Towards a National Culture

Speech by Ketua Pembangkang and DAP Secretary-General, Mr. Lim Kit Siang, at a forum organized by the Tamil Cultural Society of the University of Malaya held at Theatre of Faculty of Arts on Friday, 12th Oct. 1973 at 8 p.m.

Towards a National Culture

Malaysia is a multi-racial country where the world’s great cultures of China, India, the Malay-Polynesia, the Middle East and Europe meet in confluence and conflict.

In working towards a National Culture, we are not conducting an academic exercise but dealing with a vital aspect of the uncompleted Malaysian experiment in multi-racial nationhood.

Before we discuss what National Culture we should work for, we must get the correct principle for nation-building in a multi-racial society like Malaysia.

Firstly, there must be no idea of racial hegemony by any one community, which must be doomed to failure. Racial hegemony in a multi-racial society is certainly an undesirable principle to be adopted anywhere in the world, but in Malaysia, the very composition of our population also makes it impracticable of realization, for the good reason that in this country no single racial group can claim to enjoy an overall majority.

The Malays do not constitute a national majority. Neither do the Chinese, nor the Indians, nor anybody else. In other words, any single community in Malaysia, by itself, is outnumbered by the rest.

It is implicit in the Malaysian Constitution that, in the very nature of things, Malaysia cannot become a Malay nation, or a Chinese, or an Indian nation. Thus, the late Tun Dr. Ismail, when he opened the National Union of Malaysia Students’ leadership training seminar on Sept. 11, 1973, said:

“Our concept is that we do not intend to establish a Malay Malaysia, but a Malaysia which is owned and will be inherited by all citizens without regard to race or religion.”

The Malaysian Constitution guarantees the preservation and sustenance of all languages and cultures in the country. In other words, the Constitution provides, both in spirit and intention, that no linguistic or cultural group in the country need fear de-culturation.

There are two cultural policies open to Malaysians. One is to uphold the Constitutional guarantee and recognize that Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-cultural nation, practice cultural democracy and allow the diverse cultural strands to freely develop, grow and interact with one another, and let the future Malaysian culture grow out of the creative synthesis of the best of all the cultural traditions to be found in Malaysia. The other way is to choose to promote the hegemony of one culture and the elimination, over the passage of years, of other cultures.

For those who subscribe to the concept of a multi-racial Malaysia, there can be no disagreement that the National Day theme this year of ‘Suatu Masyarakat Kebudayaan Malaysia’ should be based on the principle and practice of cultural democracy.

It is from this perspective that there is case for concern for some of the recent development in this field.

Malaysian literature

For many years now, it has been held that Malaysian literature can only be written in the Malay language. It is even held that foreign writings in Malay, regardless of the nationality or loyalty of the writer, must be considered as part of Malaysian literature while writings in Tamil, Chinese or English by Malaysians expressive of Malaysian life, values, hopes and aspirations are not considered as part of Malaysian literature.

This stand is completely indefensible. Malaysian literature cannot be limited to works of one language if Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation. Malaysian literature must comprise all writings, whether drama, novel, short story, play or verse, written by Malaysians, which by emotion, identification, description, social context and involvement, relate to Malaysia whether written in Malay, Chinese, Tamil or English.

Otherwise, we will have the absurd situation where a Malay literary work by a foreigner, preaching against the very values which Malaysia is trying to faster, is considered as part of Malaysian literature; while a literary work by a Malaysian in a non-Malay language, whose use is guaranteed by the Constitution, dedicated to Malaysia nationalism and patriotism is cast out from the groups of Malaysian literature.

This, I submit, violates the spirit and intention of the Constitutional guarantee to all languages, which confers on them all a lasting place under the Malaysian sun.

I am surprised that on this matter, the MCA and MIC have not said a single word, despite the fact that the MCA had established a cultural bureau. I would like to invite the MCA, especially the MCA Cultural Bureau, and the MIC to declare their stand on what constitutes Malaysian literature.

Lion Dance

It is an open secret that in the past few years, the authorities have frowned on some cultural activities like the Lion Dance. The reason given is that you do not find lions in the Malaysian jungle.

For that matter, you cannot find casinos in the Malaysian jungle, but the authorities have no compunction about giving the green light to their establishment.

Social welfare lottery and empat ekor are also not indigenous to local culture, but we find them elevated to the status of a national culture for the sake of bringing in revenue to the treasury, inspite of our having Islam as the official religion.

Culture is the sum total of the ways of life of men in society. It means not only art, music, literature, religion, language, but all the socially created and inherited beliefs, customs, laws, political and economic institutions and the material creations of man which mould the thoughts and attitudes of man.

So long as the cultural traits of the different cultural traditions in Malaysia are adapted to express Malaysian feelings, joy, happiness, sorrow, they should be allowed to thrive without government restriction of inhibition.

Melting-pot of the cultures of the world

At national and international conferences, Malaysian leaders, from the Prime Minister downwards, are rightly proud of Malaysia being the ‘melting-pot of the great cultures of the world’.

The successful evolution of a Malaysian culture within the framework of a multi-racial nationhood must follow this ‘melting-pot’ analogy, where all the cultural traditions in Malaysia are put in the melting-pot to undergo integration and synthesis. The final product is not a Malay, Chinese, Indian, European cultural product, but a distinct Malaysian culture comprising the best from all the cultural traditions.

What we should give attention today is to find ways to break down the cultural walls which keep the different racial groups apart and separate. These cultural walls must be broken, not by suppressing any one cultural tradition, but by opening up all cultural traditions in Malaysia to the understanding and appreciation of all racial groups.

Malaysia accommodates within her boundaries descendants of all the great cultural traditions from what has been described as “the epoch of the axis of history.” This epoch of the axis of history is the span of time around 500 B.C. which saw the greatest flowing of human thought, the emergence of great thinkers and religious builders as Confucius, Moti, Lao-Tse in China, the thinkers of the Upanisads, Buddha and Mahavira in India, the Prophets in the Arab Peninsula, and the philosophers in Greece, and from whence the great cultural traditions of our time originated and have converged in Malaysia today.

More than in any other place in the world, Malaysia has the great possibilities for a deeper mutual understanding of these great cultural traditions, which may lead to a fertile synthesis.

Let Malaysians be the inheritors of all the great cultural traditions of the age. To achieve this, Malaysians, particularly the younger generation in schools, should be given access to the best of these great cultural traditions.

Cultural Conference

These had been a few cultural conferences or congresses in Malaysia. One common feature, and a common defect, of these cultural conferences is the insignificant participation by non-Malays or representatives from all cultural traditions to be found in Malaysia. The 1971 National Culture Congress is a good example.

As the Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, said on Nov. 2, 1973 after his visit to the Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports, “National culture is not necessarily Malay culture” though it was essential that it be based on the Malaysian way of life, the insignificant participation on all the cultural deliberations by representatives from all cultural traditions found in Malaysia is a grave weakness which should be remedied.

The evolution of a Malaysian culture must involve the participation of all cultural groups and traditions in Malaysia, and any changes must not be the result of force or government decree, but through the voluntary acceptance of the people.

Malaysian culture must be based, not on any one particular culture, but on all the cultures now found in the country. In approaching this problem, we must all adopt a liberal, enlightened and open-minded attitude and eschew any narrow, obscurantist or irrational attitude.

I wish to make the following suggestions in the evolution of a Malaysian culture:

1. Acceptance by the government and the people that cultural freedom, tolerance and democracy be the basis for the evolution of a Malaysian culture, that no cultural tradition would be suppressed or subject to government inhibition or restriction.

2. Acceptance by the government and the people that the evolution of Malaysian culture is part of the nation-building process to create a Malaysian consciousness and identity, distinct and separate from Malay, Chinese or Indian consciousness and identity.

3. A conscious and systematic effort in the country, including schools, to break down the cultural walls dividing the different races, not by the suppression of any one culture, but by opening up the cultural traditions to the understanding and appreciation of all racial groups.

4. The formation of a National Culture Council at national and state levels, comprising representatives from all cultural traditions in Malaysia, to make studies and recommendations on the evolution of a Malaysian culture through the integration and synthesis of the best features of the great cultural traditions which have come in confluence in Malaysia.

5. The use of television as a primary media to faster national appreciation of all the cultural traditions in the country.

6. The establishment of a centre or Institute for race and culture studies in one of the Malaysian universities to research into the question of cultural integration and evolution in Malaysia.

It is my firm conviction that any deviation from the cultural path of unity in diversity in preference for a drab cultural uniformity through government decreed and coercion must lead to national dissention and disunity, and lead to further polarisation in the nation of which the late Tun Dr. Ismail spoke about in his speech I referred to earlier.

Finally, for those who advocate cultural democracy and concept of cultural integration, they must be prepared to stand up and articulate their aspirations if they are not to lose the battle by default. This, I submit, is really the crux of the problem we face today with regard to what is to constitute Malaysian culture.