Besides the Government, all strata of Malaysian society must commit to the challenge of transforming the concept into reality by bridging existing gaps.

IN his royal address in conjunction with the King’s birthday on June 6, 2009, His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, called upon all Malaysians to make the ‘1Malaysia’ concept central to their lives.

On the same occasion, the proponent of the concept, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, made it explicitly clear that in its quest for national unity, 1Malaysia will be guided by the Malaysian Constitution.

This clarification is important since it defines what the 1Malaysia quest is and what it is not.

1Malaysia acknowledges that there are certain underlying socio-political ideas in the Constitution which will shape its journey towards a nation that is truly united in diversity.

One of them is the idea that the multi-ethnic Malaysia of today with its principle of common citizenship has evolved from Malay Sultanates and other indigenous entities, suggesting that our Constitution integrates the past with the present. Related to this evolution is the attempt to balance the rights and interests of the various communities.

United we stand: Children dressed in traditional clothes taking part in the 50th Merdeka celebrations in Kuala Lumpur, reflecting unity in diversity.

Thus, while Malay is the sole official and national language, the use and study of other languages is also protected in the Constitution; while Islam is the religion of the Federation, the freedom to practise other religions is also safeguarded; while the special position of the Malays and other indigenous peoples is enshrined in the Constitution, it also guarantees the legitimate interests of the other communities. This equilibrium is a vital dimension in the nation’s philosophy of, and approach to, national unity.

It is reinforced by a third idea. The Constitution recognises the importance of principles, processes and institutions that transcend ethnic interests in holding the nation together. Civil liberties, common electoral rolls and multi-ethnic legislatures would be some examples.

IMalaysia’s lineage is not confined to the Malaysian Constitution. The Rukunegara with its commitment to national unity, among other goals, and the New Economic Policy (NEP) that had pledged to eradicate poverty irrespective of ethnicity and restructure society in order to reduce the identification of ethnicity with economic function are part of its heritage.

So is Wawasan 2020 which enunciates “a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny” as the first of its nine central strategic challenges.

Series of ideas and visions

1Malaysia, it is apparent, is the latest in a whole series of ideas and visions which seek to promote unity among our diverse communities.

It is significant that they have emerged at regular intervals in our history – the Rukunegara and NEP 13 years after the 1957 Constitution; Wawasan 2020, 21 years after the Rukunegara and the NEP; and now 1Malaysia, 18 years after Wawasan 2020.

They represent renewal and rededication to an ideal which continues to elude the nation.

One of the reasons why we are nowhere near our goal of a united nation is because there has been no attempt to inculcate in our people a profound understanding and appreciation of the Constitution or the Rukunegara or Wawasan 2020.

That is why 51 years after Merdeka, a huge segment of the non-Malay population refuses to acknowledge the Malay root of the nation’s identity even though it is so much a part of our political and cultural landscape.

Likewise, a sizeable section of the Malay population is reluctant to recognise the legitimacy of the non-Malay yearning for equality inherent in their status as long domiciled citizens of the land.

Of course, developing a deeper understanding of the nation’s documents of destiny among its citizens is not a panacea.

There should be constant efforts to bridge the gulf between Constitutional principles and the goals of the Rukunegara, on the one hand, and the realities that confront the lives of our people, on the other, especially in relation to national unity. More than that, the government and other actors should address the causes behind this failure to live up to national goals and principles with courage and integrity.

Drive for unity

Malaysians hope that 1Malaysia will be different; that there will be greater drive and determination to unite our people at a more concrete and substantive level. Given the current situation, there are perhaps at least five gaps that 1Malaysia could focus upon.

One, there is the territorial gap which separates the communities and cultures of Sabah and Sarawak from the people of peninsular Malaysia. Integrating their cultures into the mainstream is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for national unity. Sabahans and Sarawakians have to be accommodated in mainstream politics and administration at a faster pace.

Two, there is an ethnic gap between significant sections of the Malay and non-Malay communities on the Peninsula which, as we have seen, expresses itself in conflicting perceptions of the nation’s identity, the rights of the different communities, how they are rewarded, and so on.

A needs based approach – rather than the present emphasis upon ethnicity – in areas related to socio-economic justice may help to narrow this ethnic gap.

Three, there is a growing religious gap that has increased the social distance between segments of the Muslim and non-Muslim communities especially on the peninsula.

The issues that have caused this polarisation will have to be tackled effectively within the framework of a more progressive understanding of religion in the contemporary world.

Four, there is an income and wealth gap which has heightened the differences between those who ‘have-a-lot’ and those who ‘have-a-little’ in our society.

Apart from the inherent injustice of widening disparities in any society, the alienation and relative deprivation of the latter has contributed in no small measure to increased crime and other social malaise.

Five, there is a generational gap of sorts that appears to distinguish those above fifty from those in their twenties and thirties when it comes to crucial issues such as the need for compromise and consensus among the different communities and the importance of stability and change in Malaysian politics.

These attitudinal differences may lead to the erosion of core elements in current inter-ethnic arrangements with all their dire consequences for the nation.

Though the Federal Government will have a major role to play in reducing these gaps, all sectors and strata of Malaysian society will also have to commit themselves wholeheartedly to this monumental challenge of transforming the idea of 1Malaysia into reality. Are we ready for this challenge?

by Dr Chandra Muzaffar

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia and president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).