Home 2013: 6 Imagining a nation of citizens with common rights and responsibilities

Imagining a nation of citizens with common rights and responsibilities

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Francis Loh envisages an emerging struggle between the New Politics, which crosses ethno-religious boundaries, and the Old Politics of racism, cronyism, and widening socio-economic disparities.


Our topic is ‘Achieving Equality: Minority in a Majority Society’. Rather than listing for you the various policies in Malaysia that might be regarded as discriminatory against the non-Muslim, non-Malay minorities in Malaysia – which might then lead to our quibbling over why I have included this or that policy and not some others, and a related quibbling over the statistics that I use to back up my claims – I want to take a step back, and focus, instead, on how discriminatory policies actually stem from how different groups among us, in different periods of time ‘imagine the nation’ differently.

At the most fundamental level of analysis, we are talking about how the people, especially the political leaders, wish to envision the nation. Do we wish it to be more inclusive, or more exclusive? If we desire it to be more inclusive, then our policies should be shaped and formulated to include all, rather than for the privileged few.

Those who desire to be leaders in a plural or multi-ethnic, multi-religious society like ours, should go out of their way to persuade all, especially their supporters, to be inclusive. We can pass and enforce laws that are non-discriminatory and punish those who break those laws.

More than that, we can ensure that the laws are backed by policies and programmes, institutions and personnel, and allocate funds accordingly, to push towards inclusion of all. In this manner, those who continue to struggle for exclusiveness, for special privileges for some, rather than common rights and responsibilities for all, will ultimately become the minority.

First, I elaborate on the question of ‘imagining the nation’. Second, using that framework, I discuss how Malaysia has been imagining itself over past decades. Third, I highlight the latest transformation of imagining ourselves as a nation by the new middle-class. In the lead article on Youth, I focus on the imagination of an increasingly large group of young Malaysians, who will, I believe, move us towards greater levels of inclusiveness as citizens with common rights and responsibilities.

Imagining the nation

One of most important theorists of nationalism is Benedict Anderson, a distinguished Professor of Southeast Asian Politics in Cornell University. In his influential book entitled Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, which has been translated into numerous languages, Anderson argues that the nation is a modern construct that has arisen with the rise of print capitalism. It gets confusing, he says, if one begins to compare nationalism to other isms like socialism, conservatism, liberalism, in order to understand the essence of nationalism and the nation. So he defines the nation as ‘an imagined political community, and one that is inherently limited and sovereign’.

It is’ imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members…yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’. It is also ‘limited’, in the sense that it has a boundary, and does not over-extend itself like an old-style empire might do. It is ‘sovereign’, in the sense that it is related to the modern state, which in turn symbolises freedom, sought by all the nations.

And it is ‘a community’ because ‘regardless of the inequality and exploitation that may prevail within, the nation is still conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship…and its members ‘are prepared to die for this nation’. If we accept that the nation is such an imagined political community which is limited and sovereign, we can next ask what sort of imaginings do we have, and can use to structure and orient the nation, the imagined political community.

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Ethnic-genealogical or civi-territorial?

Coincidentally or not, Anthony Smith, another distinguished Professor, who taught Sociology in the London School of Economics, offers us a useful guide. In his book, the Ethnic Origins of Nations, Smith argues that there exist two major ‘ideal types’ of imagining the nation: the ‘ethnic-genealogical’ and the ‘civic-territorial’.

The ethnic-genealogical way of imagining refers to constructing the nation along the lines of our ethnic, cultural and religious attributes. We highlight our language, customs and beliefs. We promote a certain ‘historical memory’ of the past, including myths and legends, and use all these ethnic attributes to rationalise the present, and to chart the future.

This way of imagining the nation has been very common throughout the world and throughout the centuries. It is a powerful and organic way to pull the people who share these attributes together as members of a single imagined community although they might reside far away from one another, and might not have, or will ever meet one another in their lifetimes.

However, when such a way of imagining the nation is super-imposed onto a plural society, it often privileges those who belong to that particular ethno-religious community while ‘the others’ who do not share the same language, myths, historical memories and religious beliefs begin to feel that they do not belong and feel alienated and excluded.

On the other hand, the civic-territorial nation does not focus on exclusive ethno-religious attributes. Rather it promotes equal rights and opportunities for all who live within a particular territory, regardless of ethnic, gender, regional, religious, racial, age and other backgrounds.

The imagining of this form of nation focuses more on moving forward to the future as a community of common citizens with shared rights, but also civic responsibilities. Invariably, such a nation would also have a common language, some shared beliefs and myths of origins of the nation, but multiculturalism is widely accepted, often adopted as policy.

Most nations end up veering towards one or the other ideal-type nation.

Those nations that tend towards the civic-territorial tend to be more open to pressures from within and from without, to treat all their people as equal citizens, sharing equal rights and responsibilities. Perhaps the western European countries better represent this category of nations veering towards the civic-territorial. But there are also many western Europeans, nowadays, including those who aspire to be political leaders, who are intolerant and discriminatory towards the newer citizens who have migrated from their former colonies in the Middle-East, Asia or Africa to Europe.

There are also those nations who model themselves after the ethnic-genealogical ideal-type nation. Perhaps the eastern European countries, especially in the Balkans, driven by the dominant ethno-religious communities there, imagined themselves in this exclusivist manner. Consequently, the minority ethno-religious groups in those countries were alienated and excluded from that form of imagining the nation.

Myanmar would be a modern-day case of imagining an ethnic-genealogical nation based on the cultural and religious attributes of the dominant Buddhist Burmans of Lower and Central Myanmar. Naturally, the Shans, Chins, Kachins, Karens, Mon, Wa, Rakhine, not to mention the Muslim Rohingya, become alienated. Some have taken up arms to secede from Yangon.

The Malaysian case

Let us look at our own case. Malaysia has not imagined itself as an exclusive ethnic-Malay genealogical nation, or as an all-inclusive civic territorial one. Rather, we have imagined ourselves as in-between the two ideal-types, and have veered towards one, and then to the other, at different points in our history. In our context, we might counterpose these models of nationhood as ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay Supremacy) on the one hand, ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ (equal rights for all) on the other.

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During the run-up to Independence 1957, when most people in the former colonies were involved in anti-imperialist struggles for freedom, justice and equality, Malaysia, too, veered towards the civic-territorial ideal-type. Although we acknowledged the Sultans as heads of states, Malay as the national language, Islam as the religion of the Federation, and provided for some special rights for the Malays, the practice and promotion of non-Malay languages, religions and cultures, plus their economic rights and properties were given clear constitutional guarantee. (Incidentally, are we referring to this point in time when we debate about the ‘original’ social contract or political bargain between Malays and non-Malays?)

However, following the racial riots of May 13, 1969, we made a sharp turn towards the ethnic-genealogical nation. The NEP was introduced to promote state intervention in the economy on behalf of Malay and other bumiputera interests. No doubt, there was a need to alleviate poverty among Malays and to restructure Malaysian society such that race would not be identified with occupation since the index of poverty among Malays had remained acute even after a decade of Merdeka. So a quota system to promote bumiputera participation in the modern sectors of the economy, in higher education, in the awarding of government contracts, etc. was designed and progressively implemented. In effect, the scope of ‘special rights’ was widened.

As well, the National Language Act of 1967 began to be strictly implemented, resulting in the use of Malay as the sole medium of instruction except in the national-type primary schools. A National Cultural Policy further privileged Malay culture and traditions. Accordingly, various parts of the Constitution were amended. The transformation of the Alliance to the Barisan Nasional further facilitated the emergence of Umno as the dominant partner in the new BN coalition.

And then, beginning from the early 1980s, following Islamic resurgence, the Islamisation of administration and society more generally proceeded. No doubt, Malaysia veered towards the ethnic-genealogical nation in the post-NEP years. (Incidentally, for some engaged in that earlier mentioned debate, the reference point of the ‘original’ social contract or political bargain, is more akin to this post-1969 setting, rather than the earlier, more liberal period of Merdeka).

Although Dr Mahathir presided over this turn away from the civic-territorial towards the ethnic-geneological imagination of our Malaysia, the latter years of his 22-year long rule witnessed a restoration of various attributes of the civic-territorial nation.

Due to neo-liberal globalisation, he spearheaded liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation of the economy to attract foreign direct investments and to make Malaysia more economically competitive. So the state’s role in the economy was rolled back opening up opportunities for bumiputera and non-bumiputera business people, some of whom were evidently cronies.

Alongside this reversal of parts of the NEP, he also allowed for the privatisation of education, at the tertiary level, then at the secondary school level, and even promoted the use of English in the universities and schools, the so-called PPSMI programme.

In fact, globalisation also caught up with Malaysia. The mass media were opened up; people started tuning into CNN, BBC and Aljazeera, watched EPL football and UEFA Cup matches, etc.

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Crossing boundaries

But I also want to stress that this reversal was also due to new pressures by an educated, globally connected middle-class, estimated at about 30 per cent of the population by the year 2000. Its growth and consolidation was due to that rapid economic growth which hit double-digit growth rates in the early 1990s. And because of the successful implementation of the NEP, particularly the second prong which sought to restructure society such that race would no longer be associated with occuption, this middle-class was represented by all the ethnic groups.

Many Malaysian academicians (e.g. Prof Abdul Rahman Embong, for long president of the Malaysian Social Science Association; Johan Saravanamuttu, a distinguished professor of politics; the late Ishak Shaari and Khoo Khay Jin, both outstanding scholars; Maznah Mohamad, Noraini Othman and Cecilia Ng, all three eminent scholar-feminists) have elaborated on how this middle-class began to impact on our hitherto ethnic-based politics in new ways, formed new cause-oriented NGOs (women’s movement, environmental groups, human rights organisations, etc).

In a recent book which I edited ‘Building Bridges, Crossing Boundaries: Everyday Forms of Inter-ethnic Peacebuilding’, a team of Malaysian scholars have documented how in theatre and performing arts circles, in ‘new literature’, among women’s groups, small businesses, squatter communities, and the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Malaysians have time and again crossed ethno-religious boundaries to stand up for their rights too. In these pages of Aliran Monthly and elsewhere, I have argued that our politics, naturally, began to change too, taking after the structural changes to the Malaysian economy and society.

Towards New Politics

Taking a longer perspective of political developments in Malaysia, I like to argue, again, that we are on the threshhold of a New Politics that is egging us back to imaging ourselves as a civic-territorial nation. Although discriminatory laws and policies, and exclusivist notions of Malaysia based on Ketuanan Melayu are still in place, they are under assault as never before. The caustic and shrill voices of Perkasa, Perkida and a born-again Dr Mahathir belie the fact that they and their imagination of Malaysia as an exclusivist ethnic-Malay genealogical nation are on the defensive.

My optimism is based on the fact that some 51 per cent of the population voted for change in GE13 on 5 May 2013. And although we did not witness a change of government in Putrajaya, the voters facilitated the consolidation of a two-coalition political system, which had first reared itself into view in the 2008 political tsunami.

My optimism is also because Malaysian civil society has been able to sustain a movement like Bersih 2.0 for so long. During the Duduk Bantah weekend in Penang, Aliran successfully organised a gathering of 10,000 people in the Esplanade, the largest number of people who have been brought together to attend an Aliran event!

And my optimism is furthered because I see young people of all ethno-religious backgrounds beginning to engage in politics and even in government today, especially in the Pakatan-led states of Penang and Selangor, which I discuss in the lead article.

It is in this regard that I envision an emerging struggle between this New Politics which crosses ethno-religious boundaries and the horrible Old Politics characterised by racism, cronyism, widening socio-economic disparities no longer between the different ethnic groups as before but within each particular ethnic community.

Dr Francis Loh presented an earlier version of this article at a public forum ‘Achieving Equality: Minority in a Majority Society’, held on 24 August 2013 in Penang, organised by Komas and The Penang Institute.

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