When it comes to the subject of being Malaysian, many of us who grew up in this country can easily point out a number of shared cultural tenants that we can all say we associate with. Whether if that’s in terms of traditional cuisine, clothing, or even art forms such as music and crafts, we all know what makes each and every one of us distinctively Malaysian despite our varied heritage.
However, former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad has since raised many eyebrows after claiming that Malaysians are still facing challenges in forming a national identity due to the fact that those who hail from diaspora communities still harboring tendencies to identify with the roots of their countries of origin.
Diaspora communities still adhere to the identities from their country of origin
The divisive comment was made during a press launch for his latest memoir, Capturing Hope: The Struggle Continues for A New Malaysia, yesterday (12th December 2021). In speaking with the host on the subject of encouraging Malaysians to venture beyond their racial silos, he points out that Malaysians from minority communities still adhere by the premise of preserving the heritage of their ancestral countries of origin, and have formed their identities around it.
“Well, at the beginning when we were struggling for independence, we need the cooperation and support of all the communities. The communities insist that their identities should be maintained.”
“So even when they become Malaysians, their identity, their connection with their countries that they came from, must be maintained. So in Malaysia, Malaysians link their race to the countries they come from.” he said.
As an example, he mentions that unlike their forefathers who were first-generation migrants from Mainland China, Chinese-Malaysians of today are born and raised in Malaysia. Yet, they continue to maintain a very strong sense of cultural identity with China, instead of Malaysia. Tun Mahathir goes on to add that even the fact that members of diasporic communities referring to themselves as ‘Chinese-Malaysian’ or ‘Indian-Malaysian’ have hampered the community’s ability to assimilate into the country.
“They are born here, brought up here, grew up here, but they still link to previous (countries of origin). So this divides the people.”
To further emphasize his point, he mentions that 34th American President Eisenhower led the American war effort against Nazi-occupied Germany during World War II despite being of German heritage himself, as he was born in America and is an American citizen.
“In other countries, multiracial countries, once they (immigrant diaspora) adopt the citizenship of a country, they identify only with that country and no longer with where their grandfathers came.” he states.
Chopsticks are Chinese, not Malaysian?
Tun Mahathir goes on to mention that Chinese-Malaysians have also begun to take after their Mainland Chinese counterparts by adopting naming nomenclature from abroad. This extends to other cultural indicators as well, such as the use of chopsticks.
“They (Chinese and Indians living in Malaysia) preserve their own community, their own customs, and their own way of living. For example, the Chinese eat with chopsticks. We (Malays) eat with hands. They have not adopted the Malaysian way of eating food.”
“They retain the chopsticks, which is an identity of China, not Malaysia.” he remarked.
Comment has since led to much controversy
The comment has since led to much furor, with DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng rebuking Tun Mahathir’s claims that minority communities have yet to assimilate into Malaysia as they still held on to cultural tenets from their countries of origin according to Malay Mail.
“Tun is wrong to focus on assimilation instead of integration and that using chopsticks instead of adopting the Malaysian way of eating with their hands is one of the reasons leading to separation amongst the people,”
“This is not only simplistic but offensive to the Chinese community here. Tun should be reminded that not just China or Taiwan but countries such as Japan, South Korea and Vietnam also use chopsticks,” he said in a statement.
Lim goes on to a question if Malays are considered any less ‘Malay’ if they were seen eating with a fork or a spoon.
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