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What is a nation?

William Halsall, Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor (1882). In 1620, the Mayflower brought Separatists from England to
the New World – what would eventually be known as the United States (Public domain)

MY recent trip to the US was to primarily observe their historic presidential election, but it triggered a deeper question about what a nation really is. A Polish immigrant to the States shared an intriguing anecdote with me, saying, “America is the only country where you can convert a new migrant into a full patriot within five years.”

Is there some secret ingredient that gives such deep meaning to the concept of citizenship in some countries, while in others migrant communities exist for hundreds of years but are still rejected? Both America and Malaysia are multiracial countries — what makes national identity so strong in one yet so weak in the other?

Malaysia is a multiplicity of factors, and to comprehend it one must be a careful purveyor of religion, ethnicity, culture, language, history and economics. The same goes in analysing any reactions, verbal or otherwise, to events taking place away from our shores.

African American voters rejoice at the result of the
US presidential election (Pic by Tricia Yeoh)
For example, there has been a flurry of responses to Barack Obama’s victory as the first African American president-elect of the US. While some lamented the impossibility of Malaysia ever selecting a racial minority as prime minister, others were criticised for getting carried away by American fervour.

In addition, Dr Chandra Muzaffar said it was precisely because Obama had assimilated into American society that he could succeed, not because he genuinely represented the typical African American citizen. He said a Malaysian equivalent would be one who assimilates into Malay culture, implying that only this would make such an individual suited for the top position in the country.

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad then said that anyone who is “bangsa Malaysia” could be prime minister — what characterises bangsa Malaysia was not elaborated upon.

Other recent events include attacks against Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s comments about the need to discard ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy), and the appointment of a non-Malay to head the Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS). Both issues dealt with ethnicity.

In sum, these reactions belie a nation that does not quite understand what it means to be a nation.

National identity?

One viable explanation for the strong national identity of US citizens is that those who migrated there already had tendencies towards freedom in searching out a “new land”. A land of migrants they are, and unashamedly so.

In coming together, they had to craft a new common bond completely separate from the identities of their respective homelands. What united them — although these took decades to materialise — were ideals and principles of freedom, democracy, and equality.

Ernest Renan (Public domain)
Indeed, French intellectual Ernest Renan in his essay What is a Nation? tried to make sense of this for his own nation. France, like the US — and numerous other countries around the world — was an amalgamation of different ethnicities, coming together in an attempt at forming a nation-state. Renan states that it is impossible, even ridiculous, to base nationality on tangible attributes such as race, language, religion, community of interests, or even geography.

A nationality based on race becomes baseless when blood becomes mixed, as in Germany, England, France, Italy, and certainly in Malaysia where our races are really blends of Javanese, Bugis, Southern Thai, Minangkabau, Cantonese, and so on.

Further, the mixing of races is only going to continue with intermarriages. How does a half-Chinese, quarter-Malay and quarter-Indian child answer his teacher when asked, “What race are you?”

A nationality based on language is sufficient insofar as language helps us to unite. But because languages are really historical constructs, they are not defining features of a country per se. We cannot defend a Malaysia purely based on the Malay language.

Minangkabau woman in traditional clothes
(© Michael J Lowe)
A nationality based on religion shifts and altercates, since it is a matter of personal choice and conscience. In Malaysia, this may be contested, but nevertheless because “there is no compulsion in religion”, and further a nation often has a variety of religious adherents, one religion cannot dictate nationality. Malaysia’s nationality is not based on Islam alone.

A nationality based on communal interests may be possible, but interests change over time. Geography is no better, since leaders would seem to defend a nation based on the boundaries up to this or that banjaran (mountain range), this or that a stream. We may be proud of the bountiful land we inherit, but it is still not strong enough to use to define nationality.

What is the solution?

I do not pretend to prescribe a one-size-fits-all mould for every nation, but for countries that are made up of multiple ethnicities, the following is true. A nation is essentially as Renan says, a “soul”, and made up of two elements: the common legacy of past memories, and the desire to live together. Each society must then identify a set of values and principles by which they can really coexist.

Malaysia, just as the US, is a land of migrants. One could dispute the period of time each migrant community has lived here, but that its inhabitants originated elsewhere is a fact. We cannot base our nationality on the degree of “Malay-ness”, “Chinese-ness”, “Indian-ness”, or “Muslim-ness” we possess, although this may be the easier task because it is tangible. The more difficult but necessary task is to chart out a common set of principles we can all agree upon.

Statue of Liberty, the American symbol of demo-
cracy and freedom (© Svilen Mushkatov /
Being French would mean believing in “liberty and equality”; being American, “democracy and freedom”; Canadian, “peace and order”. Being Malaysian might mean “unity in diversity”, but this is not a principle really, just a state of being.

Because Malaysia’s independence was reached largely free of violence, perhaps its citizens did not quite have to question what Malayan citizenship really meant. The common enemy at the time was the British Empire, and that was the extent of “Malayan nationhood”. “Anything but the British” was considered patriotism. In a postcolonial world, the cement uniting the nation has not been thoroughly defined.

Insults are mutually traded regarding race, patriotism, and nationality in Malaysia. To rise above the name-calling, we must resist the tendency to define nationality according to basal elements like race, religion, geography, language, and communal interests, but instead transcend these.

What is a nation, in the Malaysian context? The strongest national identity should not be about whom best exemplifies the Malay culture, or speaks the most fluent Malay, or is the best Muslim, although cultural realities demand these as important.

National identity should be about adherence to what we have shared together as a nation. It should be based on the desire to uphold principles of justice, dignity, democracy, and whichever principles most commonly bind us together.

Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She is a Peranakan Chinese who has better command of the Malay language compared to Chinese. What is she? Malaysian.

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4 Responses to “What is a nation?”

  1. Davy says:

    Let us face this glaring fact: In Sabah and Sarawak before 1963 and between 1963 and 1970 there was a micro America. Everyone had no problem over religion, race; inter-marriages were common and each had the choice of religion. No interference from the state. All this changed when Umno exported its “disunity” medication from West Malaysia. The second coming of imperialism, this time clothed in Arab expansion religiously brought over by Umno. Divide, control, and mess up the natural peaceful integration.

  2. Bravada says:

    In US, before you can even get a green card, let alone a citizenship, you must at least pass a language proficiency test. Try implementing it here with our national language, and you will get “racist” tag on you, even though it’s completely sound.

    Peranakan and Kelantan Chinese are good examples of Malaysians beyond skin colour. But there are still Chinese, Indians and even some Malays, who admit “sounding stupid” when they speak the national language, yet claim they are the full Malaysians because “of their soul”. Imagine if the same case happens, you can’t speak English, yet you’re American because you have an “American soul”. Tough time proving that to the people around you, ain’t it?

  3. Sooth says:

    You’re mistaken about the language requirements for the green card applications. It’s only necessary for certain fields where they fast track the applicants such as nursing.

    I think most, if not all, Malaysians will applaud the government if they were to implement a Bahasa Malaysia proficiency test for new immigrants. They probably already have such a requirement. If you want to compare us with the US then look no further than some of the migrants who arrived when rules were laxer. Some of them still can’t speak much English after being there for decades.

    I agree that the younger generation of Malaysians should be able to have a grasp of Bahasa Malaysia. However, the only few that I’ve met that cannot hold a conversation in Bahasa Malaysia are those that have not had the fortune of having an education.

  4. Chin Huat says:

    The imposition of language command as a condition for citizenship must be honestly discussed in its full context. It applies at most only to naturalization. Children of citizens are automatically conferred citizens in civilized countries.

    To disenfranchise born citizens – as the allegations here are intended to – on the ground of lack of proficiency in the national language only reminds us of some Jim Crow Laws in the southern states of USA which barred the illiterate blacks from voting. It may even border on the spirit of Nazi Eugenics – people with learning disabilities let alone other physically challenged persons will all cease to be Malaysians.

    If the language condition is meant for naturalization, then it is already in Article 19 of the Federal Constitution: “an adequate knowledge of the Malay language”.

    The issue is really: are we meritocratic on the language condition? Would anyone acquiring a good command of Malay language (more than the current requirement) besides fulfilling two other conditions (residency and good character) be given citizenship without discrimination of ethnic origin?

    I will give my full support to anyone who wants to champion this cause of linguistic nationalism for we know too many people – from PR-holders of decades to foreign spouses of Malaysians – who are denied citizenship despite efforts and achievement in learning Bahasa Melayu!

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