The spark of this train of thought stemmed from a recent question posed to one of our leaders. It was basically a question which required this leader to define his identity. Stripping away all the unnecessary descriptions, his response was “I am Malaysian first.”
The purpose of this write-up today is not to criticise or praise this response. I feel that underneath all that, there is a crippling mentality that needs to be addressed.
There is an inherent danger in defining myself as a “Malaysian first.” For in doing so, I allow myself to be defined as being something else second. More often than not, this secondary identity would be defined by our ancestral origins. It is this latter definition that has been the root of all our problems.
What makes the situation more difficult is this: that the root of our problems is also the cause of our strength. The reason for this division in Malaysia is also the reason for our diversity. The question then is: what do we do?
The only solution seems to be for us to define ourselves as “Malaysians”, but what does that involve? My suggestion is this (and that in simple terms): we have to move away from this ingrained 3-in-1 mentality to a 1-with-3 mentality.
I have thought long and hard about the best way to explain this without being confusing, and the best I have come up with is something I’ve coined. I call it “Coffee Philosophy.” I apologise for the cheesiness, and I have to forewarn you that this philosophy grows within itself. You’ll see what I mean!
Before Malaysia, coffee powder, milk and sugar existed in jars of their own. Each had its own function, and each was unique in its own way. But the obvious point is this: each of these elements is absolutely different from one another.
The point when Malaysia came together was when the coffee powder, milk and sugar decided to dive into the same cup. This is the 3-in-1 stage: there are three elements in one cup, but despite co-existing in the same place, each remained separate from the other.
The problem with this stage is this: that the coffee powder, milk and sugar tried to call themselves “coffee” without realising that there was something missing. And for the purposes of coffee we all know what that “something” is (and yes, it is water, in case anyone has any doubts). This is the very stage that Malaysia is at now.
Coffee Philosophy is this: that water can only be poured into the cup when every single grain of the coffee powder, milk and sugar realises that this is the only way that it can truly become what it desires to be. There is a fear in doing this, for when the water enters the mug, everything within it becomes wholly different.
Coming back to Malaysia — what this means is that this would potentially be quite a painful process for many, as it involves leaving much that we are familiar with.
It is only when we’ve done this that we have progressed to the 1-with-3 stage, and it is only at this stage that we can really be Malaysians.
Here comes the slightly mind-warping bit — for this stage to succeed, one more condition is necessary, and it is this: that each and every one of us would have to individually embody the essence of being this mug of coffee.
What this means in practical terms is that, as a mug of coffee we would seek to carry the story of the coffee powder, the story of the milk, and the story of the sugar, and celebrate the fact that it is because of each of these stories that we are who we are today.
Now, consider that we are all at a stage where we choose to embody this essence, and that we have allowed water to be poured in. As several mugs of coffee that we currently are, we may very well realise that we have too much coffee powder, a drop of milk, and no sugar. The balance just isn’t right.
This may mean that we are very well informed of the coffee powder’s story, but not so well informed about the milk’s story, and certainly not informed about the sugar’s story. This realisation is where we want to be. For it is when we realise that we are deficient that we seek to inform ourselves of the other part that makes us who we are.
But as we listen to these stories, we may hear of things that we do not like: to illustrate, we may realise that the coffee was once an ugly bean; that the milk came from an odd-looking animal; and that the sugar came from a land of uncanny culture. But these stories make these elements what they are. Being selective about what we want to embody and what we do not want to embody would not allow us to be that mug of coffee.
In sum, for the sake of Malaysia, we need to learn to accept each other’s past.
And as to the present, we would need to tell each and every one of our stories, and only our full stories, with tremendous pride.
It is only with this that we develop hope for the future — the hope that a new Malaysia will begin.
Also published on The Malaysian Insider.