Home 2006: 7 Merdeka! – But are we a nation yet?

Merdeka! – But are we a nation yet?

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Rustam Sani asks rhetorically: Are we a nation yet? Communalism will remain as long as the ethnic groups ‘compete for the supremacy of percentages’ or quotas in our social life. Return to the days of the Putera-AMCJA to draw some lessons, he opines.

Political events in Malaysia during the last few years have convinced me that Malaysia is just a state without a nation – or, at least, a state with several competing nations.

Every institution in our society seems to be divided along communal – or is it national(?) – lines. For example, in higher education we have what are virtually Malay public universities and what are virtually non-Malay private universities; so in virtually every other social institution – political parties, business houses, residential estates, etc.

These culturally insulated social institutions cover almost every aspect of our social life: communities, entertainment, language, culture, and religion. This social situation basically constitutes an inertia (or continuation) of the colonial situation.

Each community underwent a separate history of absorption into the colonial system, lived under different social conditions and with different historical experiences. Even the history of the struggle of freeing each community from the colonial system (i.e. independence) took different paths, quite insulated from the paths experienced by other communities.

There was no Malaya before British rule (as there was no India before the British Raj or Indonesia before the Dutch East Indies). At the forefront of the struggle for independence (or more exactly for the creation of a nation) was Malay nationalism.

Around the late 1920s and early 1930s, Malays with rural peasant and emergent working class backgrounds began participating in independence movements – mainly because of their dissatisfaction with the incorporation of the Malay upper classes into the colonial system, to become mere apparatus of the British. Because of their social distance from the colonial state, these rakyat-based nationalists had opted for a “cultural” notion of their “Malay nation of intent” [Melayu Raya] – rather than a “statist” one [Malaya].

The Chinese, on the other hand, then still considered themselves as transient until around the 1940s – at best as “British subjects” in transit. Therefore, in the early stages of political consciousness in the 1930s, the Chinese were just beginning to learn how to articulate their political demands and to protest directly against the British colonial rulers – even raising matters through their representatives in legislative bodies such as the Durbars.

In this regard, the Malays who were represented by the upper (feudal) classes in those legislative bodies neither protested nor articulated political demands. They were still labouring under a gross misconception that the colonial government was really the government of the Malay sultans with the British acting as their advisers. Opposing colonial rule (i.e. demanding independence) was not part of their political agenda then.

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Even the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) which was clearly anti-British in its posture, and with a well-organised fighting force, did not have a clear nationalistic program for Malaya – and appeared to be quite detached from the rakyat-based Malay nationalist movements, such as API, AWAS, PKMM and Hisbul Muslimin. One political weakness of the MCP was its social distance from the local peasant masses and from local issues – causing them to be deprived of indigenous mass support. This is in stark contrast to the populist Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI).


To my mind, the most successful Malay-Non-Malay political cooperation, indeed a manifestation of a “joint” nationalistic movement, was the Putera-AMCJA. There was even an attempt to pursue a nationalist project, and simultaneously resolve the communal question, in the form of The People’s Constitution (1947) in response to the Malayan Union Constitutional proposal introduced by the British. There was even a clear notion of the “nation of intent” and its cultural and other manifestations: We were all to be known as Melayu.

The Emergency of 1948 was implemented by the colonial government in order to nip in the bud this progress towards the realisation of such a notion of a ‘Malayan nation’ as formulated by the various ethnic groups – together. It is interesting to note that, under the Emergency, it was the progressive Malay political organisations with its strong peasant base – such as API, PKMM and Hisbul Muslimin – that were the first to be decreed illegal (even earlier than the MCP).

With the suppression of “the Malay left”, UMNO was sponsored by the British to be the preferred inheritor of an “independent” Malaya. The party’s cooperation with MCA (later to be joined by a “reformed” MIC) in the Alliance during the KL municipal elections was also in a way “sponsored” by the colonial government. It was these forces, together with other forces representing business and political interests in the other communities, that were sponsored to negotiate for independence – which came about in 1957.

From 'social contract' to NEP

The terms of this negotiated independence are now often described as “The Social Contract” – the Malay upper classes, which then constituted a weak bourgeoisie, were in the process of strengthening themselves and  sold’ their efforts to the Malay masses as a legitimate way of uplifting them (the Malays) and of correcting the injustices of (colonial) history.

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The New Economic Policy (NEP) was simply an expression and manifestation of that ideology couched in economic terms, i.e. of increasing their share of equity and wealth of the nation. The language of proportion and percentages became the major language for the equation. The struggle for rights and justice along class lines could not possibly come to the fore as long as there were more compelling elements and divisions along which the injustice was perceived in society such as race, communities and religion.

In the Malaysian political system of today, such divisions are still being emphasised (and reemphasised) by keris-weilding UMNO politicians. But the sad thing is that the counter demands are also articulated by the ethnically-based “partners” of UMNO in the same “ethnic” language.

Since UMNO politicians are complaining that they have not achieved the quantum of percentages sought, MCA politician pointed out the areas in which Malay control is absolute such as in  petroleum and telecommunication. And true to the style of the “social contract”, they were knocking hard on the door in order to obtain their share in those areas.

To my mind, communalism in the national question will remain as long as Malaysia is a state constituted by a multiple of nations competing for supremacy of percentages in almost all areas of our social life. This battle of percentages will continue as long as anything and everything in our social and national life is divided along identifiable ethnic lines – Chinese banks, Malay universities, etc. Only when this “formation” breaks down will the calculation of percentages become mathematically impossible and empirically unnecessary.

Among certain groups, the struggle against the so-called Malay-dominated hegemony is to demand the restoration of the colonial structure, characterised by what I would call a situation of social and cultural laissez faire: each group with different historical experiences existing separately and quite insulated from other groups. To me this is not going to solve our current problem – indeed it could even exacerbate ethnic polarisation.

To my mind, Malaysia needs to become a “real nation”. In a true nation, the battle for supremacy through percentages of control by ethnic groups does not arise whatsoever. Justice should have been fought only for one legitimate reason – to eradicate injustices imposed by the class structure.

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Towards a social nation

I have written elsewhere (Ke Mana Nasionalisme Melayu (2005)) that after independence, Malay nationalism (at least the progressive strand of it) should have been retooled to become a movement for a Malayan or a Malaysian nationalism – just as what Putera-AMCJA tried to do in 1947,  before it was suppressed and broken up.

Malay nationalism, after all, is a “failed nationalism”: it failed to create a Malay nation, and should have been retooled in a new way to cope with a new (or changed) historical reality. Some of you must be thinking that my suggestion should not be taken seriously, that I must be crazy to even have this idea in this age of globali-sation.

The truth of the matter is that I believe that the notion of a nation has not in any way become obsolete. In fact, the world of today and, I believe, in the future too, will remain a world of nations and nation-states. Otherwise, even to organise the football World Cup tournament would have been unthinkable.

For those who think that nationalism is a retrograde idea, let me remind them that such a belief was shared even by “progressive” thinkers such as Marx and Engel. It was their conservative contemporary, Lord Acton (who wrote about it in 1862) who opposed the idea of nationalism. Indeed Marx and Engel were generally sympathetic to the nationalistic aspirations of oppressed peoples and recognised that nations were necessary and desirable and had certain essential functions to perform.

The nation is not only the bearer of culture, but it is a unifying influence around which the efforts of men and women may suitably crystallise for the benefit of their individual and collective development. When Marx and Engels wrote of the “withering away of the state”, what they had in mind was the state as coercive mechanism, the organ of a dominating class. The nation, in their view, should survive as the unit around which would be built the international society of the future.


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A former academic, Rustam Sani is now a freelance writer. His blog can be found at http://suara-rustam.blogspot.com/

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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