Are we ready for post-nationalism?

FEBRUARY 13 — It’s nice to see the dust settling after a week of nationalistic confabulation. In its wake, the political appropriation of the life and achievements of Tunku Abdul Rahman last week left a distinct kind of aftertaste. It is the sickly sweet obsession with national belonging and the notion of anak bangsa.

Anak bangsa has an ideological connotation different from warganegara or rakyat. All three terms mean “citizen” but anak bangsa implies a special kind of belonging, one that is familial and comes with filial responsibilities.

The way I see it, members from across the political divide who eulogised about the Tunku were like estranged family members at an annual family reunion. Conspicuous in his absence, Tunku is the pater familias whom everybody remembers lovingly to the point of mythologising the man. He is the father of that household called the nation.

But there is something forced and distorted about the overemphasis on the kind of nation we want to be. There was much talk about living together happily as Malaysian citizens the way Tunku had envisioned when he led the nation to political independence.

What would Tunku think about how cosmopolitan Malaysia has now become? What would he have said to the Indonesians and Bangladeshis who speak Bahasa Malaysia and have settled in Malaysia for two decades? Would he have welcomed newcomers who have assisted in the building of our nation?

When I returned to Malaysia in January to live in Petaling Jaya, I saw a dramatically transformed urban cultural landscape. Every other person was of a provenance often unknown to me. They were living, working, and raising families alongside us, the Malaysians. Will they be citizens of Malaysia 2.0 one day? Will we need to reboot and rewrite the so-called social contract?

There is a dark side to nationalism. With each reification of national identity that involves deciding who’s part of the club, there is always exclusion. The strategies of exclusion are frequently violent and the boundaries that distinguish “us” from “them” are often arbitrary.

And yet as Malaysians we cling to the nation without thinking that maybe, just maybe, the nation as a framework of belonging has past its due date. People have been moving across state borders longer than the formation of nation states. Why do we have a death grip on an imagined community when it causes so much grief?

Perhaps it is time to think about the possibilities of post-nationalism and embrace the Kantian dream of cosmopolitan world citizenship. Post-nationalism is not necessarily about dissolving the nation but to decenter it from our political orbit. We must acknowledge that swaths of non-citizens can one day be Malaysians and transform our debates on race and culture.

A post-national sensibility envisions a freedom of multiple belonging and democratises the exercise of responsibilities as a rights-bearing and tax-paying citizen. If we wish to move more freely across borders to work and settle down, the same privilege should correspond to non-citizens within our borders.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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