Sweeping in scope yet detailed in analysis, Identity, Nationhood and State-Building in Malaysia: A Conversation with Patrick Pillai will interest scholars, students, policymakers and laymen, and encourage reflection on useful ways of facing up to the many complex challenges confronting multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies like Malaysia. Identity, loyalty, and nation-building are key global challenges today.
In the first part of Identity, Nationhood and State-Building in Malaysia: A Conversation with Patrick Pillai, Emeritus Professor KJ. Ratnam, a leading Malaysian social scientist, discusses multiple identities in complex societies, political loyalty, and the challenges that ethnic and religious differences pose for social cohesion. Previously, it was an unpublished essay by the author on the relationship between identity and loyalty, both historically and in modern times. In it the author draws attention to the many identities to which people belong, some exclusive and others overlapping, and to the manner in which the loyalties that accompany these identities affect social and political stability.
On their own, multilayered identities need not have any serious consequences for the wellbeing of the state. It is only when they find collective expression, and go hand in hand with competing goals and mutually incompatible visions of society, that their implications become questionable.
The author’s focus in the essay is only on one crucial identity, namely that associated with citizenship, and on the state’s claim to supremacy when it comes to the loyalty that is expected to go with that identity. The challenges most commonly faced by sovereign states in establishing this supremacy are those arising from ethnic and religious sentiments, rendered potent not only by their evocative content but, especially in the case of the latter, by the fact that the inspiration they draw on often extends beyond national boundaries. Of equal importance in this connection is the reality that the modern state is, in fact, a latecomer in the worldwide evolution of identity and loyalty, a disadvantage that in many cases was further compounded by the arbitrary manner in which national boundaries came to be drawn.
In the second section of Identity, Nationhood and State-Building in Malaysia: A Conversation with Patrick Pillai, done in a conversational style, he talks to ‘researcher-writer’ Patrick Pillai about the importance of regaining the middle ground in Malaysian politics. He expresses a clear preference for civic over ethnic nationalism, arguing that, by embracing all citizens, it provides a more sustainable basis for loyalty.
Among key issues discussed are whether Malaysia is a 13-State or a three-State federation, democracy and governance, ethnic politics, and electoral reform. Professor Ratnam also analyses current political alignments and their impact on ethnic relations, the perils of ethnic stereotyping, and the need for a national consensus on foundational issues. He says visions, narratives, national ideologies, and constitutions may be useful in bringing people together, but are not enough for holding them together, and suggests some practical ways this problem can be overcome.
The second part happened, as the author put, like coincidently. Because the essay was not written with any clear purpose in mind, it is possible that it would have remained on a shelf in his apartment had it not been for a chance meeting the author had with Patrick Pillai, a former student from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. The author had gone to a nursery in Bangsar run by The Free Tree Society, a voluntary group that allows members of the public to collect plants, free of charge, from its premises. Patrick was a volunteer there, ‘mixing soil and tackling worms’ as he told the author.
Conversing over a cup of coffee at a nearby eatery the author learned about a book he had recently published, Yearning to Belong, in which he had examined the cultural histories of different Peranakan communities in Peninsular Malaysia. What struck the author immediately was that the two of them shared a common interest in the phenomenon of identity, although they both had approached it from different angles. Patrick’s perspectives had grown out of the fieldwork he had done among marginal minority groups at different locations in the country while the author’s approach had been comparative and theoretical, with limited room for Malaysian issues. He received a copy of Patrick’s book at their next meeting, and they met again a fortnight later.
By the time of third meeting, an idea that had only flashed through the author’s mind when having coffee at their first encounter had begun to take proper form: the way to bring national-level Malaysian issues to the forefront of my analysis, short of expanding his original essay or of writing a second one, would be through a series of discussions with someone already familiar with the ground to be covered, in the course of which questions could be put to him on topics that would enable him to put Malaysian flesh on his essay’s skeleton. The thought did not escape him that there could, at the same time, also be independent justification for a separate analysis of the Malaysian situation.
The author’s reading of Patrick’s book had convinced him that he would be an ideal person to formulate the questions that needed to be asked but he had also been impressed by Patrick’s interest in, and grasp of, the intricacies of Malaysian politics not at all surprising, given his long experience as a journalist. The idea of the author’s proposed conversations found immediate favor with Patrick, and the author would like to thank Patrick for his role in shaping the course of the discussion that now constitutes the second part of this book. The author makes it clear, however, that he takes full responsibility for all the opinions expressed both in the essays that he wrote and in the discussion.