Today, I had lunch with a friend from a foreign embassy. In our conversation we shared a bit about the concept "Bangsa Malaysia" and he posed a question: "Are Chinese Malaysians more aware of their Malaysian identity now compared to before?"
I admitted that this is a difficult question. Nonetheless, I shall try to answer it from my own observation and perspective an a Chinese Malaysian.
From the early 50's to 80's, the Chinese community was clearly divided between the English educated and Chinese educated groups. For a long while, the main Chinese political party MCA was helmed by English educated (and pro-Western) Peranakan Chinese leaders such as Tan Cheng Lock, Tan Siew Sin and others. The orientation was obvious because these Chinese leaders were closely related to the British administration.
In those days, parents would try to enrol their children into La Sallian schools and other public and private English schools until the nationalisation the English schools in the 70's.
During this period too, most of the Chinese educated students were considered to be leftists (for the lack of a proper terminology). Most of them had a keen interest on the development of China's politics and the new emergence of Greater China as a regional economic zone. At present, there are still 60 Chinese independent schools conducting an independent examination system to qualify students to study in China and Taiwan.
By the late 80's and moving into the 20th century, a new euphoria of economic liberalisation started in China and it attracted a new interest of China. This time round the interest of China is no longer so much related to its socio-political ideology (in which started to wane) but on the capitalist development of China.
During this period and lasted until now, many parents begin to see the importance of Hanyu or Putonghua. Coupled with the poor perception of the quality of national schools and the fear of Malaynisation and Islamisation, most parents started to send their children to Chinese vernacular schools.
It should be noted that the Malaynisation and Islamisation tendency in the national schools is not the government policy. Most of the unnatural practices were done by recalcitrant headmasters. However, the damage is done. By now, almost 95% of all Chinese students study in Chinese vernacular primary schools.
Having addressed the education and social background of the community, the hard question is whether the division in the education system makes them think more 'Malaysian'? My friend noted that the call for the creation of a Bangsa Malaysia is heard louder now.
In fact, the call was made even during the Federation of Malaya days when there was an issue of migrants from China and India and their citizenship status. Those who came and grew to like the country wanted to be given a personal choice to call themselves Malayans instead of Chinese or Indian.
However, the largely communal political framework and formula did little to integrate the communal gaps between communities although a solution was reached on the granting of citizenship. This ambiguity is contested until today in the form of the 'social contract'. The political leaders then focused mainly on the issue of citizenship but did not strategize properly on the aspect of nation building.
After the 1964 general elections, a few opposition political parties headed by the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, Tan Chee Khoon, Dr Lim Chong Eu, Seenivasagam brothers and others tried to form a new coalition at the Malaysian Solidarity Convention. The 'Malaysian Malaysia' idea was floated and it had created a hostile reaction from UMNO leaders which eventually led to the demise of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965.
From the incident, it was clear that for the next 3 decades a concept of a fair, just and equal Malaysian society was not to be tolerated. In the mid 80's, UMNO leaders such as Abdullah Badawi started the clarion of 'Ketuanan Melayu' which focused on the Malay supremacism.
In the subsequent decade, it was obvious that the Malay dominance was definite and unchallengable. The other communities had accepted Malay dominance but hoped for the community growing in confidence and stature to voluntarily embrace the other minorities when it was obvious that the Malay position is strong and definite.
The economic recovery in the late 80's and the outcome of the 1990 general elections pushed Dr Mahathir to introduce an inclusive Vision 2020. The vision which called for the establishment of a fair, just and equal Bangsa Malaysia. Since the announcement was made by the leader of UMNO, many Chinese Malaysians were again hopeful of an eventual acceptance of their citizenship as equal.
Nonetheless, the concept appeared only as garnishing in political speeches. The NEP which is seen as an instrument of race-based affirmative action is being revived. The whole rhetoric of Malay's special position is being relived.
Hence, while many Chinese Malaysians especially generations who are born and breed in the country felt enthusiastic over the Vision 2020 promise to create a true Bangsa Malaysia by 2020, many are not expecting the objective to be met.
I would like to know what you think. How can we inculcate a sense of common identity and a sense of shared destiny?