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The meaning of Malay dignity and the way forward

  • Malays can restore the dignity of the community, and they must stop expecting others to do it for them!

By Prof. Dr. Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani

There are so many reactions toward the Malay Dignity Congress held recently.

In my observation, people are mixed and very critical to the outcomes of the Congress. Actually this event had triggered controversy even before it started.

I welcomed the event because it was not wrong to organize such event aimed to bring positive effects to the Malay society. It was timely for the Malays to discuss about their future.

However, perhaps the organizer had other ideas when organizing this event. There were many demands put forward for the government to fulfill rather than contributing ideas for the betterment of the Malay community and Malaysians as a whole.

Clearly, the Malay Dignity Congress was politicized by political parties to propagate certain political agenda and also to remove certain group from participating in the Congress.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for instance was invited very late after he mentioned in the press conference that he did not get the invitation. If this is a Malay unity event, all should be invited (even though the organizer said they invited all), not just the selected ones.

I am not interested in whom they invited or not. I am more interested to see whether this event will give significant impact to the dignity of the Malays. Hence, we have to understand the concept of dignity in Malay society first before we can elaborate on why we should pursue the dignity than other things else.

Historically and contemporarily, the term human dignity has theological origins that may affect its interpretation and understanding. The concept of human dignity has deep roots in many religions, as well as in moral and political philosophy. Both religious and secular, may conceive of human dignity in similar terms with a similar sense of its inherent worth or value and other implications, but may posit different sources for that dignity.

Human dignity is one of most emphasized theme in the Holy Qur’an. Within the community and in tradition, the Malays have applied human dignity strongly in the society where the Malay customs (adat) coexist with Islam comfortably. Malay culture has been described by Western observers as valuing ‘refined restraint’, cordiality and sensitivity, and the Malays themselves as courteous and charming (and less positively, as fatalistic and easy to take offence).

Malay culture is richly verbal, with a large stock of sayings (peribahasa), short evocative verses (pantun), and narrative poems (syair). The importance of speech (percakapan) to proper conduct is because it has a secondary meaning of ‘courtesy, manners’.

One important concept in Malays’ psyche and interaction is the social emotion of malu ‘shame, propriety’. It is usually glossed in bilingual dictionaries as ‘ashamed’, ‘shy’, or ‘embarrassed’. However, these translations do not convey the fact that Malays regard a sense of malu as a social good, somewhat akin to a ‘sense of propriety’.

What is interesting to the Malays is that malu is also related to the social concept of a person’s dignity or maruah. Other meanings of maruah are ‘self-respect’, ‘pride’, and the like. Maruah involves both what others think about one and what one thinks about oneself. It is a notion resonant with moral implications in which a person with maruah would not lower himself or herself to knowingly do something wrong. This portrays maruah as a kind of wholesome confidence in one’s moral standing in the eyes of others.

Other closely related concepts are harga diri ‘self esteem’ and nama baik ‘good name’. This cluster of concepts is of primary concern to Malay social ideology.

That is to say, in ordinary conversation Malays cooperate to assist the safeguarding of each other’s maruah ‘dignity’ and to steer away from the possibility of incurring or inducing malu (‘shame’). Therefore, the concept of human dignity is not something new in the Malay tradition. It however needs to be further strengthened and developed in order to make it relevant to the Malaysia’s current context and practice for the common good.

One thing is clear is that hate speech against other ethnic or racial groups are not in line with the concept of dignity in the Malay’s social system. Therefore, we should restraint from practicing hate speech. But the Malays can always propagate on any issue for the betterment of the Malay society as a whole without harming other groups.

What I want from the Congress was actually ideas about what and how to go forward for the Malay community. That is why I agree with Tun Mahathir Mohamad who urged that only the Malays can restore the dignity of the community and that they must stop expecting others to do it for them. The government could only do as much as providing opportunities for the Malays to participate in various fields in the country in a bid to restore their dignity.

Mahathir said, “The Malay dignity depends on our performance. If we are capable of administering our country well, making optimal use of every opportunity, working very well, producing good consumer products, then nobody can take away our dignity.”

Mahathir’s view was not well-received by some attendees of the Congress.

What best is that the Malays should put their priority now on what they want for the future. Malays must be able to become an innovative society which can no longer dependent on the government. They have to be less politicking as well. I cannot see something impactful coming from the Congress. But what I can say is that the Malay needs others in building prosperity in the country.

There are many challenges in the future for instance IR4.0, digital economy etc. So the Malays must grab those opportunities. Remember that, we used to be better than South Korea in the 1990s, but now they are far better than us. Vietnam has already overtaken us. Malaysia cannot be successful without the Malays' contribution. So the Malays now have to push hard together with other ethnic groups to make Malaysia great again as ‘Asian Tiger’.

(Prof. Dr. Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani is Professor at the School of International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia. Email: [email protected].)


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