SENTIMENTS for and against the United Examination Certificate (UEC) over the past weeks saw both sides of the Malaysian ethnic divide expressing their arguments. I have written an article for a Bahasa Melayu daily and has been interviewed by an online portal. The online portal carried the headline “UEC: Kenapa Tunduk Desakan Minoriti, Pinggir Suara Majority” (UEC: Why conform to Minority Pressures, Sidelining the Voice of the Majority?). The daily described UEC in the headline as “UEC: Lebih dari Bahasa Melayu” (UEC: More than Bahasa Melayu).
In the intervening period, the Ministry of Education in a Press statement reminded that any decision to recognise the UEC will not threaten the position of Bahasa Melayu as the country’s national language, Malaysian unity and interethnic harmony.
Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik said the ministry is conducting holistic research into the matter before making any decision on the recognition of the UEC. His priority is to seek views from various parties and stakeholders. The minister reiterated this on a number of occasions throughout the week.
The UEC, which is issued to graduates of Chinese independent high schools, is currently recognised by local private higher education institutions and universities overseas, as well as in Sarawak.
The UEC issue is not the certificate itself. It has its historical antecedents and implications on the nation state and nationhood. Some arguments have centred on promoting multiculturalism and a diversity of cultures and languages making up Malaysia.
Malaysia has always been a multicultural society. Many of the arguments for the UEC perceived the contrarian views as essentially framed within that of Malay-Muslim conservatism, Malay nationalism and Malay exclusivism. The Malay, in history and in contemporary times, has been by nature open and multicultural. The Malay has been central to the notion of Malaya and Malaysia. The Malay has never displayed antagonism or a distinct power relations with others. The Malays in Southeast Asia and the Malay archipelago have always been open to the people of the “atas angin” and “bawah angin” — descriptions used of peoples “to the West of the river Sindh” (now the Indus River) in old descriptions — the Europeans, Arabs and Persians; and the latter, to those from China and Japan. The Ryukyu Islands described in old Malay texts refer to the Japanese and Okinawans.
And recently, in Kota Kinabalu, I found the book with the title “Land Below the Wind” first published in 1939 by Sandakan-based American author Agnes Newton Keith.
And the commitment and philosophy of power-sharing (1950s) centring the Malays under the conditions of a “masyarakat majmuk” (plural society) then must not be forgotten. In fact, it must be entrenched as a fundamental process in building this nation. But power sharing, as in its rationale and philosophy, cannot be culturally, politically and historically de-centred and abused. Power sharing in building the nation then and now must be ritualistically and religiously integral. It must never be betrayed. And this reminds us through reviving the “grundnorm” (literally, ground rules) for the nation.
UEC proponents must conceive this as establishing the fundamental norm, order and rule as the basis for the nation’s social arrangement. I am stating this in fundamentally historical and sociological terms, the root idea that establishes and gives shape to legal institutions in a country, leading to the norms of legitimacy and authority. UEC proponents must not take advantage of this social arrangement as the nation moves on and progresses. The UEC was part of colonial political bargaining.
It is not integral to the “grundnorm” of the nation. Its essence and implications form an extreme along the national landscape based on the Federal Constitution. Power sharing was not meant to create three or four different nations within the nation state of Malaysia. It is for one nation, produced by one school system within the crucible of that “grundnorm”.
The euphoria of post-May 9, the spirit of “Malaysia Baru” within which the government and the Ministry of Education are working within, must not forget the genesis of philosophy of power sharing. Benchmark it against the most civilised nations in the world, and we find that in no modern nation state do we find such an arrangement. The new paradigm imagined in “Malaysia Baru” must not forget its genesis. It must refine its understanding of democracies and manifestos within the nation’s ground rules. It may not always mean that the majority always takes all. But the majority in Malaysia has many layers, regardless of election outcomes.
“Consent”, “will” and “majority” are contested concepts. Representative democracy can also mean the concentration of power. History has testified to that. The “grundnorm”, has seldom shifted, even after momentous social revolutions in modern history. Political order is the form, and is a vehicle for carrying out political preferences. The school is such a form. And the school is a vehicle for indigenising the good citizen and universally the perfect man. Any anomalies must return to the form — the national archetype issuing forth the essence of “grundnorm”. That form and essence at that same time is embedded in the Malaysian Federal Constitution.
The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation.