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The New Malaysian Nationalism: Infirm Beginnings, Crashing Finale

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Malaysia waged no heroic war of liberation against its colonial overlord. On the contrary, its indigenous Malay aristocrats, having been favoured as intermediaries under indirect rule, mobilised mass followings against independence, until finally their statuses were renewed. Nor did Malaysia afterward break boldly with the formal democracy and liberal economy in which it had been 'tutored', espousing new socialist defiance and autarkic development. Indeed, even the notion of 'Asian democracy' that Malaysia would one day endorse retained the legitimation of the democratic idiom, while fluctuating policies of import substitution, affirmative action, and evident cronyism were softened by pledges of economic orthodoxy and 'openness'. In cultural terms, Malaysia's ideologues had little access to complex local heritage, inscribed in high literatures, agrarian empires, and the tracelines of grand ruins. Nationalist myth-making had instead to depend on some dispersed royal lineages emanating from dank stockades and river mouths, an aphoristic lore recorded in the Malay Annals, the faint commercial din of the Melaka Sultanate, and an Islam conveyed by merchants and wayfarers from the Indian subcontinent, then palely refracted through local animism, Hinduism, sorcery, and curing. What is more, even to the limited extent that nationalism was generated in Malaysia, it was asserted less on the world stage than between rival ethnic communities. In brief, through the free labour migration policies of British colonial rule, the 'indigenous' Malays came to share their territory with the 'Overseas' Chinese, thereby producing a prototypical 'divided' or 'plural' society. The country was articulated also by smaller collectivities - partly authentic, always constructed - that were variously labelled 'Indian', 'Iban', 'Eurasian', 'Kadazan-Dusun', 'orang asli', and the like. During the process of decolonisation and the first decade of independence, these ethnic communities were managed along consociational lines. Toward the end of the 1960s, however, they erupted in sectarian violence. But either way, whether ethnic sentiments were modulated or uncorked, they diminished Malaysia's prospects for nationalism, at least of a kind that could bind the country together in addressing the rest of the world. Hence, in surveying the record in Southeast Asia, Nicholas Tarling adjudges that while nationalism helped shape the emergence of most of the region's new countries, its impact in Malaysia remained quite 'equivocal'. In short, uniquely in the region, Malaysia possessed little congenial soil in which nationalism might take root. Instead, nationalism was weakened by important continuities between indigenous élites and the colonial power, as well as sharp divisions between indigenous and migrant communities. And yet, atop this infirmity, Malaysia would suddenly bristle during the 1980s to 1990s with great nationalist vigour. At first, this took the form of aspirations to industrialise, made manifest in arousing slogans like 'Look East'. Later, as economic growth gathered pace, Malaysia gained new pride, encouraging still higher aspirations of full socio-economic development, enshrined in a declaration of 'Vision 2020'. And finally, though growth rates slowed toward the end of the decade, the new nationalism altered in tone, but did not fade. Instead, it reverberated in deep nationalist resentments, the prime minister railing against the architecture of international finance while invoking new refrains of Malaysia boleh ('Malaysia will overcome'). One notes also that globalisation posed no impediment to these latest nationalist expressions, its putative homogenising processes instead enabling Malaysia to highlight the distinctiveness of its policy responses. The paper begins with a discussion on nationalism, enumerating briefly some debates over its origins and character. Next, it sketches the ethnic forms of nationalism that emerged in Malaysia, enervating any wider loyalty to state institutions and symbols that could be asserted internationally. This paper's main task, however, is to analyse the rise of a broader nationalism over the past decade or so, made possible by the partial moderation of prior ethnic rivalries.
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Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: School of International Business, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia

Publication date: 2000-09-01

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