Malaysia’s unity try

For decades, the people of the country were at each other’s throats. Allegations and truisms of racial abuse dot the country’s colourful history; people were being murdered because of their race, people were being discriminated from job and education opportunities because of the colour of their skin. The country was a melting pot of races, but the resulting stew was bitter, acrid and tainted. Something needed to be changed.

You may be forgiven to think that the description of the above refers to Malaysia. But in fact, it refers to South Africa, and the days of apartheid. It’s a truly remarkable story of modern human history that South Africa was able to pull itself out of a nosedive of racial destruction, largely due to the efforts of one man, Nelson Mandela.

National unity is not achieved through an arching concept of “togetherness”; you can’t legislate harmony. You can’t tell people, “let’s forget our differences and hug each other (and mean it)”. 1Malaysia, an interesting idea as it is, is certainly not enough for Malaysia.

Mandela faced the same problems that the leaders of our country face today — a nation with a tattered racial history, trying to pull itself together. He realized that South Africa will never fulfill its potential unless the people worked together, and this meant putting aside a ton of historical and emotional baggage. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did some of this, but even that was not enough. All good causes need a hero, and Mandela was savvy enough to realize that, impressive as he is, he wasn’t that hero the people needed. He needed someone that could represent South Africa as a whole. He found it in the South African rugby team.

In that second interview, he explained how he had first formed an idea of the political power of sport while in prison; how he had used the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an instrument in the grand strategic purpose he set for himself during his five years as South Africa’s first democratically elected president: to reconcile blacks and whites and create the conditions for a lasting peace in a country that barely five years earlier, when he was released from prison, had contained all the conditions for civil war.

To blacks, rugby was the hated symbol of apartheid. To Afrikaners, as Mandela put it, it was a religion. His job was to try to become the father of the whole nation: to make everybody feel that he symbolised their identity and values. He set himself the task of persuading the country to come together around the national rugby team – which he would achieve with startling success at the World Cup final, when hordes of Afrikaner fans sang the Xhosa words of the new national anthem, once the symbol of black defiance.

When Malaysia made the finals of the AFF Suzuki cup, and then trounced Indonesia in the first leg here at Bukit Jalil, the joys of the nation were clear to see. The team, a multi-racial lot of talented youngsters, put together a great show for the crowd. To a man, we cheered them on. As a nation, we cheered them on. Our differences were forgotten during those glorious 90 minutes.

Could football do for Malaysia what rugby did for South Africa?

That’s an interesting question, and something that only people much wiser than me will be able to answer. What i can say though, is that with each goal being scored that night, it felt like arrows of pride were being rifled into my heart for Malaysia. Regardless of what happens during the return leg, even if we lose 5-0, we will always have that great night to remember. What if we could celebrate many more such nights? What if then? 

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8 thoughts on “Malaysia’s unity try

  1. Aizuddin,
    You said national unity is not achieved through an arching concept of “togetherness”, yet you believe exactly it in the next paragraph – a team that can bring all together. So, I don’t know.
    Sports does help in its small cute ways but the emphasis on it is overrated. You wrote the difference was forgotten for 90 minutes. That’s exactly it. 90 minutes.
    And it only works if the team is winning. When the team was losing, everybody stays away from the team. When they’re winning, well, everybody wants to be winners.

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  2. I think i did mean that “togetherness” can’t be legislated, but it can be instilled, and sports is one way of doing that.
    Have you seen the movie Invictus? about the way Mandela used rugby to bring the nation together.
    Admittedly, SA won the world cup that year, so this would have helped immeasurably — as you say, everyone loves winners. The Malaysian football team has performed poorly for many years, but now a ray of hope might make a break through.
    We might get thrashed tonight 5-0. It doesn’t matter. I think we already won on Sunday. Yes, it was only 90 minutes of happiness. But the memories of those 90 minutes will not fade quickly, and if there was a way to capitalize quickly on this memory (perhaps by reinforcing it with additional success), we might just have something there.

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  3. You’re right sports does have the potential to unite and football is possibly the number 1 sports in Malaysia. There are 2 problems though:
    1) For Malaysians to be united around our national football team, the team has to be representative of the races in Malaysia. Now take a look at the Malaysian team, how many Chinese players do you see? How many Indian players…well one in the first team and the coach. Now take a look at the status of your friends’ facebook after we won the cup tonight…how many of your Chinese friends are celebrating? Not many I suspect…less than five for me. The simple fact is not all Malaysians identify themselves with our football team and without that we won’t get unity through football. Now I’m not sure if there is some sort of subtle discrimination in the selection or if Malaysia simply do not have any good Chinese football players but the effect is the same and short of a quota system (which is a horrible idea), unity through football just won’t work.
    2) Sports can be be the central focus point, but we also need the right environment for unity. Even if all Malaysians identify themselves with our football team, once they pick up papers like Utusan or its milder sister Berita Harian or hear our DPM saying that he is a Malay first and Malaysian second, they are quickly reminded of the harsh realities in Malaysia, that race matters and divides. Then whatever feel good factor generated through winning the cup dissipates with with the night.

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  4. A few points to ponder, Sani.
    1. When SA won the world cup for rugby, they only had 1 black player on the team, who in fact, didn’t even play. Subs bench all the way. The blacks hated the SA rugby team, and even wanted to rename it from the “Springboks” to some native african name. Mandela cut that attempt out, because he knew that if the whites lost the Springboks, SA would lose the whites. What Mandela did do though, very smartly, was to get the white Springbok team to adopt the black African song of freedom as their team anthem. A stroke of genius — he managed to have his cake and eat it too.
    The fact that the team didn’t have the “racial composition” of SA, in the end, didn’t make a difference to what the team did for the nation. I’m not sure what the magic formula was, but it worked. If i had to guess, i think it was because Mandela was smart enough to use the team as a fulcrum to get people to see what was wrong with themselves first, only then they would be able to start building the bridges between the races.
    The problem with Malaysia is that none of the races think there is anything wrong with themselves, and everything wrong with the others. The Malaysia think the Chinese are money hogging pork-eating scumbuckets and the Chinese think the Malays are stupid resource monopolizing dullards. God only knows what they both think about the Indians and vice versa.
    2. The newspapers and political leaders of SA were no different, it’s naive to think that things were hunky dory in that respect. But somehow, it didn’t make a difference, and reforms were pushed through nonetheless. I think its because Mandela was not only the leader of the nation, but he had the moral authority to do the things that needed to be done. Who do we have today in Malaysia who we can say mirrors Mandela. That’s where the real problem may ultimately lie — none of our leaders have real, REAL, moral authority (and don’t make me laugh by saying Anwar Ibrahim, pls.)

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  5. Interesting fact about the S. Arican team, may be worth to study how Mandela did it (surely more than just a song). But we clearly don’t have similar combination in our football teams, why would the Chinese associate themselves with a bunch of Malay football players singing Negaraku?
    I’m sure things were difficult in S. Africa too, and there must have been white/black supremacist groups opposing Mandela but here in Malaysia we have very high level politicians in the ruling party itself who do not seem to support the idea of racial unity let alone the 1Malaysia slogan. And the PM does not seem to be putting them in their place because he knows a reasonable chunk of BN/UMNO votes will come from Malays who have been indoctrinated to dislike/hate Chinese, ironically by government machinery such as BTN and papers like Utusan…kind of like getting a taste of your own bitter divisive medicine. When you’ve thought a dog to hate a cat over 50 years, it’s gonna take more than just a slogan and a football team to teach the same dog to sit side by side with the cat especially when there are elements within your own party that is telling the dog to continue on hating the cat.
    On moral authority, I would agree with you that none of our politicians have a clean pair of hands to advocate unity, they have all been tainted at some point or another, but humor me why don’t you think Anwar is RELATIVELY the best candidate to bring racial unity to the country given that PKR is the only party that resembles a multinational party and that does not advocate racial based policies? He is far from perfect, but to me he is the best chance we’ve got.

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  6. On Anwar: Despite the best impressions i have of him, recent events concerning his party, and how he has run his party (notice the emphasis on “his”), puts a lot of doubt in my mind. Yes, PKR is multi-ethnic, but increasingly, i believe that it’s that way because its politically expedient to be as such rather than because of some altruistic purpose of unity. At least UMNO, MCA and MIC and the other 11 component parties don’t pretend to be what they’re not.
    PKR is a vehicle to install Anwar as PM. Even ardent PKR supporters i’ve spoken to admit to this. The way Anwar is seen to have manipulated his own internal party elections tend to suggest that this purpose is true; he wants to surround himself with people he can trust, rather than let the members decide without bias on their own.
    While you may argue that there is nothing wrong with this because from a racial unity perspective, all the races are contributing to this cause, therefore, it’s alright, it just doesn’t sit well with me. It just smacks too much of a vindicative ego-trip. While you may be right, in RELATIVE terms, he may have the best chance to bring national unity, i’m looking at the moral cost this will incur to give him that chance.

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  7. Come on Aiz both of us know that very few politicians run for office for altruistic reasons. Even in the West, it is always doubtful whether a policy is pursued for the good of the country or is with the polls in mind and to get support from certain constituencies. This is even more difficult in Malaysia because our politicians don’t contest over policies and philosophies, but on narrow issues such as race and religion.
    Given this focus, of course there is a large vacuum for politicians to run on on multi racial/multi ethnic grounds. Personally I don’t care how much Anwar truly believes in this platform as long as he a) pursue it seriously and b) can keep the extremist within PR in check (remember Zulkifli Nordin), then we have hope to see these policies of racial unity materialize. The true test is whether Anwar is willing to take political hits (and lose votes) for pursuing this multi-ethnic/racial platform and the answer is a big yes…he has been called everything by government MPs and extremist groups like Perkasa from ‘prngkhianat bangsa/agama’ to conspiring with the Americans and the Jews and yet he remains steadfast with his approach.
    On your second point, again I’m surprised why you would even think that PKR is running for altruistic reasons. Of course PKR like all political parties is a vehicle to install Anwar into power. What’s wrong with that? That’s what politics is all about.
    The bit about him wanting to be surrounded by people he can trust is a bit more debatable. I’m assuming you are referring to issues like Azmin vs Zaid here…how much influence did Anwar have in this process? Any proof even from Zaid? All I hear are rhetorics. Now I’m not a fan of Azmin and would have preferred Zaid before he went on a one man demolition job, but ask the grassroots of PKR and you will see that a sizable number do support Azmin. He has been there for the long haul and whatever he has done, some people like him and thus voted him in.
    To sum up, I don’t for one bit think that Anwar can bring unity because he is a force of good, the knight in the shining armor that will rid of racist based policies. I believe in him (again RELATIVELY) based on political realities that he runs on a multi-ethnic platform and have so far stayed the course.

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