With the UMNO General Assembly just around the corner, it is clear that the race for leverage and pole position within the party has already begun. UMNO being what it is – an ethno-nationalist party with a political agenda based primarily on a race-based form of communitarian politics – it would hardly be a surprise to us by now if some of the more vocal leaders of the party were to play to the gallery yet again. We have already been treated to the sordid spectacle of UMNO leaders reaching for the keris and brandishing it in public for the sake of making a statement. Likewise we have been reminded of where UMNO’s true loyalties lie by the proclamations uttered by some of its leaders on thorny issues such as the New Economic Policy (NEP), the privileged status of the Malays and the place of Malay identity in the constellation of Malaysian politics.
Now, yet again, we have been reminded of the inherent sectarianism and parochialism of the party thanks to the statements uttered by some of its leaders, notably Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, chief of UMNO Johor. While delivering his policy speech in the state of Johor recently, Datuk Ghani bluntly stated that there should be less talk of ‘bangsa Malaysia’ (the Malaysian nation) as such talk would only lead to confusion and political uncertainty. He insisted that the concept of an abstract Malaysian nation would merely lead to a ‘mish-mashing’ of the different racial identities and groupings in Malaysia, and that there was no justification for some parties to call for the creation of a Malaysian nation in the first place. Datuk Ghani’s qualifying remark was one that seemed to sum up the mind-set of many an UMNO leader today: “Even if the term bangsa Malaysia were to be used” he argued, “it must only be applied in the context of all the peoples of Malaysia, and with the Malays as the pivotal race”.
Accompanying this remark was a train of essentialised notions about the traits and characteristics of the Malay people, as well as ‘the Malay way’ of doing things; which may presumably include not questioning the status of the Malays as the ‘pivotal race’ of Malaysia.
At a time when the nation should be thinking of new ways of re-imagining itself and its place in the world, it is sad – nay, pathetic – that such narrow-mindedness should prevail among some of its political elite. While the younger generation of New Malaysians are looking for ways and means to bridge the divisions of race, ethnicity, language and religion, the old guard are still harping on about the good old days and the good old ways when this land was referred to as ‘Tanah Melayu’ (Land of the Malays). So once again we are brought back to the homespun colonial fictions of the not-too-pleasant colonial past.
It is ironic, to say the least, that the very same party that claims the right to wear the mantle of anti-colonialism would be the first to reiterate the manifold contradictions of colonial historiography and colonial anthropology and ethnology. Part and parcel of the British colonial enterprise in Malaya (then later, Malaysia) was the systematic re-writing of its history to privilege one ethnic-racial group over others. By the mid-20th century when it became patently obvious to all that the colonial enterprise was about to reach its agonizing climax, Britain (like the other European colonial powers of the time) sought an effective exit strategy from its colonies east of Suez; and in the Malaysian case came up with the blueprint for what would eventually be known as the inter-racial elite compromise between the elites of the various ethnic-racial communities.
Yet was it ever the case that there was such a thing as a ‘Malay’ race per se, understood in purely essentialist terms? If one were to revisit the colonial census of the 19th century, it is clear that the very idea of ‘Malayness’ was not only vague (a ‘mish-mash, as Datuk Ghani might put it) but also far from essentialised.
It is clear, both from the colonial census and the historical records of the many community-based associations that sprung up during that period that the people of Malaya did not see themselves as fixed ethnic blocs or racial groups. In fact up to the early 20th century the category of ‘Malay’ was just one sub-category in a wider group of ethnic identities. Alongside those who called themselves ‘Malay’ were other groups summarily labelled as Javanese, Bugis, Makasarese, Sumatrans (ranked as Minangs, Acehnese, Lampungs, and others), Jawi Peranakans, Arab Peranakans, Indian Peranakans, Chinese Peranakans, and so on. Nowhere was the concept of Malayness presented as a given, static, essentialised fact. If anything, territorial loyalties were paramount and the people of the land referred to themselves as ‘Johorese’, ‘Kelantanese’, ‘Kedahans’ first and foremost. One might add here that the categories of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ were likewise nowhere as simplified, as the communities that would eventually be grouped under these general headings were then defined as Hokiens, Cantonese, Hakka, etc; and Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, Ceylonese, etc.
It was with the passage of time and the development of the colonial state that the various communities were lumped together into neat and homogenous blocs, conflating differences and reducing the communities to essentialised categories like ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’. Seen from this critical perspective, the invention of the ‘Malay race’ was in fact a by-product of Western colonialism and imperialism in Malaysia!
Yet since 1957 this nation of ours has laboured under the oppressive fiction that there exists such a thing as a homogenous, fixed and essentialised ‘Malay race’, which can only be defined artificially via the legal instrument of a constitutional definition.
It is upon such instrumental fictions that the Malayan (and later Malaysian) nation-state as built, though it has to be remembered that once this elaborate political fiction is placed in a broader historical context the Malaysian political experiment is seen as a relatively short episode. For centuries the peoples who have lived in this land have seen themselves as mixed, each being a multifarious nation and an assembly of ‘races’ on his/her own. A cursory reading of the complex biographies of the ‘great Malaysians’ of the past (before the very idea of Malaya/Malaysia was even mooted) would show that most of them recognised, and even valorised, their hybrid identities. Consider the biography of Munshi Abdullah for instance, regarded as the father of the Modern vernacular Malay novel, who was of mixed Peranakan heritage himself. Likewise the same could be said of men like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin, Ibrahim Yaakob and others: All of them were of mixed parentage and all of them were and remain true Malaysians.
Yet today when the fundamental contradictions of racialised capitalism in Malaysia are coming to the surface and when it has become clear that the fiction of racial difference can no longer be sustained, it is precisely the most sectarian, conservative communitarians in our midst who clamour for a return to the politics of racial difference and ethnic compartmentalism, solely for the sake of preserving the status quo.
How long can this fragile balance be maintained before the very socio-cultural fabric of Malaysia rips itself asunder? Faced with the realities of a globalising world where parochialism of any form – be it religious or ethnic-racial – would be detrimental to the health and future of a nation-in-making, the falsehood that is at the heart of Malaysia’s racialised political culture has to be exposed for what it is.
Ethno-nationalist politicians will undoubtedly find it hard to change their spots and stop themselves from playing to the gallery. The clarion call of ‘the Malays in danger’ rings sweet in the ears of those conservative ethno-nationalists for whom the keris is a potent symbol of power and hegemony. But Malaysian society today is more complex, plural and hybrid than ever; and it is the complexity of Malaysia that may well save it in the long run, opening up cultural and historical bridges to other countries (not to mention the rising Asian economies of India and China) in turn.
Those who call for the protection of the Malays as the ‘pivotal race’ of Malaysia fail to note these political realities and the historical subtleties that render such ideological over-simplification useless and futile. Yet in the weeks and months to come, as Malaysia heads slowly towards a political crisis that seems to be on the cards for all, it is imperative that we remind ourselves that the only thing that can still keep this country together is the abstract idea of a universal Malaysian citizenship, premised on the belief and conviction that there is, and has always been, a complex and hybrid Malaysian nation after all: despite what the history books and keris-wielding politicians may tell you.
*Dr Farish Ahmad-Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian currently based at the Centre for Modern Orient Studies (Zentrum Moderner Orient), Berlin.