My Say: Is the nation at a crossroads or in a quagmire?

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 28, 2015 - January 3, 2016.


MALAYSIA has drawn the attention of the global community in recent times, and this has largely been much more negative publicity, rather than positive. Just last Thursday, the European Parliament passed a resolution deploring “the deteriorating human rights situation in Malaysia and in particular, the crackdown on civil society activists, academics, media and political activists”.

This follows a series of reports throughout the year in The Wall Street Journal on scandals in high places in Malaysia. These are just two of many other cases.

While this sustained attention from abroad is new, the analysis tends to be too much focused on contemporary conditions than it should be. Malaysians in general understand the country’s difficult situation to be a profound one, rooted in a unique history as much as in notional narrowness.

The country may have gained independence in a relatively easy manner, but over time, no one should have thought that the nation-building to come would be an easy one. Many things have changed, but the question remains: Is Malaysia a country at a crossroads or in a quagmire?

That is as relevant a question today to ask about Malaysia as it has ever been. I am more prone than ever to ask it though after reading some books very recently about the social history and politics of the late colonial period in British Malaya.

Throughout the 1930s, Malay newspapers were being established to satisfy the growing need among Malay intellectuals to discuss the situation of their community. The world was in a deep economic crisis then, and the growing notions of nationhood and ethnic essentialism led to a hostile debate between those professing the term “Malayans” and those Malays who would not recognise that notion. The Malay newspapers were those driving the debate most consistently.

More than 80 years later, from the vantage point of 2015 going on to 2016, it is stimulating to compare the two periods and see what has changed and what has stubbornly remained the same.

This article cannot profess to give a list of these things — it can only prod readers to proceed on their own to study and contemplate the exciting history of late colonialism in order to better understand the Malaysian nation as it stands today.

The underlying contradiction between Melayu and Malayan continues to infect the debate today, though robed in other terms. The essential twain refuse to meet. In fact, it has expanded to become about the gap between bumiputeras and other Malaysians.

With the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak added to the equation, and the use of Islam to incorporate Muslims of Arabic and Indian descent into the Melayu denomination, racial politics has become a very complex game to manage.

This polarity remains the larger framework within which Malaysian politics is played.

One other similarity is that the country is in economic crisis, at least at the people level if not at the GDP level. It is common for people under economic stress to be susceptible to the machinations of opportunists playing on ethnic and religious sentiments. And we see such opportunists a-plenty today.

The key difference of course is that Malaysia is over half a century old. The British are long gone, and although the handover of power to Malayan leaders was done to favour conservative power structures, national politics has taken over from colonial politics. The national economy has replaced the colonial economy. But to what extent has the colonial and “colonialsed” mindset been dropped? Do Malaysians still fight battles of yore whatever the cost to future prospects for their children?

Fifty years of nation building and of five-year plans must surely have improved the prospects for healthier inter-ethnic relations and diversified the collective identification of individual Malaysians, even if news reports tell us different.

The greatest change in recent times, to my mind, has been taking place within the Malay community. The Malay population is now large enough, urbanised enough, educated enough, young enough and exposed enough to the world to rethink the country’s demographic, historical and global situation for themselves.

It is hard to refute the argument that all major changes in the country must involve the Malay community.

Most people will have discerned a growing demand in Malaysia from all communities for good governance in the country over the last two decades. Despite heightened inter-ethnic tensions, the discourse has definitely diversified. Much of the political challenges that the country is facing signals that it is at a crossroads.

What’s more, the regionalising of Asia tends to weaken the fixation with domestic politics which plague all new nations. This should increasingly force political considerations to adopt the region as the proper framework within which to formulate effective policies. So even if Malaysia is in a quagmire, the means for it to pull itself out of it are many.

And so, back to the original question: crossroads or quagmire? The answer has to be that it is up to the people themselves to decide through future actions how decisive they want their historical condition to be. It is also possible for them to rise to the occasion, and not be stuck in short-sighted defensiveness.

Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His writings are accessible at