The Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) has been in the news for the typical reason of possible national unity disintegration if it were to be recognized. While it is understood that the matter is complex and can’t be discussed in a short opinion piece, there are two main issues I would like to put the spotlight on.
The first issue brought up by Malay nationalists is the need to uphold or memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu. I do agree that as Malaysians, we need to at least have a basic grasp of Bahasa Melayu. But who are we kidding when we equate Bahasa Melayu with national unity? Sure, when we go to the mamak restaurant, workshop, or night market, we can hear Bahasa Melayu is the choice of language being spoken by the different races. But among (middle-class) neighbors, colleagues, or friends, I often hear English as the chosen language. Does it erode the affability among us? I don’t think so.
As I have previously argued, language is not the make or break of national unity. We recognize Bahasa Melayu as the official language of the country, but it doesn’t mean we have to speak Bahasa Melayu in our daily life and it does not make us any less Malaysian if we choose English or any other language as our lingua franca. In fact, as a democrat, I am truly against the idea of imposing anything on anyone. When we force people to inherit an identity-marker that they are not comfortable with, it would lead to further frustration and dissent. To me, the feeling of being unwelcomed and unwanted for your choice of language is what would lead to national disunity. On the other hand, when people feel safe and secure to be who they really are without being discriminated against, there is a higher likelihood that they would carry the national flag with pride wherever they go.
The second argument is the need to learn our history. As a history aficionado, I will always support the importance of teaching and learning history. But as any other subject taught under our national school system, it is not the name of the subject that matters, but the learning outcome. What do our kids learn from their history class? I can safely say they learned nothing. It has even become cool to say that history is boring (which makes me a bore as well, perhaps). While I use to feel sad that my peers are so uninterested in the history of their own country, I now hold less grudge against them because, to be honest, our history class taught us nothing. It asks us to memorize some names and dates but avoided addressing the more important questions of “What do we learn from this?”, “How to avoid history repeating itself?”, and “Is there another interpretation of the same event?” These questions and the answers that follow will lead to further unity, not knowing the name of someone from a hundred years ago.
This brings me to my final argument, which is that as Malaysians, we need to move beyond superficiality as a nation. Being a Malaysian should go beyond speaking a certain language, going to a certain school system, or taking a certain exam. Call me an extreme liberal, but I truly believe it is time we speak of values when we speak of being Malaysian: tolerant, kindness, respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights, openness, etc.
Identity is never fixed. The Malays today are not the same as the Malays from 500 years ago. We used to be divided along ethnic lines but now we call each other, simply, Malays. So why can’t the concept of a ‘Malaysian’ parallel this trajectory?
-  Mohamad Shukri, S. F. (2017). The Role of Ethnic Politics in Promoting Democratic Governance: A Case Study of Malaysia. Intellectual Discourse 25(2), pp. 321-339