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Articles, History, Philosophy

Can cultural identity travel?

By Ooi Kee Beng

[Article for the photograph exhibition by Wei Leng Tay — Discordant Symmetries, held at Baba House, Singapore on September 2011 to March 2012]

WE ALL TRAVEL more or less nowadays, and every good trip tweaks our perspective of state, society and self to some extent. Numerous short trips leave us with numerous occasions for thought.

But for those who stay away from home a long time, and the further the cultural distance between the new and old places of domicile, the adjustments required can amount to serious psychological trauma. For physical security, economic shelter, cultural refuge, and mental health, migrating in groups has therefore often been preferred, by humans as well as most animals.

Many terms have been thought up to describe people on the move—transients, sojourners, migrants, wanderers, drifters, travellers, nomads, itinerants, wayfarers. This is for the purpose of contrast with a state of existence – and a state of mind – assumed more natural and unproblematic, namely that of the homesteaded.

And politically, those who stay put are considered the culturally steadfast and reliable. This is not strange, since mobile groups are practically by their nature in search of something, be these personal fortune, political asylum or profitable employment. They may also have invasion or plunder in mind.

Be that as it may, the contrast between the mobile and the immobile is often exaggerated, especially in areas of the world where migration is extremely high and cultural hybridism has always been the norm.

What has been happening in modern times is the rise of the nation-states. This notion of nations expressed as states was a straitjacket that former European colonies had to adopt. Within that constraint, ethnic essentialism became the raison
in these countries.

In Southeast Asia, this political device has been most palpably applied in Malaysia. There, the homesteaded were distinguished from the migrant; the indigene from the transient. While the Cold War clothed nationalism throughout the world as class conflicts writ large, Malaysia cultivated ethnic consciousness as its political logic.

Official knowledge about Malaysia is thus often manufactured through racial categories. This is compounded within a structure where political parties pose as racial champions, and dissent is branded as racial treason.

Now, while ethnic identities are strong in most of us, it does not follow that our politics cannot transcend them. In fact, subsuming them under a more harmonizing nomenclature would be a better way to go. Inter-ethnic cooperation does not really have to take the form of clearly distinguished groups negotiating with or threatening each other; it can just as well seek non-ethnic expressions that can unite individuals more solidly. Aiming for national unity by conjuring essential differences does not seem a bright stratagem.

The Malaysian situation is therefore a serious one, but one which, if solved, would provide an exemplary lesson to the world.

For now, let us focus on a long-term sojourner—the Chinese Malaysian.

His is an interesting case. His migration is relatively old, he makes up a sizeable proportion of the population, and he is modernized where economic functions and skills are concerned.

While his forefathers once migrated as traders and workers to what they saw as frontier regions where economic life was intensive and dynamic, the pandemic spread of the nation-state after 1945 left him in danger of becoming stateless.

The colonialist attempt in 1946 to simplify colonial rule by standardizing political control throughout the Malaya Peninsula excepting Singapore, was in line with egalitarian notions of citizenship that had become fashionable in Britain following the war against the unhampered racism of the Nazis. Citizenship was to be liberally regulated under the Malayan Union Plan, and the legal distinction between indigene and migrant eradicated.

This quickly led to a strong reaction from leading members of Malay polities on the peninsula which had subsisted in acquiescent form under British and Japanese rule. A new order – the Federation of Malaya – was announced in 1948 that limited citizenship rights and the right to citizenship for the Chinese on the peninsula.

Once Communism claimed victory over the Nationalists in China in 1949, and once the Bandung Conference of 1955 attending by new Asian and African nations accepted the reality of post-colonial nation-states, the die was cast.

The fact that the communists engaged in the guerrilla war after 1948 were mainly Chinese weakened further the bargaining power of the Malayan Chinese community at large. In the rush towards independence, and with the British hurrying to retire from the region, compromises were quickly penned which remain controversial and deeply
significant to this day.

In standard global practice, citizenship brings equal basic rights to all, but in Malaysia, the distinction between indigene and migrant was imported into the concept of citizenship. That vital conceptual principle was bent in th negotiations between the political parties that gained independence from Britain. Compromises made on equal citizenship rights and on the secularity of the modern nation-state continue to infect political discourses and pervade inter-personal relations in the country.

More profoundly, over the years, the initial ambiguity surrounding matters of principle must bear some blame for undermining the sanctity of the legislated word, the integrity of the judiciary, and the rule of law. If a political point is so important that a basic principle of law had to be qualified because of it, then surely the evident validity of that point would over time become more sacrosanct than the principle it tweaked, and not the other way around. The point does not remain a temporary measure but will increasingly undermine the principle itself.

Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, in its present form, announces “the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak”, as a way of contrasting indigenes from migrants. The mention of natives of Sabah and Sarawak was an addition made in 1965 when Malaysia was formed, and soon made room for the adoption of “bumiputera” as a conceptual cornerstone in public policy. Indeed, for legal purposes, Article 153 in 1957 had necessitated an accompanying definition of “Malays”. Through Article 160, therefore, an ethnicity was challengingly defined at length in the national Constitution.

A Malay, according to Article 160, is “a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and (a) was
before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or (b) is the issue of such a person”.

As one might have expected, indigenism – being so susceptible to political populism and so easily understood intuitively – soon overshadowed other political discourses and made the already difficult task of forming a coherent and cohesive national identity all the more formidable.

The dynamics of this fateful compromise accelerated tremendously after the racial riots of 13 May 1969, when hundreds, according to official figures, were killed.

Other effects of such a divisive discourse being sustained over decades, aside from the ranking between national and ethnic identity, include precipitously falling standards of governance, a serious emigration of talents, one-party-state tendencies, and heightened segregation among ethnic groups.

The government’s need to muffle the press, to confiscate books, to ban publications and to suppress political activity among the young, stems to a large extent from the prescribed clash of ethnicities, and from the vain idea that a nation can be built by means of an irreparably divisive discourse.

Malaysia’s self-image is therefore schizophrenic. This has impeded the synergic potential of the country, not only economically but culturally as well. The collectivism of ethnocentrism works against individual growth and spontaneous hybridization.

Unremitting consciousness about any aspect of our life – personal or national – is a painful fixation that would be recognized as pathological if it were not so ubiquitous. Being Chinese in Malaysia, is therefore a pain. This is equally true about being Malay, being Indian, or being Eurasian in this otherwise so promising country.

The easy path out of this dilemma, one would think, would be to develop a sense of being Malaysian strong enough to exceed the ethnic sense. But for that to happen, the definition of being Malaysian has to be simplified, and the rights enjoy by a Malaysian citizen must be self-evident, and not eclipsed decisively by ethnicity.

However, while ethnic differences was the major issue in the beginning, racialism process has been exploited for so long now that the greatest problems facing the country today have developed into those of corruption, incompetence, weak leadership, a weak economy, a politically subservient judiciary, and other governance issues.

To be sure, the New Economic Policy implemented in 1970, and which is still in practice today, was meant to render ethnicity as irrelevant was possible. This is forgotten today.

The idea was for government policies to make it possible for Malays to participate with increasing competence in the modern economy and the modern administration of the country. To do that, a handicap was to be given to them. As in golf, that handicap – properly managed – provided an artificial playing field. And as in golf, the
idea is for this handicap to be minimized over time.

The only sure criterion of success for the NEP was therefore its own dissolution. It was to seek its own early demise.

Strangely, the NEP might actually have succeeded better if the extending notion of “Malay special position”, or “Malay rights” or “Malay supremacy” had not accompanied it, warping it beyond recognition. The idea of perpetual right jived badly with the rationale of the NEP.

Achieving state quotas was not supposed to be understood in a passive manner as a rectification of some historic injustice done to the Malay community which then had to be defended, but instead as the attainment of the critical level needed for a process of self-modernization among the Malays to kick in.

Thus, the original goal was for the government to work towards pushing at least 30% of the Malay community into the business world. Governmental help would not be needed after that point. What this idea was distorted into was for 30% of share equities to be owned by members of the bumiputera community. This is something essentially different.

A belief in internal dynamism became at the hands of opportunistic populists a demand for endless external sustenance of a passive entity. This demand worked through transforming the notion of Malay special position into Malay special right, and then into Malay supremacy. In the beginning, the position was special only in a negative sense—the Malay community, for historic reasons, needed governmental help to participate competently in the modern economy. It was special on such grounds. If the NEP had worked, then that position would have lost all relevance.

Now, some countries are supposed to be eyeing Malaysia as a model to be copied, especially for how it succeeded in keeping inter-ethnic peace for s o long while maintaining an enviable level of economic growth. Most notable among these – and most understandably too – are South Africa and Fiji.

In both of these, the “indigenes” make up the majority of citizens, are the economically weaker party, and feel threatened by migrant groups. The temptation is therefore strong for these countries to imitate the seeming success story of Malaysia’s majority-favouring affirmative action policy. As I have tried to show, the issue is a highly complicated one.

In summary, the bigger issue for Malaysia – and for these other countries – is whether racialism is a necessary political requirement in countries where the majority communities are poor. The possibilities that racialism opens up for political opportunism and manipulation are scarily high, and in the not-too-long run threatens the nation-building project itself.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


2 thoughts on “Can cultural identity travel?

  1. Fint med din nya sida Kee Beng! Allt gott!

    Posted by FFällman | June 18, 2011, 3:00 am

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