The Ideal for Unity: Navigating Human Rights and Malaysia’s Compromising History

Published on 30 Nov 2021

The 1957 order: Passive nation-building and its fragmented landscape

While Malaysia celebrates its 64th birthday, the Malaysian national identity remains fractured by language and a mindset where one’s nationality is subservient to racial boundaries. Such tones are reflected in the media and the public sphere where interactions are shrouded in racial undertones which stem from ethno-compromises created since the formation of the country.

Building a nation with a common language and history is an inevitable and unpleasant struggle. Realising this in the 21st century requires a genuine self-conceived Malaysian philosophy with a vision to help her fellow citizens, regardless of background. From there, Malaysia’s own brand of human rights can legitimise a change of virtues and correct past oversights in its historical development.

Post-colonial states like Malaysia are relatively young and lack the necessary historical context its people can stand upon. Its colonial past has disrupted its natural growth, causing her to lose a potentially diverse historical arsenal that would have served as the foundation of Malaysian identity. To compensate, Malaysia needs to look forward rather than be reactionary[1] and dwell on “what ifs”, but instead chart the way forward by identifying core features that define the nation, build the courage to distinguish what needs to be stopped, and to do what is necessary to unite.

As a pluralistic society, Malaysia’s independence was driven by political bargaining[2] and the creation of “segmental autonomy”[3] that authorises the ethno-management of internal affairs, especially in education and culture. Its version of consociationalism[4] – a form of democratic power-sharing along ethno-religious lines, has temporarily swept aside underlying ethnic conflicts, but crucially, has not resolved them. Institutionalised divisions through vernacular and religious schooling streams further add to complications. As a result, Malaysia has become a nation built from racial interaction by groups representing their exclusive linguistic worlds, indirectly adhering to British colonial arrangements that pre-empt national unity[5]. By assuming unity is an organic creation[6] that happens naturally, Malaysia’s fragmentation has become institutionalised rather than an urgent matter that should be resolved.[7]

Conceiving a Malaysian-owned philosophy

Malaysia is in need of a self-conceived political philosophy that redefines a new national narrative. To realise national unity is to create a linguistically united nation with a diversified culture. For this to happen, there needs to be a balance between the rights of the various ethnic groups to preserve their cultural heritage, including that of language, to come to one that is configured and aligned with the nation-building process that is willing to face the initial unpleasantries as necessary encounters that eventually usher a united country. Such philosophy demands uncompromising confidence that puts national fate over any quid pro quo.

Rather than leaning on the legal framework which may not necessarily reflect the state’s actual capacities[8], a Malaysian form of human rights can be one that seeks historical undertones[9] as a basis for the state’s power. Such measures will not be constrained by human rights narratives that over emphasize civil freedoms, but one that is supported by socioeconomic realities, rather than entitlement. As such, this philosophy accommodates a ‘fierce’ concept through much effort and sacrifice[10] that demands accountability over the civil-political freedoms of a fledgling democracy[11]. This would allow Malaysia to address fragmentations in its social, educational, and linguistic landscape while avoiding a need for a partisan compromise. To achieve a consolidated form of inter-ethnic plurality, human rights need to be redefined and see consociationalism as a thing of the past.

The challenge of nation-building

Nation-building carries different implications in the contemporary world due to the nature of human rights, the sensitive nature of civil rights, and the amnesia of colonial legacy posing as limiting factors. The right to practice culture[12], despite its appeal, has nonetheless unveiled a narrative where Malaysians are not united under a common language and history. It demands adherence to a fragmented landscape where various ethnicities do not have an understanding of each other’s worldview. This is why the construct of “race” echoes louder than being “Malaysian”. Under such pretext, despite nation-building being a duty, the inherent doubts created by human rights narratives cannot be overwritten by national bonds. It rejects necessary unpleasantries that serve national goals, but welcomes every social anomaly under a “right to practice” framework.

What Malaysia needs is not a quick imposition of human rights when social narratives do not possess a common national nucleus. For example, “diversity” in the United Kingdom has a different meaning when cultural practices are consolidated under the English language. In Malaysia, “unity in diversity” is a facade, hiding its national weakness in consolidating a language. In its place, there is an overall lack of will to adopt a common medium, which subsequently leads to a lack of a common national identity, and more alarmingly, resulting in little in common among the various ethnicities. Creating national unity through temporary moments like sports are merely escaping the real problem and ignoring reality as languages remain a key factor that divides ethnicities from sophisticated discourses.

Scholars consistently cite Malaysia’s social contract to compensate for these fragmentations while emphasising the importance of dialogue.[13] However, the Malaysian constitutional order has, essentially, procrastinated nation-building efforts. Decade after decade, ethno-cultural worlds become further institutionalised insofar “Malaysia” has become an ethnic concept, devoid of nationalistic spirit. Inter-ethnic dialogues are bound to face limited success when each subscribes to a “Malaysia” under completely dissonant ideals while using human rights to console themselves of such national flaws.

National fragmentation cannot be solved by public policy or the chanting of patriotic national slogans because such strategies are relapses of the exact system that has created a “sweeping under the rug” environment for the past six decades. The problems faced today was never a random blot, but the result of national procrastination.

Malaysia must walk the middle path

Seeking a new national philosophy supported by historical parallels propels Malaysia to a middle path of national breakthrough – one that sees itself as a leap of history where deep-rooted dilemmas can be resolved and partisanship is a thing of the past. Supporting this philosophy will lead to a redefinition of the human rights concept as an ideal that requires a united Malaysia before it can unleash its civil virtues. In summary, democracy and human rights can no longer attach themselves to the Malaysian construct but have to become a “chosen system” where its virtues are evaluated in line with Malaysia’s nation-building struggle.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article may not necessarily represent that of KSI Strategic Institute for Asia Pacific. 


References and explanations 

[1]  Bullock, A. and Trombley, S., 2000. The new Fontana dictionary of modern thought. London: HarperCollins.

[2] […] Political understanding and consensus were achieved through the principles of bargaining, accommodation, moderation and compromise. Input was sought from the political and community leaders of that time from the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities in 1957 and subsequently from the leaders Sabah and Sarawak in 1963.

Jayasooria, P., 2020. Understanding ICERD: In the wider context of the Federal Constitution, Human Rights, and Malaysian society.. [ebook] Putrajaya, Malaysia: United Nations Malaysia, p.24. Available at: United Nations Malaysia official website

[3] Saad, S., 2012. Re-building the Concept of Nation-building in Malaysia. [online] Available at: Link

[4] Consociationalism is a form of democratic power sharing. Political scientists define a consociational state as one which has major internal divisions along ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines, with none of the divisions large enough to form a majority group, but which remains stable due to consultation among the elites of these groups. The goals of consociationalism are governmental stability, the survival of the power-sharing arrangements, the survival of democracy, and the avoidance of violence.

O’Leary, Brendan (2005). “Debating consociational politics: Normative and explanatory arguments”. In Noel, Sid JR (ed.). From Power Sharing to Democracy: Post-Conflict Institutions in Ethnically Divided Societies. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press. pp. 3–43. ISBN 0-7735-2948-9.

Furnivall, J., 1956. Colonial policy and practice. New York University Press; Hill, R., 1977. Rice in Malaya, A Study in Geographical History. Oxford University Press; Drabble, J., 1873. Rubber in Malaya 1876-1922, The Genesis of the Industry. Oxford University Press.

[6] KSI Strategic Institute for Asia Pacific (2021). Mainstreaming Human Rights and preserving national unity in Malaysia: Reflections and recommendations from the Online Conversation on 28th July 2021. Kuala Lumpur: , p.5.

[7] “Therefore, unity is not an automatic act, which comes into being by itself as a consequence of circumstances and development. Circumstances do not help it and development may run counter to it, towards a false crystallization of fragmentation. According to this, unity is efficiency and a creation that goes against the current and a race with time. In other words, unity is a concept of radical change and an act of struggle.”

Whereas the “Unionists” of fragmentation consider unity an automatic creation that can be reached by political unification when circumstances and opportunities become propitious and that unity needs only political preparation, to be conducted through negotiations and maneuvers. As for ideological preparation this is, at best, nothing more than a generalized lip service to unity that is so wide, it includes all sorts of improvisations and incongruities. […] It has its principled, daily organized and continuous struggle, as well as its stages of application that enhance the power of that struggle and paves the way for the final victory.”

Aflaq, M., 1953. The Revolutionary Nature of the Arab Unity. [Blog] Available at: <>.

[8]Kennedy, D., 2004. The Dark Side of Virtue. Princeton University Press, p.18.

[9] Fukuyama, F. (2015). Political order and political decay from the industrial revolution to the globalization of democracy. London Profile Books, pp.185-198

[10] Ibid 10 pp.322–335.

[11] Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[12]Article 27 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

[13] Ibid 6.



30 Nov 2021


National Unity