This Strange Thing Called Patriotism
10:10pm, 21 August 2015
Another year, another emotional exhortation to return and contribute to Malaysia.
This time the argument is familiar. “We need smart young Malaysians to return to contribute to the country. If all the good people leave, where can change possibly come from?”
This argument is familiar because it is easy to make. It doesn’t require new ideas, and it certainly doesn’t require a strategy for change. I’ve probably had it made to me more times than I can remember.
The last time that I do remember, I was at a Ramadhan gathering at my university, sitting on mats around bowls of rice and rendang; a Chinese boy from Klang told me he intended to return to Malaysia after his graduation, “… because Malaysia needs me. If we all don’t go back, Malaysia is doomed.” I remember admiring him for his resolve. I never saw him again.
I guess everyone who lives abroad has a complicated relationship with their country. I think most Malaysians certainly do: our love for our country’s food is matched only by our distaste for the government. Our opinions are usually tainted by the institutionalised racism we’ve all grown up with.
I struggle with this because I, too, have decided to live abroad. I was born in Kuching, Sarawak, where I studied at a Chinese vernacular primary school and then a government secondary school: I played Judo for my state and coached debate in Form 6. I then went to university in Singapore. I’ve interned in startups there and in Silicon Valley. I now work in Vietnam.
I normally say that I don’t identify as Malaysian – that I feel more kinship with ‘citizens of the world’ than I do with those that hold the same blood-red passport that I do. But there are moments: when I smell Sarawak Laksa, overseas, when I watch Sepet (which I do, once a year), or when I see the overgrown lalang in the compound of the Malaysian Consulate in Singapore – something so out of place, for Singapore is so well maintained – my heart lurches.
The call to return bothers me.
All calls to contribute to a cause are made with the belief that it’s possible to change things. Miss Gan argues that “not all hope is lost”, for instance. Revolutionaries are likely to say that a successful revolution is just around the corner, even if it isn’t.
But no change comes for free. Most of the time, change extracts some personal cost. Because you can’t have change without paying something in exchange, I think exhortations for a cause can be evaluated on two things: first based on how much they cost, and second whether it’s worthwhile to pay that cost.
If a change is costly to the point of failure, then the call for young Malaysians to return are no different from the calls made by generals to enlist in morally-questionable wars. Both demand that young people give up their lives for a greater purpose. To ask for commitment without justifying the cost is to be dishonest at best, immoral at worst.
We can’t, however, expect the people making the call to be completely honest about the costs. Most people pad their exhortations to make them seem less costly than they actually are, because that’s how rhetoric works. Instead, you’ll have to evaluate these calls yourself.
One way to do that is to pay careful attention to the caller’s acknowledgement of the costs involved. In theory, the exhortations that neglect any mention of costs, when there are clearly huge ones, are the ones you can safely ignore. (Miss Gan’s hand-wavy treatment of the costs of choosing to live in Malaysia is probably enough to reject her entire essay.) In practice, most calls acknowledge the cost; they simply justify the costs by appealing to its worthwhileness.
The metric we use to evaluate an exhortation may now be reduced to: “is it worthwhile?” This is both an easier and harder question to answer.
The easy bit of whether a cause is worthwhile is that it’s a matter of individual interest. If someone has found their calling (say, she’s good at making art, doing research, or creating technology) it’s probably better for humanity if she pursues it in a less dysfunctional country. You certainly can’t fault her for chasing her dreams, even if it takes her out of the country, because to her this is more worthwhile than other causes. On the flip side, if someone feels very strongly for her nation, then it’s justified that she pay the costs for her cause.
However, the hard part of asking if something is worthwhile is that some causes demand things of everyone. Appealing to patriotism somehow gives people a free pass, as it applies to all citizens of a country. This is a hack: the people who call for contributions to a country can therefore make such calls in the name of national duty, and get away with quite a bit.
What is it about patriotism that works this way? I think a small part of it is that nations are far better at instilling patriotism than we are at resisting it. The ceremonies, anthems and symbols of our nation, imprinted on us in our childhoods, stay with us for a long time. In the same way that the best food is often what you remember eating growing up, so too is patriotism constructed by whatever you experience when you are young.
A large part of patriotism, however, appeals to our sense of altruism: you feel good when you contribute to a group you belong to. While anthems and symbols may stir deep-seated feelings in you, they cannot compel you to return and contribute to your country. However, the shared identity that you get from anthems and symbols trick you into thinking that you belong to a polity, and that you owe something to it. 
George Orwell once described the difference between nationalism and patriotism as the difference between an aggressive and a defensive attitude. Nationalism is the belief that one’s country is better than other countries, and is often tied to a dangerous desire to impose your country’s will onto others. In contrast, patriotism is the devotion to an identity and a way of living, without the desire to impose it on other people.
Going by the above definition, what I feel is patriotism, not nationalism. While I am willing to defend the superiority of Sarawak Laksa, I cannot imagine myself imposing some Malaysian-ness on another country. I suspect many Malaysians feel the same way.
My patriotism is therefore tied to my investment in my Malaysian identity. I am a Malaysian Chinese, and I share a set of foundational things with my fellow countrymen: the use of Malay, and Manglish, the racism taught to us by our parents and our institutions, the deep anger at our politicians, the love of the same food, the feeling of helplessness about our country.
As much as I might deny it, some part of me still identifies as Malaysian. This is probably why I was so bothered by Miss Gan’s essay. The reason an appeal to patriotism works on me – as it might work on you – is because it is an appeal to identity.
Patriotism is powerful because identity is powerful. There is a reason English football hooligans fight over their devotion to a specific team, and why religious fanatics are willing to blow themselves up: when you let something become part of your identity, it gains power over you.
Patriotism works in exactly the same way. It becomes part of your identity, and then it reminds you that you share that identity with a larger group of people. An appeal to patriotism thus taps into a person’s obligation to fellow members of that group. It overrides logic, as most such forces – built into humanity through centuries of living in groups – usually do.
So how much do you owe your country?
Most people would say that you owe your country a lot. Given that it’s in the interests of a country to get you to believe that, it’s not surprising that most people do.
There’s at least an economic case to be made about owing a country a debt. I am where I am today because of public services the Malaysian government has built and paid for - I was immunised for free, as a child, I grew up in relative safety, and my parents made enough due to Malaysia’s progressive economic policies. All Malaysians owe that same debt.
But it doesn’t matter how much you owe. What matters is the mechanism with which you feel obligated to contribute to the country. That mechanism is patriotism. More accurately, that mechanism is the degree with which you identify as Malaysian.
On this front Malaysia isn’t doing well. Every call by a Malaysian politician for Chinese and Indian citizens to leave the country is a tear in the very thing that binds them to contribute. It is hard, after all, to do things for people who hate you. Group altruism doesn’t work if you don’t feel like you belong to the group. Most of the time, the only things binding Malaysians to their country are friends, family and food.
The people declaring that they are eager and willing to leave the country are essentially declaring how little they want to identify with being Malaysian. I would wager that if you polled these people, they would feel very little investment in the anthems or symbols of citizenship.
Their disengagement is what makes their flight possible.
 Serene is likely writing the piece to promote her Producky project, which I’m happy to link to. But her argument is so common that I felt it was justified to write a reaction to her piece.
 I truly mean ‘tricking’ here: some nations are able to construct a national identity based on race. Malaysia has had to create a different sort of identity, as it does not consist of a single race.
 Interestingly enough, Singaporeans have more than just ‘friends, family, and food’ binding them to their country. The Singaporeans I know, at least, love Singapore a great deal.
Thanks to Charlene Chin, Liew Zhe Rong, Daniel Chong, Joash Wee, Stacey Tay and Samantha for reading drafts of this.
I wrote this for my assignment during Malaysian Studies. Thought I should share with the rest of the world, what I really think it is to be a Malaysian. Maybe there is an answer, or maybe there will be never. I had fun doing this assignment, not so very much the classes – but it’s what I have an opinion about, regardless of the amount of silence I have bottled up during the lectures.
Not exactly the most formal piece of writing that one would hand up as an assignment but here’s my piece of mind. I am an awful writer because I don’t proof-read my materials. But I still hope you get my point.
There is no definite cut on what being a Malaysians means to me. In my opinion, it is a collective idea of the various things that happens in the life of all these people who regard themselves as Malaysians. To some people, being Malaysian may mean something that is on the surface – such as officially regarded as the permanent resident or holding the Malaysian passport. To me, it is a bundle of many things such as culture, thoughts, behavior, stereotyping. There is no borderline as to whether if it is a good or bad thing to be a Malaysian. If we only had one aspect of things to define what being Malaysian is, it would be a very bland topic to discuss what being a national of this country would be about.
Whenever a Malaysian is asked what the special thing is about Malaysia that sets it apart from other countries it will most probably be either of these two answers – the diverse culture, or the food. It is true, these are characteristics of our country – but is it really what sets us apart from other countries? What about countries like Singapore who also claims itself to have the exact same traits? Then again, we are going to talk about what makes me a Malaysian, rather than how Malaysia is special to me. It maybe a confusing cut line in between the two – but I know just what makes me feel like a Malaysian.
To be a Malaysian to me, is to face the difficulties of trying to overcome the harmony that we all claim that we have. The harmony, that is being projected on every brochure or promotional leaflet that introduces Malaysia. Sure, I want that harmony – and dream of that harmony. But, dealing with it and trying to make it work is another thing altogether. So, being a Malaysian to me, primarily – is to have to deal with coping with the image that we portray ourselves to be. It isn’t that Malaysia has been creating a false surface of what the country is; it’s just that there is no perfection when it comes to dealing with so many people. In other words, some may have achieved the agreement to not discriminate and see each other as equal – but there will still be some others who would not comply to the idea of being as ‘one’. Hence, as long as not all 100% of the population feels the determination and motivation to become ‘one’, a Malaysian would have to constantly struggle to achieve harmonization.
What is the problem then? Why are there still people who discriminate? Why are they still against national equality? Is it the government, or is it the people themselves? True that the country has promised the Bumiputera’s that they would have special rights as it was one of the conditions when Malaya wanted to merge countries. But, think again – that was back then. The people, who were living by then until now, might have still that hatred as they most probably could not adapt to such abrupt change in race population. Personally, I would understand them as nobody likes having to share things that you have always thought to be yours (in this case, the country) with others who you have no relations with. What about the younger generation? They have not been in the time when the country officially merged races from China and India. Why do they still feel the hate and develop the urge to discriminate. They say if you raise a pig with a group of cats, the pig would think of itself as a cat. That is because nobody would tell it that it was different. The situation is the same when I apply it to the younger generation of Malaysia now. If they weren’t told that they were different from the other races, or influenced in a way or the other – would they still think of insulting the other races and cultures? If they didn’t see themselves as different from the beginning, if not clearly stated by the elderlies, would we have a problem of harmonization still?
This brings me to the idea of how being a Malaysian to me, would mean to forget the fact that we are different. I can’t say how describing how Malaysia is special as “because we are all of different races” would help, because to me that is like reminding each other that we are different and will never be the same. True to say that we will always be of different roots – but should be seen as the same family. Just like how beans can have red bean, black beans or even green beans – but at the end of the day – they are all still beans. If I could do something about Malaysians and have the power to control the things that are being thought to the younger generation throughout the country, I would stop the parents from transferring their hate or prejudice that they may already have to their children. This is because just by them telling their children about their personal thoughts, it would somehow influence the children to have the same kind of thoughts. Some parents or elderly would have had no intentions of influencing the younger generation, but there is no doubt that if you keep feeding a child the same type of information from young – they would grow and act towards the type of information that has been fed to them throughout the years. If the father of a family constantly described how unhappy he was about how unfair racial equality would be as it would steal their initial rights as Bumiputera’s, then the child would naturally grow with that perspective and develop a hate for anything that has to do with racial equality.
This is because I believe that as a Malaysian, everybody deserves a chance to judge and decide on what they want to live by . I think it means giving and allowing chances and opportunities to everyone to decide or judge without any sort of manipulation. This is a country that offers a variety of many things, and because we do not have only one culture to adhere to – we should also be given variable ways to learn and accept these traditions and practices.
To be honest, I have grown up to adore Tun Dr. Mahathir not only because I think he has contributed to the country’s honor, he was a person who had a voice. I will never know what his real intentions were from behind the curtains, but for all I know – to me, being a Malaysian means being able to harbor the courage of being able to speak. True, we are still forbidden from touching topics about sensitive remarks such as racial and cultural subject – but he was one of the politicians that had a voice in the country, even after his phase.
Also, as Malaysians it would mean to have more faith in our own country. This is because in contrary to what many would have thought about how people still believe we live in trees, these people who I met there actually knew about the developing infrastructures of our country. I think Malaysians have too little faith in our own country due to several factors – mainly the media. The media has been portraying many things that are not the facts, and this has naturally turned the backs of many citizens against the nature of the country. They think that Malaysia is a place of no hope. Hence, they are not willing to contribute much thinking that the work would not be appreciated as much as they expect it to be. This leads to the reason why Malaysia is lacking of capable individuals, as they have all chose to contribute to other countries. Many also say it’s because it is due to the low income here. What I am trying to point out is that, everything comes in a cycle. The contributing factor of the slow progressing income level of the country may even be because we are not developing as rapid as other countries, who are being assisted by talents who actually come from Malaysia.
Then again, the racial issue arises – as the Chinese or Indians may complain that their works will never be appreciated just because they are not Bumiputeras. I cannot justify if that applies to all industries, but to the other races who have been insisting that they will never be appreciated by the nation or even the governenment – think again. Datuk Lee Chong Wei, the country’s and word’s no.1 badminton player is Chinese and he is significantly being recognized by Malaysia. In my opinion, the true reason behind why everybody thinks the grass on the other side is always greener because everybody is encouraging each other that Malaysia doesn’t appreciate talent. Is that really the truth? Is it Malaysia, or is it you? Are you the one who isn’t contributing or showing enough due to your bias upon the country’s judgment towards you? Then again, I believe there is not wrong or right when it comes to opinions. It’s just that to me, I feel that we need to understand, give chances and have a little more faith in our own country and that’s what makes us a real Malaysian. To me, as long as you ARE good – you will be appreciated, somehow. Learn to appreciate and believe in yourself first, before doubting the ability of others to appreciate you.
In Korea, I did not need to say I was Chinese like how registration forms in Malaysia always reminds us of. Everywhere I went in Seoul, all I had to answer when being asked about my roots – I only had to say I was Malaysian. Not Malaysian Chinese, Malaysian Indian, Malaysian Malay or whatsoever. Just by saying that I was purely Malaysian without needing to state my race for the past year, I felt a strong sense of patriotism in me. I still remember how proud I was as a Malaysian in the country because I felt so close to home. After all that mentioning of how I belong to Malaysia to the rest of the people I met, I requested that my mom send over a top that said I LOVE MALAYSIA just in time for Merdeka Day.
On that day, I went over to the Malaysian embassy in Seoul just to celebrate it with my fellow Malaysians. There, I met all three races again. But there was a cast difference of meeting them here in Seoul and back in Malaysia. There, we felt like we were really one. Here, we felt like there was no need to distinguish ourselves. There, we felt like we were always going to be there for each other in this other country that we do not call our real homes. This made me realize that as long as we don’t keep digging into our roots and believe that we have always been one – we will still come together and live in harmony.
In conclusion, I think the most essential thing to me as to what makes me Malaysian is that it will always be important to give chances to one another, and to strive and find a way to overcome the struggles of trying to become a real harmonious country. We have not achieved it yet, and might never will – but the most important thing is that, we desire to at least try.