The Many Failures of Malay(sian) Nationalism – Part 1



‘A nation is the same people living in the same place.’

‘By God, then,’ says Ned, laughing, ‘If that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the same five years.

So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it: ‘-Or also living in different places.’

Ulysses, by James Joyce


Nationalism in the abstract is notoriously tricky to define: a cursory reference to Anderson’s seminal “Imagined Communities” should be sufficient prompting for the interested reader to investigate further – the nation is a social construct limited to a certain in-group, in which members of that in-group recognise their distinctiveness (which is in turn recognised by other groups) on the basis of shared sociocultural practices and behaviours. That thesis is broadly convincing insofar as it provides a basis for taxonomy and categorisation; but in the service of inclusivity and general application may not necessarily examine the purposive elements in the construction of nationalist mythology that are relevant to our discussion.

What can be described of nationalism – as the political force, theory, or impetus with the end-goal of constructing or defending a nation – by observation? As above, nationhood requires commonly accepted identifying markers, and nationalism serves as a social force enforcing (through implicit censure and social opprobrium) relative consistency and orthodoxy with regards these markers. These markers are typically (though non-exhaustively) ethnic, linguistic, religious, and/or cultural. This is not to say that nations are culturally monolithic in any of these dimensions – but the domination of a particular ‘normality’ as a way of life at the very least resigns alternative lifestyles to the fringes as aberrative or deviant (with or without the moral judgment that might be presupposed in those descriptions). Disagreements or socio-cultural schisms at a magnitude above a particular critical size of one variety or another inevitably lead to conflict or divergence developing within groups previously considering themselves a single nation.

In acknowledging this cultural-marker model of nationhood, it is important to recognise that not all nations have an equality of historicity – a statement which we hope is understood as a comment on a Nation’s historical validity, as opposed to present legitimacy; if the fine difference might be appreciated. Nations may well in fact exist today, but this does not obliviate their anachronism, if any. Irredentism can be as easily cultural as it is geographical – just ask the Slavic North Macedonians about their national hero, the Greek (and, arguably near the end of his life, culturally Persian!) Alexander the Great. All this is preamble to the point that different nationhoods are at different levels of maturity and stability – irrespective of and separate to alarmist claims made by nationalists of all nations. Old nations with distinct and acknowledged cultural markers (even markers and customs commonly honoured by members of that nation more in the breach than the observance) are inherently more confident about their security and continuity; young nations may feel the weight of imagined artificiality upon them and so find outlet and expression in extremist, puritanical, and otherwise radically delineating behaviour. This in turn expresses itself in the dominant manifestations of nationhood as individualistic or communitarian respectively: is the primary means of embodying or displaying these markers of nationhood internalised and self-actualised, or performative-demonstrative and communitarian? Is any given individual ‘Nationalist’ more ultimately interested in protecting their perceived position as a result of being a member of that nation; or interested in protecting the nation’s position and dignity writ large? There must and will be, of course, expressions of both varieties in all nationhoods – but as with all dichotomies, tendencies towards either extreme will manifest.

Nationhood must also be on some level self-defined – it is not unfeasible or impossible to impose a new (or perhaps supra-) national identity onto a group or groups of people, but this is untenable and unsustainable without a level of acceptance from the population. This level of acceptance can wax and wane with time; and more specifically with the ability of the authority imposing such new nationalism to respond to crises and adverse conditions – whether the confidence of your average Civitas Romana in the collapsing Western Roman Empire during the Barbarian Invasions, or the average modern-day European’s faith in the Pan-European ideal of an increasingly beleaguered EU.  Irrespective of that, a nation will definitionally cease to exist without individuals and groups of individuals claiming to be a part of it. Further, mutual recognition of the distinctiveness of such nation by people claiming to be of another nation is important – if my tribe thinks of your tribe as separate, and vice versa; then we must be separate. If nations obtain legitimacy – in part at least – through mutual social recognition, we should at least consider the digressionary question of whether the State has a valid interest in defining nationhood. The prevalence of the nation-state in the post-WWII world may prima facie render the question moot – the state and the nation in many cases are indistinguishable (or at least the state apparatus would seek to portray this to be the case). But what is to happen when my tribe thinks we are different from yours, but yours thinks we are just an estranged offshoot? What legitimate rights does a state have to prevent or impede the manifested secessionism of a self-identified nation?  

Nationhood is often also geographical – though as the Jewish-Irishman (notwithstanding his three baptisms) Bloom discovered a moment too late, this particular identifying feature of nationhood is less common than idealised. It is true, for the most part, across Europe – a direct result of the movement away from multi-ethnic, multi-national Empires in the early-to-mid 20th Century. However, the correlation between geographic, cultural, and political borders becomes less precise as we move elsewhere in the Old World, across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; where borders are often drawn on the basis of historical political compromise, insensitive colonial administration, or as a legacy of personal feudal land ownership. As a means of crude, unacademic comparison; we might see some similarities between the maddening complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the oft-times chaotic borders of post-colonial Eurasia – a geography pockmarked by overlapping venn mandalas of ethnic and religious and political boundaries. Indeed, returning to Europe we see that her remaining states with significant multi-national populations are as a rule arguably artificial and geopolitically minor buffer states like Belgium or Switzerland; or prone to increasingly vocal nationalist separatist sentiment like the UK or Spain.

With all the above in mind, we consider two types of nationalism that loom large in the imagination of Malaysians – Malay Nationalism and Malaysian Nationalism. It may be relevant to now point out that our instant discussion will concern only the former at this point. Malaysian Nationalism is a far more difficult idea to define and examine (for a multitude of reasons, including that it may not even exist!) It is abstract, ahistorical, and requires both effort on the part of the minority and sacrifices on the part of the majority. Malaysian nationalism has to be a nationalism built on compromise and concession – more than this, hypothetical or real Malaysian nationalism requires the amalgamation of at least three distinct and strong National identities to have any semblance of legitimacy; and the participation and integration of dozens other identities to be truly representative. These are all significant and important issues, but beyond the scope of our discussion for today.

Malay Nationalism, on the other hand, is self-evidently a far more feasible socio-political project: three of the current parties in government coalition are explicitly or implicitly Malay Nationalist; every Prime Minister (and even Prime Ministerial potential) since independence has a strong pedigree in Malay Nationalist organisations. As we explore Malay Nationalism as a project, it is important to keep in mind a central question: can Malay Nationalism peacefully coexist alongside Malaysian Nationalism, and does Malay Nationalism consider Malaysian Nationalism a threat?

It would be historically revisionist to suggest that Malay Nationalism developed in the same manner or under the same circumstances as myriad European nationalisms did (definitely in the aftermath of the Second World War, and arguably beginning to develop in their modern incarnations as far back as the end of the 30 Years War with the Peace of Westphalia) – carved out in violent conflict, of schism within schism. Malay cultural identity (much like the language) is a multi-layered agglutinative process – Arab Muslim traders influencing Indianised Hindu kingdoms influencing underlying Austronesian Native culture. The conception of a unified Malay polity is a 20th century invention – a stark contrast to the scattered, diverse, and oft-internecine Sultanates, Bendaharates, Kedatuaan, Undangs, and myriad other polities that existed throughout what is today termed Nusantara. Whilst they might have shared a cultural conception of themselves as related and part of the same ‘nation’ (ignoring the anachronism of such a term in the times of which we are speaking); what else did, say, the Sultans of Pattani Darul Makrif truly have in common in terms of shared cultural, military, geopolitical, or economic interests with the Bendahara Dynasty of the Old Johor-Riau Empire? The geography of maritime South-East Asia prioritised and advantaged trade and tribute as a system of relationships; in stark contrast to the brutal jungle warfare that characterised Medieval and early Modern Indochina – the historical legacies of both these geopolitical realities continue to be seen to this day in the comparative military and economic strengths and makeups of the ASEAN member states.

Whilst an historical Malay nation might be validly conceived of in cultural terms – perhaps most distinctly through mythological literature such as the Malay Annals which provide a shared point of religio-cultural context on which to build and legitimate later political structures – there never was a single Sultanate of Nusantara; or a single Sultan or line of Sultans who claimed and were acknowledged as suzerain over all Malay Kingdoms in the way European feudal ‘nation’-analogues were gradually constructed and centralised. Indeed, this remains the case to this day – the distinctly Malay Sultanate of Brunei exists in its own form of splendid isolation on Borneo, to say nothing of the unique form of elective monarchy that installs the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in Malaysia. The historical Malay nation was a cultural construct, not a political one.

So – from whence does the modern, political version of Malay Nationalism spring? Perhaps it began, as many things did, with the colonial interference of the British Empire. Linguistic unity is often a tell-tale marker of nationhood, and attempts by the British to standardise Malay using the Johor-Riau-Ligga dialect as a lingua franca certainly would seem like a reasonable place to start, if applying Anderson’s model of Nationhood. This effort appears to have had limited success – Indonesian and Malay have diverged significantly in vocabulary and grammar since their nations’ respective Independences; and woe betide you should you, armed only with your Klang Valley Malay, venture to Kelantan. Instead, perhaps we see the genesis of political unity in the Federated Malay states that the British administered? To which the obvious counterpoint springs from the specificity of that name – and that the Unfederated Malay States made up a sizeable part of the peninsula. Neither of these seem to be a reasonable genesis for modern Malay Nationalism – neither creates or prescribes a specific or natural boundary or criteria around which to define a nation.

In the absence of clear historical precedent to define nationhood, the state has taken it upon itself to step into this cultural vacuum and appoint itself arbiter of who does and does not constitute a part of this fuzzily-defined nation. To be Malay in modern Malaysia is to be extensively classified and categorised by the automatic operation of law – a curious process that is exemplary of the peculiar tendency for statutory legal definitions to introduce more ambiguity and uncertainty than they solve. To be Malay is ethnically complex – whilst no doubt an uncomplicatedly ‘Malay’ ethnic group exists, there are definitional boundaries and grey areas that create complications to notions of monolithic ethnic purity. Consider people of Bugis and Melanau ethnicity, who have distinct subethnic identities within the wider Malay ethnic group. Indeed, this separation is so distinct as to form a core constitutional aspect of the Sultanate of Riau-Lingga, where the Malay Sultan served as Head of State, and a Bugis Yang di-Pertuan Muda served as Head of Government. The distinctiveness and separation but close kindred feeling of the two ‘nations’ is clear in the Sultanate’s Oath of Sungai Baru, which reads as follows:

...جكالاو توان كڤد بوڬيس

توانله كڤد ملايو
دان جكالاو توان كڤد ملايو
توانله كڤد بوڬيس

دان جكالاو موسوه كڤد بوڬيس
موسوهله كڤد ملايو
دان جكالاو موسوه كڤد ملايو
موسوهله كڤد بوڬيس

مك بارڠسياڤا موڠكير

دبينساكن الله سمڤأي انق چوچوڽ..."

...jikalau tuan kepada Bugis,

tuanlah kepada Melayu

dan jikalau tuan kepada Melayu

tuanlah kepada Bugis

dan jikalau musuh kepada Bugis

musuhlah kepada Melayu

dan jikalau musuh kepada Melayu

musuhlah kepada Bugis

maka barangsiapa mungkir

dibinasakan Allah sampai anak cucunya...

This acknowledgement of other ethnicities overlapping to some degree or another with wider Malay identity can also be seen in modern Malay folk who self-identify as ancestrally or culturally aligning to places in modern-day Indonesia (e.g. Java). Indeed, ethnicity as a biological/genealogical marker as a whole is scarcely relevant in defining membership in a modern Malay nation – we have to look no further than the current Director-General of Health, YBhg. Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, who is uncontroversially and as a matter of public record known to be born ethnically Chinese as Yew Ming Seong. Article 160 of the Federal Constitution provides that identification as a Malay is done purely on the basis of behavioural, religious, and cultural markers; with no reference to ethnicity in what must be acknowledged as a surpassingly liberal and progressive idea, in principle.

Article 160 further provides that to be Malay is to be definitionally a practitioner of Islam. The obvious hypothetical is then presented of an individual who is born Malay by ethnicity and who subsequently chooses to convert out of Islam to another religion, or to choose to be a person of no faith entirely – does such a person no longer have a legal ethnicity in Malaysia? The fact is, of course, that such an action is a legal impossibility under current Malaysian law – such a person would most certainly in any case be persona non grata should their unorthodox religious beliefs become public. It should also be noted that whilst Article 160 only requires the practicing of Islam without specificity; it is clear that through the reserved powers of Their Highnesses the Malay Rulers in their respective States, and of His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong more generally, with regards the practice of Islam within the Federation as exercised through royal, state, and national religious organs, bodies, and founts of authority as the case may be, the only valid form of Islam for this purpose would be Malaysian-orthodox Shafi’i Sunni Islam. Accordingly, any Shi’a Muslims, or Muslims of other minority sects such as the Ahmadiyya are definitionally not legally Malay, irrespective of ethnic identity.

The legal mechanisms of Article 160 supersede community recognition of Nationhood; and supplants it instead with recognition of Nationhood defined by the State, and enforced with the implicit threat from the State’s monopoly on persuasive violence. Instead of groups of persons organically identifying and delineating nations by process of mutual recognition; the State imposes shibboleths as artificial standards by which to try to categorise and regularise what is an inherently amorphous, indistinct, and fluid. We have to look only at the cases of Lina Joy or Wong Ah Kiu to understand that the Malaysian state has been and continues to be willing to ignore individual choice, rights, and freedoms in pursuit of maintaining the veneer of strict ethnic orthodoxy. The rights of individuals are irrelevant considerations insofar as the political project of maintaining a cohesive and indefatigable Malay nation is concerned. Individual and community recognition of who is and is not a member of the Nation is irrelevant when faced with the enforced categorisation and subsequent compulsory recognition of the State, for its own political purposes.

Indeed, an argument might reasonably be made that the legal absolutism that characterises the definition of Malay-ness that operates within Malaysia today is a relic and legacy of the taxonomy and classification obsessed Colonial Service of the British Empire – with their oft ill-advised attempts to divide up the vast lands under their thumb during the height of Empire into little boxes acceptable to rationalist Victorian sensibilities; as opposed to the chaotic and interrelated mish-mash of culture and identity that their Empire in reality was. Malaya, as with the other quarter of the world’s landmass that flew a Union Jack; was categorised and cut up and organised with the same amateur confidence with which a medium-sized Civil Service office in Whitehall was run – and following the only method the Empire knew: strict, uncompromising, moderately-well-researched absolute requirements – no more, no less. The only conceivable response, once cognisant of the fuzzy swamp of nationhood and identity that Malay-ness presented, was to create and enforce arguably arbitrary tests to define Malay-ness.

It should be by now uncontroversial to the reader to point out that racialised politics – even if generously considered to be benevolently racialised – have been central to Malaysian (and before that, Malayan) political life since the concept of Malaya as a state or polity began. Having explored the historical background leading up to the development of modern Malay Nationalism, we look to more recent history in the era leading up to and immediately after Merdeka to understand the historical context by which the political project that has since become indistinguishable from Malay Nationalism developed. The modern political Malay Nationalism we have described herein is and will be forever irrevocably wrapped up with the Malaysian Malay genesis narrative of postcolonial Malaya – of a majority population of poor, rural, agricultural Malays being forced against their will to compete in a rapidly and confusing modernising economy, against commercially-minded pendatang brought to Malaya without the consent of the Malays by British colonisers. A narrative which conveniently ignores the millennia of cultural and economic contact and exchange between the various Malay kingdoms and polities on the Peninsula and amidst the archipelagos of maritime South-East Asia, and the wider Indian Ocean and South China Sea trade networks – trade networks that were so vast and developed as to allow Claudius Ptolemy, a Roman Citizen living in Alexandria in the 2nd Century, to be aware of a land called the Golden Chersonese with a settlement called Konkonagara (cf. Kekolong Negara). A narrative which also forgets both historical and more recent migration tendencies of Malay and Malay-adjacent persons from across Maritime South East Asia to the peninsula – an economic migration pattern hardly likely to have been undertaken by commercially ignorant subsistence agriculturalists.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, this narrative has informed much of the justification, rationale, and underlying first principles of modern political Malay Nationalist ideology. The impact of this narrative manifests as a combination of domestic irredentism and proselytising puritanicalism, drawing strength from and reinforcing the mechanistic and consuming definition of Malayness forwarded by the political Malay Nationalist project – Malayness cannot be diverse; but instead must be defended and conceptualised in a mythologised, monolithically pure form – which itself forms an imagined ideal to aspire to and push for a return to. What might be described as Ketuanan Nationalism begins with the prima facie assumption of oppression: it justifies its existence as having been constructed in response to and in defence of a peoples being economically marginalised and left behind within what they claim as their homeland. This justification is, of course, irrespective of arguments that might be rightfully raised about exactly whom these peoples are, what they define as the borders of their ancestral country, and the nature of the oppression they claim to be suffering.

This presumption of oppression informs and shapes the overriding, overarching nationalistic project of Ketuanan Nationalism – the project is not about defending what they feel is rightfully ‘ours’ and factually in ‘our’ possession in the manner that characterises many other types of ethnic in-group nationalism. Instead, Ketuanan Nationalism seeks to recapture what it imagines was unfairly or inequitably taken away. Accordingly, whilst we might at first instance expect to find and recognise where such Ketuanan Nationalism shares much in common with the ideology of contemporary American & European White Nationalism (prominently including, but not limited to: an obsession with group purity, despite being historically as diverse and mongrelised as any other arbitrary ethnic population; and an overriding religious message and tone – with just a hint of implication of divine destiny or pre-eminence); we should in reality be far more concerned about the how the methods of Ketuanan Nationalism might echo extremist Black Nationalism and Left-Wing Anti-White-Nationalism, with its open license to utilise violence, aggression, and militancy justified as a proportionate response to an innately violent and oppressive system; its denigration of identified-oppressors as subhuman justified through reference to historical grievance whether real, exaggerated in the mind, or entirely imagined. In essence, Ketuanan Nationalism imagines itself existing in the equivalent of the world that Golden Dawn, Jobbik, UKIP, Alternative für Deutschland and countless other nationalist-populist parties in Europe fearmongeringly preach will be the destiny of that continent in 10 years – a land populated by a formerly glorious master race of some description being unfairly trampled upon and economically and socially ostracised in their own country. When understanding Ketuanan Nationalists through this prism, their reactionary behaviour becomes almost understandable.

Ketuanan Nationalism, as explained above, has never been about defending a perceived acceptable or beneficial status quo – the foundational mythos of this nationalism is of oppression and disadvantage, and a noble struggle for reclamation. This core ideal contributed significantly to the development of Ketuanan Nationalism as primarily imagined in communitarian, not individualistic, nationalist terms. Because the narrative of Ketuanan Nationalism assumes that ‘the Malay’ in abstract is economically bereft of property and value, there is no requirement to defend individual Malays as they have nothing to defend. Instead, the essential Nationalist manifestation of effort is in how individuals can contribute to the imagine rebuilding of the dignity – maruah – of the community. This in turn explains the relative ambivalence of the wider Malay community towards the inequitable distribution of economic rewards. There is a tacit acceptance of the flamboyant and oft-ostentatiously conspicuous consumption of the Malay political and economic elite by the wider populace, despite the abject poverty many of their constituents and dependent clients subsist in: the exaggerated success of particular individuals is nonetheless viewed as a community victory and success against perceived ethnic rivals. The very existence of successful individuals, despite the oppression narrative of Ketuanan nationalism, is an occurrence that brings honour and dignity to the group as a whole; even when the boons of that success are dramatically inequitably distributed within the group.

To take the argument a step further – this likely also explains the common ‘gratitude’ narrative that accompanies Malay unwillingness to discuss, disclose, or question the source of material wealth. Dissuading inquiry and couching dismissal of such inquiry in religious and cultural terms (as rezeki, et al.) serves a dual purpose: to impart an element of the sacred and divine to the material acquisitions, linking them to Divine favour and providence as rewards for implied righteousness, and in doing so morally elevating the fortunate possessor as being more worthy of rewards (in a manner not dissimilar to the Evangelical Protestant Prosperity Gospel that has taken root in decadent America); as well as to imply and in many ways threaten religious opprobrium for questioning the wisdom of Divine Providence in deigning to provide certain privileged people with certain rewards and gifts.

It is this selfsame communitarian expression of nationalism that serves as a convincing explanation as to why it is an open secret that is relatively – if quietly and discretely – accepted that Malay sociopolitical elites can and regularly do breach any number of religious and cultural taboos that would otherwise be imposed on and expected of ‘true Malays’, in the strictest Ketuanan Nationalism definition of the concept. Drug and alcohol use, irreligiousness, homosexuality – all are acceptable, if deviant, secrets so long as the public façade and image of continued orthodoxy is maintained to a plausibly deniable degree. In many way this is symptomatic of true Malay Nationalism’s underlying flexibility and comfort with ambiguity at the fringes of its definition – but critically antithetical to the consuming monolith of Ketuanan Nationalism. The latter nonetheless creates an unconvincing but internally consistent justification for these cultural ‘abnormalities’: by imagining Malay National identity as an inherently and ultimately communitarian one; the failures or shortcomings of flawed individuals do not detract from the overall narrative of purity, even if those individuals with shortcomings are leaders that espouse the purity narrative at length and with fervour. Individual Malays can and will be flawed; but the conceptual, abstract Malay Nation as a whole remains orthodox. As the existence of these hypocrisies becomes more evident, it is subsequently not unreasonable or surprising that the frequency and intensity of nativist reactionary kneejerks (such as the rise of PAS, or the increasing spread of Wahabism) is on the increase. It is, however, equally unsurprising that the leaders preaching such reactions nevertheless inherit the cultural legacies, baggage, and practices of existing Ketuanan Nationalism – creating a world of paradoxical doublespeak where the same individuals that indulge in culturally taboo vices are also the stalwart defenders and promoters of cultural orthodoxy.

We have observed and explored Malay Nationalism, and more specifically a specific brand of Ketuanan Nationalism; as a contradictory, oft ill-defined, and increasingly extremist and absolutist way to compensate for and paper over the existence of uncomfortable grey areas and fringe cases carved out by individuals and groups of individuals which do not neatly conform to communitarian ideals of Malay Nationalism. Whilst contradiction and complexity are by no means unique to Malay Nationalism, what is sui generis to it is the political albatross around its neck of being used to support and maintain a highly conflict-prone racialised political system and environment for the benefit of a small privileged minority for the better part of a century. Malay Nationalism – indeed, Ketuanan Nationalism – is indisputably a political force that is able to win General Elections in this country, but one has to wonder if it would be capable of doing so in isolation. It is difficult to imagine the Malay Nationalism we see in Malaysia Today without the omnipresent pendatang other against which to define itself. Would these inherent contradictions and hypocrisies survive in a political environment where they weren’t necessary to present a unified cultural-political bulwark against perceived racial and ethnic competitors?

In Part 2, we will examine what Malaysian Nationalism could have been, is, and might be.


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