By Kenneth Lee Tze Wui
The other day, I was watching a documentary on YouTube when an iconic patriotic song, Keranamu Malaysia, came on. Its thumping nationalistic beat caught my Thai wife by surprise, and she asked if it was the anthem of my home state, Sarawak.
She had heard Malaysia’s national anthem several times in the past, so I reckoned she could tell the two songs apart. I told her that Keranamu Malaysia is one of Malaysia’s patriotic songs from the 2000’s, and then offered to play her the Sarawakian anthem Ibu Pertiwiku (translated as “My Motherland”).
Listening to the song again for the first time in many years brought back so many good memories of Sarawak. I spent my formative and teenage years growing up there, and it was at this humble and unique state on the island of Borneo that my “salad bowl” multiculturalist worldview had been shaped.
The East Malaysian state of Sarawak has always taken pride in its multicultural harmony and diversity. With socio-cultural, historical, and political landscapes that are distinctly different from their West Malaysian counterparts’, tales of mosques and churches sitting side by side with Chinese temples; of Ibans, Chinese, and Malays operating food stalls together under one roof; of mixed heritage – like my very own nephew, who is a product of Sino-Bidayuh parentage; and of Malays speaking Iban or the Chinese dialects of Hokkien and Hakka, are more than just some overtold, feel-good narratives. These are the everyday realities of Sarawak, much like in neighboring Sabah that has many of these characteristics in common.
Unfortunately, these are also the things that many of us, as did I, tend to take for granted. It wasn’t until I left Sarawak that I realised how such harmony and unity in diversity were so very precious. For as long as I could remember, we had better tolerance, greater peace and happiness.
I used to fancy the “melting pot” concept, of which, I thought, Sarawak and Sabah were the perfect embodiment. Later though, I learned that “melting pot”, in fact, refers to a society in which different races and cultures become assimilated into the dominant culture, thereby losing their unique individual characteristics. In my opinion, this does not quite represent the form of multiculturalism that I know exists in East Malaysia. Conversely, the “salad bowl” concept, where a society integrates the different cultures while still allowing each to retain their individual cultural identities, seems more apt to describe the Sarawakian and Sabahan societies.
While the same degree of multiculturalism and inclusivity that East Malaysia enjoys may not necessarily be extended to Malaysia as a whole, I would like to believe that the “salad bowl” formula of East Malaysia, rather than the “melting pot” approach, is the recipe to a happier and more harmonious Malaysia.
We may not always be perfect, but we will learn and improve as a culturally diverse nation, for we know very well that there is no other place like Malaysia.
About the Author – Kenneth is a lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, Faculty of Creative Industries at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR)