Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis

November 17, 2016

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Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis

by Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

Image result for Hidup Melayu

Malay Nationalism or Tribalism ala Ku Kluk Klan

One thing that shocked me when I first went to Sweden for my studies 35 years ago was how dirty a word “Nationalism” was in Western Europe. This reaction, I realized, was very much a reflection of how the concept was positively implanted in my mind while a schoolboy in Malaysia; but it also demonstrated how greatly human experiences can differ in different parts of the world.

More importantly, it revealed to me how strongly we are intellectually captured by the language use of our times and our location.

But the Swedes are very proud of their country, so how come nationalism is frowned upon so badly? The same thing applied throughout Europe, at least until recently. Excessive immigration over the last two decades, coupled with declining economic fortunes and waning self-confidence has buoyed the ascendance of ultra-rightists groups in all countries throughout the continent.

So why was Nationalism so despised? Europe is after all the home continent of the Nation State.

For starters, Europe was always a place of endless wars often fought ostensibly for religious reasons between feudal powers. The arrival of the Nation state ideology helped to lower the frequencies of these tragedies, but only to replace it soon after with non-religious types of rationale for conflict. The American Revolution and French Republicanism added the new phenomenon of “government by the people”. The French case also brought into the equation the Left-Right Dimension that would define politics and political thinking for the next two centuries.

This conceptual division between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule expressed sharply the rights of common people on the one hand, and the role of the state on the other. Once this gap was articulated, conflating the two poles anew became a necessary task.

The three major articulations in Europe of this mammoth mission to bridge the divide and achieve a functional modern system were Liberal Democracy, Communism and Fascism. While the Anglo-Saxon world championed the first, Stalin’s Soviet Union perfected the second and Adolf Hitler developed the third to its insane conclusion. In Europe, it was basically these three actors who fought the Second World War.

Image result for Hidup Melayu

Malay Tribalism in Action

In Asia, Japan’s brand of state fascism ran riot throughout the region, rhetorically championing nationalism in the lands it took from the European colonialists.

While the National Socialism of the Third Reich died with Hitler, Fascism lived on in Franco’s Spain until 1975 and Nationalist Communism of Stalin continued in Eastern Europe until the early 1990s.

Nationalism in the rest of Europe after 1945 came to be understood with disdain as the longing of the Nation State for purity and autonomy taken to pathological lengths. It is after all always a defensive posture, as is evidenced today in its return in the form of right-wing anti-immigrant groups.

Image result for Hidup Melayu--Najib Razak

Maruah Melayu dijual ka-Cina untuk membela masa depan politik Najib Razak–Jualan Aset 1MDB

In Malaysia, nationalism was—and for many, still is—the most highly rated attitude for a citizen to adopt.There are obvious reasons for this, given the historical and socio-political context in which Malaysia came into being. Constructing a new country out of nine sultanates, the three parts of the Straits Settlements, with Sabah and Sarawak on top of that, was a more daunting task than we can imagine today. Furthermore, the contest was also against other powerful “-isms”, especially Communism and Pan-Indonesianism. These threatened to posit what are Malaysia’s states today in a larger framework, and would have diminished these territories’ importance and uniqueness.

Putting a new regime in place of the retreating British required a rallying idea; and what better than the very fashionable image of a new nation to whom all should swear allegiance. Malayan nationalism was thus born.

Image result for tunku abdul rahman

For Inclusive, Liberal and Progressive Malaysia–Escaping the Nationalism Trap

It is no coincidence that the path to independence became much easier after Malaysia’s major political party, UMNO, decided under Tunku Abdul Rahman to change its slogan from the provincial “Hidup Melayu” [Long Live the Malays] to the inclusive “Merdeka” [Independence].

But already in that transition, one can see the problem that Malaysia still lives with today. Is Malaysia the political expression of the prescriptive majority called “Melayu” [later stretched to become “Bumiputera”], or is it the arena in which the multi-ethnic nation of “Malaysians” is to evolve?

Image result for Trumpism in America

Nationalism in essence, and most evidently so in its narrow ethno-centric sense, is defensive and fearful, and understood simplistically and applied arrogantly very quickly show strong fascist tendencies. The issue is therefore a philosophical one.

What Malaysia needs today, is to accept the regional and global context that sustains it, and work out as best it can a suitable balance between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule which is clearly less belaboured and less painful than the cul-de-sac alleyway it has backed itself into.

OOI KEE BENG is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute) and the Editor of the Penang Monthly (Penang Institute). He is the author of the prizewinning The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2006).

7 thoughts on “Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis

  1. There is a more worrisome hybrid of radical ethno-nationalism and religious
    extremism. It can be called “clerico-fascism”.

  2. Malay nationalism per se is not bad. It’s the glue that holds Malay folks together, especially in challenging times. It celebrates the Malay’s culture, history and religion. It instills pride and a sense of strength to the Malay people.

    But under the manipulation of power seeking Malay politicians, Malay nationalism is a powerful tool to instill false belief to the common Malay folks that their culture and religion are better or superior, and because of that, they need to impose their “superior” cultural views and religion on the non-Malay people, or replace them with theirs. They create scapegoats for all the problems in the country on the non-Malay people. When common Malay folks start feeling hate or contempt of people of other races, Malay nationalism has become a very serious problem.

    Today, Malay nationalism has become the mother of racism, tearing the country apart.

  3. Nationalism that is grounded on Malaysia’s Constitution is not likely to go astray. Late Lee Kuan Yew’s “Malaysians’ Malaysia” is a nationalistic emotional appeal that could have served to

    1) avoid ethnocentric attraction among Malaysians,
    2) avoid catastrophic ideas of socialism and communism, and
    3) avoid political Islam, also known as Islamism.

    (Singapore achieved all three above with its “Singaporeans’ Singapore”.)

    Avoiding socialism and communism is especially important to merdeka-era Chinese and Indian Malaysians who lost faith to their own cultures and ancestral lands, and who could easily jump onto next flashy ideology they encountered. (They wouldn’t migrate en masses if they had not lost faith to their cultures and ancestral land – although pointing out this might earn me some flakes.)

    Avoiding Islamism is very important for Malay Malaysians if Malaysia is to survive at all. Malaysia as a nation-state cannot co-exists with the notion of ummah that opposes national boundary.

    Nationalism can achieve its equipoise when two other components are mostly in place:

    1) Individual liberty. With individual liberty, people could exercise their freedom of expression and conscience, and therefore are not likely to seek extreme social engineering for their countries. NAZI and Soviet Union would have collapsed long before WW2 and Cold War if Germany and USSR had institutions that support freedom of expression and conscience. Fascism prospers not because of nationalism, but because of the lack of individual liberty. Left-leaning nations, whose names normally consists of “Socialist” and “People” are much more likely to become fascist than a right-leaning nations that value individuality.

    2) In truth/god we trust. Our conscience is just as good as the religion or philosophy we adopt; Our freedom of conscience produces result that is just as good as what the conscience we have. For example, a rootless atheist (not all atheists are rootless) might interpret freedom as “doing whatever I want” while a devout religious adherent interprets freedom as “to practice my religion freely as my religion guides me”.

  4. Mr/Ms Shiou continues to pontificate on liberty while supporting
    Mr Trump’s neo-fascism ! Ever heard of Stephen Bannon ?

  5. Say What?
    Bersih is about Patriotism to King and Country (not necessary in that order).
    Red Shirt is about misguided Nationalism to UMNOb per se, conflated to mean Malay Superiority and all it’s negative connotations.

    What is simpler than that?
    Tomes of philosophical wanderings and historical heebie-jeebies, change not the present Conundrum that is Malusia.

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