Defining terms at the start of an important discussion is necessary if one is not to get lost in misunderstandings. With that brief preamble, let me take issue with the term “nation building” and the dangers of it being used as loosely as is done in Malaysian discourses.
We tend to think of the term in a generic way, as a neutral and straightforward term. But “nation-building” is in fact notionally highly problematic, and is necessarily tied to defensive attitudes and fragile identities — and to conflict.
In order to express the generic notion we seek, something like “polity building” or “country building” or — to be more specific to our discussion — “Malaysia building” is more appropriate and promising.
Under that alternative generic term, we can then more cogently study related but distinct processes instead. To succeed, these have to be processes that generate inclusivity, and there are at least three main ones to consider, namely “state-building”, “national economy building” and “nation-building” (in the sense of creating a felt and exclusive national identity).
Put simply, we need to consider how each of these processes are measured and monitored, and how they relate to each other. What do we mean when we say “our nation-building — or state-building or national economy building — is succeeding”? How do we measure that progress? Can we quantify it, and when and where do we not need to quantify it?
Each of them requires different modes of understanding, different methods of measurement, and different discourses to define.
Deciding what state to build
“State-building” involves the combined efficacy of the institutions of the Modern State in managing and developing the society over which they govern. Here, we talk about due process, democratic principles, rule of law — and state capacity. The modern state is a complex one, and although Malaysia is said to follow the Westminster model, it is in effect a unique creation. More correctly, it continues to be a serious matter of contestation what kind of state it is, should be, and will be.
The parliamentary system is no longer what it was in 1957, having lost most of its mechanisms of checks and balances, and calls for reforms to save it from being totally neutralised as a source of power are raised endlessly.
Warnings that Malaysia is on the path to becoming a theocracy also ring loudly, especially now when the weakness of relatively moderate Malay-based parties inspires the Islamist PAS to try mainstreaming its agenda as much as it can. And as demands that the country be allowed to function more clearly as a federation — which is what Malaysia formally is, and for good reasons — increase, the more centralised political power becomes.
In many ways, therefore, the state-building aspect of Malaysia building is back at square one. Until recently, it functioned as a one-party state, limiting democratic tendencies in the country for decades. The resultant bureaucracy does not appear geared towards maximising efficiency and state capacity as one theoretically would hope.
The education system has been severely politicised for a long time and is now seriously underperforming, and the privatisation of developmental processes has almost emptied the state of technocratic capability needed to counterbalance the conservatism and lethargy of the bureaucracy.
Measuring state capacity is an emergent science, and the case of Malaysia can potentially provide material for dozens of academic theses. The questions to ask are many: How well does the state succeed in its express polities and are those its real policies? How respected and effective is its coercive power, internally and externally? How successful is its extractive power? How inclusive is its distributive power? How democratic, elitist or statist are its workings? And how integrated are the arms of government and what are their aspirations and quality?
Interestingly, while some post-colonial countries, such as Malaysia, have been mired in emotive issues of identity creation (meaning nation-building loosely used, as mentioned above), others, such as its neighbour Singapore, focused on state-building.
We should take pause here to recognise the strong linkages in East and Southeast Asia between state-building and national economy building, best expressed within by the concept of “political economy”. Both Malaysia and Singapore, through their government-linked companies, have tended to conflate the two processes for synergic benefits.
Integrating a fragmented economy
“National economy building” concerns the ability of the polity to flourish at three levels — the country’s economy as a whole, each citizen’s ability to thrive within it, and the involvement of different communities.
Empirically, at the first level, easy means of measurement would include national GDP and the like; at the second and third levels, we have the Gini coefficient to monitor economic equality among individuals and among communities and minorities, be these defined by gender, religion, region or ethnicity.
For a country such as Malaysia, built from diverse regions where economic standards and historical relevance to the colonial and global economy differed greatly, a federal system seemed appropriate. However, political economy considerations saw a centralising model being chosen in the early decades of the country’s economic development. Such a model was necessarily a top-down one, and political patronage became a vital factor in economic life.
But in general, for national economy building to succeed, integration of the citizenry through effective universal education and meaningful participation in a growing economy are the measures of success.
National identity comes naturally
In turn, the degree to which the third of the processes we are discussing, namely nation building, succeeds is measured by the citizens’ sense of belonging to a harmonious community. Put this way, it may simply be the common experiencing of the success of the first two processes that decides the level to which nation-building (here understood as identity creation) has succeeded.
A sustained sense of nationhood, it would appear then, is the result of successful state-building and national economy building, and not something one can expect as a common sentiment existing outside of state institutions and independent of the integrative dynamics of the economic system.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2020).