IDENTITY is what makes people recognisable as individuals through particulars in their physical make-up, family and educational background, career and professional status as well as talents and skills. It is these markers or attributes that define an individual’s values, personality and character, all of which contribute towards his or her self-esteem and worth.
A family group or community with clear conceptions of its interests and affiliations will reveal its own unique identity which will in turn influence the individual members of the group. Today there are numerous socio-cultural groups and NGOs each claiming to have its own identity informed by its own mission and objectives.
A community of people of the same ethnicity or faith will share the same cultural and religious values, customs, ceremonies and symbols which give them the sense of belonging and distinguish them from members of another community. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Baha’i faith and other faiths each have their community of adherents united by a set of common beliefs and pride in their identity.
When we talk about national identity, the first word that comes to mind is “Malaysian” and the attributes of being one. While words such as “Malay”, “Chinese,” “Indian”, “Kadazan”, or “Kelabit” denote our ethnic identity as members of the community of Chinese, Dayak or Kelabit etc. “Malaysian” refers to our nationality and national identity as part of the larger citizenry. Implicit in the concept of national identity are attributes such as patriotism and nationalism which can be defined as follows:
— National identity is a sense of belonging to one state or one nation, a feeling one shares with a group of people.
— Patriotism is the devotion to or love for one’s country.
— Nationalism is the collective identity – a “people” must be autonomous, united and express a single national culture.
The local discourse on nationhood and identity has tended to highlight the academic, political and authority-defined concept of national identity developed from interpretations of official statutes such as the Federal Constitution; or the state-defined principles of nationhood in the Rukunegara, the economic ideology of Wawasan 2020 and its politically-informed concept of a Bangsa Malaysia as well as the more recent promulgation of the all-encompassing notion of One Malaysia.
In Shamsul AB: His Observations, Analyses & Thoughts (2011), the writer argues that the national discourse on national identity needs to take into account not only the voice of authority but more significantly, the voice of the people who express their “everyday-defined” socio-cultural realities and moral concerns. Only then will the views of all the communities in Malaysia be heard and matter in a world and a nation that is developing a “second-generation nationalism which is more positive, proactive and forward-looking. It has a programmatic plan of action articulated in realpolitik which has, in the Malaysian case, emerged not only from a histori-cal context of anti-colonialism but also in the post-colonial era …” (pg 13).
To substantiate repeated calls by the voice of authority telling us to be patriotic, we need to feel the sense of a Malaysian identity and belonging for ourselves. We need to convey our pride in, as well as our fears and wishes for the country we pledge allegiance to. We cannot simply be told that we have to be loyal; we have to feel this in our hearts.
It is with these considerations in mind that we should support more public dialogues where issues surrounding the individual and his identity within the community and the nation are discussed openly and honestly. It is time for Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds, cultures and religions to come to the fore and engage one another in meaningful dialogue. It is only by confronting our socio-cultural bigotry and prejudices and talking about them that we will come to understand why they exist in the first place. It is only through a process of sharing our knowledge and experiences that we can understand and accept one another’s differences. Only then can we work towards consolidating our national identity.
The Intercultural Dialogue to be held on Feb 1 is one such platform which deserves the support of the voice of the people and the ears of authority. With its aim of being egalitarian and fully participatory, participants will have the opportunity to voice our concerns about our cultural, religious and national identity in an interactive setting. Its objectives – to promote an open and honest sharing of intercultural experiences; to share knowledge and information about our ethnicity, culture and religion; to define binding elements in the national vision and Malaysian identity; and to explore the idea of a national identity index – will allow for the “moral concerns of real people” to inform the authority-oriented discourse on national identity.