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More Federalism, Less Centralism

By Ooi Kee Beng. PEM July 2011 Editorial

Malaysians are known to be multilingual as a rule, especially in urban or semi-urban areas where flows of cultures mingle.

This mingling can take place in an ad hoc and spontaneous manner like at a market place; or in a more regularized way like at a work place; or most intimately through intercultural marriages. This is not particular to Malaysia. In fact, this seems to be the normal human situation wherever groups of people discover that peaceful interaction is more useful than mutual annihilation.

But more often than not, and especially in the age of the nation-state, this amorphous multilingualism and multiculturalism is seen as a weakness. This is because the model of a nation-state expounds the idea of one nation – meaning one supposed people united by one common language and culture – maximising its sway in the world by way of a centralised state that is the expression of that language and culture.

Now, much of archipelagic Southeast Asian culture has always been seafaring by nature, which is not surprising given the geography. But placed also between giant civilizations to the West and the Northeast, the region became not only a source of raw material and goods, it functioned as a maritime silk route as well.

This backdrop of trade configured political economics in the region. Cultural intermingling had to be the order of the day, and the Malay language came to function as a lingua franca for traders.

Things got really complicated with the coming of the Europeans, not least in the area of language use. The languages of the colonial masters became not only the effective lingua franca, but also the language of control and knowledge.

This was powered by the industrialisation in Europe and the scientific revolution occurring largely in English and European language. And with the endlessly accelerating rate of scientific knowledge generation, the centrality of English seems secure for a long time to come.

This leaves Southeast Asia’s new countries such as Malaysia with a serious problem. How do they acknowledge the modern nation-state fixation with national language; accommodate that to the effective multilingualism of the region; promote English, the global language that cutting-edge scientific knowledge that economic development relies on; and achieve political stability at the same time?

Singapore simply put economics first, and pushed English as the key language. That has its own costs.

Malaysia has, since 1970, been giving increasing space to Malay ethnocentrism, a long-term stance that damages national unity and degrades its educational standards.

How do we get out of this hole?

Whatever the solution we adopt, it has to be acknowledged that ideal nation-states do not exist and the notions of monolingualism, monoculturalism and political centralism that emanate from that kind of thinking do not suit maritime Southeast Asia.

Hybridisation has a rhythm that cannot be forced.

A family that is big and varied cannot live in peace in a one-room house. But the more rooms there are under one roof, the more harmoniously family members can interact.

Thus, what Malaysia needs is more federalism, and less centralism.


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.


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