Author: Mohamed Mustafa Ishak
Author: Adam W. Jelonek
Year of publication: 2002
Source: Show
Pages: 33-50
DOI Address:
PDF: ap/5/ap0502.pdf


The question of nation-building has always been a central issue in Malaysian politics. Whilst the country enjoyed a relative political stability after the traumatic events of 1969, and spawn a rapid socio-economic development (at least until the 1997 Asian economic crisis), the project of nation-building remained the principal national aim. The paper investigates the delicate process of nation-building in Malaysia since the 1970’s, especially the vision of the Bangsa Malaysia or the “united Malaysian nation”, promoted by Mahathir’s Vision 2020 project, announced in 1991. The paper highlights the underlying socio-political parameters that shaped and infl uenced the policy of nation -building in the country, and explores the viability of the project of Bangsa Malaysia in the context of the daunting challenges involved in the process of nation -building. The authors maintain that the Malaysian experience illustrates the interplay between the great forces of ethnicity and nationalism which constitutes the crux of the problem in the policy of nationbuilding in this country.
This interplay stems from the prevalence of the various forms of ‘nationalism’ that grow within individual ethnic groups and across their boundaries. In the last decades these particular “nationalisms” not only shaped the political mobilisation among individual ethnic groups and in the country in general, but also laid the most complex set of obstacles on the path of the nation-building project. Therefore, the paper indicates that the project of the Bangsa Malaysia can be interpreted as a state effort to reconcile the competing ‘nationalisms’. It can also be considered an attempt to consolidate Malay nationalism within a broader framework of cultural pluralism based on the development of “civic nationalism”. Thus it aims at the creation of a particular “supra-ethnic” national identity. The “nation”, therefore, is depicted there as a “mosaic of cultures”, but with a strong element of Malay nationalism.
However, the viability of the envisaged project is yet to be proved. The concept itself is rather vague and the challenges ahead are enormous. They involve various political, economic, social, cultural and religious issues. The project appears to be the last form of the competing notions of “nation-of-intent” that circulated in Malaysia since the 1970’s. The paper concludes that notwithstanding rapid social and political changes in Malaysia, in particular during the past eighteen years of Mahathir’s rule, ethnicity still pervades political life of this country. Numerous earlier studies on nation- building in Malaysia mainly focused on the historical dimension, or examined the changing national policy and its results. This paper aims at broadening of the analysis of the ethnic relations and nation-building in Malaysia.

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