Of Nations, States, nation-States & the Malaysian 'Nations-Nonstate'

The world comprises of many more nations than states. This distinction deserves some definitional context. Nations (to me) are a group that share an affinity to the exclusion of others that can be clearly articulated. Thus for example, we have the Navajo nation, the Basque nation, the Orang Asli nation etc...These nations may well be found within state borders (e.g. Navajos in the USA), across borders (e.g. Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq), or at a stretch perhaps as a diaspora across the world (e.g. the Romas of Europe, but what about the Chinese of South East Asia?). What sets nations apart from states is that nations lack sovereignty.

States, on the other hand, fit into the Westphalian mould. States are sovereign. States have borders, enforceable rules, and are fully fledged member of the international community. If you're in the UN you're a state. Kosovo and Taiwan are not states by this definition.

Nation-states are what we call most independent countries. It tends to suggest a level of homogeneity within borders of states. During the Westphalian era that created the modern day 'nation-state' most states were largely homogenous. The French lived in the state of France for example. Now of course, most developed countries are states with many nations (i.e. ethnicities) but the majority culture still remain in place as the backbone of the state.

In the de-colonised world however, the creation of artificial borders coupled with colonial interest led migration ended, post-colonisation, to the creation of the idea that a new nation-state had to be created where no one 'nation' had a long history with other 'nations.' This was not an issue for the homogenous nations of Japan and the two Koreas, but it was an issue for the Singapores and South Africas of this world. The politicians had to ponder how to get the citizens to think as 'citizens of the state' as opposed to 'members of a nation.'

Of course both are not mutually exclusive of the other, but the idea that one had to give up a certain amount of one's 'nationhood' in order to embrace one's 'statehood' did not come easy. In some cases, a happy medium has been found. The citizens of Singapore are happy to be both Singaporeans and a 'nation'-both can co-exist peacefully enough. In other situations, it is not so easy. Thailand and Indonesia attempted to assimilate the Chinese; Idi Amin in Uganda simply threw the Indians out. Both the former and latter are now less driven by the need to create a 'nation-state.' The sands of time have seen to that.

I wonder where Malaysia lies in all this. It seems to me that Malaysia, with its non-assimilation policy quickly did create a 'nation-state.' One was allowed to be both a citizen of the state and a citizen of a 'nation' (where the nation is anything that forms racial, geographic, religious and cultural affinities). Nevertheless, post-1969, we have slowly seen the disenfranchisement of the non-Malay Muslims from the state apparatus. This has created a schism between certain 'nations' and the state. As well, the nation-state is weakened even within the Malay Muslim group, as this group (as I so simplistically put it) is actually made up of many smaller groups. The more religious grouping also considers its 'nation' (Islam) to be ahead in importance to its state.

It is one thing to categorically posit that one must place the 'state' ahead of one's 'nation.' One must disavow such simplistic understandings of the world, and indeed the mechanisms of the human's brain to handle such inner contradictions. Nevertheless, when the mass of the citizenry begin to elevate their 'nation' further and further in importance relative to their 'state' we may well end up with a failed state (pessimistic view), or more likely a nonstate full of nations.

It seems to me that the concept of being Malaysian has been heavily diluted-we are now Malays, Muslims, Malay-Muslims, Indians, Chinese, Bumiputeras, Secularists, Capitalists, Socialists etc. far earlier than we are Malaysian. In this situation, does the state truly exist anymore? In a realist/rationalist context, clearly it does as Malaysia remains a sovereign state, but such perspectives ignore domestic considerations. Domestically, the state is withering away, creating gaps for various 'nations' to stake a claim for their sovereignty.

Where this takes us, only time will tell. The concept of the 'nation-state' is an enduring concept and I doubt we'll see the demise of the Malaysian state as such, at least as long as the varius 'nations' that make up the sum of the state agree to a new 'state' that enfranchisement all the 'nations' together. Otherwise, Malaysia will be a state only by orthodox definition; but a nonstate by the exclusivity of the 'nations' within it.

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