Assimilation versus integration
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 15 Jul 2011
Last weekend, I was invited to speak at a forum organised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports and Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis).
Forum Generasi Muda, a forum for youths aged between 18 and 40, was a positive sign. Panelists with views that were obviously not pro-government were invited to share opinions on a wide range of issues, including economics, culture and gender, and allowed to freely comment on Malaysia’s political situation.
The theme of the three-day event was, of course, 1Malaysia (what else could it have been?), and how the concept should be developed further in numerous areas.
Although such discussions are usually positive, there is a tendency for such events to end on a fluffy note, where participants and speakers call for unity in diversity, make a grand show of it, and end with a warm buzz.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s lunch dialogue was particularly provocative in that his analysis of race and politics in Malaysia seemed outdated.
His reasoning: that it is because Malaysia has chosen the option of integration and not assimilation that we are as fragmented as we are today.
He cited examples of foreign Muslims like Indonesians and Arabs who have no problems assimilating with the local Malay culture in all forms, including language, religion and way of life. They then become accepted as part of the “Malay” entity, whereby original Malays themselves have no problems extending their privileges to them.
This almost seems like an indictment of those who choose not to be assimilated, such as the Chinese and Indians, for by choosing to maintain distinct cultures, they do not therefore receive similar privileges granted to those who do assimilate. I wonder whether this is the sort of logic that can really be applied within a country that encourages “unity in diversity”.
His assertion that “race relations are worse today than in the past” may be bolstered by the media hype in recent years, but my response is that there is a great deal more assimilation taking place than he would care to acknowledge.
On the same weekend, I watched a play titled Parah by Alfian Saat, based loosely on Yasmin Ahmad’s movie Talentime and the novel Interlok. The latter is a compulsory text for schoolchildren, and has been embroiled in controversy over the last year. The play depicted a multiethnic group of friends in Form Five whose friendship slowly deteriorates as they uncover their sentiments on race, brought upon by references in said novel.
Although the play’s characters were stereotypical of characteristics of each ethnicity (Chinese badminton player, Indian insecurity), one of the points Alfian drives home is that there is a great deal more assimilation by non-Malay communities. The Indian boy cannot speak Tamil to save his life; the Chinese cannot speak Mandarin and feels extremely uncomfortable in China while on holiday – but all feel most at ease with the Malay language.
The key questions are therefore: One, what is the degree of assimilation? What have the trends been in the past and at present, and has this changed significantly?
Two, how should a policymaker approach communities that do assimilate versus those who do not – and whether it is fair for such discrimination to take place based on this factor alone, given the call for diversity and encouraging a multitude of various cultural heritages to coexist in the country.
The first question would require some serious sociological research to quantify “assimilation”. To compare and contrast assimilation rates over the years, data dating from the last several decades would be needed.
Some of the factors contributing to assimilation would be, I imagine, the ability to speak in the national language, the sense of national ownership, and subscribing to a certain set of values and so on, although the latter is probably nonexistent.
However, in the absence of such methodological research, and acknowledging the different cultural and religious norms already in existence today, I would hope for policies to address citizenship issues.
The argument that a particular group has not adopted the culture of the majority race, thereby validating its lack of equal access to the nation’s resources, is flawed. Especially so in the case of Malaysia, where minority ethnic groups have existed for centuries, in many cases pre-dating the arrival of other nationalities that did assimilate into the Malay culture.
Far from being able to remove “race” from the national psyche, the forum showed that Malaysians have not yet cleansed ourselves of this theme. It is well and good to speak on it, to comprehend more deeply its impact on society, but at some point this discourse has to move on.
This is the role individual citizens have to take up in encouraging ideological debate on class, economics, poverty eradication, income levels, equity and distribution.