A participant paints her face with a heart-shaped rendition of the Malaysian flag during the country's National Day celebration parade in Putrajaya on 31 August, 2019. (Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

A participant paints her face with a heart-shaped rendition of the Malaysian flag during the country's National Day celebration parade in Putrajaya on 31 August, 2019. (Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Cosmopolitanism and Multiculturalism: Reviving Bangsa Malaysia

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Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s concept of a Bangsa Malaysia has been given a fillip by Muhammad Faisal Abdul Aziz, president of ABIM, which represents the aspirations of Malaysia’s Muslim youth. It should be given some serious consideration.

Thirty years ago, at the inaugural meeting of the Malaysian Business Council, Dr Mohamad Mahathir presented The Way Forward for Malaysia in the 21st century. If the national economy maintained an average annual growth rate of seven per cent, Dr Mahathir said, Malaysia would be a developed country by the year 2020. Mahathir’s optimistic projection was applauded by the state and business elites. 

In addition to the seven per cent growth rate, a confident, progressive and unified Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian Nationality) was required. When promulgated as Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020), this unexpected idea of Mahathir’s was popularly received, amidst the prosperity and social goodwill of the early 1990s. 

Despite the high expectations aroused, Vision 2020 was subverted in 1997-98. Its economic pillar of high growth buckled under the East Asian financial crisis; its social superstructure collapsed with Anwar Ibrahim’s persecution. 

Besides, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) leaders who ruled after Mahathir retired in 2003 had little use for his grand aspiration. Craving only to be “developed”, UMNO leaders kept the economic shell of Vision 2020 but they thrashed the idea of a unified nationality. One UMNO leader dismissed Bangsa Malaysia as bangsa rojak, crudely, a “mixed-breed nationality”. 

It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find the president of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM), Muhammad Faisal Abdul Aziz, recently reviving the concept of Bangsa Malaysia. Founded in 1971, ABIM, the Malay acronym for the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, has long been known for its social activism. 

Speaking at ABIM’s 49th Annual General Assembly on 26 December 2020, Muhammad Faisal said he regretted that Bangsa Malaysia has been misperceived through political lenses to be either “a tool of elite Malays to dilute the identity of other races” or a “Malaysian Malaysia” call to weaken “the identity of the majority race”. 

Using the correct lens, he suggests, would lead to the detection of “an inclusive, unifying factor” in the “national and civic identity” proffered by Bangsa Malaysia. Then, Bangsa Malaysia can be accepted as one of ‘multiple competing identities’, in Amartya Sen’s formulation, a moderate one that would keep ethno-religious identity free of extremism. A culturally diverse nation can, thereby, steer a “middle road”, away from ethnic assimilation or segregation.

Muhammad Faisal treads on familiar ground when he speaks of moulding “an integrated identity … informed and inspired by the shared values and qualities of all … ethnicities and cultures”. He takes a bold step forward, though, by suggesting that the “unifying values of Bangsa Malaysia” should inspire “a united front” to combat poverty, corruption and conflict. 

In linking that vision to a “cosmopolitan ABIM” Muhammad Faisal imaginatively preserves a multicultural worldview that is not alien to Malaysia’s richly diversified culture.

Crucial to this re-interpretation of Bangsa Malaysia is a cosmopolitan worldview and spirit. 

The ABIM President falls back on ABIM’s long multicultural tradition when he refers to the cosmopolitan roots of Islamic civilization which had learnt and benefitted from Indian mathematics and astronomy, Greek logic, and Persian jurisprudence. He recalls the “Muslim cosmopolitanism of Southeast Asia” that had intrinsic respect for “universal values … embedded within one’s own customs and tradition”. For this, he draws from Anwar Ibrahim, who was ABIM President 40 years ago. In The Asian Renaissance, Anwar stressed the unique, creative and cosmopolitan manner in which Islam had historically arrived in Southeast Asia without creating resentment and hostility.

Thus “internalizing Muslim cosmopolitanism” would bring ABIM members, and by extension, Muslims, “ease” with their Islamic cultural identities and “a tolerant attitude towards people of other backgrounds.” 

Much of what Muhammad Faisal says deserves respectful engagement. 

Where the present political impasse predisposes many despairing Malaysians to ethnic recriminations, Muhammad Faisal calls for “a shared resolve to protect and raise the dignity of all Malaysians”. Where in disgust some mock everything “Mahathirist”, the ABIM President does not throw out the ideal of Bangsa Malaysia altogether. All said and done, he appreciates that Bangsa Malaysia was, arguably, the most hopeful part of Vision 2020. 

In linking that vision to a ‘cosmopolitan ABIM’ Muhammad Faisal imaginatively preserves a multicultural worldview that is not alien to Malaysia’s richly diversified culture. He says, “Being Malaysian does not make one any less Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban or Kadazan”. Much earlier Dr Lim Chong Eu, Penang’s former Chief Minister, frequently said that, “To be Malaysian is to be no less a Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban and Kadazan”. Or as Anwar continues to say, “Wo men dou xi yi jia ren (We are one family)”. 

Thirty years ago, Mahathir was uncertain if he would live to see his vision realized. But, as if History intends to rebuke him, Mahathir has lived past 2020, only to see his dream dashed, partly by his own folly, partly by the perfidy of others.

Perhaps the dream has not been completely wrecked. From 1998 to 2018, large segments of Malaysian society advanced causes with the multiple identities of Reformasi, BERSIH, HINDRAF, Anak Felda, and Pakatan Rakyat. Did those social movements not present a sight of Bangsa Malaysia acting, as Muhammad Faisal urges, as a “united front” to combat injustice and intolerance? 

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