Before Merdeka, the states that now make up the Federation of Malaysia each functioned to varying degrees and in different ways as part of the global economy that we knew as colonialism. But although one could say that the metropolitan centre then was London and the administrative centre was Singapore, the local economic structure was nevertheless a steady one, and local management skills were well-rooted.
Thus, Malaysia seemed better prepared for nationhood than most, if not all, of its neighbours. Or was it? Were things perhaps being rushed a little? Were the British not a little too willing to leave despite being the only colonial power able to return to its old colonies without violent opposition from the colonised population after the Japanese Occupation?
Whichever the case, by 1957, a Constitution had been adopted, a ruling coalition enjoying popular support was in place, and federalism was recognised as the best way to unite the various parts of British Malaya, given that state and local elections were allowed for the new country’s diversity to be satisfactorily expressed.
However, as Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the Home Affairs minister in the 1960s, was prone to say, the country faced two great threats — communism and communalism. Unlike the communist challenge, which was fought with arms and which proved possible to isolate and defeat, the communalist divide had to be handled by all other means available to the state, and it could definitely not be isolated.
National unity became the rallying cry and the long-term goal in dealing with communalism. Thus, nation-building — creating a common identity — became a growing fixture and fixation in the thinking of politicians and in the generating of public discourses. Purportedly, the federal structure that the country had would, at least theoretically, limit attempts at country-wide suppression of minorities.
Identity before economics
This concern with identity was accompanied by a lax attitude towards economic development in the 1960s and Tunku Abdul Rahman’s government (1957 to 1970) was, for good reason, occupied more with security issues than with economics.
The switch came with the Second Malaysia Plan, when socioeconomic development became a key concern for the government. Over time, this focus on socioeconomics, strongly informed by inter-ethnic divides, would see the state apparatus being captured by racialist populism. The state soon found it difficult to rise above the party interests of the ruling coalition.
Although power was centralised more and more to the disadvantage of state and local instances of power, the capacity of the federal state apparatus to maintain its integrity was diminished, vis-à-vis politicians fronting and living off an understanding of nation building narrowed to mean the mere defence of ethnic identity.
Despite the Malaysian economy industrialising and globalising over the following decades, aided by oil revenues, Malaysian society became ever more mired in introverted quarrels and conceptual essentialism.
This relationship between state, nation and national economy in the Malaysian case is what needs changing if we are to give substance to the idea of New Malaysia propagated after the general election last year.
Can freeing the state from party politics be done by the parties in power? It is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely. What is needed is help from society itself. The Malaysian population of the 21st century has to empower itself through sociological, anthropological and historical methods of understanding society and people, and through extroverting its discourses and activities to engage with the region and the world.
The latter concern is also where the state must take on a major role. Malaysia has developed enough to begin wielding soft power and to take pride on the world stage for its uniqueness and its achievements.
State before nation
Putting state building before nation building will require technocrats to step forward as a professional class to retake the public profile usurped by politicians, and to front the public responsibility of their profession.
What about the national economy? The continuous dividing of ethnicities that has passed for politics has meant that the domestic market, the entrepreneurial synergy of the population and the communal trust required for sustained investment of time, energy and money have been badly reduced.
Malaysia has been punching below its weight, and has been doing that for so long that its people have now forgotten that to be the case. The New Malaysia is the window of opportunity for Malaysia to break out of the cocoon it built for itself for the state to break away from party politics, and for the civil service to regain its professionalism. It is time for the people to enjoy the individual freedom promised by Merdeka so many years ago. The lowering of the voting age to 18 years by the new government is a major step in the right direction.
The country was born with a democratic and a federal structure as its silver spoon. That is its birthright. These are powerful assets that should be taken advantage of if Malaysia is to renew itself, and a heritage to be forever proud of.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia. This article is based on a talk given on Sept 18 at Taylor’s University as part of its Social Science Dialogue Series, jointly organised by the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Penang Institute.