Malaysia’s Malacca state is home to the now famous 1Malaysia Square. A gigantic number one, decorated with the national flag transmits a strong message. A message of a unified yet multiracial Malaysia.
The 1Malaysia policy under Razak was not the first time Malaysia adopted a national culture framework. It was first introduced in the 70s — similar to 1Malaysia, it also emphasised a unified Malaysian identity. However, it asked for assimilation of ethnicities into the Malay culture. Aspects of other ethnicities could be adopted only if they did not clash with the core Malay way of living. This was changed under Mahathir Mohamad in the 90s, then the fourth Prime Minister — religion was to play a core & empathic role in the culture. Three regimes defined culture differently, though with the same output in mind. What then is culture? If it’s fluid, how do people hold on to it so closely?
Unesco defines culture as “a complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a human as a member of society”. In simpler terms, imagine setting up a mathematical equation that equates culture. The variables are Religion, Local and Acquired. Religion is self-explanatory; it is the role religion plays in public life. ‘Local’ denotes aspects such as ethnicity, language, customs and activities that are derived from connection with the region. The third variable ‘Acquired’ refers to practices and actions that are traceable to foreign entities such as a neighbouring country or market trends, etc. The difference then is made by the power ascribed to each.
Over the years, on a global level, the power assigned to culture variables has been changed depending on the political narrative being served. India, for example, has largely varied the power assigned to Local and Acquired. Religion has had a largely constant value. It hasn’t been the variable India has ‘sold’ to the global market. It has packaged its ‘culture’ in Bollywood. But is the film industry a true representative of the common local culture?
What does culture mean to us? Is it the local arts industry that India holds on to? Is it racial and ethnic diversity that Malaysia celebrates? Is it religion that Turkey finds foundation in? What is that we find roots in and celebrate? What is it that we take pride in while traveling — is it the linguistic eloquence, the literary richness, religious history, festivals or the cuisine?
What power do we give to each of the variables? Over the years, a considerable variance can be noted in ‘Religion’. With changing political ideologies, a different cultural narrative of Islam, the majority religion, has been projected. This goes by the assumption that the other two variables have been held constant. However, the composition has been changing in the past few decades. The second factor ‘Local’ is no longer constant. Sadly, it has regressed and regressed fast. The traditional values, even if inferred from religion, are not observed as a norm. Local languages and traditional artefacts are leaning towards extinction, places of heritage are crumbling and the new generation isn’t familiar with local heroes.
What has given strength, on the other hand, is the third variable — ‘Acquired’. There is nothing wrong in acquiring foreign trends. Instead, it is the acquired content that is critical and its alignment with the other two variables of ‘Religion’ and ‘Local’. It is when a contradiction arises that the true identity fades.
Unfortunately, in the race of being globally validated, we are experiencing a contradiction. An exponential power rise in one variable is causing a disequilibrium. Hence, not equating true culture — the identity for a diverse, multiethnic, historically rich Pakistan. Before our true cultural identity fades in the background, we need to question ourselves at an individual and group level; which variables do we as Pakistanis stand for? After all, those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2019.