By Aaron James Leong
Malaysia is comprised of many races, ethnicity, and religions, creating its own personal signature known as the ‘Malaysian Identity’; a blend of various elements from different Malaysian cultures all rolled into one.
Maybe it’s the festival season that’s gotten me all introspective but for a long time, I have noticed that, as a country so rich with culture and so strong in its heritage, we seem to be drifting further away from our identity as a nation.
To put things into perspective, there have been so many cases of Malaysians going abroad, say to Australia, and coming back fully transformed into an Australian, complete with the accent and everything. This is an odd phenomenon indeed but let’s face it, one does not necessarily have to travel abroad to have their accents changed. We’re always looking to be American, European, Korean, Arab, anything really… anything but Malaysian. This does not necessarily apply to everyone but by looking at today’s society, the prevailing narrative is that people identify a lot more with cultures of other countries and it is evident in how we express ourselves whether it is in our lifestyle or communication. We aim so much to model after our influences that our identity has begun a slow process of disintegration, disappearing into oblivion.
While the influence of Westernisation can be positive as it encourages the interaction between different cultures and opens up new economic opportunities, it can also develop and expand inequity, and even demoralize native culture. We seem to be giving up our identity almost entirely and making it count only when it matters.
It is clear that progress is possible, such as the fine example that is Korean’s urban culture; which is heavily influenced by modern America yet successfully adapted it according to their cultural identity. In this hybrid mix of cultures, they found a new and improved sense of self. Let’s not even get started with Japan because they are pioneers of originality.
A prime example of how we have lost the plot as a nation is through our unspoken shame about the Malaysian identity which is harshly reflected in our sentiments towards local industries such as fashion, music, film, language and thought (with a few exceptions). Taking a look at our entertainment industry, the songs that are being played on air are more inclined towards the West than representing the Eastern culture that Malaysia has, all while true blue local artists are left to warm benches, stuck in a perception that the Malaysian identity is inferior or that it does not suit today’s world.
Our local music/films do a decent job at imitating their Western counterparts, but we should be using the advantage that we have in our Malaysian identity. To survive in the industry, you need to be different and let culture speak for itself. However, when we DO choose to incorporate our local culture in mainstream media, we seem to subscribe to every Malaysian cliché, painting our culture as a joke through exaggerated accents and mediocrity. So why are we trying so hard to blend in, when we were meant to stand out?
While it is important that we progress as a society, in our case, there is a fine line between progression and groupthink. If the Malaysian identity was a stock, it would be plummeting, but the blame is not to be placed entirely on society for not supporting “local”, but also the government as well in their poor economic management and how they choose to dumb down our society by spreading fundamentalist ideology, often targeting communities where uneducated, indigent, oppressed people are more susceptible.
For example, what the Malays face today in Malaysia is how the extreme ideology of Arabisation has undermined the Malays’ culture, pluralism, tolerance, and openness to others in the name of Islam when we have never lost the Islamic characteristics Malaysia was founded on, and have been living peacefully in our heterogeneous multi- cultural community for decades.
There is no doubt that there is a hidden effort in stunting the growth of our mentality and it shows in how society responds socially. As a result of long-term implementation of close-mindedness, mediocrity, and bigotry, Malaysians feel that there is nothing to be proud of and have grown jaded of being in a country divided by race and religion, and so we look elsewhere for a culture we are so ready to be a part of.
With that said, It’s not because we don’t appreciate the Malay, Indian, Chinese, or Native heritage but ultimately that is a heritage that we want to respect and preserve – but it shouldn’t be the primary identity that divides us. We ultimately just want to be known as Malaysians but the question is not so much what our identity is, but where is it?