Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country with people of various races that make up the population. Due to its strategic location, Malaysia, then known as Malaya, became a trading port as early as the 1st century AD, receiving many spice traders from China, India, and the middle-east, some of whom decided to settle here.  These early settlers embraced the culture of the Malays of the land and with this cultural cross-fertilisation, the Peranakan Indian, Peranakan Chinese and Peranakan Arab communities were born.

Some Indonesians started to settle here as well, especially during the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires period. Thus, we have in our community the Bugis, The Acehnese, the Javanese, the Minangs and the Sundanese, among others. Apart from these communities, Malaya also has aboriginal groups that we call the Orang Aslis.  Over in Sabah and Sarawak, there exist many ethnic groups which include the Ibans, Dayaks, Melanaus, Kadazan, each with their own unique identities and practices. Malaysia’s journey towards a multicultural tapestry continued on when in the 1880s, we faced shortage of labour and thus, the British brought in many Chinese to work primarily in tin mines and then later the Indians, to work primarily in rubber plantations.

Clearly, we are one diverse nation!

However, pre-independence, there were not many opportunities for the three major races to interact socially with one another. The Malays largely worked their lands and were not labourers in the tin mines or the rubber plantations. Many of the Chinese lived in the cities, while the Indians lived in rubber plantations. Basically, they were highly polarised.

Malaya gained its independence on 31st August 1957 and post-independence, nationalism was at its height and the different races lived peacefully amongst each other. With more movements of people from rural to urban areas, there were more opportunities for the different races to mingle. They met in the public sphere, business sphere, and academic sphere. There were high hopes for a Bangsa Malaysia – a Bangsa Malaysia that shared the same language and sang the same national anthem.

On 16th September 1963, Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore became one – Malaysia. Singapore however, became its own republic in August 1965. Malaysians since then include not only the Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Peranakans, but also among others, the Kadazans, the Bajaus, the Muruts, the Melanaus, the Bidayuhs, and the Orang Ulus of Sabah and Sarawak.

More than a decade after independence, the hopes for a unified nation were crushed.  Fueled by differences in political aspirations and the huge economic gap between races, the May 13th racial riots happened in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 and by the end of the day, close to 200 people were killed. The May 13 tragedy left a black mark in Malaysia’s history and since then racial relations have been a much discussed and debated matter.

Much effort has been put into fostering and instilling national unity. These include the use of the national language as the medium of instruction in schools. However, national unity cannot be formed merely with a common language, or by memorising and singing the national anthem, or by enjoying capati, nasi lemak and chee cheong fan.

Unity is more than common or shared cultures. In fact, unity entails the ability to accept one another’s cultures and also to have mutual understanding and respect for each other. Only then can we be Malaysians first and Chinese, Indians, Malays, Ibans, Kadazans, etc. second.