National Consciousness and the Postcolonial State

Nations as Imagined Communities
In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson defines the nation as an “imagined political community” (Ashcroft et al 2006, p. 124) that is imagined as “limited” (Ashcroft et al 2006, p. 125). Anderson explains that nations have “finite…if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations” (Ashcroft et al 2006, p. 125). The nation, according to Anderson, does not imagine itself “coterminous with mankind… [that is] nationalists do not dream of a day when all members of the human race will join their nation” as a religious sect does. Using Anderson’s definition of the nation as an imagined community, this project argues that conflict in the postcolonial multicultural nation occurs because there are nations/imagined communities even within the larger political nation that similarly “do not dream of a day when all members of the human race will join their nation”. For the purpose of this project there are at least three nations that exist within any one nation:

1. The political nation
2. The ethnic/familial nation (race)
3. The gendered nation (which is not discussed here, see ‘Inclusion by virtue of Othering’ and Redefining Gender Equality).

The ‘Faults of National Consciousness’
Frantz Fanon theorized that national consciousness in a postcolonial state fails to materialize when “instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people…the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state” (Ashcroft et al 2006, p. 121). Fanon considers this occurrence as a “…process of retrogression, that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity” (Ashcroft et al 2006, p. 121). Fanon explains that the middle class that immediately takes over after the end of colonial rule “is an underdeveloped middle class…[with]…practically no economic power”; however, this middle class is sure “it can advantageously replace the middle class of the mother country”—which refers to the former colonizing nation (Ashcroft et al 2006, p.121).

[youtube] (Above) *Malaysia on the verge of independence.

Fanon’s observations hold true in regards to the Malaysian state. The Malaysian state has passed over the nation for the race by granting the Malays a ‘special position’ in Malaysia. “The Malay ethnic majority [maintains that they are] the rightful citizens of Malaysia, [who] deserve to be given special political, economic, and educational privileges” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 65). However, the Malaysian government provides no such privileges for other ethnic groups (e.g. Chinese and Indians). This supports the argument that, despite the physical removal of the colonial ‘Self,’ a ‘new-Self’ (the Malays) has emerged. And, rather than creating new systems, this ‘new-Self’ operates similarly to the former colonial ‘Self’ and has created ‘new-Others’ in the process (Nah 2003, p. 512; see also Contesting Indigenous Identity). However, this creation of ‘new-Others’ has taken a new turn in the twentieth century as contemporary methods of othering occur under the guise of multiculturalism (Ang 1996, p. 37; see also ‘Inclusion by virtue of Othering’). The result is the emergence of two kinds of others:

1. The “other-from-without, from within” who Is viewed as entirely foreign or not belonging and included in national discourse only as a means of self-determination for those individuals who view themselves as not foreign or belonging.

2. The “other-from-within” who is incorporated into the nation only as a marker of that nation’s progress (Wright 2004, p. xviii; also see ‘The Fact of Blackness’). In both the United States and Malaysia these others occur simultaneously. (For more on the United States see ‘The Fact of Blackness’).

The Federation of Malaysia

Othering from without, from within
According to Dashini Jeyathurai “When the British left Malaya, they transferred political power to the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), a right-wing political party that continues to be a powerful advocate of ketuanan Melayu [or] Malay supremacy” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 65). After the British left Malaysia Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, “himself a Malay,” supported the concept of Malay supremacy and began the practice of granting special privileges to Malays. Rahman “also coined the term bumiputera (sons/princes of the soil) to refer to Malays (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 65). Both the term and practice came into official use in 1965 and are still in existence today” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 65). In 1967 “the predominantly Malay government” chose Malay as the official language; Islam became the Malaysian state’s official religion in 1970 (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 65).

The significance of this relates back Anderson’s description of nation as an imagined community. These actions taken by the Malaysian government demonstrate the construction of Malaysia’s “finite borders” and the creation of an “imagined community” that will enable the differentiation of Malaysians and non-Malaysians. However, individuals within the nation itself, who fall outside of these clearly drawn lines, have also been alienated. These alienated individuals become the other from without, from within, their foreign-ness is emphasized in order to validate the rights of Malay citizens. Citizenship allows an individual to enjoy all the benefits of their state, which Malays do, therefore anyone who is not allowed to enjoy the full privileges of a state is theoretically not a full citizen. What has been accomplished in Malaysia, according to Jeyathurai, is a government constructed national identity that is “…Malaysian in name, but Malay in spirit” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 65).

(Below) *News Report regarding politics in Malaysia and the UMNO, 2009.

Othering from within
In coexistence with Malaysia’s Malay-based national identity is the concept of Bangsa Malaysia, an term that refers to the “Malaysian race” and multiculturalism in Malaysia. According to Jeyathurai, “Ironically, Malaysia’s ‘multicultural promise’ is what is so readily featured in promotional tourism brochures…to boost tourism” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 66). However, it is this very ‘multicultural promise’ that the government is erasing with its construction of a uniformly Malay national identity” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 66). The theme’s perpetuation of a unified Malaysia transforms alienated individuals into the other from within, suddenly included within the nation because of and in spite of their difference. However, “…while the presence of the minority subject is valued in the discourse of multiculturalism for the ‘cultural enrichment s/he provides, [it is] precisely this function [that] keeps her/him positioned in the space of objectified otherness” (Ang 1996, p. 40). The function Ang is referring to is tolerance, an act often regarded as a marker of a progressive multicultural nation. However, it is actually a ‘contradictory act of inclusion by virtue of othering’ as it places one group in the position of the tolerant and another group in the position of those who are tolerated (Ang 1996, p. 39-40).

[youtube] (Above) *Promotional Video for Tourism in Malaysia.

Writers like Shirley Geok-lin Lim, who “speak to a burgeoning dissatisfaction among Malaysian ethnic minorities, who have become far less willing to tolerate a government and national identity that denies them the full privileges of their citizenship,” reveal this contradictory method in their work. For this reason such work was categorized by Ismail Hussein—‘the father of Malay literature’—as “’merbahaya’ which means dangerous” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 66). Hussein had “alluded to the themes of exile, uncertainty, loneliness and a lack of belonging in early Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Tamil literature” and referred to the danger in not having “unshaken confidence in the future of the new nation” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 66). However, according to Jeyathurai, “With the end of British imperialism in Malaysia in 1957, the predominantly Malay government has systematically replaced one hegemony with another” (Jeyathurai 2009, p. 66).


Image Sources:

*All videos obtained from YouTube.

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