Originally published in The Malaysian Insight.
By Looi Sue-Chern.
MALAYSIA cannot do away with identity politics, which is shaped by one’s religion, ethnic, culture, language, social class, gender and other aspects of their identity, said DAP lawmaker Steven Sim.
The Bukit Mertajam MP said it was the wrong question to ask people whether they identified themselves as Malaysians or by their respective races first.
To deal with Malaysia’s diversity and to find common ground, he said the various races should simply embrace who they are.
This meant dealing with issues like “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy), the anxiety within the race and its animosity with other races by letting Malays be more Malay, he said.
“They should look beyond that constructed anxiety, which is the Umno framework, and into the Malay culture itself. No need to look at other cultures, just look at Hang Tuah,” Sim told The Malaysian Insight.
He was referring to the legendary 15th century Malay warrior, who was a symbol of loyalty for Barisan Nasional lynchpin party Umno.
He said Hang Tuah, a figure respected and admired by Malays, was a “hardcore Malay” who had a Chinese foster father and knew 12 languages, including Chinese and Tamil, according to classical epic Hikayat Hang Tuah.
“We thought he was some street fighter or boxer, but he was a good administrator, town planner, city builder and diplomat, who even helped countries solve economic problems.
“He was the hardcore ‘Melayu’. To deal with Malay supremacy, you don’t ask Malays to be less Malay but to be more Malay, like Hang Tuah – a brave Malay who dared to embrace diversity,” Sim said.
The same idea applied to the Chinese, he said, using the Chinese vernacular school system in Malaysia as an example, and stressing that the Chinese-medium school should be allowed to continue operating.
By doing so, the country would have a complementary education system and would give people the chance to learn high quality Chinese language, he said.
“Outside of China and Taiwan, we are one of the best. In a globalised world, like Hang Tuah, Malays today have the opportunity to learn different languages. In his day, Hang Tuah had no modern government or facilities.
“So to resolve our problem with diversity is not by asking anyone to be less Malay, less Chinese, less Indian. We should be precisely what we are and celebrate our diversity.”
Reflecting on Malaysia
Sim discusses these issues in his new book Being Malaysia that tells of his reflections on issues of ideology, religion, race relations, identity politics, good governance and the economy as an opposition MP.
He said writing about race was like “putting his head on the chopping board” although he did not think it would get the book banned.
“I hope people will read my book before it gets banned. You never know with KDN (Home Ministry). Contact Penang Institute to buy the book,” he said.
Sim described identity politics as a taboo, especially for the predominantly Chinese DAP, because any discussion on the matter would touch on the Malay race and Islam, which are sensitive.
“But it is high time we deal with it without having to be racist (about it). We cannot discard the fact that someone’s culture, religious values, family history, gender and others have influence on his or her political behaviour.
“To ignore identity politics is not only unwise politically, but also unreasonable,” he said.
On writing Being Malaysia, a project that began in 2016, Sim said much has changed since his first book The Audacity to Think: An Invitation to Rethink Politics was published in 2012, such as the opposition’s failure to take Putrajaya in the 2013 polls, the cooperation with PAS within Pakatan Rakyat that had since collapsed, and the new collaborations with PAS splinter party Amanah and Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu.
He acknowledged that even the most enthusiastic opposition supporters were “slowing down and exhausted” 10 years after the first political tsunami in 2008 and 20 years after the Reformasi movement which was sparked by the sacking, arrest and jailing of Anwar Ibrahim.
“There are people saying we have already tried (to change the federal government) twice, and it is not possible to change (Putrajaya) anymore… there are also those who say opposition and BN are the same.
“But there are also new parties – Bersatu and Amanah. There is a shift in attitude among the Malays towards the opposition, namely those in rural areas. We get bigger ceramah crowds now than when we had PAS… because we are dealing with their identity, with a Malay nationalist party going against the other (Umno).
“These changes made me want to address the issues. I think we need to revisit and remind ourselves why we had that passion 20 and 10 years ago,” he said.
In the book, Sim also touched on the issue of protest votes, what he called “false equivalency” of saying BN and Pakatan Harapan were the same, and “selfie politics”, where politicians were doing things to be popular.
“Selfie politics is dangerous. You allow politicians to attract you with populist, artiste, superstar-like (behaviour). Politics should not be flashy. It should be boring and about good governance.”
Sim, who joined DAP in 2007, won the Bukit Mertajam seat with a 43,063-vote majority in the 2013 election. He will likely be defending the seat in the next polls.
Born in 1982 on the anniversary of the May 13 riots, he is one of the DAP personalities who travels regularly into Malay heartlands for ceramah, and can cite Quranic verses in his political speeches to kampung folk. – March 24, 2018.