O Bangsa Malaysia, Wherefore Art Thou? (Part I)

Walski’s Note: This is the first of a two-part article by a guest writer. Being that Walski isn’t as productive in creating content as he used to be, he thought it would be a good idea to post articles that he thinks are worthwhile to share. This two-part article was written by Mikhail Hafiz (follow him at @IMMikhailHafiz on Twitter), and provides one Malaysian citizen’s lament about the state of the nation, and what said citizen thinks may be the way forward. This is Mikhail’s second article in his Rediscovering Malaysia series of writings (a book, eventually, perhaps?). Kindly note that Mikhail’s preferred mode of English spelling is the British/UK variety, and as such this has been retained.

(Standfirst: Decades of uninspired post-Merdeka nation building has left Malaysian nationalism in a parlous condition: suspended in a narrative limbo and stranded in an ideological purgatory.)

[NOTE: In the first part of this article, I explore the interconnected concepts of nationhood, nation building and national identity, and outline the ideological dichotomy of the ethnic nation-state and its civic counterpart, from a uniquely Malaysian perspective.

In Part II, I argue for a values based (re)conceptualisation of an existing quasi-variant of the Malaysian identity, anchored by the centrifugal human attribute of integrity, and assert that, in our quest to attain national unity, diversity should be regarded as an ally.]


“Malaysia, bereft of a unifying national identity, is like an unmoored boat, drifting aimlessly in the sea of identity politics.

As it strays further into treacherous waters, the boat continues to be buffeted by increasingly turbulent waves of racial bigotry and religious intolerance.

The roiling waves, which continue to gather speed and momentum, are soon to be accompanied by torrential downpour, crashes of thunder, flashes of lightning and howling winds that have appeared in the not-too-distant horizon.

The inevitable confluence of these menacing and malevolent elements signals the imminent arrival of a tropical storm of relentless and rampant racial and religious polarisation that threatens to capsize and destroy the boat.

Will Malaysia be able to steer herself to safe waters and tether herself to the sturdy and reassuring harbour of an inclusive and non-discriminatory national identity? Or will she be rent asunder by the tempestuous storm and sink ignominiously to the bottom of the ocean?”


Nationhood. Nation building. National identity.

Three distinct, yet interconnected socio-political concepts, each representing a crucial and chronological component in the initial stages of national development. The successful establishment of a post-colonial nation-state leads to the emergence of a sovereign nationhood.

The existence of this newly formed political, economic, social and cultural polity necessitates the process of nation building, which, at some point, and with the requisite effort, usually results in the formation of a unique and definitive national identity.

[NOTE: In the intermediate and advanced stages of national development, it is imperative for the nation-state to continue to exist while nation building progresses. Similarly, a multi-dimensional relationship can, and often does, exist between nation building and national identity. The former does not necessarily come to a grinding halt once the latter is constructed. This “revelation” is hardly surprising, considering the fact that nation building dynamics of most countries are influenced by geo-political, socio-political and religio-political developments in the domestic, regional and global spheres, since they are not hermetic in nature.]

Malaya’s sovereign nationhood was both intentional and aspirational: it was willed into existence through a protracted series of extensive diplomatic negotiations between the local political elite and a retreating British empire in the mid-twentieth century, justifying her current status as a nubile nation-state and fledgling democracy.

The yen for political self-determination was also buttressed by the formation of the Reid Commission in March 1956, to draw up a secular constitution for the independent and fully self-governing Malaya, after centuries of colonial rule by three major trading Western European empires (Portuguese, Dutch and British, in chronological order), interspersed with regional suzerainty (Acheh and Bugis) and the Japanese occupation during the Second World War.

And yet, more than six decades after freeing herself from the shackles of Pax Brittania’s global hegemony, Malaysia still suffers from an identity crisis, as she experiences continual and inevitable growing pains in her rite of passage to eventual sovereign maturity. Without a cohesive national identity, Malaysia is an amorphous, ambivalent and ambiguous entity, devoid of any unique, defining characteristics.

Without an edifying social structure, our nationhood remains fragmented, factionalised and fragile. [See Why National Identity Matters by Francis Fukuyama]

Ironically, Malaysia’s ongoing identity crisis is effectuated by our very own inability to come up with a decisive and unequivocal answer to a deceptively simple yet ultimately perplexing question:

What is it that makes us truly Malaysian?

It is therefore unsurprising to note that, in a 2016 survey of attitudes and ethnoreligious integration to meet the challenge and maximise the promise of a multicultural Malaysia involving 1,504 adult citizens based in Peninsular Malaysia, “there was an indication that being Malaysian meant different things to different groups, and further research is needed to tailor integration efforts based around promoting the national identity so that such efforts do not inadvertently push people further apart”.

Also, this survey revealed that “[r]espondents from all ethnic groups identified more strongly with their ethnic group than they did with being Malaysian, though for Malays, these identities were more similar in strength than for non-Malays.” (Al Ramiah et al, 2017)

Political analysts Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid and Che Hamdan Che Mohd Razali offer this trenchant observation on the indeterminate status of our national identity:

“Despite over 60 years of uninterrupted nation-building under [then governing coalition Barisan Nasional], consensus on the character of Malaysia’s national identity still eludes the various ethnic and religious groups that make up the country.”

This question inevitably leads to a related query: what kind of national image are we projecting to the international community? How can Malaysia represent herself accurately on the global stage without a clear, coherent and conclusive self-identity?

Without a collective self-image that is both articulate and authentic, our national psyche remains diffuse and unfocused. Also, the opportunity to develop a sense of commonality is lost.

This sense of common purpose and communal belonging was eloquently expressed by His Royal Highness Sultan Nazrin Shah (then the Crown Prince of Perak) in a speech at the First Annual Student Leaders’ Summit in 2007, in which he artfully enunciated the clear-eyed recognition that “Malaysians of all races, religions and geographic locations need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun”.

(According to political analyst Ooi Kee Beng, “[t]his insight gains power not through the fact that inter-ethnic relations have been worsening in recent years, but because it bravely directs attention to the worry that [Malaysia] has been developing a stubbornly multi-tiered citizenry”.)

Malaysia’s peaceful and orderly transition from a subject of the British empire to a post-feudal, post-colonial independent political entity has necessitated the promulgation and implementation of idiosyncratic nation building measures and state building procedures.

While our state building efforts have been solid, if not spectacular, the same cannot be said of our nation building endeavours, which can, at best, be described as lacklustre and haphazard.

To exacerbate matters, our nation building initiatives have constantly been hampered, hamstrung and hindered by the confrontational and discordant nature of our country’s communitarian and sectarian politics.

Given the prominence of the anachronistic quagmire that is the race paradigm (and its subsequent cooption of religion) in our socio-political consciousness, as reflected in the deliberate ethnicisation of our public institutions and social structures (Frederik Holst, 2014), and half-hearted attempts to codify a national identity, Malaysian political discourse is blighted by dissonance, conflict, and superficiality.

(Similarly, our education system is geared towards fulfilling the demands of the state apparatus: to equip the citizenry with functional knowledge and academic qualifications that will enable them to occupy various positions in our civil service and private enterprises.)

If we acknowledge the predicament that our previous attempt(s) at nation building have been subpar, how do we remedy this shortcoming?

It would not be unreasonable to postulate that a reconceptualisation (ie, redefining or reshaping) of our national identity is imperative.

So, how do we define our national identity?

Three main schools of defining national identity exist.

Essentialists view national identity as fixed, based on ancestry, a common language history, ethnicity, and world views (Connor 1994; Huntington 1996).

Constructivists believed in an importance of politics and the use of power by dominant groups to gain and maintain privileged status in society (Brubaker, 2009; Spillman, 1997; Wagner-Pacifici & Schwartz, 1991).

Finally, the civic identity school focuses on shared values about rights and State institutions’ legitimacy to govern.

The genesis of Malaysia’s identity dilemma can be traced back to her post-1969 political reconstruction; since then, Malaysian nationhood has veered between a civic-territorial ideal and an ethnic-Malay genealogical vision.  (Loh, 2017).

Our predominant nation building initiatives have been a binary, Dickens-seque “tale of two narratives” that pits ethnic nationalism, characterised by its inherent rigidity and stridency, against civic nationalism, which is consultative, consensual and conciliatory.

The most recent manifestation of this ideological dichotomy is evidenced by all three major ethnoreligious nationalist political parties in the governing coalition pursuing a Malay-centric approach, even though ethnocentricism, as an ideology for modern nation building, effectively dismisses the inherent and prevailing inter-cultural hybridity and cosmopolitanism of our country (specifically) and the South East Asian region (generally). Meanwhile, civil society favours a more collaborative approach, as delineated by political and current affairs columnist Nathaniel Tan in an informative and illuminating article, appropriately titled “#BangsaMalaysia dialogues”, in which he argues, convincingly and persuasively, that “[b]uilding social capital, shared values for a shared identity and rakyat-centric policies are core elements of nation-building”.

Screenshot of Nathaniel Tan’s article from The Star.

Post GE14, Malaysian nationalism appears to have arrived at an ideological crossroads. What type of nation-state do Malaysians desire: an inclusive civic nation, or an ethnocracy driven by identity politics?

Former military officer and incumbent academic Muthiah Alagappa asserts that “based on the principle of one person, one vote, Malaya and later Malaysia were intended to be civic nation-states in which all citizens had equal political rights, opportunities, and responsibilities.” However, the commitment of these ethnoreligious nationalist parties to the creation of an ethnic Malay-Muslim nation-state, despite immanent, well-documented flaws in its communitarian and exclusionary ideological foci – facilitating zero-sum competition, heightening the siege mentality of the ethnic majority via fear and hate mongering, invoking negative connotations of race, religion and language, demonising the benign (and neutral) concepts of secularism, liberalism and pluralism, encouraging minority groups to seek political alternatives instead of building loyalty and consolidating support for the nation-state – ensures that Malaysian identity remains a contentious issue, one that will only be resolved when all parties (eventually) subscribe to the idea of a civic nation.


Part II of this essay may be read here.

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