It is important to recognise there will be more than one idea of how our nation should be.
Some people want Malaysia (or part of it) to be a part of a larger country, like the proponents of Melayu Raya or Indonesia Raya in the past and the supporters of Islamic State today.
Other people want their states to be independent from Malaysia (and before that, Malaya).
Some others wanted an entirely different political system, like the Malayan communists and North Kalimantan communists.
Recognising this diversity in aspirations of nationhood – or broadly, what Professor Shamsul AB calls “nations of intent” – is important to remind us that countries (empires, kingdoms, republics, theocracies, chiefdoms) come and go in history, and we cannot take things for granted.
Ultimately, the only way to love, protect and preserve our country is to make our country a source of happiness of its people – most, if not all. When a country is so much loved by its people, no way can it be eliminated.
Historically, Poland was three times divided and annexed by its neighbours but three times it was reborn, and now a free country since 1989.
To peacefully protect and preserve the Federation of Malaysia born in 1963, we must therefore recognise and understand different aspirations amongst Malaysians.
Only with understanding, not just anger or frustration, those who love Malaysia as promised in 1963 may win over those who don’t.
Amongst the vast majority of Malaysians who accept the current international boundaries of Malaysia, there are two distinctively different core ideas of Malaysia’s nationhood and origin.
These two different notions shape the debate of state-religion relationship in Malaysia today, namely, preserving secularism or Islamising the state.
The first core idea is that Malaysia is a Malay-Muslim country, principally a decolonisation project to restore the Malay sovereign power that was robbed by Western/Christian colonial powers, beginning with the fall of Malaccan Sultanate in 1511.
From this nationalist perspective, Sabah and Sarawak are still “Malay states” because they were part of the Brunei Sultanate.
Never mind only some coastal subjects of the Brunei crown were Malay-speaking Muslims.
If there was no Western colonisation, Islam would have gradually spread to the animist natives in the inland, and vast majority of Borneans would have been Muslims, not Christians or animists. Western colonisation disrupted Islam’s and Muslims’ destiny, if you like.
On the question of state-religion relationship, this notion can take the form of (Malay) secular nationalism, as Tunku and other UMNO founding fathers who just wanted a British-style secular state, with a ceremonial role for Islam.
However, it can also take the form of Political Islam, wanting to do away everything colonial in its quest to liberate the Ummah.
It is ultimately Muslim Nationalism, not Islam. Its goal of “Daulah Islamiyah” (Islamic State) was a 20th century construct, not found in Quran or Hadith.
Its most powerful articulation is of course Amanat Hadi (Message of PAS president Hadi Awang) back in 1981: “We oppose the BN not because it has stayed in power for too long. We oppose the BN because it preserves the colonial Constitution, the infidel’s laws and the pre-Islamic [jahiliah] rules”.
The second core idea is of course that Malaysia is an equal partnership of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak (and then Singapore).
It was a decolonisation project that promises the three British colonies substantial autonomy, progress, prosperity within Malaysia. Hence, they deserve more decentralised power than the Malayan states in exchange for full independence on their own.
And Sabah and Sarawak are distinctively different from Malaya.
They are not Malay states and should not be assimilated to be two Malay states, whether in Constitution, laws, policies, or daily lives.
The Christianisation of natives, the arrival of Chinese immigrants, and the emergence of plural society as we know it today, are not historical mistakes by the Colonial power to be “lamented” and “corrected” after the British left.
In brief, Malaysia must not become Malaya’s annexation or colonisation of Sabah and Sarawak, as how President of IndonesiaSukarno maliciously cursed or predicted the Malaysia Project to be.
From this pluralist perspective, secularism – not rejection of religion, but just state impartiality to all religions — is a must for Malaysia.
That was what the Borneo people wanted and what was promised to them. They did not sign up for an expansion of Malaya, let alone an Islamic State.
There would not be Malaysia if the Allah ban for non-Muslims or 40-80 whips for drinking Muslims appeared in the negotiation between Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.
As Malaysia turns 53 this year, let us seek more understanding of Malaysians who hold a different view of how Malaysia should be, and build a truly inclusive and free Malaysia.
May the 1963 promise be honoured forever.
Wong Chin Huat