Shifting from a singular to a tri concept of unity, cohesion and reconciliation 

NATIONAL unity is a very dynamic and relevant theme for public discussion. One concern arising from GE15 based on the voting pattern is how divided Malaysians are on the choice of the party or coalition which should run the government at the federal level. 

The question before us is are we more divided or have we become politically more mature? 

Why have the voters not given any coalition the majority needed? Is this because the voters are unable to agree on the federal government or because they want politicians to form a more inclusive and representative government? 

It is clear different communities have different aspirations for the kind of Malaysia they want – a more ethnic or religious or linguistic society. 

However, all they have in common is the commitment to both the federal constitution and the Rukun Negara – the five principles for nation building. 

Distinguished professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Bharuddin of Kita-UKM was recently speaking at the mySDG Academy on January 26, where he provided both a historical overview and a conceptual framework for understanding national unity in Malaysia. In his presentation, he made five significant points which might throw some answers. 

Historical overview 

First, Prof Shamsul provided a historical overview of the development of the national unity department which eventually has become a full ministry. The government established a national unity department after the May 13 riots in 1969. 

It was, however, the Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin administration which established a unity ministry on March 10, 2020. 

The Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob administration as well as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s administration continued this tradition. 

In addition, in 2021, the federal government for the first time launched a National Unity Policy and Blueprint which further consolidates this theme as a key national agenda. 

Conceptual understanding 

Second, Shamsul provided a conceptual understanding of the term national unity from a monolithic, singular understanding of national unity to a tri-concept of national unity, social cohesion, and reconciliation. 

He said the major shift took place with the findings of the National Unity Consultative Council which met between 2013 and 2015. Here, national unity is seen as something we desire but currently experience social cohesion where there is a spirit of give and take, a spirit to agree and disagree. This leads to reconciliation, which is achieved through bargaining, negotiation and mediation. 

We have been experiencing a spirit of tolerance, appreciation and acceptance among the various ethnic, religious, linguistic and economic communities. Therefore, the theme of social cohesion better explains the Malaysia experience.  

Analytical tool 

Third, he stressed on the analytical tools used for measuring national unity from a perspective of half empty or half full. What is keeping us together? What is working as there is no violent conflict but clearly a way of living together in Malaysian society. 

Shamsul cited a unique Malaysian calendar popularly used in Malaysia which is in all languages including Mandarin and Arabic scripts, with dates for horse-racing and gambling as well as Chinese symbols for the year like dragon and monkey to illustrate the idea. 

He notes examples of agreeing to agree and agreeing to disagree. Here, he noted ten components of social deficit which need to be managed and resolved. These are ethnicity, religion, class, education, language, inter-generational gap, gender, politics and federalism, spatial or urban-rural divide and finally media. 

Here is where according to Shamsul that barraging, negotiation and mediation takes place. 

Peace is the absence of violence 

Fourth, Shamsul expounded his views that there are many areas where our various communities are in agreement and where the spirit of consensus is working. 

He cited another Malaysian example of “street weddings” which is a local initiative where local roads are blocked for a family event and everyone in the local community adjusts to this communal celebration. 

While there are grievances in society, these matters have to be continuously monitored and efforts to find reconciliation are most urgent and essential. 

This, according to Shamsul, is the pillar of a resilient Malaysia. 

Where do we go from here 

Fifth, in hearing these views on Malaysia, one can note the many positive aspects of harmony and living together but at the same time, we have challenges. 

Therefore, we need to take steps for greater understanding as well as addressing disinformation and misinformation which exists on many of the social deficits highlighted earlier. The direction towards reconciliation is most urgent. 

In application to the localisation of sustainable development goals (SDGs), the All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia on the Sustainable Development Goals has reached out to 86 local communities and in undertaking 236 SDG micro solution projects via 97 solution providers, we are seeking community resilience at the grassroots. This theme of national unity, social cohesion and reconciliation has great potential in building inclusive communities. In doing so, it will ensure no individual or community (ethnic, religious, linguistic) is left behind in Malaysian society.  

This article first appeared in The Vibes on 29 January, 2023 

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