What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’, Part 2 c

By Clive Kessler | February 26, 2012
The Malaysian Insider

(Part 2 & Part 2b)

Feb 26 — The many faces of “bangsa”: “People”, “nation” and “state”

My step-by-step, and idea by idea, disaggregation of the Malay word bangsa now proceeds to, and concludes with, a discussion of modern political developments.

It explores the “folding” of these further new political meanings into the already overworked, semantically overburdened, and hence multiply ambiguous idea, or concept, of bangsa.

This disaggregation and “deconstruction” is intended to serve as a warning of the great risks of confusion — of the distorted understanding and communication — that lie deceivingly, even treacherously, in wait whenever the termbangsa is used casually, lazily and unreflectingly.

v. People

In English, the usual word for a historic human community joined together by ideas of a common character born of similar typical experiences of life which then take form in some shared or “cognate” language and culture is a “people”.

In that sense we may speak of the English and German, the French and Italian, or the Malay people.

Such historic peoples emerged over time, often gradually. They generally took shape, even in modern times, upon pre-modern historical and cultural foundations.

They generally emerged within the bounds of some of those previously mentioned local or regionally-focused “segments” of one or other of the main recognized sub-divisions of humankind that were once seen — and wrongly known or “misrecognised” — as “races”. Historic peoples of this kind emerged in various regions within Europe, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Because they took shape under those circumstances, the idea of a “people” often became (literally!) “tinged” and “coloured” by popular ideas or notions of “race”.

But, again (despite what Hitler and those who inspired him may have believed about the German and similar cases), there was nothing “biological” about the languages and cultures that were the foundations upon which these peoples emerged and recognized themselves.

Again, no immanent, innate and irresistible “biological imperative” is involved.

These communities were not the expression or product of any underlying so-called “biological realities”.

They were “social constructs”, the products of mundane human action that became “sedimented” or embodied in common or cognate “ways of life” — in historically related, language-grounded cultural patterns.

There is nothing biological about “peoples”, their origins, their histories, their political fates and destiny.

However, in practice — because of the strange and careless ways of human thinking and speaking — the matter is not quite that simple.

It ought to be but it is not. It is not that simple because “the waters are muddied” by the careless and improper language habits that so many people adopt.

This notion of a “people” is related to, but different from, the other various notions discussed here. Yet it too, like them, is also routinely denoted and conveyed in a number of languages by the same, or similar and closely related, terms.

In the Malay case, they are confusingly denoted by that one same multi-purpose, over-worked and now inescapably ambiguous Malay word bangsa.

vi. Nation

These various “peoples” came to see themselves as stemming from common historic origins.

They saw themselves as sharing a common or similar past that was embodied and projected forward in the common, or cognate, languages and cultures through which they lived.

Often more was made of these ideas.

This sense of a common past and a shared or cognate contemporary identity was often taken a step further. Even several.

On what basis?

There was another side to this same coin of common “peoplehood”.

Believing that they had a common past to which they might all now look back, these peoples, or their intellectually inventive leaders, soon came to see themselves as sharing not only a past but also a common existential situation in current reality, in the present.

Once one comes to see things in that way — and it is a fairly obvious step to take — it is only a short further step to conclude that all the members of such a human community or “people” share not only a common past and present but also — grounded within that present reality — common interests, a common political situation.

Once it is felt that those common interests are to be upheld and pursued through political action, the idea of the “people” becomes politicied.

In that way the next step upwards, or “quantum leap”, in political evolution soon follows. With that step into the political, a “people” now becomes in its own eyes a “nation”.

vii. From “people” and “nation” to “state”

This is not the only path to nationhood, but it is a very common trajectory and experience, both within Europe in the “great age of nationalism” from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and also elsewhere.

It is the basis of the kind of “common descent” or “folk” nationalism and nation — the kind of “blood, soil and belonging” kind of national ideology and solidarity — that was identified in one of my recent columns.

More, if together they now constitute a nation, then the members of this upwardly-spiralling community have not only a common past and a common present. They must also now have — grounded in that common situation and those common interests — a common prospective future, a common destiny.

Further, to uphold those interests and pursue that destiny, the members of this people and nation — or so they become convinced — now need the right equipment, the appropriate vehicle and framework, to do so.

They will demand for themselves a state, or sovereign and autonomous political structure of their own, as the instrument and vehicle, and also as the arena and iconic symbol, of their sovereign “peoplehood”.

viii. “Nation-state”

When a state becomes identified with, and seen as the legitimate international vehicle of, a recognised nation — whether it be a nation based on so-called “common descent nationalism” or a nation of the other main contemporary type, known as the “civic” nationalism of the “contractual” nation — that state is often seen, and is conventionally described, as a “nation-state”.

Nation-states are in our times regarded as the natural components or constituent member-units within international society or “the international community”, now understood as a global structure or network of such nation-states.

They all gather together in an association or club known as the United Nations.

Whether they are united or not is another matter. But it is entirely apt to describe this organisation as a club of nations, of nation-states.

ix. Ethnicity and ethnic group

Finally, how are the ideas of “ethnicity” and “ethnic groups” related to all this?

Quite simply, really.

Some, in fact most, modern nation-states include as “minority” elements within their populations — even among their citizenry — some loose or “detached” segments of historic human communities that constitute the “paradigmatic” or “definitive” majorities in existing “nation-states” elsewhere.

For example, Lebanese or Greeks or Vietnamese in Australia.

Sometimes, too, one finds such minority components made up of people who do not have, or have not yet achieved, their own recognised nation-state in their own lands but who exist as fragments of certain “nations-in-the-making” and “nation-states-in-waiting” within other member-states of the world order.

Think here, for example, of the Kurds, both in several Middle Eastern countries and also elsewhere throughout the world; or, yet again, Basques, both in their native north-western Spain and also overseas such as in the United States and Australia.

And, of course, these days in many lands, both throughout the Arab world and in the West, the Palestinians.

Historically, the Poles and the Irish as “stateless nations” gave rise in the nineteenth through their overseas emigrants to “ethnic” minority fragments of the latter type; when, after World War 1, the Irish gained modern statehood and the Poles — after over a century of partition of their land between the Prussians, Russiansians Austrians — had their statehood restored, their overseas “offshooots” became ethnic minorities of the former kind.

Put in this way, the matter is clear.

Ethnic groups and their members are often seen, depending upon their specific historical circumstances, simply as manifestations of cultural pluralism and “difference”, or as involving elements of so-called “racial groups” and “racial dynamics and realities”.

But they are neither.

They are nothing of the kind.

Ethnicity, as our examples and many others show, has to do with the processes of incorporation (successful or not) of national and cultural minorities — often, but not always, drawn as migrants from elsewhere — within modern national state structures.

It has to do with minority social access to modern political inclusion, membership and participation.

The relevance of this here, in the context of the present discussion of bangsa, is simple.

Despite appearances, and no matter what the people who are closely involved in its processes may feel or say, “ethnicity” is not a “racial” but an essentially political phenomenon.

It has nothing to do with biological origins, collective biological identities, or supposed group biological destiny.

It has everything to do with the historical dynamics and processes of modern state-formation and social inclusion within them.

It seems “diagnostically significant” fact that the habitual targets of cruel so-called “ethnic jokes” in the modern world — the butts of an abusive contempt that they had not the means or dignified standing to repudiate — have been those peoples who somehow lost, or else never managed to achieve and consolidate, their nationhood: the Irish and Poles in Europe, the Kurds in the Middle East.

In sum, ethnic groups are about politics — they are a symptom and by-product of the age of nationalism and its key beliefs — not about biology, “race” or culture.

“Getting it right” Race, people, nation, state, ethnicity and ethnic group: all these related but subtly different ideas, and others too, are thrown and jumbled together — most unhelpfully and generally quite indiscriminately — within that one, single Malay word and idea of bangsa.

Ideas that have these multiple meanings are, so to speak, semantic “double” and “triple agents”. They are troublemakers. They can be destructive.

If and when they are, how is clear thinking on this most urgent and fateful of matters in Malaysian national life possible?

How can responsible discussion of these matters be calmly and responsibly conducted under this verbal handicap?

One simple thing can be noted.

The ability to understand, draw upon, differentiate among — and then routinely employ — these different ideas and terms that swirl around the now largely discredited notion of “race” is what — in the world’s more credible universities — every introductory social science student (in sociology, anthropology, politics and history in particular) is expected to acquire.

If they do not, they generally fail.

Fail in their studies, certainly, and probably in navigating the complexities of their everyday lives in today’s complex world as well.

To understand, and to understand the subtle, beguiling differences — and then to avoid “slipping and sliding”, even without recognising it — among and across these different senses and meanings within the one extended analysis or commentary is hard enough under any conditions.

If you don’t manage to do so — if the meaning of a key term continually shifts and slips, unrecognised, in the course of a single analysis — the reasoning that is made with that “treacherous” term, is likely to be misleading.

If you fail, you can soon create great damage: nor just by confusing other people who may listen to and heed you — and that is bad enough — but also by totally “bamboozling” oneself.

One is immediately the first victim here of one’s own intellectual, conceptual and semantic sloppiness.

Cat? Dog? Cow? Horse?

Think of a cat, a dog, a cow and a horse.

True, all are mammals, all have been domesticated by humankind, and there is much to be gained by thinking of them together, for example in a textbook of comparative mammalian anatomy.

But when things get serious — a matter of “life and death” — the veterinary surgeon who has to operate must know exactly what beast they face.

Cat, dog, cow, horse — which?

Sure, they are related, but different.

And, when things need to be clearly understood, that difference makes a difference.

Similarly, in many human historical and political contexts it is no less necessary to be clear.

Race, people, culture, nation — which?

The difference again makes a difference, often a fateful difference.

So we must be careful about how we think, what analyses we suggest, about what we say and mean.

Or, again, exactly the same challenge, and responsibility, but now in a Malay-language and Malay-world context:

Bangsa, bangsa, bangsa or bangsa — which? Which do you mean here?

You see the problem now? Is it now clear what I am talking about?

Tricky ideas: Race, people, nation and state in Malaysia Hard at the best of times, it is especially difficult to “get it all right” in less than favourable circumstances.

It is tremendously difficult — and therefore also tremendously important and necessary — under less than ideal conditions.

Unfortunately, that is the case in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, those who must routinely draw these distinctions, in the interests of their own personal and also national survival, must do so within the “linguistic universe” or “semantic environment” of the national language — and in the “thought-world” of the majority of the nation’s citizens grounded within it. In that language-based “thought-world”, all these different meanings are together captured and subsumed conceptually, as different aspects of the one thing: within the beguiling embrace of that one vague yet powerful word bangsa.

This routinely leads to confusion, and with depressing regularity even imperils civic peace and the foundations of national coherence and state stability.


For a start, please give your continuing attention, as they next appear, to Parts 3 and Part 4.

Thank you for your patience with this protracted and complex discussion of what, after all — once you grasp them clearly, and every Malaysian soon will, I hope — are rather simple matters.

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

In this series:-
Part 1 – Words and the world, or ‘bangsa’ in question
Part 2 – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2b – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2c – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 3 – Distorted reasoning — or thinking ‘bamboozled’ by language
Part 4 – Race and history

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