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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Building Community through Daily Life is the Way to Reset Nation-building

By OOI KEE BENG, in “Picking on the Present”, for The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 24-30, 2023

Allow me to dream a while about Malaysia. Malaysia is a divided country, but it is often stated how lucky a place it must be for it to have functioned so peacefully despite the odds stacked against it since its independence. For starters, it is incredibly diverse — in culture, in history, in geography, and in many other countless ways.

So, how do you create cohesion and common identity out of a country made up of what were at least six pieces of unevenly colonised territories, populated by peoples with at least six civilisational origins? Furthermore, this hotchpotch country floats in an archipelago that is equally diverse, if not more so.

As statesmen and politicians try to express this exciting and exasperating diversity for the purpose of creating a nation-state in accordance with European standards, they come up with different conflations of ideas all meant to achieve conditions denotable as united or harmonious.

These are circumstances we all want, but in real life cases, how humans cohere, how they co-exist peacefully and how they fall into conflict are not easily understood.

While diversity is often considered a challenge to unity and peaceful existence, we also realise at the same time that homogeneity in one aspect does not guarantee peace because there are always other aspects in which society remains heterogeneous. In fact, strange as it may sound, and I am prone to think that Southeast Asia’s peaceful peoples provide proof of this, homogeneity is not a necessary condition for peaceful co-existence. Diversity being the given condition, seeking cultural homogeneity may be the problem.

The balance between homogeneity and heterogeneity has in the European tradition always leaned towards the former — and perhaps that has been the case in all imperial historical contexts, including those in East and South Asia. Southeast Asia, for various reasons, has always had a trajectory of its own where human interactions are concerned.

The legacy problem that the region suffers from is exactly this, I believe. We do not fit the pattern very well. Instead, the lesson we should learn from the last 70 years of nation-building in the region is that we must create our own model of nation-building — “region-building” is perhaps a more correct turn of phrase to use, and one that suggests a larger and conceptually more promising frame for action.

Diversity as foundation

The demographics and the diversity that prevail in Southeast Asia — and in Malaysia — should not be problematised the way it has been, framed as it was by the nation-state building discourse that overwhelmed the whole region after the Second World War, and during the global Cold War.

Nation-building in the region is basically a defensive one, given the modern history of the region, filled with insecurities and humiliation wrought under forces of colonialism, occupation and imperialism. This cautious way of life fits well into the enduring geopolitical considerations of the Big Powers, who continue to see Southeast Asia as buffer territory.

In essence, this distrustful posturing has been dictating how we define ourselves on the one hand, and the wary way we view fellow Southeast Asians on the other.

As the world order now changes, and the role of non-European power grows, a rethink of the fundamental goals of nation-building in the region may be in order.

All real changes start at home, so let’s first consider how such a rethink would look like for Malaysia without ignoring the larger regional context.

Asean has over time managed to formulate its goals under the three pillars of building an Asean Political-Security Community, an Asean Economic Community and an Asean Socio-Cultural Community. The even larger context involves China, India and Australia and their ambitions, and beyond that, we have the rest of the world, especially the US.

Malaysia (with Singapore) is centrally situated within these concentric geopolitical circles, not only geographically but also economically and even culturally through its special mix of peoples. It has the capability over time to shape a model that can inspire the further decolonising of political thinking in the region, and aid regional community building in the process.

For its diversity to become a strength and an inspiration, it must be taken as the given and as a godsend in future discourse construction. Otherwise, it remains a curse and the cause of much conflict and source of weakness in the economic and cultural development in the country — and the region.

The paradox lies in the fact that discourses tend to divide. What does not divide is cultural interaction, and that is where hope lies. By focusing on the non-discursive — that is, on interactions in cultural and economic matters, in everyday settings — a more natural process of community building can begin and be scalable across the country, and beyond.

In short, enhancing all the elements of soft power within the country to downplay political discourses seems the way to go. By avoiding markers of identity as goals of nation-building in favour of popular interactions in sports and leisure, music and food, education and celebrations, as well as economic exchanges — anything that is not party politics really — a cultural renaissance can happen. And we never know where a renaissance can lead to on the regional stage.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent works include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (2018). Homepage: wikibeng.com.


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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