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

Should We Build a United Nation? Or Simply a Just State and a Healthy Economy?

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, August 2019.

Malaysians use “Nation building” as an umbrella term for all the processes required to turn a given territory into a secure, prosperous and united country.

The contentiousness involved in “nation building” is obvious, and the path towards secure nationhood and a free and happy society is lined with many opposing opinions and interests. How these relate to each other and how the means do or do not forget their supposed end vary greatly from case to case, and from period to period. Not only are the contests about means, they often differ about the ends as well.

To simplify this complex situation, we should deconstruct the term “Nation building” in its broadly understood sense, into its major component parts. That way, we can recognize the means and the processes involved in each, and stop confusing ourselves by conflating these as we have been prone to do for decades.

First, there is state building. Then there is nation building, which one should associate closely to society building. Underneath these lie the all-important processes of national-economy building. I have discussed these matters in earlier articles, here in PM and elsewhere, often with regards to how Malaysia’s fixation with nation-building has led to a weakening state and to an economy caught in the Middle-Income Trap. (See “The Unity Fetish”, for example, in Penang Monthly February 2015 or in the essay compilations, Merdeka for the Mind and Catharsis). Here, in this limited space and in accordance with this month’s cover story about the next stage in Penang’s industrialisation, I shall keep to the issue of “national-economy building”.

Interestingly, a national economy can be built in many ways, perhaps in more diverse ways than states and nations can be built. But let’s keep to our East Asian neighbours as examples for now. Tiny Brunei relies on oil revenues, and so its state and its nation configure themselves comfortably around that source of revenue. On the other hand, tiny Singapore, well known for its lack of natural resources but unburdened by any rural population, invested fully in its globally advantageous location and its administrative legacy, with a clear understanding of “the primacy of economics” (a phrase its economic tsar, the Melaka-born Dr Goh Keng Swee so effectively coined). For Singapore, state building and national-economy building went hand in hand.

For all the larger Southeast Asian countries, securing boundaries and positioning ethnic groups within a shaky polity determined by the majority community—whichever way the latter is defined—were major concerns made ever more necessary by Cold War exigencies.

Malaysia in this context had its 1957 identity and boundaries changed, first through the addition of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore in 1963 and then through the exit of Singapore in 1965 all the while being threatened by Indonesia and the Philippines from without, and by communism and communalism from within.

Isn’t “Federalism” a Wonderful Word?

Being richly gifted in natural resources but culturally, economically and politically diverse, Malaysia’s early leaders, in laying the foundation for the building of state, nation and national economy, focused hugely on nation building, subsuming economics and state building into discourses of identity and unity and a de facto system of party autocracy.
However, the diversity of Malaysia runs deep—which is why it came into being, and can only exist, as a federation and not a unitary state; its economy is globally connected, as are many of its people.

Tellingly, it is a federation in a region where the word “federalism” is otherwise a dirty word. Malaysia is clearly a unique creation, and given its wonderful and life-sustaining diversity, aiming for unity in purpose is much more important than aiming for unity in politics, culture and religion.

Out of the trails and travails of recent times, the term “shared prosperity” has appeared. Championed by the new government under Tun Dr Mahathir, the phrase addresses the socio-economic divisions that often accompany the Furnivallian plural society that Malaysia has been, and hints at a shift in focus at the federal level, not only towards the primacy of economics tempered by socioeconomic concerns, but away from race politics, i.e. away from “nation-building” and its obsession with ethnic identity towards priorities dictated by national-economy building.

If anything is to be learned from this shift, it is that there is a place for central exercise of power and there is a place—a much bigger place in fact—for initiatives at local and individual levels.

But then, a hint is a hint. It is up to actors other than governments to generate a progressive relationship between the public and the private sectors, between leaders and citizens, and most vitally, between state building and national-economy building.

Nation- building? Well, the nation will build itself if the state and the economy are soundly managed.



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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