What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’ (Part 3): Distorted reasoning — or thinking ‘bamboozled’ by language

By Clive Kessler | February 25, 2012
The Malaysian Insider

FEB 25 — The word bangsa in modern Malaysian usage is semantically overworked. It serves to convey a number of related but different meanings.

Whatever advantages of economy and compression of thought and expression this “semantic condensation” may provide, it carries with it enormous dangers.

In its preceding parts, this extended discussion has explored the “folding” of those various meanings into that overworked, overburdened, and hence multiply ambiguous idea, or concept, of bangsa.

That disaggregation and “deconstruction” was offered for a most serious purpose: to serve as a warning of the great risks of confusion — of the distorted understanding and communication — that lie in wait whenever the term bangsa is less than thoughtfully used.

Let us now consider three examples of that kind of confusion: how it arises, how it can mislead us, and how it may distort public thinking and debate on some centrally important national issues in contemporary Malaysia.

“Antarabangsa”: what it now means, and doesn’t

The different meanings, senses and uses of bangsa entail some important distinctions.

These distinctions need to be understood, scrupulously recognised and clearly drawn.


What happens if they are not?

First case in point.

In principle the Malay word “antarabangsa” might with equal plausibility and appropriateness signify “intercommunal” or “interspecies” or “intercultural”, among a number of meanings.

But it means — it has come to mean — “international”, pertaining to relations between nation-states.

It is used to refer to relations between the constituent member units of the international community: of the network of nation-states that these days are linked and “framed” within the structure of the United Nations as the focal institution of global “international society”.

That is what, by common usage and with official endorsement, antarabangsa has come to mean.

But there was no inevitability or necessity about that outcome. Things might have been different.

The term antarabangsa might easily have come to mean something quite different. It might, for example, have come to address the relations between different interdependent and interacting species within the global ecosystem. It might in that way have become a technical “term of art” or specialised “disciplinary concept” in the area of environmental studies.

But it did not.

And it now means what it does.

And, with the meaning that it now has, it “folds” people’s thinking about the idea of modern nations and “nation-states” into a certain, and historically quite atypical, idea of what “nations” and national identity are.

That has become the linguistic or semantic status quo or “current default position” in Malaysian usage. And that situation, in turn, has certain consequences not just for everyday language use and but for popular political understanding.

In popular understanding, and hence popular experience too, all sorts of problems arise when one tries to discuss global issues and politics with people who operate — and whose thinking is framed and therefore also confined — within these terms of conventional understanding: within the Malay-language-based “thought-world” and “mindset”.

We have all had these experiences. Many of us go away from them frustrated, confused and fearful for the future.

We try to discuss some issue of world politics with people — often very intelligent if not highly educated people — who operate with the standard, all-purpose “default mode” version of the notion of bangsa: within the familiar conceptual and moral universe where all the different aspects of bangsa are really just parts, or “refractions”, of one and the same thing — usually of bangsa as Malay “national descent” identity.

What become confused, and inextricably and hopelessly entangled, in these discussions are notions, and the phenomena, of “race” as biological descent (whatever that may be taken to mean by those involved in the discussion); of national identity, of the rights and standing of different sovereign nation-states; and questions of cultural differences — at the local, national and global levels — and of intercultural accommodation, negotiation and reconciliation.

Getting these things all tangled together, jumbled up in one confused and confusing package, is no great help to anyone.

The world’s problems are tough enough, and hard enough to sort out, without our being hobbled by these semantic impediments; without our being forever handicapped in our attempts to address and overcome them by the burden of all this added, semantically-generated confusion.

It is simply too heavy an extra handicap for human hope, the human future, to have to bear.

Another example: Vision 2020 and “Bangsa Malaysia”

Similarly, as a second example, let us take Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020 and it nine key challenges.

The first of those national challenges, he noted, was that of “establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny … a nation at peace with itself, territorially and ethnically integrated, living in harmony and full and fair partnership, made up of one ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ with political loyalty and dedication to the nation.”

This, he added, was in many ways, the primary or central challenge, the one upon which all else would either hang or fall.

“It would be surprising,” he accordingly remarked at the outset, if that first strategic challenge of establishing a united Malaysian nation, did not prove to be “the most fundamental, the most basic”.

So far, so good.

But what exactly did he intend and envision with that term “Bangsa Malaysia”?

Did the author of Vision 2020 mean by the term “a Malaysian nation” or “nation-defining people”? Perhaps, and fair enough.

But if so, what kind of nation had he in mind and on what basis, and principles, was it to be created?

Was it a nation of presumed common descent that he had in mind, a nation embodying and identifying with a Malay past that, for all that nation’s citizens, was personally their own?

If so, how was this to be achieved in the case of Malaysians of non-Malay backgrounds?

Where do people of non-Malay sociocultural backgrounds get into and become part of the picture? How might they become fully integrated into his “Bangsa Malaysia”?

Or was the term intended to mean a new nation of “Malaysians”: a nation equally of all its citizens as primarily Malaysians, all displaying and sharing an overarching and transcending Malaysian identity?

Would this be a “mosaic pattern” Malaysian nation whose citizens would still acknowledge and maintain their diverse cultural origins — origins of various Malay and Chinese and Indian and Bornean and indigenous peninsular kinds among others?

Or was the rather different idea here one of some kind of demographic and cultural “melting pot” in which all elements would be blended together to produce some genuinely “hybrid variety” of ideal-typical Malaysian?

Or, yet again, within and at the end of that process of blending, was the Malay cultural component and element somehow to remain nationally definitive and characteristic? Was it to be the form to which all, including all others, must approximate and then ultimately adhere and conform?

Was Dr Mahathir perhaps suggesting — even indicating an official hope and intention — that there would eventually be a great “coming together”: not simply a “blending” of the “ancestral cultures” of Malaysians of various kinds and origins within one rich, diverse and complex “Malaysian culture”; but also — via extensive and sustained intermarriage between the members of the various Malaysian component communities, and the resulting procreation of children of “mixed” backgrounds — the generation of a single, blended “Malaysian people”?

If this was what was envisaged, how might that objective be achieved in the face of all the pressures — including both official policies and ever more powerful institutional forces and obstacles — that now keep various Malaysians apart; and especially those insulating and isolating Malays as Muslims from close and intimate association with Malaysians of other backgrounds?

Or, as some people facilely like to say, was the idea here not one of a “melting pot” but that of a “salad bowl”, a rojak nation?

Perhaps in such a national rojak salad, it was hoped, all the different cultural and demographic elements would be mixed together, in mutually enhancing interaction — without giving up their own ancestral characteristics, without losing their own identity — but not blended, homogenised?

Fair enough. But if so, how was this to be accomplished?

How might this conceivably be achieved upon a political terrain that also assumed Malay primacy and ascendancy, that upheld Malay culture as the sacrosanct core of the definitive national culture?

How, in particular, might this be done where “culture” did not simply denote different optional, perhaps trivial, “lifestyle choices” but had built within it various psychologically powerful ideas about who might interact — cleanly and safely, decently and without risk of religious pollution or profaning contamination — with whom?

Fundamental though they were to the Vision 2020 idea of a “Bangsa Malaysia”, none of these complexities were addressed.

All these issues were left unreconciled.

Politically it was perhaps easier to let things remain vague, and to hope to derive whatever benefit that kind of vagueness and ambiguity might permit.

Bangsa: Conceptual “Room to manoeuvre” — and wriggle?

A noted New York colleague of mine four decades ago — a political scientist with a keen interest in public policy and its enabling budgetary mechanisms — always referred to this kind of thing as the pervasive “fudge factor”.

In this aspect, at least, the Vision 2020 approach was characterised, and perhaps vitiated, by a very generous conceptual “fudge factor”, an indispensable imprecision without which the idea — being less than fully coherent — could never have been proposed.

Imprecision of this kind may create politically valuable “room to manoeuvre” and to wriggle.

For the practical politician, the value of “wriggle room” is never to be underestimated.

We may criticise them for their readiness to resort to such “fudges”. But they, in the real world, face problems and pressures that few others among us know.

Even so, there is a cost, a potentially punishing cost, here.

The temptation of, and recourse to, the available “wriggle” or “fudge” may also cause great, and damaging, confusion.

The Vision 2020 aspiration of creating a strong and self-reliant “Bangsa Malaysia”, it may be persuasively argued, was fundamentally vitiated by the same conceptual vagueness, the same intellectual imprecision, the same fatal ambiguity deriving from the same source — what we may call “the bangsa confusion” or “fudge”.

Trustingly vague yet sadly underprepared, the “Bangsa Malaysia” idea has foundered upon the official failure to make clear what different senses of the term bangsa were put “in play” in its rationale — followed by the further failure to explain which of them was here being chosen ahead, and to the exclusion, of the others; or else how these differences were now, in the new Malaysian case, to be reconciled.

Third example: “Bangsa” and the Malaysian nation

A third example may be briefly noted here. It involves a complex matter whose basis was explained earlier as part of the clarification of the notions of “people” and “nation” in relation to “bangsa”.

The issue here is not simple.

So it will not be discussed here at length. (Perhaps it will become the subject of a more extended commentary at some later time.)

The matter is simply stated.

Some, but not all, nations took shape and see themselves as nations of “common descent”.

Nations of this kind are built upon various forms of “blood, homeland and belonging” kinds of nationalism.

As we saw, they define and uphold the nation as a single historically unified and culturally homogeneous community of common fate and destiny.

There is also another kind of nationalism. It is one that is not only common but also generally more apposite to the analysis of most of the world’s nations today.

This is an idea of nation and nationalism that does not assume or “privilege” any ideas of the common historic origins, and hence “origins-based destiny”, of all those long “grounded” in, and born upon, the soil of the national homeland.

It does not assume or preferentially “inscribe” any notion of national cultural homogeneity or “indigenous” cultural primacy and political ascendancy.

In contrast to the “common descent” or “blood and homeland” or “sociocultural homogeneity” type, this kind of nationalism and resulting nation is usually termed “civic”.

The standard writings contrast these two types as “folk” and “civic” nationalism.

But by “folk” what is meant here is not “folk” as in “folklore” or in amiably “folksy” popular peasant culture.

Here “folk” is the English rendition of what de Gobineau and Chamberlain and Hitler and their kind meant by the German word “Volk”: the nation as a human community of biological destiny, the “blood-sharing” nation as one of the principal actors in world history viewed as a “struggle of races” driven by an irresistible “biological imperative”.

The “civic” nation, by contrast, is linked not by “sacralised” notions of blood and descent but by consent and contract.

The notion of “civic nationalism” suggests a nation bound together by the imputed contractual undertaking of mutual recognition between the citizen and the state.

Significantly, the formation of Malay nationalism and the Malaysian nation and state occurred on the intellectual terrain and conceptual foundations of “bangsa” — of a form of so-called “common descent” or “folk nationalism” that took its own nature and presuppositions for granted and saw them as universally true and “normative”, or obligatory, for everybody, for all people, everywhere.

The implications of this historical fact remain crucially important.


Because Malaysian national identity and nationhood were founded, and are now placed, on a grounding that presumes the normality or “naturalness” of “descent nationalism”.

That is a view that sees “civic nationalism” and its underlying basis as somehow abnormal, improper, and defective.

This is one half of the problem here.

The other half is that the fundamental notion, or basis, upon which that idea of civic nationalism rests — namely, that of an implied or imputed “contract” of mutual recognition and fair, even-handed dealing between the state and each of its citizens — has in Malaysia been appropriated, ever since the mid-1980s, by a different political ideology, for a different project and other purposes.

It has been adopted and adapted in Malaysia since about 1986 to suggest that the “Merdeka agreements” which were to become enshrined in the original Federal Constitution of Malaya represented some sort — but an entirely different kind — of “bargain” or “social contract”.

This was not one not between the ideal-typical, abstractly conceived citizen and the state but — to make possible and establish the Malayan state — one, via their own sectional leaders, between the major ethnic components or constitutive “communal” blocs of the terminating “colonial plural society”.

The “Merdeka Constitution” did exactly that. Of that there can be no historical doubt or quarrel (but, of course, without containing at the time any notion of “Ketuanan Melayu”, of Malay supremacy. That “extra” was “retrofitted” later, after 1986).

But those who take this view also go on to uphold the idea that that intergroup “social contact” solemnised by the various communal bloc leaders — it alone and no other — is the only kind of social contract that applies and has any political relevance in Malaysia.

The original idea from which that special Malaysian notion has been derived — the idea that every modern form of political society is based upon a foundational “social contract”, actual or imputed, between the state and each of its individual citizens as a stakeholder of full standing — is here largely ignored and forgotten. It is not relevant, or so it is held, to Malaysia.

Virtually all of those who vehemently debate the idea of an intercommunal Malaysian “social contract”, and who contribute to the often acrimonious polemics that sustain that idea, remain totally “innocent” — which is to say ignorant — of the older idea which they have plundered and appropriated as the source of their own new coinage.

It is one which they have now set up to serve their own purposes.

In this strangely modified form, the idea of a nationally foundational “social contract” has evolved into, or so it has now become for many, a national and powerfully protected “sacred cow”.

This is not simply an intellectual pity and a scholarly embarrassment.

It is also a national disaster, or potentially bears the seeds of one.

The Malaysian nation’s most urgent task today

In the Nine Challenges of Vision 2020 and more generally, the basic requirement — the task and necessity of sorting out the different meanings and uses of bangsa — was not faced.

Instead, the preference was to leave things vague.

It was easier to license and so play upon the inherent ambiguities in the denotation and use of the word bangsa: to allow its different, even discrepant, understandings to remain “in play” and, in that way, to let different people — different audiences and interests — hear in those words what they might prefer to hear.

“Bangsa Malaysia”: A nation? Or just a population? A new “blended” combination of people of diverse backgrounds?

A Malay-identified population, or a blended, mixed and fused populace as the “definitive form” of the national collective, the “people”? Or a continuing Malay-defined bangsa as nation, or national core, at the head of a Malay-centred but more than exclusively or solely Malay population, nation and state? Or a bit of everything?

Probably that last is closest to the truth, to what those who drafted Vision 2020 had in mind.

But if so, it was hardly a clear, and certainly a less than really helpful, idea.

And whatever Dr Mahathir may, in detail, have had in mind and intended by it, he did not really say or ever make clear. Not at the launching of the Vision 2020 concept, nor ever on any available occasion after that.

Probably he did not care or see the need to do so, to provide any such clarification. The practical politician is not a scholarly pedant or academic hair-splitter, and cannot be.

More than that, to explain clearly what was officially meant by Vision 2020’s “Bangsa Malaysia” idea, he would have had to have understood clearly — after the manner patiently outlined in the preceding parts of this commentary — “what every Malaysian now needs to know about race”.

Clearly he, and those around him, did not.

That was just not part of the official thinking of the time.

To say this is not to indulge in personal criticism.

The matter goes far beyond the personal.

It has to do not with individuals but with a national form and style of thinking and the inherent defects in its verbal, or “lexical”, equipment, a culturally pervasive and politically disabling “semantic confusion”.

A “false identification”, sealed by loose language, of quite different things.

Official thinking simply did not concern itself with, and was not concerned about, how all these related and overlapping, yet distinct and divergent, ideas and concepts — and the human realities to which they properly refer — are related to one another. Sorting all these complexities out anywhere, under any historical conditions, is never easy.

It is an especially difficult challenge in Malaysia.

It is remarkably difficult in Malaysia not because of the unique cultural complexity and “ethnic” diversity of Malaysia’s population. Again, one must beware here of tempting ideas of “Race and Malaysian ‘Exceptionalism’”.

It is so painfully difficult and politically fraught in Malaysia because — in the Malay, and national, language in which these various, subtly different matters have to be distinguished from one another, if they are to be constructively discussed — all these different meanings “travel” in the one semantic suitcase.

Here they habitually “travel” simply as an undifferentiated and rarely considered “bangsa”. They all are included under the one word, and as aspects of that one same thing.

We are dealing here with what was characterised above as a dangerous “slipping and sliding” — often unrecognised by the people involved themselves — between the various, and at times even discrepant and divergent, meanings of the term bangsa.

Our discussion, and the future of the entire “Malaysian project”, requires a far more secure footing than is provided by the conceptually shifting ground or “slippery slope” of “bangsa-based” thinking.

Yet, fatefully, the core of the Malaysian state and nation’s problems at this time lie here.

They lie, and lurk dangerously, in just those places where the most urgently necessary requirement these days is the proper and effective deployment of precise terms denoting those distinct matters that in Malaysia present themselves in everyday language (and hence in majority popular consciousness) as simply different aspects of “bangsa”.

They lie, and lie ominously in wait, precisely where the clear drawing of those conceptual distinctions is required.

There is no national task more urgent these days than the “disaggregation” and “deconstruction” of that key word, and of that core idea, bangsa.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 25 February 2012 - 6:02 pm

    ///But what exactly did he intend and envision with that term “Bangsa Malaysia”?///

    What is surprising is that Clive Kessler spent time analyzing what he intended and envisioned. I won’t spend a minute of my time or an iota of my mental energy. It is not worth it!

    Like his “Vision 2020” – you think it is based on some deep analysis and forecast of what the country and its peoples are capable of achieving by that time?? More likely he went to an optician shop to test his vision with the view to getting a new pair of spectacles and had this “brainwave” about “Vision 2020” as a national mantra from the optician telling him that perfect eyesight is 20/20! That’s all. No need and waste time/energy to analyse!

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