Malaysia is experiencing something similar to multiple personality disorder. She wears different caps at different times, being described differently by different people. Many of us are convinced who she is but Malaysia herself is confused of who she is. After so many years, the debate on Malaysian identity still rages. This by itself however is not a reason for worry because 50 years, or rather 44, for any country is a rather short time length. We, Malaysians, as a society are still searching and forming our identity.

Evidences that we as a society, like a teenager, are still looking for our own unique identity are aplenty. The debate whether Malaysia is an Islamic or a secular state is one clear indication of such searching. The unconvincing answer given by the Prime Minister on the same issue, perhaps flip-flopping along the way, only strengthens such perception. Then there is the matter surrounding the age of Malaysia; are we 50 or 44 years old? And no less but forgotten, the issue surrounding Malacca and Srivijaya.

Our goals themselves are unclear. Are we striving to be a monocultural or a multicultural society? Are we working toward a color blind community or a society extremely conscious of our difference in skin color, belief or simply background? Are we looking for an assimilationist or diverse society?

There are people, many in fact, that feel strongly about one thing or another. I myself preferring a liberal society but the truth is, there are approximately 27 million Malaysians and none are able to completely convince the others, enough of the others of their own vision. There are competing perceptions of current state and visions among the society and the debate on it is alive; emotional, even.

Those in power are worried at the ferocity of very public debates and tried to shut it down. The Prime Minister has given out order for the public not to discuss the issues anymore but he is powerless as civil society eagerly tries to claim a role in the society, testing the waters for larger liberty.

Some shrugged off these debates as cosmetics, irrelevant and unimportant. The issue of the age of Malaysia for instance has far larger consequence than mere cosmetics and semantics however. The question on the age of Malaysia so deeply entrenched inside down so many pressing issues that too many people fail to see how greatly this question ranks in importance. Who are we? Malaya or Malaysia? Issues on the surface alas receive greater attention than items so fundamental such as Malaysian identity, if one subscribes to the idea of nation state. If such fundamental question left unanswered, shrugged off as something of unimportance, trivial, I say dream not of coherent Malaysian identity, be it Malaysian nation or anything else. The concept of Malaysian nation requires justification and at the moment, it is left unjustified to a certain extent, unless it answers the question of who are we.

I personally do not envy the idea of nation state or national identity. I fear of a national identity being forced down my throat. Besides, a national identity grossly generalizes the population. I however do concern myself with it due to pragmatism, purely due to the fact that I live in one and at the moment and in the foreseeable future, unfairly, there is no alternative other than in a nation state. This identity shapes various institution of the state. So, I fight for the least intrusive national identity. I have to care because it is so deeply connected to my own life. I have a stake in this state and that is why I participate in these debates to create Malaysian identity.

But one thing we should not worry is this: the confusion of Malaysian identity. Fifty years, or rather, 44, may be a long time for an individual but for a society, it is barely a dot in on timeline. Malaysia is still a teenager compared to far older states such as Japan, Britain, France and the United States. Unlike those states which have firmly formed their identities, be it based on liberty, or equality, or anything after years, decades or even centuries of struggle, we, the Malaysian society, are still young. These debates are supposed to happen for it is a process of identity formation. It is a process that all must endure, if one cares for Malaysia.

This is why free speech is important. Without free speech, without the liberty to discuss our visions, the process of identity formation cannot occur. If one seeks to relatively end the debate, eliminating free speech is not an advisable act.

On this August 31, in remembrance of a free Malaya, a free North Borneo and even a free Singapore[1], we Malaysians should reaffirm our rights to free speech for it is the crucial tool to the formation of our identity, Malaysian identity, whatever that may be.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] Note — Sarawak is the only Malaysian member state that has little to do with the August 31 date. Malaya gained independence on August 31 1957. North Borneo and Singapore declared independence from Britain on August 31 1963. Internal politics prevented Sarawak from declaring freedom on August 31. The formation of Malaysia occurred only later on September 16 1963.

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