By Dr Farish A. Noor
It has become ever-so-trendy of late to talk about nation-building in the most inclusive and open-ended of terms. After assuming office more than a month ago, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak began speaking at length about the notion of a ‘United Malaysia’ – which was in turn claimed by opposition parties in the country as their idea as well. In Thailand a slew of parties have claimed monopoly over the concept of a singular, united Thailand. While in Burma since the 1960s the aims of nation-building have been the same as they are now: to bring together the disparate array of ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups under the same banner of a singular Burmese identity.
Now there is nothing wrong with nation-building per se (for indeed one cannot imagine any form of governance without some semblance of a nation-building project accompanying it), and there is nothing wrong with wanting to bring different communities together. What has to be questioned critically, however, is this: What is the final aim of such nation-building projects; what are the premises upon which they are based; and can such projects ever get to their appointed destinations if the premises upon which they are laid are somehow faulty themselves?
The call for national unity can be troubling at times, for often we come across cases where nation-building is nothing less than a polite euphemism for the hegemonic cultural dominance of the majority. A case in point would be the experiment in nation-building in Burma following the coup and military take-over in 1963. The military leaders of Burma then spoke at length about the need to bring the diverse nation together, but forgot to mention that practically the entire leadership of the government, army and civil service was dominated by the ethnic Burmans, while other communities like the Shans, Chin, Kachin, Karens etc were effectively left out. ‘Burmese nationalism’ was therefore nothing more than an attempt to impose the specific identity of the Burmese of the Irrawady delta on the rest of the country…
Likewise Thailand’s identity problem stems from the fact that the Thai community is just one of many. Until today, the plight of minorities in Thailand such as the Malay-Muslims of the south is seen as a marginal concern that does not figure very highly in the political considerations of the elite in Bangkok. But as long as the ethnic Thais do not accept the fact that there are many other ethnic, linguistic and religious communities that occupy the same geography as Thailand, how can there be any real progress in the creation of a multicultural Thailand that truly reflects its diversity?
Likewise in Malaysia national unity has been the bugbear of Malaysian politics since the 1960s. But attempts to forge a sense of national unity and national identity have faltered on the rocks of realpolitik for the simple reason that what we have seen thus far is the steady encroachment of the cultural, linguistic and increasingly religious dominance of one ethnic-cultural group in particular. To compound matters even further, the landscape of Malaysian politics has been dominated mostly by political parties that are communal in character and whose natural vote base come from their respective ethnic, linguistic and religious constituencies.
As long as Malaysian politics maintains the communal and sectarian tenor that it has preserved for half a century, how can there be any real progress in nation-building and the sense of a united yet diverse Malaysia? For if the notion of a ‘united Malaysia’ merely foregrounds one ethnic-religious community at the expense of others, one would not be surprised if the minorities in the country react by saying ‘No thanks, we will keep to our ethno-religious ghettoes and we don’t want to be absorbed by your cultural and religious majoritarianism…’
Nation-building therefore has to begin from rational, objective and universal premises – the first of which is the concept of universal and equal citizenship where every single citizen is regarded as equal to another. The state has to remain colour-blind, and blind to the distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender and religion; and adopt instead the role of the secular ‘honest broker’ that does not favour one community over another.
But can this ever happen in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Burma or even India, Pakistan and Bangladesh one wonders? For too long the bane of post-colonial development has been the perpetuation of essentialised categories of race, ethnicity and religion. And for too long the reproduction of these essentialised categories has been maintained via an irrational, emotional and oft-time bellicose and confrontational discourse of narrow identity politics. Frankly, it is this adherence to the irrational logic of communalism that is one of the root causes of the failure of nation-building in so many parts of the developing world until today. At its most extreme it will take us to the point where the hardening of communal frontiers will render sensible, objective and critical dialogue on common national issues impossible.
But can the political elites of these countries make the changes that are necessary and over-due? Can the political parties of Malaysia, for instance, de-escalate the process of hardening the ethnic and religious boundaries between the communities; and come to the common agreement that the future of the country cannot be the responsibility of only one ethnic or religious group, but the nation as a whole? Can the politicians of Malaysia come to realise that Malaysia today is far more complex than it has ever been, and that to succeed on a national basis means having to abandon the sectarian politics of the past and adopting the inclusive democratic politics of the future?
The rationalist in me can see the problem, and even suggest a solution or two. But in the heated environment of Malaysian politics today, one wonders who will be the first to simply state the obvious: Malaysia will not get anywhere as long as the political parties of the country do not reject, once and for all, race and religion-based politics for the sake of the wider long-term goal of nation-building and democratisation. But being reasonable means being in the minority these days, and like all minority groups the world over, rationalists today are forced to watch the slow failure of nation-building thanks to the politics of unreason that has overcome us.
Dr. Farish Ahmad-Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technical University (NTU), Singapore where he is Director of Research for the Research Cluster on Transnational Religion in Southeast Asia. He is also guest affiliated Professor at both Universitas Muhammadiyah Surakarta (UMS) and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is the author of ‘Writings on the War on Terror’ (2006), ‘From Majapahit to Putrajaya’ (2005) and ‘Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of PAS’ (2004)