Birth Pangs of the Malaysian Nation


A review of Contested Nationalisms and Propaganda: Birth Pangs of a Malaysian Nation, 1957-1969, by Cheong Soon Gan. 

In the first twelve years of Malaya/Malaysia’s independence, there was a fundamental disagreement among the country’s populace about national identity. On the one hand, the Malay majority, basically supported by the structures of government, conceived of a special role for the ethnically Malay population, the Malay language, and Malay culture (including Islam and other cultural trappings). On the other hand, non-indigenous groups, particularly the large Chinese population, imagined a nation wherein all ethnic groups, as well as their languages and cultural practices, would be celebrated and on equal footing. Cheong Soon Gan has chosen the vantage point of propaganda to probe not just the ideological incompatibility of these two visions but even more the practical, daily, lived contradictions in the government.

A particular hypocrisy—that the Malaysian government promoted its policy of a “special” place for Malays by creating and disseminating propaganda in unofficial languages (i.e., those other than Malay)—provides a neat example of Gan’s main point. Looking at the structures of propaganda itself—using multiple languages, working within mono-racial communities, using propangandists of one race only with their ethnic brethren—it becomes clear why the intended message of official nationalism failed. In Gan’s own words, “the official nationalism between independence in 1957 and the race riots of May 1969 was a failed project because the state could not resolve the contradictions and tensions within its vision of the nation” (p. v).

The cases demonstrating this point are the Department of Information and Radio Malaya. The Department of Information forms the focus of Chapter 1, which describes the creation of this unit under the British to disseminate wartime propaganda against a Communist rebellion (the so-called “Emergency”), and then the re-organization of the Department in 1960 for new propaganda purposes. This re-organization entailed shifting from “carpet-bombing the population with leaflets” (p. 89, a particularly fantastic image) to prioritizing face-to-face discussions between information officers and the local population. Gan also describes in riveting detail some of the civics education courses run for target audiences in the early 1960s, and the reactions those audiences had. The courses were almost always mono-ethnic, primarily monolingual, and often mono-occupational, feeding the government’s desire to “slant” its message for each particular listener (p. 80). The change in method was also appropriate for a new message: Malaya (and later Malaysia) was now trying to campaign in favor of a national identity, rather than against Communist rebels. To accomplish the new task and appropriately deploy its new method, the Department of Information also had to be particularly careful about the recruitment and training of its employees, getting staff who were linguistically competent first, and politically willing second.

In this way, the Department of Information differed from its sister Radio Malaya, the subject of Chapter 2. Gan astutely notes the different evolution of radio as opposed to propaganda, from amateur associations into a technically competent, multi-ethnic profession. This left them far ahead in the game: “Free of a lumbering wartime burden, and staffed with leaders who were energetic, professional and cosmopolitan” (p. 40). Radio was also the right technology at the right time, allowing the government to reach target populations in rural areas and in every important language and dialect without having to reduplicate visits to remote villages. Although initially struggling to overcome reliance on Radio Singapore for much of the programming for the peninsula, in later years the greater challenge for Radio Malaya was to keep its listeners tuned in while still delivering the intended propaganda messages.

Probably the most contentious issue between the two visions of Malay nationalism was the role of language, specifically non-Malay languages (Chinese in its various dialects, Tamil, and Telugu, for example). Because of its importance, the language question gets the fullest treatment with a very thorough Chapter 3. This chapter divides into two broad themes.

The first theme treats the development of language policy in education. Gan describes the three major educational reports of the late colonial era from their commissioning to their reactions and (limited or imperfect) implementation. The first, the Barnes Report, strongly favored a mono-cultural vision for independent Malaya and fed the idea of a “special” Malay position in the new country. Soon afterward, two American-trained experts with Chinese connections authored the Fenn-Wu Report, which supported the alternative vision of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Malaya in which all groups were equal. Facing two contending visions, the government commissioned the Minister of Education to write the so-called Razak Report, trying to bridge the two but producing a “schizophrenic” result. (p. 86) In the resultant system, Malay schools were called “National,” with other vernacular primary schools being instead “National-Type,” and the whole system aiming to use Malay for higher levels of education down the line.

The second theme of Chapter 3 is the language issues for the propaganda bodies: the Department of Information and Radio Malaya. Facing a series of challenging tasks in promoting the government’s vision, both units were forced to do their work using English, Chinese, and Tamil, rendering these “non-official semi-official languages” in a queer juxtaposition that “adversely affected the effectiveness of the Information Services” (p. 88). In the Department of Information, one interesting development was the creation of a “Special Section” for pushing forward propaganda on very political topics—this was staffed by a good many people with strong political connections to the ruling party. In radio, the staff was more professional, but this made them sometimes more cosmopolitan and less focused on Malay identity than the policy that they were required to spread. Overall, both in education and in propaganda, a number of practical issues forced compromises by which Chinese and Indian languages were used for government information work, and “these compromises did not resolve the contestation: on the contrary, they inflamed the debate over the meaning of Malaysia” (p. 114).

From the broad theoretical issue of language with its many branches, Gan turns in Chapter 4 to the very concrete, targeted case of the National Anthem of Malaysia. The story here has too many fascinating details to do it full justice in summary, but the key debates were, first, the selection of a national anthem; second, the use of the national anthem as a tool of unification; and finally, what to do about those who disrespected the national anthem. In each case, the Malay normativity of the administration becomes apparent in its own way, fenced in by the limitations of engineering nationalism. The case of the National Anthem is apt because of its “performative” nature—a symbol that individuals would themselves join in singing and thus replicating. In this way it differed from other points of national symbolism (p. 123).

Wrapping up the dissertation with the broader questions of clashing national ideologies, the Epilogue looks at the clash following the 1969 elections, known as the May 13 race riots. The 1969 election was in many ways a direct contest between the two ideologies given at the outset (special role for Malays or multicultural equality); the rioting that followed the exceptionally strong showing for opposition parties gave the administration the justification it needed to impose a Malay vision by mandate, rather than consultation. Gan uses this episode, though, to raise the question of why the issue of conflicting ideologies had not been solved up to that time. Indeed, rather than feeling resolved at the end of this twelve year period, things were pointedly unresolved—but that is exactly the dissertation’s main argument. The structures of Malaya/Malaysia rendered it inherently unable to resolve the issues up to 1969, and the compromises of propaganda were no salve for ideological woes.

Throughout, the primary theoretical orientation is to the question of propaganda, leaning on the ideas of Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell from their book Propaganda and Persuasion (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2006.). There is also an interesting connection with Foucault’s idea of governmentality—the dissertation asks how things were accomplished instead of just what or why.

To get at these bureaucratic machinations, Gan’s primary sources (in both senses) are the archives of the Department of Information and Radio Malaya. He also uses the letters to the editor in The Straits Times to good effect. To complement this, one finds a plethora of memoirs, secondary sources, and official government publications in English. Several of the chapters are also filled out with images of some of the reports or propaganda items that they describe.

This dissertation adds to the growing field of grassroots Malaysian history. As the author correctly notes, there is a lot of “great man of history” writing about Malaysia’s national history, especially history written in the country itself. Gan does not ignore the famous leaders of the transition to independence; indeed, figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew play supporting roles in his narrative. Bigger parts go to mid-ranking figures, like Dol Romli, the first Malay head of Radio Malaya, who were enacting propaganda priorities. The real focus, though, is on the ever-elusive Malayan everyman, who shines through in feedback forms from Indian barbers, newspaper letters from Chinese music critics, and official reports by Malay civil servants.

Another important feature of this dissertation, especially for those reading this review who are looking for readings on Malaysian history for their students, is that the chapters (and sometimes even smaller sections) can easily stand alone as accessible excerpts. I particularly recommend Chapter 4 in this regard: with a few cameos of internationally famous figures (Benjamin Britten, for example) and theoretical ideas that could apply well to other locations, it would be an easily digestible reading for advanced undergraduates.

On an even more specific level, many of the points are incredibly well articulated. The discussion of the structural limitations of the King (Yang Di-Pertuan-Agong) as a national symbol (pp. 122-23), for example, is hands-down the most perspicacious analysis I have seen on the subject. Gan is also careful to avoid anachronism through comparison with the current developments—this analysis benefits from being entirely focused on the 1950s and 60s.

Overall, this dissertation is worthwhile reading for those interested in Malaysian history, nationalism and propaganda.

Kevin W. Fogg
Al-Bukhari Fellow in the History of Islam in Southeast Asia, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies
Islamic Centre Lecturer, Faculty of History
University of Oxford

Primary Sources

Archives of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Arkib Negara Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur
The Straits Times
Memoirs of Department of Information and Radio Malaya employees
Published government documents on propaganda subjects

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2012. 158 + xx pp. Primary Advisors: Peter Zinoman, Jeffrey Hadler, and Andrew Barshay.

Image: Cartoon from the magazine “Malaysia” published in 1962 by the Department of Information to support and popularize the impending formation of Malaysia in 1963. Image provided by Cheong Soon Gan.

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