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The battle for national symbols

Flags (© G Schouten de Jel /

UNTIL the mid-1990s, the Union Jack was a symbol of the Conservative Party in Britain. Not that the UK was founded by the Tories. It was just that their opponents, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, were more internationalist, anti-imperialist, and some even republican in orientation. Therefore, Labour and the Lib Dems did not want to embrace national symbols in the same way that the “one nation” Conservatives did.

In Malaysia, national symbols from the Jalur Gemilang flag (named by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, incidentally), Negaraku or even National Day have similarly been associated with the Umno-led ruling coalition. These symbols are rarely linked to the opposition.

This is partly because national symbols were often used only in government-sponsored official functions, in which opposition leaders were commonly sidelined, if not completely denied access to. Only PAS and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), which had helmed state governments, had similar access to these national symbols.

Umno’s version of nationhood

While the concept of Malaysia has very different meanings for different groups, the use of national symbols has been associated with a particular interpretation of Malaysia. Malaysia is, first and foremost, homeland of the Malays whose guardian is Umno. This homeland is generously shared with the non-Malays.

In other words, “Malaysia” is equivalent to “the Malays”, and “the Malays” are equivalent to “Umno”. Hence, an attack on Umno is equivalent to an attack on the Malays, which is then equivalent to an attack on Malaysia. Similarly, questioning Umno’s political hegemony is tantamount to challenging Malay supremacy which in turn is a threat to Malaysia’s security.

According to this logic, if the Malaysian state is virtually Umno’s fiefdom, why should Malaysians celebrate Umno-defined nationhood beyond what is officially required? Resistance, according to some, is futile — indeed, until 8 March 2008, a Malaysia not defined by Umno was simply unimaginable to some.

In fact, growing political consciousness could also increase the distance that separates ownership of national symbols and non-Barisan Nasional (BN), non-Umno-supporting Malaysians. At the same time, apolitical Malaysians would probably remain uncritical in expressing their patriotism.

The implication of this could be detrimental. Lacking in common symbols, the BN-opposing, politicised minority cannot connect with the “nation-loving”, apolitical majority. Furthermore, if they are labeled as “unpatriotic” and the label sticks, the vocal minority may even be rejected by the silent majority.

For your value-added viewing experience: how to accurately draw a Union Jack (© Julian DA Wiseman)

Even in a less multicultural society like the UK, New Labour realised that it could not afford to alienate the more nationalistic mainstream voters. Under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called for “patriotism of the left”, New Labour consciously embraced the Union Jack and spoke about “new Britishness” to compete with the Conservatives for post-Thatcher “middle England”.

While many leftists see this as selling out to the right, the fact is that the Conservatives have failed to regain power since 1997.

In Malaysia, the ongoing divorce between ordinary Malays and Umno began in 1998. However, the battle for national symbols as part of the larger discursive warfare on nationhood became obvious only since 2007. As the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of independence, Umno’s electoral one-party state found its sacred symbols increasingly challenged in negative and positive ways.

Parodying and modifying

The negative challenge involves some form of parodying or modification of the symbols to subvert the meaning of Umno-defined nationalism or attack its absurdities.  The most controversial example was, of course, none other than the rap song that parodied the national anthem, Negarakuku.

Red tape… (© Marcel Hol)
Released on YouTube in July 2007, just before the “holy month” of Merdeka, the song was officially named I Love My Country Negarakuku (Visit Malaysia 2007 Theme Song) by its composer Wee Meng Chee, or Namewee. Wee criticised what he saw as flaws in the country: corruption, red tape and inefficiency in the civil service, bumiputera-ism, and Islam’s hegemonic presence.

In August 2008, blogger Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, or Sheih Kickdefella, called on fellow bloggers to post an upside-down Jalur Gemilang as “a sign that our nation is in distress”.

Behind what in some eyes is an unpatriotic act was a patriotic message: “We are facing economic uncertainty and citizens are undergoing all sorts of difficulties. We are losing our competitive edge and we are losing our territories too. Let us not live in hypocrisy. Let us stare at the upside down Jalur Gemilang and let the reality strike us once and for all.”

Kickdefella’s act of civil disobedience arguably followed a noble tradition. Thirty-nine years ago, in protest of the 13 May 1969 ethnic riots, a Malay Malaysian painter painted the flag black.

While Wee’s message was much more controversial than Kickdefella’s, as it was uttered by a non-Malay/non-Muslim against Malay/Muslim institutions, both have been threatened with the Sedition Act. On 17 Sept, Kickdefella was detained briefly for investigation while Wee was first forced to apologise in 2007. After Kickdefella’s arrest, Wee was also called in for questioning by the police on 23 Sept.

Assigning new meanings

More dangerous to Umno’s discourse on nationhood are positive challenges which in no way degrade national symbols but merely assign new meanings to them.

Associating the national flag with political resistance is one such challenge. On 25 Nov 2008, many Indian Malaysians braced water cannons and tear gas with national flags wrapped around their bodies. The images, broadcast globally, had a simple message: we are peaceful patriots brutally attacked by the police.

Supporters waving flags at the anti-ISA rally at Kelana Jaya Stadium
on 15 Sept 2008
After the 8 March general election, the popularity of the national flag with the opposition crowd just keeps growing. On nomination day of the Permatang Pauh by-election, national flags were waved and flown on the Pakatan Rakyat side while BN supporters carried only party flags.

On 15 Sept, national flags — thousands of them — were the most commonly seen item in the Kelana Jaya Stadium.

Like the Jalur Gemilang, the famous chant of “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” is also gaining popularity among critics of Umno’s electoral one-party state. Journalists and supporters of media freedom chanted it on 1 June 2008. Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim chanted it in his Permatang Pauh by-election campaign in in August. Those who gathered on 16 Sept at Kelana Jaya Stadium chanted it. Anti-ISA protesters have chanted it too.

A chant which previously reminded citizens of Umno’s contribution in decolonising the nation is now transformed into a reminder that with authoritarianism, Malaysia remains colonised.

The most successfully transformed national symbol is of course Malaysia Day. Previously, only Sarawakians and Sabahans were expected to celebrate this day, the way only the wife is expected celebrate the wedding anniversary. However, Anwar’s takeover plan — although it came to naught — established 16 Sept as the second National Day in the minds of many.

Nov 25: Singing Negaraku nationwide?

The success of civil society and opposition parties in redefining national symbols means that the discursive legitimacy of Umno’s electoral one-party state is increasingly weakened.

Instead of dividing the vocal minority and the silent majority, the redefined national symbols now unite them.

Tiny Jalur Gemilang on an East Malaysian
statue (© Kaikai / Dreamstime)
Hence, when commanded by Selangor Chief Police Officer Datuk Khalid Abu Bakar to charge at the 100-strong crowd singing Negaraku at the 9 Nov anti-ISA vigil, the police were not clamping down on a bunch of mere rabble rousers. Instead, they had charged at millions of Malaysians who respect the national anthem, even though they were not physically present. Instead of guarding the Malaysian state, the police acted as if they were an occupying force easily annoyed by any sign of patriotism.

The authoritarian state is unwittingly shooting itself in the foot with none other than its own archaic apparatus.

The authoritarian state has just turned singing Negaraku into an act demanding for freedom of peaceful assembly. As the anthem is sung more and more every time citizens assemble in defiance of police orders, citizens will remember the right to assemble whenever they hear the anthem.

Thus, what if Malaysians choose to commemorate the first anniversary of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) rally by having a nationwide flash mob singing Negaraku on 25 Nov?

If Hindraf can mobilise 100 separate gatherings of 300 individuals, this works out to be a total of 30,000 individuals, like last year’s rally. And in the spirit of Malaysia Boleh, 30,000 people singing the national anthem can easily make a Guinness world record, right?

What if the resourceful Hindraf supporters simply assign the flag posts at the city square, schools, government complexes, and police stations as gathering points? Are the police going to set up road blocks to bar people from approaching national flags?

And how many police officers would you need to prevent 30,000 peaceful citizens from singing the national anthem? That would be another world record.

30,000? (© Ijansempoi / Dreamstime)

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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One Response to “The battle for national symbols”

  1. Interesting article but I don’t think Umno/BN took control of the imaginary of our national symbols to the extent the Republican party in the US or the Conservatives in the UK have done. There was no need since there was never a threat to their power and they were more concerned with the imaginary of Malay power rather than symbols of national power/patriotism. And their discourse/narrative on Malaysia has always been challenged, both by PAS and DAP and now PKR. They never operated in a vacuum.

    We are a pretty young country, so to most of us, the flag is a positive thing, we all have a narrative that leads back to 1957 and Merdeka (those of us in the peninsula). It was Merdeka for all of us. The battle to define what 1957 means is only beginning, there has always been a core that rejected that (roughly 40%-50% of the population have been voting against BN/Perikatan since 1957, Pak Lah’s supermajority in 2004 after all was won with only 63% of the popular vote), the BN’s and after all a lot of political battles being waged right now are carryovers from 1957 and 1963 about what being a Malaysian is all about.

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