actually I think they're doing something far more interesting.
LAM: Where do you look to then if you want to look to the future with hope for Malaysia?
NOOR: I would look for the blurry points on the margins, I would look precisely at the frontiers of society to see precisely the instances of these overlaps where inter-ethnic relationships are becoming rare I think in Malaysia, they're visibly rare. We grew up in a generation where it was not uncommon to see mixed couples, that's becoming not only rare, it's becoming institutionally difficult because of all the new religious laws that have been put in place forcing non-Muslims to convert to Islam.
LAM: Well even the Peranakan culture came about in the 19th century from the inter marriage between Chinese and Malays?
NOOR: Exactly and I myself am a product of four generations of inter-racial marriages; I'm Javanese, Dutch, Indian and Arab. But that is becoming increasingly difficult today. So I look for that, I look for these instances where this homogenising logic breaks down thanks to individuals willing to cross that divide, the ethnic divide, the class divide, the gender divide, the religious divide, young Malaysians who want to think outside the race box, the religion box.