Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Is the National Entity Still Relevant?

Written by johnleemk on 2:55:49 pm Aug 26, 2007.
Categories: ,

I have never been fond of pride for the sake of pride. I don't feel a sense of superiority over others simply because I belong to one group or another, whether it's a school, a culture, or an ethnic group.

In other words, I've always thought of myself as just another one of God's creations. I am human, nothing more, and nothing less. This is probably why I think that the most important units in human society are the individual and the family — because any other sort of grouping is too broad to make any sort of generalisation easy.

Many who share my view of a "brotherhood of man", as John Lennon put it, think that old divisions along ethnic, religious or national lines should be put behind us. The only thing that should matter is our shared nature as members of the human species.

As wonderful as I find these sentiments, after reflecting on them, I cannot definitely agree. The fact is, just as every individual is different, and as those differences ought to be embraced, inevitably each individual has some shared traits with others.

This is most markedly so in a family — it is difficult to generalise about families because each have their own idiosyncracies, their own quirks that make them special.

But one other unit may still have some relevance in the world today — the nation. The nation-state, I cannot say for sure, but I think that there are enough similarities amongst the members of a nation to make it a societal unit worth considering.

A nation is simply any grouping of people who share a sense of commonality, a sense that they belong together. Thus, there are many nations based on ethnicity and religion.

However, I think this conception that a nation is equivalent to an ethnic grouping, or members of a faith, is wrong. A nation ought to be a group of people who share similar experiences, who grew up together, who live together. That is a true nation.

The reason we need this conception of a nation is simple: I may be a human, just as my brother in Africa or Latin America is, but our experiences, our perceptions, what matter most to us, simply differs.

Oh, sure, we may have some similarities. Perhaps we both grew up in a middle or upper class home, perhaps we share the same religious beliefs. But can anyone argue that most of what concerns me in Kuala Lumpur is likely to be shared by someone living in Johannesburg?

I am not saying that there is nothing that different people can learn from each other. However, different people and different nations are likely to have different things that matter and different ways to approach things, simply because of geographical separation.

I thus have more in common with someone in Penang than somebody in, say, Beijing. The things that concern us are similar; we use the same roads, we eat the same food, we listen to the same music, we watch the same movies, we celebrate the same festivals. That is what makes a nation — shared experiences.

This is why a world government, unless it is some sort of extremely loose confederation (i.e. only a United Nations with slightly more expanded powers), is likely to fail. It is impossible to set out a single unitary policy which can be effective in so many different territories, where so many different peoples lead so different lives. The world may be globalised, but until it is possible to zip across the world in half an hour or so, the differences in experiences people have will continue to mean we must treat different groupings of nations differently.

The most important aspect of this conception of a nation, in my view, is how your nationality is mutable. It was once remarked that nationalism was nothing more than an irrational pride in where you were born.

However, nationalities can change. It is entirely possible to belong to more than one nation. I may have grown up in Malaysia, making me a Malaysian. But I spent a significant portion of my childhood in Singapore. Does that mean nothing to me? I don't think so — there are things I share with Singaporeans of my generation, even if I am largely a Malaysian.

And if I decide to emigrate to, say, the United States, does that mean I am still a Malaysian, or on the other hand, not a Malaysian at all? I think not. I may live in the US, and may thus be most affected by the things that Americans are concerned about, but I will always have inexorable ties to Malaysia. And if I move back to Malaysia in my dotage, then it does not eradicate my ties to the United States either.

This is the most powerful thing about this conception of nationality — that humans are shaped by experiences, and that it is possible to belong to different groups with different experiences. In the past, nations based on ethnicity may have made sense because different races had very different experiences in life.

But we've moved beyond that. Different races now occupy the same countries, and thus nations are now comprised of people of different colours and creeds.

The most unhealthy thing to do with nationalism is to embrace it with a similar fervour as one might embrace racism. Nationality is no longer exclusive in this day and age. Nationality is not determined by birth. Nationality is determined by who you share your experiences with.

It's not wrong to hope for a brotherhood of man. But for the time being, it's impractical to expect the development of such a brotherhood. The best we can hope for is a benign, if not beneficial, conception of nationality which recognises what best defines our identities and how we anchor ourselves in our world.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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