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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

The Trap of Victimhood in the Building of Nationhood

By OOI KEE BENG, in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 29, 2022 – September 04, 2022.

MERDEKA! I was two years old when the Federation of Malaya gained independence from Great Britain. So, in essential ways, I was born to be free. Born into a country being allowed to empower itself in the Age of Nations into which it was being ushered; and born as an individual to which Merdeka would mean personal freedom.

Nobody said it was going to be easy; we all knew that the playing field of international politics and global trade was not even, and we all knew a new citizenry was not going to pull in the same direction all the time.

And an independent country does not mean that its citizens will be free. States always try to control what their citizens think, how they are educated (or not) and, most importantly, how power relations in the new polity are to be stabilised. In essence, the last point is about how the powerful shall now struggle to remain powerful, given that the once-powerful British in their clever, underhanded ways had now retreated colonially, if not always economically.

New players necessarily appeared in the two decades after the country’s birth. After all, it was not until 1965 that the country’s physical boundaries became clear, and international acceptance of the Federation of Malaysia was not definite until after the fall of Indonesia’s Sukarno.

In fact, the departure in 1970 of the first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, following the suspension of parliament after racial riots in 1969, and the deep change in the national narrative that was enforced in the following decades, made his time in power now appear nothing more than a quaint and transitional period — a phenomenon common enough in the early history of struggling new nations across the world.

But, for Malaysia, what was this transition? Transition from what to what, one may ask? I doubt that the answer to that was clear to anyone. The road ahead was a contested one, especially since it was taken in the wake of bloody intercommunal violence.

What is clear is that Malaysia took a path after 1970 that was very different from the direction Merdeka pointed out in 1957. Instead of individual freedom and national sovereignty, the underlying communalism of the population was allowed full play, providing those who profess ethnocentrism with easy and effective paths to power.

Instead of empowerment of all Malaysians, the national narrative slyly shifted to highlight the victimhood of communities. Collective victimhood, to be sure, has an impressive track record of success throughout the world. And there will always be those who will champion it, in whatever conceptual attire.

But, in the long run, while a narrative that celebrates individual empowerment may generate creativity and dignity, one that revels in collective victimhood certainly undermines personal pride and dismisses the sense of shame. Also, collective victimhood easily goes viral, generating a similar sense of grudge and mistreatment among others.

From open exclusivity to closed exclusivity

Given the democratic nature of the Malaysian constitution, dramatic narrative shifts in power are necessarily populist, and a new populism consciously puts into place a new power-attaining process. New freedoms for some are born at the cost of limitations on others; new elite-creating processes replace old elite-maintaining ones.

As a new member of the United Nations, Malaysia needed key processes that included: (i) state-building, meaning the capacity of the state to exert power and implement policies; (ii) national-economy building, meaning the involvement of all citizens in an increasingly beneficial economic ecosystem, and; (iii) nation-building, meaning the creation of a sense of common identity among all citizens.

It is true that the original laissez-faire formula for economic development in the 1960s threatened to perpetuate imbalances in the Malaysian citizenry. There were unacceptable exclusivities in the post-colonial economy; no one questions that today. But despite attempts in the New Economic Policy (NEP) initiated in the Second Malaysia Plan (1970-1975) to rectify the inherited situation without falling into the aggressive trap of racialism and notions of perpetual victimhood, the country’s self-image went from one of common destiny to one of conflicting communities, each feeling more victimised than the other.

Despite Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s ethnocentric tendencies evident in his early — and present — thinking, the narrative generated by his Vision 2020 and the notion of Bangsa Malaysia in the early 1990s, when the NEP was to have ended, was an exciting one in that it sidestepped the victimhood trap and sought to instil a strong sense of optimism, of can-do spirit and of global participation in Malaysians.

But this new collective optimism did not have time to penetrate the Malaysian psyche deeply enough to replace the sense of victimhood, before the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98 deflated the country of any persistent optimism in its nationhood.

No doubt, that crisis did give rise to the Reformasi, which, despite endless challenges, led to the fall from power of most race-based parties in 2018. But the sense of victimhood as political capital and the emptying of the sense of shame from the Malaysian political psyche proved too far gone for this new change to be too radical.

In 2022, two years after Vision 2020 turned out to be a shocking disappointment, Malaysia needs to revisit Merdeka from the point of view of the citizen, not from the point of view of the race-based populist parties that propagated the narrative of collective victimhood.

By the year 2027, Malaysia will be 70 years old. One would hope that it would have left childish things behind, and Malaysians should feel personal freedom and pride to be their political right; they should be defined through their personal accomplishments and their leaders through a sense of shame, charity and service.

Continued revelling in victimhood leaves us all without integrity — and with denial of shame. That is not what Merdeka is about.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (2018, Penang Institute, ISEAS & SIRD).

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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