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Book review: Reform and Nation-Building by Sharifah Munirah Alatas

In a world ridden with conflict, this compilation of essays shows how ideas can transform the planet while urging for intellectual engagement to prevail over the force of conflict

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In many post-colonial nations, nation-building is simultaneously a vision of development, a slogan for political mobilisation, an all-encompassing process, and a means as well as ends.

It is particularly evident in authoritarian countries, where nation-building often assumes the form of an imposed top-down social engineering, sometimes infringing on people’s rights.

The process, however, is never devoid of resistance and contestation in Malaysia, as in other nations.

Sharifah Munirah Alatas’ recent compilation of 28 essays critiques nation-building and urges national leaders to undertake key reforms.

Viewing nation-building as a comprehensive reform, she calls for pluralistic and inclusive community-building. This, she feels, is essential to counter the divisive force of identity and racial politics.

Alatas proposes that strengthening democratic institutions can help address the problems of an ethnocratic authoritarian regime. She also suggests developing national strength by addressing the nation’s crisis-plagued education system to meet the challenge of a competitive globalised order.

Reform and Nation Building is an attempt to grasp how and why Malaysia is where it is now, with a focus on the roles and failures, action and inaction of the elite.

The essays are not just a discursive intervention of the country’s sorry state of affairs. They are also an act of teladan, role modelling how an intellectual can be socially and politically engaged through writing and discoursing, while not forgetting the importance of other forms of engagement.

In a world marked by polarisation, tensions and conflicts, Alatas’ compilation serves as a reminder that ideas, knowledge and words – rather than swords – should be the catalysts of positive changes and reforms.

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Holding election at regular intervals and ensuring one person, one vote are necessary of course. But these are insufficient conditions for a democratic system. Good leadership, an informed and rational electorate, and positive elite-citizen relationships and dynamics are crucial for strengthening democracy. She adds that academic freedom and a depoliticised (I prefer the term ‘departisanised’) education system are also crucial.

Alatas believes these elements are necessary for fostering critical discourse, civic consciousness, political awakening and an informed public.

She criticises the authoritarianism of national leaders and the internalised helplessness and indifference of educators and academics. These have contributed to the lack of critical public discourse and the failure of the education system.

Despite the pervasive disappointment, Alatas remains hopeful about reforms.

To prevent nation-building from being (re-)appropriated by the political elite as a weapon of top-down mobilisation and social engineering, it is important to quote Ashis Nandy’s reminder – that “while everyone likes to be a social engineer, few like to be the objects of social engineering”.

These words warn us to be careful to ensure that nation-building initiatives are not exploited for political gain at the expense of the people.

Alatas’ book critically examines Malaysia’s trajectory, offering valuable insights into nation-building complexities. The essays serve as a clarion call for reforms, challenging not only the current leadership but also intellectuals and educators to play a proactive role in shaping a more inclusive, democratic and informed society.

In a world ridden with conflict, Alatas’ compilation of essays shows how ideas can transform the planet while urging for intellectual engagement to prevail over the force of conflict.

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Reform and Nation-Building – Essays on Socio-Political Transformation in Malaysia by Sharifah Munirah Alatas is published by the Association for Asian Studies, $18

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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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