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Faith and the Nation: Why the Malaysian Project Needs Rescuing
Farish A. Noor
Reading the comments that we received after the posting of the note ‘Migration as Protest’, we were somewhat dismayed at the overall negative tone of so many who wrote in to say that they were despondent and had given up with the Malaysian project itself, to the point where many Malaysians were contemplating of leaving the country for good.
That this can come at a time when the Malaysian project is still being debated and contested in the public domain does not bode well for a country that is, after all, only half a century old. Have we, as a nation, grown so jaded and pessimistic already?
Let us remember the crucial fact that all nations are imagined entities that are composite and put together via the collective aspirations of its members. And let us remember that nations only exist as long as we believe in them.
To paraphrase Nietzsche: Once we begin to doubt and question the existence of God, then God is, in a sense, already dead to us. Likewise nations are sustained by faith and belief, and faith that is translated into action and commitment.
Malaysia is not made up of the buildings, towers, shopping malls and highways that dot our urban landscape. Those edifices do not even know that they are part of the Malaysian landscape, in fact they dont know anything at all.
But we - citizens - are the building blocks of the nation and we constitute Malaysia and Malaysian identity. We also hold the key to Malaysia’s future and we are responsible for the twists and turns the country had made in the past.
To determine how and where this country heads in the future is therefore the collective responsibility of all Malaysians and those who recognise themselves as such; and our agency and responsibility implicates all of us in the grand project that is called nation-building.
While working and living abroad may be an option for some who cannot find a better means of earning a living at home, it would be wrong to say that that is the only way that one can get one’s voice heard in the country. In any case, one can remain a member of a virtual national community even when abroad, and many of us have done so for decades now.
Let us remember that when Malaysia’s independence was being fought for, the proto-nationalists of the past were not only struggling in Malaysia but many of them were also carrying out the struggle in neighbouring Indonesia, India, England and in other parts of the world. What unites us is not geographical proximity but rather a proximity of commitment and aspirations; the yearning for a Malaysia that is home to all.
It is that longing for a Malaysia that is home to all that is under threat at present, and as I mentioned in the earlier abovementioned article, Malaysia is most in danger not when it is under attack, but rather when we stop believing in a Malaysian project. At that point there is nothing that can sustain a national narrative and all the shopping malls and super-highways cannot put the national imaginary together again.
How then are we to salvage the Malaysian project? Faith is required and we need to believe in the power of individual human agency and its transformative potential as a tool for politics and nation-building.
Malaysia, like all nation-states in the postcolonial era, is an abstract concept that is non-essentialist and certainly not historically determined. The country could have evolved in a million ways, and that potential for change remains there. But change can only happen if and when we believe in it, and that it is worthwhile and necessary.
At a time when Malaysian politics is characterised by the worst and narrowest forms of provincial sectarian and communitarian thinking; with groups calling for narrow ethnic-linguistic ghettos and enclaves; when communitarian distrust leads to repugnant expressions of ethnic and racial supremacy and bigotry; this is when rational human agency is needed more than ever.
Yet the catalyst and prime mover of this rational agency is something subjective that cannot be qualified or determined by technocrats or politicians; and yet is so vital: Faith. Believe, my friends.
Now more than ever we need to believe that Malaysia and the Malaysian project can be rescued and is worth rescuing. Failure to do so leads us down the path of defeatism and fatalism.
That would be the cultural suicide of a nation, and the biggest betrayal of Malaysia yet.