The strains of When a Child is Born echoed through the vast, tinselled halls of Kuala Lumpur's Mid Valley Megamall in the weeks before Christmas, while Malaysians of all races - Malays, Chinese, Indians - mingled and indulged in two of their favourite pastimes: shopping and eating.
The same eager consumption was in evidence before Eid al Adha in November, just as it will be in February, when the country comes to a standstill to celebrate the beginning of Chinese New Year. Later this month, the cities of Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown and Ipoh will grind to a halt as over one million pilgrims process through the streets to mark the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
This is what the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was talking about when he said that Malaysia "has much to teach the world about how to construct a vibrant, multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural society". The success of this 28 million-strong country, he said, "should be studied both by those looking for economic prosperity and those seeking to understand how people live together, not just with tolerance, but with respect."
This, too, is the "1Malaysia" that the country's prime minister, Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak, is keen to project. A "nation-building" plan of that name has been his signature policy since he took office in April 2009, and he does not miss an opportunity to stress the benefits of interracial unity. When he returned to work in November after a bout of chickenpox, even that was turned into an opportunity to promote it. He praised the hospital staff for discharging their duties professionally, irrespective of their race or religion: an example, he said, of 1Malaysia.
To the visitor transported via high-speed train from the capital's gleaming, glass-and-steel airport to its rail hub, KL Sentral, this may seem a fair picture. Not far beneath the surface, however, there is much that clashes with that harmonious image. Within the last 18 months, Muslims angry at the construction of a Hindu temple in the satellite city of Shah Alam launched a protest during which they severed and desecrated a cow's head. Churches throughout Malaysia have been attacked and petrol-bombed in a row over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians. Two Malay school teachers have recently been reprimanded over racial slurs, one telling Chinese students they could "go back to China". It is 53 years since all races were granted citizenship at independence, but the word pendatang (immigrant) is still used by chauvinists to refer derogatively to Chinese and Indians.
Isolated incidents? The former law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, now the leader of Kita, a newly formed opposition party, doesn't think so. "Racism is the norm in Malaysia," he wrote in his recent book, I, too, am Malay. "There is no sense of shame when we practise racial and religious discrimination… The Malaysia that fought for multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism is no more." It seems Najib's 1Malaysia is not so much a statement of affirmation as a policy in need of implementation.
To understand why Malaysia has such an unusual ethnic make-up you have to go much further back than 1957, when the Federation of Malaya received independence. Travellers had been settling in this land of two monsoons for centuries. Islam was brought to the Malayan peninsula by Arab and Indian traders in the 13th century. The bulk of the Chinese arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, initially as traders. After the British took over (they had control over the whole country by 1909), Chinese labourers were encouraged to work in the tin mines in the west. Slightly later were the large influxes of Indians, mostly Tamils, brought to provide labour on rubber plantations and fill the ranks of the colonial civil service.By 1947 the census recorded that 49.5 per cent of the population was Malay, 38.4 per cent Chinese and 10.8 per cent Indian. The Malays were Muslim, while most of the Indians were Hindu, and the Chinese were Buddhist or Christian. The races were also divided by occupation. The Malays had the political authority vested in the sultans: nine of Malaysia's 13 states have hereditary rulers who, since British rule ended, have taken five-year turns to be king of the whole country. Yet most Malays scratched a living as farmers or fishermen. The Chinese, on the other hand, dominated business, while the poorer Indians were coolies and the more educated entered the professions.
When the failure of the British to defend Malaya and Singapore from the invading Japanese during the Second World War encouraged demands for independence, those distinctions were evident in the parties that sprang up: UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, and MIC, the Malayan Indian Congress, in 1946, and MCA, the Malayan Chinese Association, in 1949. UMNO's founder, Dato Onn Jaafar, made an early, heroic attempt to end to the ethnic divide. In 1951 he proposed opening membership of his party to all races and renaming it the United Malayans National Organisation. But he was a man ahead of his time. The idea was rejected and Onn's political career was finished.
That same year a bargain was struck between the three main parties. Under the leadership of the founding prime minister, the genial Tunku Abdul Rahman, they formed the Alliance (the forerunner of today's Barisan Nasional, or BN) which went on to win every parliamentary election held in the country ever since. It was understood that the Malays would dominate: senior positions, such as that of prime minister, would always be theirs. Yet the other races would have places in the cabinet. There were opposition parties, particularly the mainly Chinese DAP (Democratic Action Party), and the Malay Islamist party (PAS). But these were kept to the margins, frequently with the help of draconian legislation such as the British-era Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial. Political quietism was the order of the day, especially after race riots in 1969 left hundreds dead in Kuala Lumpur.
Some were disappointed by the role allotted to the non-Malays. Even so, the granting of citizenship to all was a concession by a native people who feared that they would never be masters in their own country. And many of the newly minted Malaysians were happy to accept the status quo, which contrasted favourably with the fate of other minorities in the region, such as the Chinese in Indonesia, who suffered pogroms right up till the late 1990s.
The late Felix Abisheganaden typified that attitude. An ethnic Indian reporter who had covered the Merdeka (independence) celebrations in 1957, he was hailed as "the doyen" of Malaysian journalism when he died in 2008. Over lunch at the Royal Selangor Club a few years ago I asked Felix for his thoughts on the racial situation. "What we need," he told me, "is for the Malays to be content with running politics, the Chinese to have business, and the Indians to be doctors and lawyers." That was the word, "content". But that spirit of quiescence has all but disappeared.
The crowd at the Civic Hall, Petaling Jaya, didn't take much warming up at a DAP fundraising dinner last month. The 800 or so guests were eager to hear key figures from across the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, speak on the theme "We are Malaysian first". "We want a Malaysia, not a Malaysaja [only Malays]," announced Nurul Izzah, daughter of the opposition leader Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, to warm applause. The DAP's veteran leader, Lim Kit Siang, poured scorn on the "new slogans" that had issued from Najib's office since he became PM - 1Malaysia included. "After 18 months what's changed?" he asked.Lim Kit Siang may have roused the hall. But the star turn was to follow. "Shall we unleash the lion?" asked the MC. "Are you ready for the lion?" "Yes," yelled the crowd. Onto the stage bounded Gobind Singh, the "Little Lion of Puchong" - so called because his father, the DAP chairman Karpal Singh, is the original big cat, "the Lion of Jelutong". At once Gobind Singh started tearing chunks out of the government. "Do you think 1Malaysia will work with the BN?" he began. "They have UMNO for the Malays, MCA for the Chinese, MIC for the Indians - they don't even have one family themselves." The DAP, on the other hand, he said, was multiracial and had been fighting for a "Malaysian Malaysia" for years. "It was seditious, our leaders were thrown into jail!"
"Do you want to see a Malaysian Malaysia?" he roared. "Do you want to see a Malaysia for all?" The replies must have been audible across the street. "How can we take 1Malaysia seriously? I dare Dato Sri Najib right now," he shouted, his hand chopping the rostrum, "to appoint a Chinese or an Indian as deputy prime minister to show that he means it." The hall erupted.
To most of those present, 1Malaysia is less a concept "to develop a truly prosperous, harmonious and successful 21st century nation", as Najib said during a tea party with the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur on Christmas Day, than a content-free ploy to win back disaffected Chinese and Indian voters. In the 2008 election they deserted the BN in droves, and the "political tsunami" left the opposition in control of five of the 13 states. Persuading the people that the governing coalition had changed was always going to be the biggest challenge to Najib when he took over as premier the following year.
And so 1Malaysia is now branded onto many government initiatives. Not everyone is convinced that it is the answer. A survey by the Merdeka Centre think-tank in early 2010 found that 46 percent of non-Malays said it was "a political agenda to win non-Malay votes".
The question the policy poses is why, 53 years after independence, a genuinely Malaysian identity should still be so elusive. Why, in 2007, did tens of thousands take part in marches with the Hindu Rights Action Force to claim $4 trillion in compensation from the British High Commission for "withdrawing after granting independence and leaving us... at the mercy of a majority Malay-Muslim government that has violated our rights as minority Indians"? Why, too, did the current Home Minister, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, feel the need to "motivate the Malays" by waving the traditional dagger, the keris, at UMNO's 2006 general assembly - an aggressive act for which even UMNO's Chinese allies in the BN sought an explanation?
The answer, but by no means necessarily the fault, lies with the Malays. At independence, they were a majority - just - in the only land that they can call their own. Nevertheless, the wealth was predominantly in the hands of the Chinese. For the dignity of their race and for resentment not to get out of hand, Malaysia's indigenous peoples were given certain privileges in the constitution. After the riots of 1969 a further programme of affirmative action, the New Economic Policy, was put in place. At one level it was a great success. Between 1970 and 2002, the percentage of the population living in poverty - most of whom were Malay - dropped from 52 per cent to only five per cent. The NEP, however, was only supposed to last for 20 years. By the time it was due to run out in 1990 a new spirit of "Malay supremacy", or Ketuanan Melayu, was in the air. The system of quotas, discounts on property prices and positive discrimination had come to be regarded as a Malay right. It has continued in one guise or another ever since.At the same time, a more conservative and overtly observant strand of Islam had been gaining ground at the expense of the liberal, syncretic version traditional in the region. Muslim status is one of the defining features of a Malay under the constitution, with the result that the two identities - Malay and Muslim - have become effectively synonymous. This new Malay-Islamic chauvinism was increasingly assertive of its rights and hostile to challenges. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister from 1981-2003, always argued that he was trying to change the Malays, whom he often chided for being slothful. He had a policy that promoted a "Bangsa Malaysia" (a united Malaysian people) and especially latterly, much of his support came from the Chinese community. And yet it was under his government that the gap between the ethnicities widened and the perception that all races should be equal citizens declined. Opposition MPs including Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh were arrested under the ISA for "trying to stir up racial hatred", as Dr Mahathir put it to me in an interview last year. Others observers thought they were just carrying out their democratic right to disagree publicly with government policy on Chinese schools.
Pluralism, secularism and tolerance were undermined, as were institutions such as the judiciary that might have protected such notions. How was it, I asked Dr Mahathir, that the self-declared "happiest prime minister in the world", Tunku Abdul Rahman, could have been known for being fond of whisky, women and socialising with other races? "Before," he said, "if people wanted to dance, or drink alcohol - Tunku was known for drinking - people didn't mind. But we have decided to become a democratic country. We have to be sensitive to the majority." Now, he said, "the majority thinks that is wrong, and we have to accept that, otherwise we go against them and we lose." As the majority is Malay and adhere to a far stricter variety of Islam than in the past, their will has affected the freedoms of the non-Malay and non-Muslim communities - which means the other races.
It might be tempting to lay the blame for this at the BN's door. They have, after all, always been in government. But when the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim declared that if they took power, Lim Kit Siang would serve as deputy prime minister - as no non-Malay has done before - he was corrected by one of his coalition partners. A Chinese such as Lim would be acceptable, said PAS's spiritual leader Datuk Seri Nik Aziz Nik Mat, only if he became a "pious Muslim". Every day the papers are full of similar incidents. The country may appear to be at ease with its diversity, but when put to the test, too often the freedom of worship and equality of all before the law guaranteed by the constitution prove to be ciphers.
At his spacious house in the sprawling, landscaped grounds of the Tropicana Country Club on the outskirts of KL, I asked Zaid Ibrahim why a policy such as 1Malaysia was needed today. "Najib needs to address the schisms in society," he told me. "We've had 30 years of UMNO brainwashing that this is a Malay country." Zaid, the founder of Malaysia's biggest law firm and a longstanding reformist within UMNO until he resigned as a minister in protest at the use of the Internal Security Act, didn't think that the original model of race-based politics was wrong. "There were massive differences at that time, and the communal parties were more effective at addressing them then. In my view the damage started with Mahathir." After his rule, Zaid said, anything that could be painted as challenging Malay or Muslim dominance was out. "Now it's all, 'don't question this, your understanding's wrong, shut up, you're being seditious.'"
I mentioned the WikiLeaks report in which a top Singapore official was quoted as saying there was "a distinct possibility of racial conflict" in Malaysia that could lead to Chinese "fleeing" the country and "overwhelming" the neighbouring city-state. Could it really get that bad? "I think it depends on the economy. If you look at Indonesia, whenever there was nothing to eat in the 1960s, they always burned the Chinese shops. Of course that is simplistic, but..."
According to Zaid, only genuine competition will help the Malays, who are still behind economically. Untargeted preferential treatment, he thinks, has just led to corruption and division. "The Malays have the power and the institutions, so if you want a transformation, you have to convince them that democracy, the rule of law and meritocracy are in their long-term interests. I don't think it's too late." What time frame were we talking about? When, for instance, did he think the country could be ready to have a non-Malay as prime minister or deputy PM? "Oh, not in my lifetime," he said. "It'll be 30 or 40 years before you see real change."Among the young and the urban middle classes, there is agreement that greater integration is necessary. "There is an urgent need for national unity," said Khairy Jamaluddin, UMNO's youth chief and an MP tipped as a future prime minister. "For 1Malaysia to succeed we must break down the silo mentality." But you don't have to go to the villages in the east coast Malay heartlands to find those silos. You find them in the cities too, just minutes away from those bustling malls. Schools are widely segregated by race. Socialising is frequently on a communal basis, as are areas of residence. The turn-out at a Boxing Day party in a KL condominium, for instance, showed that nearly everyone in the gated complex was Chinese. Nine out of 10 guests at Malay bersandings, or wedding feasts, I have gone to have been Malay. When my wife and I had our own bersanding there were more or less equal numbers of Malay and Chinese, and many Indians and Europeans. The daughter of a prominent politician e-mailed afterwards in surprise. "It's how Malay weddings used to be," she said
There are signs of hope. The BN is moving towards allowing direct membership of the overall coalition, with some pressing for all the component parties to disband and become one, multi-racial organisation. There are plenty of prominent figures calling for an end to ethnic division. In an interview to mark his 65th birthday, the Sultan of Selangor said: "When we travel, we identify ourselves as Malaysians, not as Chinese, Indians or Malays. This is how it should work."
Will 1Malaysia achieve this? The opposition claims that the PM's flagship policy doesn't even try to. Others say that while it sounds praiseworthy, the concept is too amorphous and lacks specific detail. Time and again, however, people I spoke to who know Najib well, including those who have followed him from his early days in politics and who are not government supporters, think that his aim in producing a new unity between the races is genuine. They point to his education abroad (Malvern College and Nottingham University in the UK), his worldview and his temperament. "I don't think Najib is a believer in racial superiority," Zaid Ibrahim told me. "I like to believe that 1Malaysia is about inclusiveness in the way the founding fathers of this country planned."
Whatever the motives behind it, 1Malaysia is an acknowledgement 60 years on that Dato Onn Jaafar was onto something with his early call for all to become "United Malayans". However successful, prosperous, happy and developed a country Malaysia is now, one element of nation-building was left behind in the decades since independence. A truly "Malaysian" identity, regardless of colour or creed, has yet to be forged.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and is a frequent commentator on South East Asian politics and religion.