A nation is not a state but a nation-state is both a nation and a state. There are stark differences between nation and state but not many differentiate the two concepts. Worse, at times, the two terms are used interchangeably. Comprehension of the two terms is required if one is to grasp the impetus for Bangsa Malaysia — transliterally, the Malaysian race; more accurately, the Malaysian nation — and further, why the traditional nation-state concept based on ethnicity and religion is outdated.

A nation is a community whereas its members, individuals, share a common identity. That identity in turn is derived from history, through similarities in languages, ethnicities, religions, or in the broadest sense, culture. It is through this shared identity which nationalism arises. A nation is therefore fluid with no concrete border by itself. As the community expands or shrinks, so does the nation.

A state is more solid in nature and changes to its borders usually involve macro-events such as wars or referendum which individuals agree to come together or part ways. It is an institution that governs a set of territories with the monopoly of legitimate use of physical force within that territories.

At some points in history, nations started to demand their own states. The demands later introduced the concept known as nation-state. In such concept, a nation has sovereignty over a set of territories. This has been the basis for the foundation of a number of countries in the world including but not limited to, at its inception at least, many European states, the Arab states, China and Japan.

For a multicultural state, the concept of nation-state is hard to apply; the central question is what is the shared identity?

This could be a very divisive question. Needless to say, members of a multicultural society come from diverse background and more likely than not, identities are not shared. Differences may be more pronounced than any commonality exists among communities that a nation-state depends on.

When there is little or no shared identity and with greater differences instead, there may be an urge to create an artificial nation to justify a nation-state. For those that favor a multicultural state, this is a natural reaction to such absence because the lack of common identity coupled with the ideals of nationalism of various groups tend to divide a state into smaller states, sometimes violently.

Nationalism calls for one land for one nation. Balkanization may be the manifestation of nationalism within a multicultural state in its worst form. Events of the 1990s and early 2000s continuously broke up the multicultural, or within our context, multinational, Yugoslavia. Indeed, Yugoslavia is not a special case. The Astro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were other victims of nationalism. If I may say so, the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire, the former political center of the Muslim world is the reason why Islam is hostile to a certain kind of nationalism, fuming at how religious nationalism was undone by ethnic nationalism.

Malaysia is another example of a multinational state. Nationalism may have done to Malaysia to what it had done to the Ottoman Empire though never closer to the latter’s magnitude. At its inception in 1963, 14 states came together to form a new federation. The question of shared identity, of nationalism, quickly forced the expulsion of one of its states, Singapore, out of the federation short of two years later. Four years after that, the worst racial riot — May 13 incident — in Malaysian history erupted. The riot could have further broken up the new federation. Wary of repeating the same incident, the state, the federation, requires a common identity to create a sense of oneness. With absence of a shared identity, it becomes necessary to create a common identity. It becomes absolutely necessary to synthesize existing nations into a one or altogether create a new nation.

Indonesia in the past created a common identity which was imposed from the top to the bottom. To a lesser degree, Malaysia is pursuing similar path. This is apparent through the National Language Act of 1967, the National Culture Policy of 1970s and more nakedly, the introduction of Bangsa Malaysia during the Mahathir administration.

Despite years of cliche, Bangsa Malaysia has not been properly defined and its definition differs across individuals and groups. At the moment, the result of Bangsa Malaysia is mixed, probably because it is a work in progress but one thing is clear — Rome was not built in a day.

In a new world where free flow of capital and labor is becoming common and necessary, a nation will eventually come into frequent contact with other nations. These interactions will inevitably change the composition of the nation as well as the society. The more liberal a society is, the faster a state turns into a multicultural society from a monocultural one as liberty attracts; from uninational, it becomes multinational. These interactions do offer unprecedented challenges toward effort of building a nation-state and society becomes more diverse.

A common identity is a crux of a nation-state. The identity more often than not demands assimilation instead of co-existence and that tends to create a tension among groups that feel the chosen common identity is sidelining theirs. Assimilation is an inescapable issue from the mainstream consciousness if there are large minorities within a multicultural state. In Malaysia, the debate on language and vernacular education signify this tension.

The forces of globalization are rocking the ground which nation-states sit on. The Netherlands for instance is fast becoming a multinational state where the meaning of the word Dutch, in term of citizenship, encompasses emigrants from all over the world. An Algerian could be a Frenchman while a Turk could well be a German. The line between member of nation and citizenship of state has been blurred that some often do away with the distinction altogether. Perhaps, this is a new nation of nations but it could not have been possible without the tolerance required for co-existence and not forced assimilation. In other word, a liberal nation. Lately however, a surge of nationalism and xenophobia are undermining the creation of a liberal nation.

For Malaysia, the Malaysian nation concept is an effort by force towards a new nation; an artificial shared identity. For it to succeed, it cannot be a nation based on ethnicity or religion. Dependence on such nationalism is detrimental to the state where it encourages development of very different nations which in the end, only balkanization is the logical solution. For the Malaysian nation to stand the test of time, it has to be a nation based on an universal idea, a philosophy — liberalism — where differences are tolerated or even cherished.

With a liberal nation, a liberal Malaysia practicing liberal democracy, one does not need to artificially create a shared identity. All one has to do is observe the non-aggression axiom — every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man. Through interactions in liberal settings, a shared identity will be grown organically, spontaneously.

All one needs to do is to respect the smallest unit of the society or nation — the individuals. A nation, after all, cannot exist without individuals. If the sovereignty of the individuals is disrespected, individuals would come together to form groups to demand sovereignty for nation-state for each group, breaking apart a multicultural state.

5 Responses to “[1277] Of defining a liberal Malaysian nation”

  1. on 01 Jul 2007 at 00:45 Jed Yoong a.k.a. freelunch2020

    Hey Hafiz,

    Another piece with good depth and insights.

    i agree with the following:

    “With a liberal nation, a liberal Malaysia practicing liberal democracy, one does not need to artificially create a shared identity. All one has to do is observe the non-aggression axiom — every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.

    All one needs to do is to respect the smallest unit of the society or nation — the individuals. A nation, after all, cannot exist without individuals.”

    However, I beg to differ that Malaysians are a bunch of different races with their own identity hence necessitating the creation of an artificial national identity.

    I believe that such differences are superficial. For instance, let’s take religion. At a glance Islam may appear very different from Buddhism especially if you compare their doctrines on redemption and penance. But if you strip away all the rules and regulations, a Malaysian Muslim may share more common values, preferences and dreams with a Malaysian Buddhist than his Arabian brothers.

    Like a love for nasi lemak and teh tarik; political gossip at kopitiams; wearing t-shirts instead of robes; football (either actually playing or more commonly just watching); balik kampung during Hari Raya or Chinese New Year; and all the other common values of politeness, respecting elders, being family-oriented, “don’t rock the boat” (in the negative form also known as “close-one-eye”), and more.

    IMHO, most Malaysians are like most human beings. Most want a good life, find love, make enough money to support their family, and for those more privileged, find their purpose in life ;)

    I understand your point on how the govt tries to create a false national identity via its Ali, Ah Chong, Muthu syllabus but beyond that it’s sharing common values and dreams that bind people together. Usually coming from the same background helps. ;)

    And all Malaysians who grow-up in Malaysia share a common culture, history, experiences, and more; all solid enough to build a REAL national identity.

    At the same time, every individual has in their hands the power to create their own identity. Being born Chinese means that I am usually labelled ‘kiasu’, ‘money crazy’, ‘cunning’ and ‘good in business’. But these are labels, just like ‘Malaysian’ is a label. I don’t see how specifying what constitutes a ‘Malaysian’ is necessary for unity.

    So I agree with you.

    “With a liberal nation, a liberal Malaysia practicing liberal democracy, one does not need to artificially create a shared identity.”

  2. […] nation is not a state and vice versa, unless a nation-state is in the equation. Many however do not comprehend the […]

  3. […] are people, many in fact, that feel strongly about one thing or another. I myself preferring a liberal society but the truth is, there are approximately 27 million Malaysians and none are able to completely […]

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  5. […] do not agree to such unwritten contract. The only contract I hold is the non-aggression axiom, which in many ways given the current environment, it satisfyingly embedded in the Constitution. […]

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