Nation-Building Cannot Begin from Irrational Premises

By Farish A. Noor

It has become ever-so-trendy of late to talk about nation-building in the most inclusive and open-ended of terms. After assuming office more than a month ago, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak began speaking at length about the notion of a ‘United Malaysia’ – which was in turn claimed by opposition parties in the country as their idea as well. In Thailand a slew of parties have claimed monopoly over the concept of a singular, united Thailand. While in Burma since the 1960s the aims of nation-building have been the same as they are now: to bring together the disparate array of ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups under the same banner of a singular Burmese identity.

Now there is nothing wrong with nation-building per se (for indeed one cannot imagine any form of governance without some semblance of a nation-building project accompanying it), and there is nothing wrong with wanting to bring different communities together. What has to be questioned critically, however, is this: What is the final aim of such nation-building projects; what are the premises upon which they are based; and can such projects ever get to their appointed destinations if the premises upon which they are laid are somehow faulty themselves?

The call for national unity can be troubling at times, for often we come across cases where nation-building is nothing less than a polite euphemism for the hegemonic cultural dominance of the majority. A case in point would be the experiment in nation-building in Burma following the coup and military take-over in 1963. The military leaders of Burma then spoke at length about the need to bring the diverse nation together, but forgot to mention that practically the entire leadership of the government, army and civil service was dominated by the ethnic Burmans, while other communities like the Shans, Chin, Kachin, Karens etc were effectively left out. ‘Burmese nationalism’ was therefore nothing more than an attempt to impose the specific identity of the Burmese of the Irrawady delta on the rest of the country…

Likewise Thailand’s identity problem stems from the fact that the Thai community is just one of many. Until today, the plight of minorities in Thailand such as the Malay-Muslims of the south is seen as a marginal concern that does not figure very highly in the political considerations of the elite in Bangkok. But as long as the ethnic Thais do not accept the fact that there are many other ethnic, linguistic and religious communities that occupy the same geography as Thailand, how can there be any real progress in the creation of a multicultural Thailand that truly reflects its diversity?

Likewise in Malaysia national unity has been the bugbear of Malaysian politics since the 1960s. But attempts to forge a sense of national unity and national identity have faltered on the rocks of realpolitik for the simple reason that what we have seen thus far is the steady encroachment of the cultural, linguistic and increasingly religious dominance of one ethnic-cultural group in particular. To compound matters even further, the landscape of Malaysian politics has been dominated mostly by political parties that are communal in character and whose natural vote base come from their respective ethnic, linguistic and religious constituencies.

As long as Malaysian politics maintains the communal and sectarian tenor that it has preserved for half a century, how can there be any real progress in nation-building and the sense of a united yet diverse Malaysia? For if the notion of a ‘united Malaysia’ merely foregrounds one ethnic-religious community at the expense of others, one would not be surprised if the minorities in the country react by saying ‘No thanks, we will keep to our ethno-religious ghettoes and we don’t want to be absorbed by your cultural and religious majoritarianism…’

Nation-building therefore has to begin from rational, objective and universal premises – the first of which is the concept of universal and equal citizenship where every single citizen is regarded as equal to another. The state has to remain colour-blind, and blind to the distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender and religion; and adopt instead the role of the secular ‘honest broker’ that does not favour one community over another.

But can this ever happen in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Burma or even India, Pakistan and Bangladesh one wonders? For too long the bane of post-colonial development has been the perpetuation of essentialised categories of race, ethnicity and religion. And for too long the reproduction of these essentialised categories has been maintained via an irrational, emotional and oft-time bellicose and confrontational discourse of narrow identity politics. Frankly, it is this adherence to the irrational logic of communalism that is one of the root causes of the failure of nation-building in so many parts of the developing world until today. At its most extreme it will take us to the point where the hardening of communal frontiers will render sensible, objective and critical dialogue on common national issues impossible.

But can the political elites of these countries make the changes that are necessary and over-due? Can the political parties of Malaysia, for instance, de-escalate the process of hardening the ethnic and religious boundaries between the communities; and come to the common agreement that the future of the country cannot be the responsibility of only one ethnic or religious group, but the nation as a whole? Can the politicians of Malaysia come to realise that Malaysia today is far more complex than it has ever been, and that to succeed on a national basis means having to abandon the sectarian politics of the past and adopting the inclusive democratic politics of the future?

The rationalist in me can see the problem, and even suggest a solution or two. But in the heated environment of Malaysian politics today, one wonders who will be the first to simply state the obvious: Malaysia will not get anywhere as long as the political parties of the country do not reject, once and for all, race and religion-based politics for the sake of the wider long-term goal of nation-building and democratisation. But being reasonable means being in the minority these days, and like all minority groups the world over, rationalists today are forced to watch the slow failure of nation-building thanks to the politics of unreason that has overcome us.

  1. #1 by smartee on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 8:07 am

    How to do Nation building and implement 1Malaysia when BN keep harping on NEP and \Ketuanan Melayu\?

    Many of my Malay doctor friends said the NEP is actually destroying the capable malays… Many Malays will not patronise Malay doctors cos they arn’t sure what their academic results is: SPM Grade 3?

    BN Govt insistance on \Ketuanan Melayu\ is actually looking down on their own race, implying they can’t survive without preferential treatment…

    Maybe BN should change \Ketuanan Melayu\ to \Kelemahan Melayu\?

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 8:25 am

    Beware that errant politicians may use slogans such as ‘one people’, ‘one nation’, ‘one vision’, ‘unity is strength’ etc to further their party’s interest rather than the interest of the country.

  3. #3 by Bigjoe on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 8:40 am

    Cannot? Malaysia Boleh is all about the impossible and irrational – subsidiized by someone else so it never really fails..

    Why can’t nation building be the same – if you pay for it with oil royalties or destroying our forest, rivers, environment or marginalising orang Asli, Kelantanese etc…

    No doubt no ideal can be achieved using irrational premise BUT ideals are seldom achieved with the highest rationality anyway.

    The main issue really is do as a people, we do not place that high ideal on nation-building. How proud are Malaysian of this land and think its a country worth dying for – be it geographically or simply ideas and character?

    Ultimately what makes a nation worth dying for is not an identity but ideas and concept. Many who migrate, while often cathartic, find that when the ideas the destination country fight for are attractive, find it home because of those ideas and concepts, not geography and appearances…

  4. #4 by yhsiew on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 9:23 am

    Sorry to sidetrack.

    A by-election other than the one in Penanti is on the way!

    Pas assemblyman Ismail Yaacob, aged 60, of Menek Urai (Kelantan) passed away after suffering from illness.

    Ismail Yaacob held a majority vote of 1352 in last years General Election. His opponent was Zulkepli Omar from UMNO.

    99.3% of the electorate in Menek Urai are Malays.

  5. #5 by DAP man on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 9:47 am

    Sidetrack again.
    Raja Petra has revealed UMNO CJ Zaki has been advised to ensure UMNO wins the MB Vs MB appeal. It’s going to be 3-0 or 2-1 in favour of UMNO.
    Of course I believe RPK since COA and FC judges do not pretend anymore that they have no integrity, morals, ethics, principles nor care about their oath of office.
    Najib has been favouring the courts regarding Perak. The reason is obvious.

  6. #6 by ctc537 on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 9:47 am

    The trouble is most of our politicians know only on how to woo support from among their own kind by exploiting communal issues. The affirmative policy having been implemented for far too long has given rise to the prevailing thinking among non-Malays that the government takes care of the wellbeing of Malays and other Bumis only. The government has not implemented the right but unpopular policy whereby Malays who have attained success should no longer be eligible for government help and should be treated like non-Malays. Every Malay and other Bumis university graduate should never be allowed to enjoy any privileges like 5% price reduction for purchasing properties. If after giving them a head start in life through tertiary education they still need government help then what is the use giving them tertiary education?
    In a multi-racial, multi-religious country like ours, it is all the more important for any sitting government to implement policies that create more and more Malaysians that really share common values, need no ‘clutches’. It’s less damaging to categorize the people into the non-needy and the needy, instead of Bumis and non-Bumis.
    The government under the helm of PM Najib should always be reminded that what should be doing is nation-building and not divide-and-rule.

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 10:25 am

    Talk is cheap when ppl are blur blur over concepts
    1Nation is actually 1Tribe
    Umno, MCA, MIC, etc
    are tribal in nature and outlook
    How can the rakyat expect unity and fair play
    at the national level
    when the tribes are ruled by
    insecured, greedy, despotic tribal chiefs & witch doctors?

  8. #8 by Saint on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 11:20 am

    Quote: “The state has to remain colour-blind, and blind to the distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender and religion”

    This is impossible in Malaysia because Malay (race) must speak Malay (language) be a Muslim (religion) to qualify for Bumiputra (socio-economic) status.

    From day one, the recipe was not correct and I wonder how we were able to maintain “peace” for so long. For this I hate to congratulate BN, but by “crook” the did maintain it.

  9. #9 by AhPek on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 1:08 pm

    Nation-building not only cannot begin from irrational premises but also cannot be preached by a man who not so long ago (1987) has held up his kris to threaten the Chinese community to bathe it with Chinese blood.So Farish Noor
    tell us if this Najis guy not a big fake!

  10. #10 by 1to1 on Friday, 22 May 2009 - 2:52 pm

    Consider the statement, “Survival of the fittest” which underlies Social Darwinism.

    This is an example of circular reasoning, aka as begging the question.

    Who survives? – the fittest.

    Who are the fittest? – those who survived.

    “An interpretation of the phrase to mean “only the fittest organisms will prevail” (a view sometimes derided as “social Darwinism”) is not consistent with the actual theory of evolution. Any individual organism which succeeds in reproducing itself is “fit” and will contribute to survival of its species, not just the “fittest” ones, though some of the population will be better adapted to the circumstances than others. A more accurate characterization of evolution would be “survival of the fit enough.”

    “Social Darwinism refers to various ideologies based on a concept that competition among all individuals, groups, nations, or ideas drives social evolution in human societies.”

    “While the term has been applied to the claim that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can be used to understand the social endurance of a nation or country, social Darwinism commonly refers to ideas that predate Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.”

    The dangers of Social Darwinism:

    “Some pre-twentieth century doctrines subsequently described as Social Darwinism appear to anticipate eugenics (despite the fact that Darwin did not advocate eugenic policies[13]) and the race doctrines of Nazism. Critics have frequently linked evolution, Charles Darwin and social Darwinism with racialism, imperialism and eugenics, to support their assertion that social Darwinism became one of the pillars of Fascism and Nazi ideology, and that the consequences of the application of policies of “survival of the fittest” by Nazi Germany eventually created a very strong backlash against the theory.”

    In reality, the “fittest” are not those who are physically and/or mentally dominant, but others who are prepared to give and take and cooperate for the greater good. Symbiosis is the key to survival. In nature, viruses and bacteria have survived for 3.5 billion years in symbiosis with other forms of life.

    It is ironical and tragic that Malaysian nation building from the 1970’s uncritically accepted the ideology of Social Darwinism as exemplified by the perception that the “genetic/cultural advantage” of the Chinese and Indians would side-line the Malays, therefore the NEP was introduced to redress the balance. This is a fallacy.

    This divisive emphasis on race in the NEP, the political culture and the futile attempt at social engineering is our baggage in the 21st Century.

    A welfare state which is color blind would have been and is a much more rational solution.

  11. #11 by siamo on Saturday, 23 May 2009 - 3:02 am

    We need to see if the statement made by our PM about abolition of the NEP will turn to be more rhetoric or a visionary statement. Will he have the political skills to navigate this through the minefield of the elite who continue to champion special priviliges, get elected and enjoy power, while the race sinks deeper and deeper into uncompetitiveness.

    The concept of kulitfication has been in us and with us for 50 years now. In Malaysia, the non-Malays teach our children that the starting fundamental point is non-equality while in the rest of the world, the starting point is in equaltiy for all. In Malaysia, competitiion is unequal.

    As Mahathir has said in his interview he has, as PM, failed to change the value system of the Malays. And as a result, they are still not able to compete effectively.

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