When You Need To Do Some Serious Rethinking

Malaysia's Cultural Development

About the writer: Azhar Kurai Ahmad is a trained biochemist, turned art dealer. A keen observer of Malaysian politics, where he sees uncanny similarity with how the local art scene develops.

By Azhar Kurai

We Malaysians are a demanding lot. We demand for a first class education like Finland, but refused to do away with vernacular schools. We demand for cheap car prices like in the UK, but refused to pay the 40% income tax. Worse, we simply kicked out the previous government for imposing the 6% GST, when the VAT rate is 20% in the UK. Truth is, as a nation, we are very much a work in progress.

But for such a young country, where independence was achieved a mere 64 years ago, we actually have achieved quite a bit. And here, The Umpire will never tire of giving the example of the neurosurgeon son with the farmer as a father. A rapid turnaround in just a single generation.

And it wasn’t just a one-off thing either. The Umpire’s late father’s last stint to earn money to feed his family of 11 kids, was as a taxi driver. An army man he was before that, and various other odd-jobs after, yet he couldn’t be more proud in raising his kids with proper education. Four of us graduated from Universiti Malaya, another three went to study abroad in the UK and Australia, but more importantly all 11 of us turned out alright.

It wasn’t as if he was a genius. Like many other uneducated poor Malays, the government policy was key ~ the enabler ~ by giving us a fair chance at life. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was formulated specifically to bridge the wealth gap between races, where colonialism rewarded the minority Chinese, especially with almost total control of the economy then. The racial riots of 1969 fully exposed how dangerous this wealth inequality was. The Malay majority could never remain poor, for it will destabilise the society. That was the simple truth.

The NEP was formulated following the racial riot, and it has been proven to be a runaway success. In a single generation, the neurosurgeon son was able to break the poverty cycle of his family. And while his kids may return to farming one day if they wish, it will be done via modern farming technologies. That’s the power of education where the NEP has been championing since its inception.

The NEP And Social Engineering

But of course, the NEP does have its own issues and with it, the naysayers. The NEP is also prone to abuses, and some less-deserving companies or individuals have won government contracts through their network of Bumiputera conmen, for instance. But we should never take away the fact that the NEP is responsible for the large middle-class Malays we have today. The NEP is a masterstroke in social engineering, and we must thank the leaders responsible for it, for having such amazing vision in the first place.

The racial riots of 1969 was an important juncture in our short history. Around the same time of the NEP, the government also formulated the NCP which stands for the National Culture Policy.

The culture policy stated that:

  1. The national culture must be based on the indigenous culture.
  2. Suitable elements from other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture.
  3. Islam is an important component in the moulding of the national culture.

The rationale is to foster unity between the races, and to develop a strong national identity, especially in the wake of the racial tension that had just happened.

While we went full steam ahead with the NEP, not much emphasis has been put into developing the national culture. We sort of ambled along, just going with the flow. In fact, politically we did not even view national culture that seriously, as usually ministers that were put in charge of culture were more often than not, at the tail end of their political careers. (As compared to ‘powerful’ portfolios such as finance, defence, or education). And currently, the political structure is that the ministry in charge of culture is also in charge of tourism.

Hence, the tendency of our national culture to be developed according to tourism flavours. For instance, we don our colourful costumes and dance the night away to entertain tourists. It’s not entirely wrong, but it has to be more than that. And for the record, The Umpire couldn’t even differentiate between the ‘ceracap inai’ dance, and the ‘asyik’ dance. But we know it must be the ‘candle’ dance, because candles are involved. The educational side of our own culture isn’t even there to begin with.

What Exactly Is Malaysian Culture?

What exactly is Malaysian culture Is donning colourful costumes of the different ethnic groups enough to identify our cultural heritage

Another thing that The Umpire encountered early on when making the transition from a science-based world, into the world of art and culture is the question of what exactly is Malaysian culture. The answer was always vague, and has always been accompanied with a shrug. We are even afraid to describe that Malaysian culture is predominantly Malay culture, infused with other minority cultures from Borneo, Chinese, Indian, and others. Why are we not confident in stating the obvious? It really is perplexing.

The NEP has been successful in lessening the wealth gap amongst the races. It is high time that, after being neglected for so long, we should now focus on the NCP. Culture is the badge of distinction, for nations to differentiate themselves, in a highly globalized world. We are going to be left further behind if we continue to neglect our own cultural development.

But where do we start again? There aren’t any simple solutions, but perhaps we should put in place the political will first. We could learn from our neighbour Indonesia, the land of 200 million people with more than 200 ethnic groups with their own languages and dialects. Yet they all speak the same national language, and embrace their own culture wholeheartedly.

Perhaps putting a greater emphasis on culture and education is the way forward. Indonesia appointed Nadiem Makarim, the founder of Gojek, as their minister in charge of culture in October of 2019. The name of the ministry? Ministry of Education and Culture. A young and successful entrepreneur leading an important ministry. Now that’s a strong political statement.

To have meaningful change, we must first have the political will to do it. It is high time we develop and embrace our own culture, before we descend into a crass society, with mindless consumption of materialistic goods. We should demand this instead. We owe it to ourselves to make it happen. – New Malaysia Herald


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