A Cold Look At The State Of Malaysia Today

At a time when tempers are rising and we are being treated to a rather crude and vulgar display of verbal pyrotechnics and hammy acting on the part of pundits and politicians alike, it would pay to take some objective distance from the current sad state of Malaysian politics in order to stare at ourselves in the face and ask the important question: Why are we in the present state we find ourselves in today, and how did we get here?

By Farish A. Noor

As of last week Malaysia has entered the inglorious list of countries where inter-religious tensions have risen to the point where places of worship have been attacked. Notwithstanding the identity of the attackers concerned, and what could have possibly motivated their actions, the cost of these developments are high and perhaps even permanent, as Malaysia is now being unfavourably compared to countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia where temples, mosques and churches have been put to the torch. An appalling start to a new year and a new decade if there ever was one, and one that bodes ill for Malaysia’s ambitions to be regarded as a nation-state with some pretense of civility and development.

Nonetheless other commentators have reminded us to look beyond the fiery discourse and to identify the real economic-structural issues that continue to bedevil the nation. Others have called on Malaysians to remain steadfast in adhering to our principles of belief and not to show fear in the face of violent sectarian bigotry and hate-mongering.


Beyond these moot points however remain also real structural and material concerns that ought to be brought to our attention, and which make themselves readily visible as soon as we turn off our emotional buttons and analyse these developments with some degree of cold objectivity.

For a start, we need to look at the state of this nation-in-the-making and seriously ask ourselves if the Malaysian project can even be sustained in the face of such pressures. Now any historian will tell you that nations are neither historically determined nor are their existential status guaranteed or necessitated by the vagaries of history. There is nothing that determines the existential status of a nation save the wilfull desire on the part of its members to deliberately put it together and to collectively sustain the notion of a shared identity. No essentialist premises are there to serve as solid ground, no primordial attachments that can be defended by recourse to itself. Nations are composite and accidental entities and can only be sustained by those who are its members.

Yet looking at the state of Malaysian politics and society today, we see that all the feeble attempts to cobble together a Malaysian nation – be it in the name of ‘1Malaysia’, ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ or what have you, are being dashed against the hard rocks of sectarian communitarian interests that are short-sighted and being articulated by those who do not even believe that there can or should be a Malaysian nation that is complex and diverse in the first place. And to cap it off, our febrile attempts at injecting some degree of pluralism and complexity into the Malaysian story is one that stops short of narrow essentialist claims of communal solidarity and difference instead, be it on the basis of race/ethnicity, culture, language or religion.

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