The limitations of Malaysia’s brand of multiculturalism – multiculturalism here defined as management of diversity – are rather alarming. From Siti Inshah’s speech asking for ethnic Chinese and Indian students to return to countries from whence they came, Namewee’s comical reversal of the perverse gratification logic (since it was the Chinese who made Malaysia rich), the cow head protest, to the more recent mockery of the azan, the national identity project remains as elusive as ever.


Not that there has been a lack of official national mantras, of which 1Malaysia is just the most recent. It might be of little surprise that they sit uncomfortably alongside pronounced and state-endorsed racial identities that are weaved so profoundly into our canvass of social relations. Despite pretensions to the contrary, there is nothing fundamentally novel or inherently more difficult about Malaysia’s conundrum of diversity management. But the inadequacy of the answers provided by our multiculturalist projects to the question of how national unity and ethno-cultural particularity might co-exist has become too obvious to ignore.


I want to suggest that this inadequacy is partly explained by a paralyzing fidelity to regimes of cultural authenticity. As our Deputy PM so triumphantly demonstrated, in Malaysia, the equation between the racial and the national is rarely symmetrical. Transparency is a rare commodity in the world of political statements, yet when he remarked that he cannot be “Malaysian first” because “all Malays will shun me and say it’s not proper as Indians will also say they are Indian first”, we saw more than the result of a politician’s shrewd calculations. Most importantly, the remark, in its entirety, exemplified the ambition of maintaining some notion of ethnic authenticity that precludes the embrace of a corrosive hybridized national identity. Now, if Malaysian identity were, as our fourth Prime Minister would like it to be, emphatically and assimilatively mono-cultural (read: Malay), perhaps our dilemma would not be framed this way. I will not venture to explicate the good reasons why we should also reject that vision of the national.


This ambition to authenticity is of course not limited to the Malay discursive horizons, although I have intimated elsewhere that there is something profoundly ambivalent about the Malay response. The point here is that if assimilation is not the answer to diversity, neither is reification of boundaries that arises when we treat cultures as separate; when contact and exchange can happily occur in the economic, but rarely cultural, marketplace. Not extensively anyway, lest identities become diluted, polluted – inauthentic.


Yet I want to suggest that a bounded notion of culture is precisely the present character of Malaysia’s multiculturalism. It is, in its less anxious moments, a rather passive kind of multiculturalism, which privileges (qualified) tolerance over active cross-cultural engagement. It is content, indeed it requires, that communities be left apart so long as ‘stability’ is maintained. Political parties remain defined along racial and religious lines, children still go to different schools and spokespersons claim to represent entire communities. And when sporting heroes take to court, we cheer as one (but we of course sit separately). When political coalitions hold rallies, their constitutive members applaud as one (but they of course sit separately). This is our “unity in diversity” in action.


The equilibrium is then only fleeting, the stability unstable. Under these circumstances, a particular conception of an authentic ethnic identity is produced and reproduced, jealously guarded against inter-penetration from the fellow citizen Other. Symptomatic of the anxieties that characterize the ambition to authenticity, cultures and communal identities become things not to be lived, but to be owned, in an exclusivist terrain of mutual tolerance/ignorance – where you can pray in your language but God help you if you use mine.


The optimists among us would quite readily demand we drop the signifier “race” altogether in favour of some kind of rooted cosmopolitanism. Indeed many of us already lead such lives; I know I do now, and now unapologetically. But whilst an abolitionist project should remain in the horizon, I want to suggest the more immediate and practical goal should be to legitimate, then encourage, hybridization and cross-cultural borrowing, even if for the moment they occur mainly in spheres defined as ethnic. Whether it is changes to the education system or sophistication in political rhetoric, communal anxieties must be displaced by an enthusiastic response to the prospect of our identities being more fluid and our experiences more complex than what the narrative of ethnic absolutism can provide us. This brand of diversity means not a plurality of homogenous and distinct cultures, but of cultural fragments which individuals can adopt, appropriate and reconfigure.


There is nothing revolutionary or overambitious about this thesis. Despite attempts to essentialize our history, we know it to be nothing if not hybridized. The constitution of contemporary Malayness owes much to its Indian and Nusantara past, the diaspora experiences of ethnic Chinese and Indians are almost by definition creolized, and social practices in East Malaysia evolve over time upon sustained contact with more novel groups or belief systems.


Perhaps more pertinently, I am equally confident that hybridization and cross-cultural borrowing are also present in our contemporary, individual realities. But here is the key. Such realities cannot remain inauthentic or impure in the official discursive regimes; they must be recognized and privileged as an expression of the elevated sense of trans-ethnic plurality. Otherwise, a genuine, dare I employ this trope again, authentic, national identity, will be infinitely postponed – reduced to the vacuous rhetorical allure of “unity in diversity” or “1Malaysia” and the ambiguous sight of Malaysians of all races sitting in the same “mamak” stall, but of course, sitting separately.