Just outside Kuala Lumpur, on the highway to Penang, taxi driver Charlie pointed to a billboard with the slogan "Together in unity, a nation in harmony. One Malaysia" set in bold letters next to the picture of four smiling children of different ethnicities. "We strongly believe in this vision and should work together to achieve it," Charlie said. Coming from a Chinese, the support was significant. "‘One Malaysia' concept is laudable. Malaysian society needs to recognise differences," he said.
Against the backdrop of political Islam's rise to a higher profile in a country where parties are fighting for mileage, the call for unity runs the risk of being seen as electoral manoeuvring.
A Malaysian analyst said the objective of "One Malaysia" was "noble". "Except for a minority bent upon promoting racial and religious discord, everyone wants national unity and to overcome barriers to promote better understanding," he said.
However, not everybody appreciates the concept. Many said they were confused mainly because of the earlier concept of "Malaysian Malaysia", the catchphrase for a multi-racial Malaysia launched in the 1960s.
Malaysian Prime Minister Dato' Seri Mohammad "Najib" Bin Tun Abdul Razak sought to allay their fears saying there was no reason for the people to be confused about or to reject the concept. "The concept does not contain anything that can lead to undesirable [results]; it emphasises unity, it promotes harmony, it encourages productivity," he told reporters.
Sceptics denounced the concept and its context as purely political.
Columnist Kim Quek said, "Najib's new measures are mostly ad hoc, piecemeal, populist and election-centred", while Simon Roughneen, writing for Asia Times, said that since Najib assumed office in April he "has tried to claw back some of the lost electoral ground by making changes to the New Economic Policy (NEP) — an affirmative action programme implemented in 1970 to help Malays attain equal economic footing with the more prosperous minority groups but which many Malaysians feel has long been submerged in cronyism and graft".
At the other end of the spectrum, journalist Noor Azam in August raised the temperature of the race debate and urged Malays to rise up to face the challenges posed by the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia.
"Based on the number of non-Malay candidates who could win the next general elections, it can be imagined which ministries they will want. Who will hold the positions of chief secretary, secretary-generals, department director-generals, senior officers and district officers? Who will be senior officers in the police and military? Strangely there are many Malay-Muslims who are also expressing hatred for the powers held by their own race. The Malay race has become a race of stupid cowards and people who are cowards will die before even their deaths."
The journalist went on to claim that "the attacks and the hatred shown by the opposition and Chinese and Indian political activists towards the Malays have worsened".
His comments were condemned as racist and contrary to the one-family spirit in Malaysia, a country where racial peace has prevailed since 1969 after dozens of people were killed in riots sparked by Malay frustration over the economic clout of the ethnic Chinese. The violent protests spurred the launch of programmes that gave Malays privileges in government jobs, contracts and education.
A rare street demonstration occurred in 2007 when ethnic Indians clashed with the police during a rally to support a $4-trillion lawsuit filed in London by the Hindu Rights Action Force, a group seeking compensation from Britain for bringing their Indian ancestors to the country as "indentured labourers" and exploiting them.
Now, two years later, the unifying theme "One Malaysia" hopes to overcome racial tension and bolster national unity.
According to Dr Shamsul Ameri Bahar Al Deen, an ethnic relations expert, Malaysia's national unity has happened through four simultaneous processes: assimilation, accommodation, acculturation and amalgamation.
The best examples of the assimilation process are mixed marriages, in which non-Muslims intending to marry Muslims must convert to Islam, he said. The practice is common in Sabah and Sarawak states of Malaysia. Najib in September described the spirit of unity and harmony among the people of Sabah and Sarawak as "a vibrant example of One Malaysia".
"Malaysians of any race or creed need to simply look at Sabah and Sarawak to gain an understanding of the incredible strength and harmony that can be found in accepting and respecting the diversity of our nation," he said.
For Bahar Al Deen, the accommodation process can be seen from the open house festival, an event attended by all races, while acculturation is a way of life in Malaysia. "It is not surprising to see a Chinese wearing a baju melayu, a Malay wearing a cheongsam or an Indian wearing baju kurung in Malaysia through the borrowing of each other's culture," the news agency Bernama quoted Bahar Al Deen as saying.
"The amalgamation or fusion of cultures is visible in dance forms such as machinda which combine Malay, Chinese and Indian dance movements, now known collectively as ‘dance medley'." Malaysian youth seemed to be thrilled by the perspectives offered by the new concept.
"Malaysians should unite. If we can create a formula, it can serve as a prerequisite to achieve our country's aspiration for developed nation status by 2020," said Mariana Nabila Ahmad Zuber, 17, from Kuala Terengganu.
For Mohammad Fazril Amal, 16, One Malaysia "should be able to fully utilise each Malaysian's brain, body and spirituality".
But 17-year-old Zahiah Abdul Aziz insisted that tremendous support of the nation was very important. "Tolerance will play an enormous role in developing the relationship between government and citizens to achieve One Malaysia," she told the New Straits Times.
Elsheba K. Abraham, 16, said: "We should look at one another as Malaysians, not as Chinese, Malays, Indians or whatever. We must understand the concept of One Malaysia and know that it could work only with cooperation between the people and the government."
In his historical account of what happened in Malaysia after its independence in 1957, Mahathir Mohammad, Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister, said independent Malaysia recognised the citizenship rights of the non-Malay and granted them freely.
"This is unlike many countries in the region where strict conditions were imposed. In fact, some immigrants were actually expelled. The hope for independence was that the non-Malays would accept a single national language and a single national identity. But it became clear very quickly that the Chinese and the Indians wanted to retain their identities, their mother tongues and cultures. They did not want to be solely Malaysians, certainly not Malay," he said. "At the beginning some prominent people tried multi-racial politics but this was rejected by the ordinary Malays, Chinese and Indians. In the end we settled for a compromise — retain your racial identity but cooperate with each other in a coalition of racial parties."
However, the formula collapsed when English schools were abolished and the Malays, Chinese and Indian children went to their own schools rather than to the national schools where the teaching was in the national language.
"The hope for true national integration faded. After this, even the attempt to put the schools from the three language streams in one campus was rejected by the Chinese … The lower-ranking leaders, the ordinary members of political parties and the people as a whole had shown no sign of forgetting their racial identities. There may be few liberal-minded ones who reject race but some who do this do so because they believe their own race would gain by it.
"Then came the resurgence of Islam worldwide. The Malaysian Malays began to adopt Islamic conservativeness, especially with the dress code. This tended to push them further apart from the non-Muslims who saw this as an attempt to differentiate Muslim Malaysians from non-Muslim Malaysians … The behaviour of some extremist exponents of Islamic separateness did not help. And so the races drifted further and further apart."
Mahathir then said what needed to be done to foster national unity.
"If we still want Malaysian unity we need to be willing to make sacrifices regarding what we consider to be our racial rights. Everyone has to do this. The leaders must be given some mandate to discuss these matters in private and to make concessions. After each step the lower rung leaders of each race must be given full briefing as to why the concessions have to be made. It would be useless if they don't agree," he said. "Provided we can roll back the present unhealthy trends and redirect them towards more positive non-racial objectives, provided we do this slowly by small steps, we may be able to create a truly Malaysian identity where race would gradually become less important. It will take time but with sincerity we may reverse the present trends and move towards increasing cooperation and integration." Even though he is no longer in power, Mahathir retains a special status among his people.
"We respect [him] so much for all the good things he [has] done for the nation," said Lee, a taxi driver. "He believed in the people and wanted them to move forward as one nation and to assert themselves in an increasingly demanding world," he said while negotiating a turn near the imposing Pavilion Mall, the latest addition to a series of impressive shopping complexes dotting Kuala Lumpur.
Lee said he had no problems with racial or religious issues.
"I am originally from China but I have never been to China and do not see why I should go there, especially because the trip is expensive. I am a Malaysian and my father was also born here," he said.
According to Lee, relations with fellow Malaysians must not be based on race or religion.
"For example all my Muslim friends [were] celebrating [Eid Al Fitr]. I had plans to visit them and spend the day hopping from one house to the other. But when a Muslim driver requested me to replace him on a trip to Penang so that he could spend [the day] with his family, I naturally told him I would take over. That is the spirit. I am sure he would have easily replaced me if I had a religious celebration but was told to work on that day," he said.
Tourism authorities have been prompt in highlighting Malaysia's ethnic diversity as an asset. Artfully prepared brochures in hotel lobbies are invariably inviting. They promote Malaysia as a bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions where Malays, Indians, Chinese and many other ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony.
"Multiculturalism has not only made Malaysia a gastronomical paradise, it has also made Malaysia home to hundreds of colourful festivals. It's no wonder that we love celebrating and socialising. As a people, Malaysians are laid-back, warm and friendly," one brochure said.
A visit to the Sungei Wang Plaza, a mall in the famous Golden Triangle shopping area of Kuala Lumpur, is a testimony to the rich ethnicity of the country.
Most shops were run by Malaysians of Chinese origin but shoppers were from a remarkable mixture of religious and racial backgrounds. The mall was rich in diversity but had no religious or racial overtones of discrimination or exclusion.
"As Chinese, we do not really want to get involved in politics. My motto, like that of so many people, is to wake up in the morning and ask how much money I will make today," said a shopkeeper, Men, laughing heartily.
At the observation deck of the Kuala Lumpur Tower, Ravi is a Malaysian of Indian descent. He graciously invites tourists to have their picture taken wearing traditional Malay wedding costumes from Malacca, a state steeped in history, culture and tradition, located one-and-a-half hours south of Kuala Lumpur.
"I am Malaysian and I am proud of it," about his status as he rearranged the colourful costumes while waiting for a tourist. Does he ever think about going back to the land of his ancestors?
"No way. I am Malaysian. I might want to go on a short tour to look at some of the temples but I think of myself and live as a Malaysian."
From his post at the 421-metre tower, he had an unparalleled bird's-eye view of the city he loved dearly. The same observation deck is used by Muslims to help determine the beginning and the end of Ramadan.
Malaysians' commitment to Ramadan teaching and values is visible in the Bukit Bintang Plaza (commonly referred to as BB Plaza), a popular shopping centre situated in the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur.
The mall is known for its numerous shops selling clothes, watches, shoes and other articles. But, it also had in Ramadan a stand where Muslims offered Zakat.
Two men sitting behind a table accepted the money from the Muslims and together they read Al Fatiha, the first verse of the Quran.
The money will be used to help needy people and to foster community development, organisers insisted. In an address in August, Sultan Sharaf Al Deen Idris Shah, the sultan of Selangor said the collection of Zakat in his state was meant to help the less fortunate Muslims and for community development and nothing else. "I do not consent to the Zakat collection to be borrowed or channelled for other purposes. The Zakat collection must be managed properly and there should be no irregularities in collecting, managing and disbursing Zakat. I believe if those entrusted with managing zakat were to be involved in any misappropriation, they will face punishment from Allah," he said.
Islam is omnipresent in Malaysia. The constitution stipulates that it is the official religion of the country and the government actively promotes the spread of Islam in the country.
A 2000 census revealed that Muslims constituted more than 61 per cent of the population.
According to the constitution, all ethnic Malays are Muslims. There is also a substantial number of Indian Muslims and a few ethnic Chinese converts. As required by Malaysian law and defined in the constitution, a Malay would surrender his ethnic status if he were not Muslim.
Reinforcement of Islamic values or stories about how the lives of people changed after rediscovering religion or deepening their faith are regularly reported in the local media.
Talking to New Straits Times' Su Aziz , 32-year-old Noor Akma Masdi said that she decided to don the tudung (headscarf) in March on the occasion of her birthday. "Two days before my birthday, I bought five headscarves. On my birthday, I wore one to lunch with my family. The first word to pop out from my husband's mouth was ‘Alhamdulillah'. And my mother said I looked nice," she was quoted as saying.
On her first day at work, the newly veiled soft-spoken and shy confidential-secretary in Kuala Lumpur drew everybody's attention. "But because of the positive responses from family and friends, I have never regretted my decision. It was apparently not an impulsive one. I had been thinking about it for a few years. I told myself that the time would come when it would feel perfect to start using it," said Masdi who is expecting her second child.
The fact that she did not cover her head perplexed people. "Before I wore the tudung, people always mistook me for a Chinese. Once, when I entered a shop and said salam to the shop owner, she just stared at me and did not say a word because she thought I was not a Muslim."
However, Masdi said the remarkable transition did not really impact her lifestyle. "I still visit my hair salon and wear jeans and T-shirts. But now I prefer to buy long-sleeved shirts and am a big fan of shops selling headscarves. I even shop online for them," the daily quoted her.
The transition, she thought, was smooth because she was ready for it. Another Malaysian woman who made a spectacular transition in her lifestyle and faith was Elaine Aisyah Abdullah Chua, a public relations manager with a cosmetics company in Selangor for over a year.
"I'm a Chinese, was a Buddhist and attended Chinese primary and secondary schools in Johor," she said.
Her conversion to Islam happened during her college days. Ten years ago, while working in Singapore, she attended religious classes for almost two years at Majlis Ugama Islam Singapore.
"It opened up a whole new perception towards Islam. I like the Islamic lifestyle."
Even though the new lifestyle made heavy demands on her.
"I needed to adjust to waking up for morning prayers, cleaning make-up and putting it back on after each prayer session. Then I needed to get used to salam. At first I felt a little awkward doing it and it was confusing, with whom to kiss hands and whom to just shake hands with. But I am used to it now."
Chua, who said she felt calmer now, wears the veil which she sees as a symbol of her identity.
"Without the headscarf I look Chinese and many do not know I am a Muslim. I would be offered non-halal food and drinks. With the scarf, I can do away with all the explanations," the mother of two young children was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times.
Malaysia has three major ethnic groups. Malay make up slightly more than 60 per cent of the 27 million citizens, whereas Chinese represent 23.7 per cent and Indians 7.1 per cent.
"One Malaysia", as presented by the country's leaders, will be the guiding principle for building a united and progressive Malaysian nation in the 21st century.
The two cardinal principles in the concept are to inculcate the spirit and value of togetherness and a sense of belonging among Malaysians, regardless of race, religion and creed, supporters have been arguing.
"It is my intention to ensure that in moving our country forward, all the interests and aspirations of all communities, including the Chinese, are heard and taken into consideration," Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said shortly after his election in April.
For Najib, the sixth prime minister of Malaysia, the implementation of a series of programmes in accordance with the "One Malaysia" concept can unite the people of various communities in the country in a more just manner. "The concept is shored up by two main principles, which were mutual respect for one another and trust in one another. When we have respect for one another, it means we have the open attitude of appreciating the concept of unity in diversity. The trust for one another will not come about all of a sudden. It has to be developed in an organised and determined way," Bernama news agency quoted Najib as saying.
The concept is to be implemented in an organised and systematic manner to ensure that no community is left out of any form of development.
Putting foot down on propriety
Piety is not a vain or pompous word in Malaysia. It is a way of life. And there are those who insist on a strict application of the values that are associated with it.
Beyoncé Knowles, the American superstar who cancelled a concert in Malaysia two years ago after she refused to observe local regulations governing foreign performers, eventually made a U-turn and pledged to wear "appropriate" clothes for her show in Kuala Lumpur in October.
Joint organisers of "Beyoncé I Am... World Tour Live In Malaysia 2009", Marctensia and UCSI Communications, said in a statement released in the Malaysian capital that Beyoncé was "coming here to party with her fans" and dispelled concerns that she would be wearing her famously provocative outfits.
Beyoncé, known for her provocative clothes and concert choreography, backed out of a concert in Malaysia two years ago after protests from Pas Youth.
The local media said that the axing of the show was the result of pressure from Muslim groups and Beyoncé's refusal to adhere to the government's strict dress code for foreign artistes prohibiting revealing outfits. The code, introduced in 2005, says that clothes cannot have obscene or drug-related images or messages and that there must be no hugging or kissing, no jumping or shouting, no throwing objects onstage or at the audience and no foul language. Female performers must show no skin from chest to knee.
In August 2007, American pop star Gwen Stefani dressed modestly for her sold-out show at the 9,000-seat Kuala Lumpur Putra Stadium, wearing dresses to conform with the concert guidelines.
In a pre-concert press conference, she said that she made a "major sacrifice" in agreeing to the dress-code guidelines because she wanted Malaysian fans to see her live show.
But, for Ahmad Sabki, Pas Youth's vice-chief, there is no doubt that US superstar Beyoncé, famous for her sexy attire and seductive dancing had no room in Malaysia. "We know that these groups are not suitable for our Malaysian culture. Their appearance and attire are against our Eastern identity," he said.
For him, even if the star wore a long Muslim attire, her "sexy image" could not be undone.
He explained his position without compromises: "We are against Western entertainment that promotes hedonism. We do not want our youths to be misled. We have in the past objected to Indonesian artiste Inul Daratista performing in Malaysia as she is also well known for her sexy gyrations."