Multicultural cohesion: who is doing it?

A person brought to my attention an article by Farish Noor who bemoans (he does a lot of this in his writings of late) the national impasse of bringing Malaysians together no thanks to a linguistic and culturally segregated education system. Aside from not talking about segregated education system as colonial heritage whose impact on Malaysia in the long run, Farish Noor groans about the political cowardice implicit in the refusal to establish a linguistic and culturally uniform education system, so that everybody can communicate with each other and hopefully communicate with elites and the powers that be. In other words, have access to hegemonic discourse. The bottom line for an overhaul of our education system is national cohesion and integrity, that we are bound by a sense of Malaysian-ness more profound than an excessive love for food.

With the political will to assert a change in the education system, what will be the likeliest outcome? That all schools are taught in Bahasa Malaysia, which is not neutral in its cultural baggage in relation to Malay hegemony inherent in Malaysian public life and governance? Or that all schools taught in English, which has much less to do with colonial baggage than that of current class relations?

Should the outcome be the former, non-Malay pupils will need to integrate into a cultural and linguistic system while (it is often assumed that) Malay pupils will have the upper hand, because well, Malay children speak Malay at home and the language will come more naturally to them in the classroom. To assert a linguistically uniform education system is fine in principle. But if the intended outcome is national cohesion based on language, we need to further examine the other factors that divide society, such as class, which is inconveniently wedded to the second possible outcome.

Farish Noor does not delve into the other factors however. Instead he cites the successful integration of second generation migrant children into the dominant societies of Germany, France, and the UK. How integrated they are! How unified they seem! All Turkish Germans are able to speak German and are rewarded with proper entry into greater society and opportunities to social mobility.

Issues related to multiculturalism in Western Europe have often couched on language. Migrants who enter the country to reside alongside their children who enter the education system must learn the ‘host’ country’s language. The level of language profiency is, however, another culturally-charged issue. As some European governments demand native-level fluency of its integration policy candidates, what can be demanded of them: native-level of grammatical correctness? accent? intelligibility?

Indeed, those who do not speak the local language will have the disadvantage of not being particularly employable and face greater risks of employment rights abuse and discrimination. These are often the arguments laid out as reasons for migrant communities to learn the local language(s), but also, more crucially, it is important as an indicator (for powers that be and a xenophobic society) of the level of willingness and effort that migrants demonstrate in order to integrate into their ‘host’ society.

And as I have tweeted on this issue before, policies directed towards integration and national cohesion conceal the power differences inherent in racist and xenophobic policies that serve to further perpetuate racism. What we must examine is: who is demanding for integration and national cohesion and who is demanded to do the integration.

While it might seem common sense that communities ‘new’ to a society learn the ways of its ‘host’ culture and mores, a society that often erroneously considers itself as unchanging and culturally stable, it must be pointed out that integration and national cohesion must be a two way process. Both sides must have the recognition and acceptance that their multicultural society is perpetually dynamic and that culturally dominant members of society are more inclined to racism and have greater leverage to inflict racist harm on an institutional level than minority communities.

Which is why despite findings that disprove the xenophobic assumption that migrant workers are taking away jobs from native communities, and despite racist sentimentalism that immigration is forever transforming the European or British “way of life”, a kind of life true only in mythic proportions, ‘native’ resentment is so hard to die. It is because native (mainly white) European societies have not been properly inducted at an institutional level into accepting that they too must integrate into a changing multicultural society. They too must accept changes in their views about non-White immigration to fit into a new reality.

To return to the multicultural Malaysian context, we expect the more culturally dominant community – the Malays – to reexamine their cherished beliefs about being the ‘original’ people of the land because it is this belief that causes the most anxiety, the greater amount of violence and footdragging, as it infers that Malays have much more to ‘lose’ than non-Malays should a pluralist egalitarian multicultural Malaysia exist. It is this same belief that fuels the anti-Malaysian ‘pendatang’ rhetoric, that non-Malays are somehow lesser Malaysians, not naturally embedded into the cultural fabric that by default privileges Malays and the Malay culture and language.

We have to acknowledge that in the project of national integration, each community, each individual, depending on their class/ethnic/gender subjectivity will be positioned differentially and the demands made (or lack of) on certain communities to demonstrate their willingness to integrate will reflect their various subjectivities. Malay hegemony in all facets of Malaysian public life, not only at an institutional level, must first be examined and taken apart in order to bring all Malaysians on an equal footing in our quest for national cohesion.

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