Half a century after independence, Malaysians remain clueless as to who and what they are, and remain as distant as ever from that once cherished ideal of a Malaysian nation for all Malaysians, observes Farish Noor.
I began my academic career more than a decade ago — and I can wryly state, with a smirk on my face, that my career began in the previous century.
From the outset the subjects that I have taught have been in keeping with my own academic interests as a student years ago: Philosophy, political theory, literature, history and Area Studies, of which the study of Malaysian society, politics and history has always been an ongoing concern of mine. For a decade now I have been offering and teaching a handful of courses, one of them being the history of the society and politics of Malaysia, and this is a course that I have taught in Germany, France and now here in Singapore where I am presently based, at least for the next couple of years or so.
Of all the subjects I have taught, none has had as much attraction – or been the cause of so much anxiety and concern — as the subject of Malaysian politics and history. And perhaps none of the courses that I have taught have cost me so much, emotionally and psychologically.
This is simply because the prevailing norm of academic research and teaching is one that lays emphasis on reason, balance and objective distance from the subject at hand. But when the subject at hand happens to be the country of one’s birth, and to which one presumably has some emotional attachment to, then maintaining that sense of objective, critical, balanced distance becomes difficult even at the best of times.
What compounds matters for me is that my focus on Malaysian society, politics and history is shaped by my other related concerns about the linkages between politics and economics, power and violence, race and religion, and the instrumentalisation of all the previously-mentioned for the sake of power and the use of it by political elites the world over. Parallel to my focus on Malaysia has been my other research interests in radical and potentially violent ethno-nationalist politics, as well as religious politics, communitarian politics and religious violence. Put all of these ingredients into a crammed head like mine and the result is a catalogue of neuroses and anxiety that leads to depression and suicidal inclinations even on the sunniest of days.
As this year comes to an end, and as the first half of the trimester on Malaysian History, Society and Politics closes, I can only reflect on the significant developments in Malaysia that have caught my attention as an academic viewer/commentator.
The prognosis can hardly be described as a positive one, but what adds salt to the wound is the fact that much of what has come to pass was already anticipated by yours truly a decade ago. At this point I am not suggesting that I possess any extraordinary powers of prediction, for if that were the case I would have quit the life of an academic in the 1990s (last century) and opted for a career as a professional gambler instead.
No the predictability of Malaysia’s politics — despite its seeming complex and multifarious facade – lies in the fact that the underlying structures, both party-political and institutional – have remained constant for more than half a century. Occasionally in the course of my lectures I feel the need to strip away the external particularities of the Malaysian model in order to render its underlying skeletal structure bare, and I do this only to ensure that our approach to the question/testcase at hand remains an objective one.
Take ‘Malaysia’ out of the equation and bracket out its identity altogether. What we have is a country whose complexity is skin-deep (literally) by virtue of the communitarian (and thus potentially divisive) nature of its communitarian politics, here predicated on ethno-racial differences. Any society that is thus ordered will necessarily slip into the morass of sectarian representative politics where the political arena is taken as a competing ground for short-termist communitarian interests. Any society ordered thus can only give birth to a political culture that neglects the long term national interest for the sake of immediate communitarian gains – and those communitarian demands and gains can be couched in the language of race, as it can in the language of religion, etc.
A decade ago I remarked at one of those urban middle-class polite gatherings in the genteel quarters of KL/Klang valley that unless and until Malaysians transcend the logic of narrow ethnic/racial compartmentalisation we will never reach the level of a national politics predicated on the universal category of citizenship, which ought – in my opinion – be the basis of active participation in the political domain by anyone and everyone.
Ten years ago I stated that should these trends remain unchecked, they will merely continue to fester and replicate themselves, viral-like, until we witness the rise of more and more ethnic and religious-based movements, that will turn to the democratic process in order to advance agendas and demands that are sectarian and particular; and which in the long run entails the use and abuse of democracy for the sake of ends that are not only not democratic, but quite possible even anti-democratic. A decade ago I called for us to defend the norms of democracy from being abused and hijacked by those who will play the democratic game, but only to end the game in the long run.
My warnings then were not only unheeded, but deemed impolite, alarmist, outrageous and exaggerated. Someone told me in my face: “I hate listening to your talks because you just make me feel depressed.”
A decade later I feel neither vindication nor elation at the thought that so much of what I feared would happen has come to pass, and has moved from the register of the virtual to the real. We now have a civil society domain populated by anti-democratic forces that don the garb of NGOs and civil society movements, though despite that, their means and ends are anything but democratic and civil.
The only solace I find in this cloudy climate is the thought that an even greater calamity awaits all of us in Asia in the coming decade, as a new Great Game of international proportions and permanent consequences is about to be enacted at our very doorstep. with the drums of war beating from Washington to Beijing. Malaysia, a small yet complex country despite its diminutive stature, will be drawn into this maelstrom as its people bicker about who can wear what colour, who can say which word, who can read which book, and so on and so forth, down the spiralling path of micro-inanities.
And as this happens, I can only continue in my task as teacher and historian, chronicler of mistakes, errors and opportunities lost, and continue with my work of documenting Malaysia’s history at a time when its people – half a century after independence, remain clueless as to who and what they are, and remain as distant as ever from that once cherished ideal of a Malaysian nation for all Malaysians, based on the simplest notion of all: that all citizens are equal in the eyes of God, the state, and history.
A happy new year to all, though the wish I express is not without a heavy dose of regret and loss as well.
Farish Noor, an Aliran member, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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