The more individual stories we acknowledge, the more authentic our national history


Cultures are defined by their literature. In fact, in Chinese – classical or modern – the same term is used for both. What this tells us is that a country’s self-consciousness is vibrant and alive only if writing is strongly encouraged among its population.

Balik kampung – a true Malaysian tradition

One thing common to most Malaysians is the balik kampung tradition. This goes even for those millions who have left the country over the last 50 years, who return whenever they can to visit relatives, friends and old haunts.

Now, there are many salient aspects to this. First, it shows how important family is to Malaysians. That reflects how mobile they are or have become. Second, this tradition is a rich source of experiences that are typically Malaysian, involving joy, excitement and tragedies.

For example, many of us die on the road every Hari Raya Puasa, every Chinese New Year and every Deepavali. That has been taken by us as long as I can remember as an inescapable fact of life, as are the fatal motorcycle accidents on our roads. They are taken to be as unchangeable as the routines of the moon and the monsoons. All part of Malaysiana.

This balik kampung phenomenon holds stories which, if written, would be genuine, bottom-up and authentic narratives about Malaysian realities. It is also an entry point into insights about the Malaysian situation.

Why I bring this up is to make us ponder what it is that we have been engaged in otherwise. Instead of capturing the broad sweep of history (Malaysians in the world and Malaysia in world history, basically) and the individual fates and fortunes of people who live in and experience Malaysia, what have we been captivated by all these years?

This is a serious query about the state of our journalism, the state of our intellectual class, the state of our system of government, the nature of our conformism, of our national discourses, of our understanding of education, of the world – and of ourselves as beings caught between individual fates and collective identities.

Every society has fixations, and it is only through the retrospection and social engagement of its citizens that the insanity and inaneness that come from such psychological complexes (for indeed that is what national fixations are in the long run) can be limited. So what are Malaysia’s fixations, what are its manias, neuroses and psychoses?

Communism and communalism

Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman often mentioned in the 1950s and 1960s that Malaysia’s two major problems were Communism and Communalism. Communism is gone, and Communalism is of course still with us. Not only is it still with us, it is trying very hard to fill the space of contention that the end of the Cold War in 1990 left behind. Both these fixations are conflict-generating ones, after all.

Now, our fear of Communism in the early days leaves a legacy as well, which is the dismissal of class analyses. With the end of the Cold War, we see this rejection of class analyses spreading throughout the world. In Malaysia, the problem is therefore an older one. In the New Economic Policy (NEP), in the Second Malaysia Plan, we do see a class analysis used alongside the communal one, and the motivation for that comprehensive plan combined socialist thought (eradicating general poverty) with a racebased definition of poverty (dismantling of colonialism’s plural society).

As the decades rolled by, “the special position of the Malays” evolved under the umbrella of the NEP, the growth of the petroleum industry and the unstoppable expansion of Umno power after 1969 into “Malay Special Rights” and then into “Ketuanan Melayu”.

In short, Malaysian nation building, in adopting so unreservedly Communalism as the central logic in policymaking, something enhanced further by the rise of Islamism in the world and by the decay of the Communist system throughout the 1980s, embraced deep inter-ethnic schisms in society as givens.

This is seen in the country’s political party setup and in the blurred logic today of the civil service in general, the judiciary and the police – 44 years after the NEP was first implemented.

These schisms inform most contentions in the country, and what has appeared as a new trend since the turn of the century is the strength of the alternative approaches to political debate of governance issues. These have been subsumed and stylised into the terms “Competence, Accountability and Transparency”. By extension, this trend seeks to connect to Best Practices sharpened by the technocratic evolution over the last 50 years in nation-building projects throughout the world. In many ways, this leads to a call for Malaysia to revert to its founding principles as encapsulated in the Constitution.

The political expediencies and conflicts since the end of the Second World War, which have brought us to our present state, have to be acknowledged and their shortcomings properly expressed.

We have all been deeply influenced by this flow of events, and we have been indoctrinated to think in essentialist, ethnocentric and collectivist terms. The individual is of interest only if he is a political leader. Other individuals are representations of collective definitions.

KLCC on a cloudy morning. One thing common to most Malaysians is the balik kampung tradition – the act of returning to one's hometown usually during festive seasons.

Family memories

A citizenry is like an extended family. There is a power structure, an economic system, a defence mechanism, a history, and there are intrigues and political manipulations. Even so, there are times of peace and calm, as depicted in this picture.

So, back to the balik kampung phenomenon, and the importance of family. A citizenry is like an extended family. There is a power structure, an economic system, a defence mechanism, a history, and there are intrigues and political manipulations. Very often, the house is too small to be at peace.

You know how a family has memories and how these are kept alive by the older members in the family? As each of us gets older, we add new ones to the collection. And the old ones get retold in more and more rarefied and codified ways.

But not everyone gets to speak during the gathering. Some are shy, some are poor relatives who feel marginal in the proceedings. Some cannot afford to come home and are often absent or prefer to sit on the swing in the garden; the women wait their turn forever and never learn how to hold court. For these groups, their stories get forgotten, and in a very real sense, this impoverishes not only the history of the family, but its natural diversity and its full dynamism. In fact, its very harmony is affected.

Now, let's see the country and its history in the same way. Let's use the family analogy. Who are the storytellers and who controls our memories? Or more correctly, who controls what is told and how that is told, and what is erased and forgotten? Do we talk about the tragedies of each family who loses a member rushing home for Hari Raya, Chinese New Year or Deepavali, or New Year, or, dare I say it today, Christmas?

Do we read about the heartbreak of Chinese mothers whose sons and daughters make up much of the coldly termed “brain drain”? The Indians whose homes on the plantations have been bulldozed, and whose sons now define gangsterism in the country? Do we know or care about the stories behind the deaths in shootouts between the police and Indian gangs? What are the Malay realities outside race, religion and political affiliation? What of class as the describing and explaining element of so much of our lives?

In the end, we rely on our writers of all sorts – journalists, scholars and authors – to rescue from obscurity the stories that make up Malaysia.

We have allowed politics to decide our self-image and our social relations way too much. We suffer from a disease that I would name “Politicititis”. Politicititis is quite like Alzheimer's. Memory loss is the main symptom, except that what we remember or forget are dictated by the politically powerful.

The next Merdeka

The next Merdeka that Malaysia has to achieve is that of popular narratives. We have been losing our stories, our memories and our realities. So freedom of speech must be exercised, not only to talk back or write back to power – be this colonial or post-colonial – but to depict the fullness of The Malaysian Experience. We won political Merdeka from the British but we never achieved biographical and ethnographical liberty. This next Merdeka is not won through dialogues between so-called representatives of communities, but through individual grasping of the personal and the expressing of the seemingly banal. That is the best cure for Politicititis. A family suffering from Politicititis cannot be at peace. It is lucky if their house is big enough for separate groups to stay apart throughout the day and meet only for meals. The question today is: are Malaysia's various distant relatives even meeting for chats, let alone for meals?
Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). His works can be accessed at

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