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

Walski’s Note: This is the second of a two-part article by myAsylum’s first ever guest writer, Mikhail Hafiz (follow him at @IMMikhailHafiz on Twitter). Part I of this well-researched and well written piece may be found here. This two-part article provides one Malaysian citizen’s lament about the state of the nation, and what said citizen thinks may be the way forward. In this second part, Mikhail argues for a values based reconceptualization of what it means to be Malaysian. 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.

PART I: Read here.


Forging a comprehensive national identity requires the collective individual to relinquish the archaic and communalistic mindset that considers diversity a liability and a threat to national development, and embrace pluralism as an asset and an advantage.

In the sagacious words of esteemed constitutional law expert Shad Saleem Faruqi:

“Creating unity in diversity is a long-term process that requires constant strengthening and recalibration. The job is not the government’s alone. All citizens have a role to play.” He further counsels: “We must recognise that our diversity, heterogeneity, pluralism and multi-culturalism are assets despite the inevitable challenges they pose.” [See Building bridges, dismantling walls by Shad Saleem Faruqi, via The Star]

While unity based on uniformity may prove to be elusive, or even undesirable, unity that is predicated upon diversity can and does exist. In other words, what is attainable here is a non-uniformitarian unity, as postulated by eminent academic Clive Kessler.

It is a pragmatic and feasible stratagem that employs “the acceptance and negotiation of differences as the basis of strength, the real source within complex socio-political entities of effective unity itself.”

It would be not be unreasonable to suggest that, for an ethnically plural, religiously diverse and vibrantly multicultural nation-state like Malaysia, “[p]ursuing this inclusive notion of non-uniformitarian unity, and so creating a framework for its realisation, is now the best, and probably the only way forward” to address the somewhat pressing issue of our existing identity crisis.

This significant paradigm shift undoubtedly presents a formidable challenge to our various ethnic communities, which have each been exposed – in varying degrees – to collective identity manipulation, and raised in a political culture fuelled by fear and distrust.

To complicate matters even further, unscrupulous politicians have exploited what local writer and academic Lloyd Fernando describes as “de-tribalisation anxiety” to ensconce themselves in positions of power and authority.

However, all is not lost. There is still light at the end of this dark and dangerous tunnel, even if it glimmers faintly in the distance.

Social thinkers (eg, Denis-Constant Martin, Ruth Wodak, Rudolf de Cillia, Martin Reisi and Karin Leibhart) have identified language (medium) and discourse (method) as the essential means through which the uniqueness and distinctness of a community and its particular values are presented.

As such, a common language and honest, meaningful and respectful discourse are both key instruments in the social construction of a nation, which is defined by political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) as “a collection of imagined communities”.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this engagement process, as national identity requires the process of self-categorisation, and it involves both the identification of in-group (identifying with one’s nation) and differentiation of out-groups (other nations).

Because they are “mobilised into existence through symbols invoked by political leadership” (Dryzek, 2006, p. 35), discourses are powerful in that they can construct, perpetuate, transform or dismantle national identities (Wodak et al., 1999).

After 64 years of independence, it is time for us to move away from the constrictive, divisive and pernicious realm of identity politics, and imbibe a set of universal values that are acceptable to Malaysians of every race, religion, colour, creed and class.

It is humbly submitted that this value system should be anchored by the centrifugal human attribute of integrity, for the fundamental reason that it is integrity that gives a nation-state credibility, especially in the increasingly important domain of international relations. This percipience is particularly pertinent in the wake of Malaysia’s irrefutably and significantly tarnished international reputation, due to its notoriety as a global kleptocracy (via reuters.com), following the hugely embarrassing revelations of the now infamous 1MDB scandal, much to the mortification of the Malaysian public, and disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s subsequent High Court conviction for abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering in July 2020. [see Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Former Prime Minister, Found Guilty in Graft Trial, via nytimes.com]

Former Attorney General Tommy Thomas contends that “[s]ince Merdeka, Malaysia has placed much emphasis on how the world perceives her. Image building has been very much the cornerstone of her foreign policy.”

Erstwhile federal lawmaker Tawfik Ismail (son of the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, widely regarded as the best Prime Minister Malaysia never had) asserts that integrity is “one of the most important core values around which other desirable ends are built, such as the integration of our society into a cohesive, inclusive community”. [“Integrity – the core quality we need” via The Star]

This prized attribute acquires additional heft if we support the argument that the long term goal of Merdeka is, from an individualistic perspective, the emergence of an intelligent, empowered and virtuous Malaysian citizen; and collectively, the creation of a Bangsa Malaysia that is imbued with an impregnable sense of integrity.

As a plural society, we are in the enviable position of being able to harness the potential of every faction in our combined efforts to weave a rich tapestry of national values, where the final product is considerably more than the sum of its parts.

In this particular context, the success of our nation building effort is, to a significant extent, dependent on our ability to pinpoint the equilibrium by attaining a delicate balance between “more is more” and “less is more” via a judicious selection process.

Our ultimate nation building challenge, then, is to identify a set of compatible and complementary values that define and represent the collective and connective ownership of a nation we fondly refer to as “tanahairku”, and couch them into a congruous narrative.

As we look ahead to what appears to be an uncertain and unpredictable future, do we want to spend the next six (and a half) decades lamenting the missed opportunities and commiserate about the unfulfilled potential of our nation?

Or do we knuckle down and construct an inclusive and non-discriminatory national identity that we can proudly proclaim as uniquely and distinctively Malaysian?

Public intellectual Ooi perceptively opines that “building a country and a society that one can be proud of is a process and the work starts immediately in the individual’s mind and heart.”

He adds that while cynicism has become one of the underlying attitudes among many Malaysians, “the future is not for cynics to build. It is built by people who dare to dream and hope, who are bold enough to forgive if not forget.”

Perhaps these stirring words, brought to visceral, invigorating life by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, Malaya’s (and subsequently, Malaysia’s) first Prime Minister and Father of Independence, on the historic day of 31 August 1957, can serve as an inspiration:

“But while we think of the past, we look forward in faith and hope to the future; from henceforth we are masters of our own destiny, and the welfare of this beloved land is our own responsibility.

Let no one think we have reached the end of the road: Independence is indeed a milestone, but it is only the threshold to high endeavour – the creation of a new and sovereign State.”

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, First Prime Minister of Malaya/Malaysia

To paraphrase a famous saying of the Italian patriot Massimo d’Azeglio (1798-1866): “We have created Malaysia. Now all we need to do is to create Malaysians.

And so, besides “What is it that truly makes us Malaysian?”, the other salient question we should strive to answer – both individually and collectively – in relation to the reconfiguration of our national identity is: “When does one effectively become a Malaysian?

Formulating a unique and distinctive national identity may be a formidable challenge, but it is one where the rewards far exceed the efforts expended.

The success or failure of this noble endeavour is predicated upon the intents and actions of both the political establishment and the general populace and diaspora, which are, to a significant extent, interdependent and inextricably linked.

Constructing a unique and definitive national identity is like building a sturdy and durable home. The structure of our national ethos should be clearly and unequivocally defined, just as the framework of the building should be scrupulously and securely erected.

Additionally, the set of chosen values to be incorporated as part of our national identity should build on this structure, just as the various materials employed in the construction process should strengthen the underlying substratum of the residence.

A Malaysian identity that is based on the twin pillars of integrity and diversity acts as a robust bulwark against intemperate racial and religious polarisation, just as a solidly constructed dwelling protects its inhabitants from even the most extreme elements of nature.

Can Malaysian citizens muster an unyielding determination and unstinting commitment to undertake this arduous yet fulfilling task to completion, if they are given the opportunity to do so?

Reciprocally, can Malaysia’s current (and future) leaders cast aside their partisan interests and overcome their political shortsightedness and inertia to spearhead a genuinely substantive nation building process?

Only time will tell.

However, since every accomplishment begins with the decision to try, it would perhaps be prudent for us to heed the advice dispensed by American founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who advocates action in favour of procrastination:

Don’t put off until tomorrow, what you can do today.

Carpe diem, Malaysia!

Part I of this article may be found here

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