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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

The Unity Fetish


Cover Story for Penang Monthly, February 2015


noun \ˈfe-tish also ˈfē-\

: a strong and unusual need or desire for something
: a need or desire for an object, body part or activity for sexual excitement
: an object that is believed to have magical powers

Standfirst: Building a nation involves sustained emotional stimulation of citizens, while building a state is more of a legal and technical matter. Balancing the two is the key to social stability and national dynamism. The Unity Paradigm needs to be contrasted with the Diversity Paradigm.

By Ooi Kee Beng

The collective individual

Malaysia is a land of diversity. However, the need to adopt the nation-state structure to replace colonialism disposed the country’s post-colonial leaders to see its diversity as a weakness – in fact, as potential dynamite.

No doubt, much of that diversity was politically salient and basically of a divisive nature. Agendas and values among potential nation builders did differ greatly, and the two forces that had, on good grounds, always been thought to be most dangerous were communalism and communism.

The latter is now passé, while the former has been heavily enhanced, and has left the country with a political structure pathologically fixated with ethnicity – a condition that in recent years has become aggravated by religion.

Over the last half century, with so much of the country’s governing logic being based on ethnic affiliations, it has not been easy for Malaysians to appreciate diversities in general as something that can be positive. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that most differences today, including in viewpoints, are seen through a racial lens. Should a Malay not agree with the principle of Malay supremacy, he or she is loudly suspected of being a race traitor. And if his understanding of Islamic behaviour differs from the state-sanctioned one, then he is in the eyes of the authorities on the way to being an apostate, or to jail.

This goes for the other races as well, except that if truth be told, it is the Malay community that has been exposed most strongly to collective identity manipulation. Already in the Constitution, it is already stated what characterises a Malay. This extraordinary attempt to define ethnicity legally definition may have seemed a good political strategy, but it does involve over time a minimising of individual space for the sake of the political advantage of the community as understood – and as led and represented – by a select group of leaders.

But with the irrefutable rise of a political opposition that won 51% of the popular vote in 2013, aided no doubt by vast advancements in ICT and by the urbanising of daily life for a majority of citizens, a sense of individual empowerment has spread to challenge the collective ethnic and religious identity that had regimented Malaysian politics for so long.

This fact is easily missed if one thinks of politics only in party and coalition terms. But if seen in the fluid terms needed to describe contemporary social and physical mobility, the liberation of information flow and the diversity of individual fates, Malaysian society has changed in radical ways.

At the same time, such change has first to deal with the complexities of the past, mainly the bad press that diversity has been getting. In short, diversity was ethnicised, collectivised and, therefore, problematised to such an extent that individual fates and uniqueness of individual lives were dismissed from political agendas. What this means is that Malaysians were drilled to think of themselves as members of an ethnic group first, before they are individuals with unique experiences.

This may have been the common destiny of societies suddenly grouped or turned into new political entities, of which there were many in Asia and Africa following the Second World War. But what this also did was to make them think that such was the inescapable lot of Third World peoples.

That is the socio-psychological legacy of post-colonial nationalism as found in these parts of the world. But now, with the majority of the population in these countries being born long after independence, a point is being reached where the strategies of old misrepresent the desires of the present. This is a global phenomenon, but let me keep to Malaysia here.

Allow me to recognise the present moment in Malaysian history as the tail end of the nationalist era. That is just another way of describing what many have called a crossroads; a crossroads at which the country has found itself since the turn of the century.

In the early period of Malaysian nation building, the major concerns were about the viability of the new entity, meaning the defining of the new polity and whether or not it could be consolidated. It was about the hasty grouping together into one country of what in effect were disparate societies, disparate polities and disparate economies.

Overnight, out of what were disparate consciousnesses or mindsets, we set about creating a national citizenry (complete with national army, national police, national education), a national government, national borders which were to be jealously guarded and – this is most overlooked – a national economy out of very disparate economies. We also immediately made some national enemies, and we entered into security alliances and a host of other international arrangements to secure recognition and safety.

That was the nationalist era. We joined the global family of nation-states. We learned to think in unifying and regimenting terms, for fear that a lack of uniformity would spell disaster.

Nation or state?

Now, “nation-state” is the important word here. We began building a nation and building a state both at the same time. The two processes are different things, and identifying the key practices for national economic development was the overarching concern. (By “state”, I mean the apparatus of the state, be this central or provincial, and not as in “Kedah”, “Kelantan” or “Johor”).

Let me say a few words on what the divides in Malaysia are, and let us remind ourselves that divides are not naturally politically salient.

Structurally, race and religion seem the most important divides in Malaysia. This is deeply expressed in the political party structure, and even in the Constitution, not to mention the sultanate-based state polity in nine of the 13 states. And over the years, this has deeply influenced the education system, the civil service and the choice of foreign influences.

Then there is the development divide, the income divide and the modernity divide (by the latter I mean functionality in the global capitalist, scientific and technological world), not to mention cultural divides, based partly on ethnicity, partly on class, partly on urbanity, partly on education and a host of other parameters.

Nation building is about generating identity, but if this process does not seek to be inclusive of all Malaysians, then one is basically generating deep emotional divisions with the populace. This can of course be a path consciously chosen by nation builders, with disunity being considered by them as a necessary price to pay for the time being.

State building on the other hand is the creation of rules, regulations and legislations, and administrative structures that apply to all. In that way, this process is inclusive. Knowing rules that apply equally to everyone becomes the unifying factor. Nothing emotional about it.

Let’s take the issue of education to illustrate the difference. Education in the nation-building process will be strongly concerned with the language of instruction, about values learning, about national history. It will be about defining the past, present and future of ethnic identification and division. Education in the state-building process, in turn, will be about providing opportunity for all, about functional knowledge, about creating citizens to fill roles within the economy and the civil service.

One without the other leads to undesirable effects: too much nation building exaggerates group attachment, and too much state building does the opposite.

The question to ask of Malaysians at this time is “How should state building and nation building be rebalanced to remedy earlier ills?”

Malaysia is not alone in this complicated process, and although there are tight limits to how much one can compare countries or state and nation-building processes, there is much that can be learned from the experiences of other countries.

1. If your society is divided by religion, you need a secular state to unite you;
2. If your society is disjointed by race, you need a legalist state to referee you; and
3. If your society is separated by class, you need a redistributive state to consolidate you.

State building is a largely technical matter, while nation building is a psychological one. A successful balance between the two, we have to assume, can achieve economic growth that is potentially inclusive (meaning social mobility), provide national security and keep serious internal conflicts at bay.

Nation building is about identity; while state building is about predictability, order and functionality. The first requires prolonged emotional manipulation, the other cumulative technical knowledge. In Malaysia, since 1970 at least, the trend had moved from state building to nation building, and the country has had to suffer the latter’s strong tendency – in fact inherent need – to generate tension and conflict.

I would argue that the discursive changes needed for Malaysia to enter a post-nationalist period include:

1. Seeing Malaysia’s development process within regional and global contexts whose forces it cannot escape, but from which it can instead draw much benefit; and
2. Accepting a notion of sufficient – and not total – commonality and uniformity.

Having race-based parties running the state has over time – especially given the constraints on debate that the post-1971 parliament placed on society – led to the effective capture of the state by the dominant race-based party. Malaysia’s nation building and state building became the prerogative – and even the monopoly – of Umno and its allies. This has conserved and nursed the fear of social disunity and national disaster, which was understandable in the early years, and turned it into a fetish. Operationally, this has seen the transforming of the socioeconomic and pragmatic notion of Malay special position into the ideological and essentialist notion of Malay special rights.

Much of the political opposition in Malaysia today is about a widespread endeavour to escape from the debilitating party power structure and this discursive stranglehold. This includes a wide variety of NGOs as well, which is a good reminder of how, while the country over the years has been highlighting some chosen divisions and ignoring others, new ones have appeared, inspired by changes in the world in general. This includes environmental concerns, refugee situations and illegal workers.

Treating fetishism

The Unity Fetish – the assumption that more unity is better than less – is best cured through the search for Sufficient Communality, the point where diversity is beneficial and more unity brings discord. The Unity Fetish, like all fetishes, cannot be satisfied. There is no point at which success can be declared to have been achieved. And so, discord is its real goal.

Building a country is like building a house. Given the diversities and divisions that exist among those who are to populate this house, one has to decide on the right size of house, the right combination of rooms and the right facilities to provide. The point is to get the right architecture – the right fengshui – for the house to flourish and be at peace.

Building too small a house will simply generate tensions and conflicts that may tear it apart.

Again, we should not get too fixated with bringing people together, but with giving them space. One can have one’s cake and eat it too if one can find the right distance at which disparate groups can relate to each other. Over time, and given the necessary facilities for interaction, etc., social integration has a good chance of happening. The issue is time. Society needs time to hybridise, meaning that identity is really organic in essence and cannot be defined in advance. This also reminds us that clear – and therefore false – definitions of identity, be they embedded in the Constitution, in legal practice or in bureaucratic regulations, act against hybridisation.

The long-term effects of such collectivisation of public identity cannot be conducive to creativity and to the sense of individual empowerment that undergirds creativity and personal confidence.

Daily life in a pluralistic society naturally leads to interactions that leave everyone mutually affected. This is the best possible process through which not only shared understanding can be achieved but also a strong realisation that individual identity is tentative in nature and is forever shifting.

Collective identities are a demand from without, while individual identity is a personally lived experience.

In conclusion, excessive concern with “unity” is problematic for various reasons. It aims to create an unchanging social and political structure within which “unity” is minimally threatened. Such a goal, being assimilative in effect, tends to increase and perpetuate tension between communities. Also, it contains the ambition for cultural and thought uniformity. The fluid nature of social cohesion is denied; and last but not least, it squeezes society into as few dimensions as possible, and pulls it as much as possible away from the multidimensional reality that we actually live in.

The unity fetish tends to disunite by playing an “including by excluding” game, and yet at the same time, whoever it includes is not necessarily privileged because the including process amounts, in the long run, to a coercive and tightening definition of the included individual.


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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