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The Issue of Identity of Malaya

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The explosive advent of radio technology in Malaya was akin to the revolutionary introduction of the Internet in the 21st millennia, and was instrumental to the development of Malaya during the tumultuous 1950s and 60s. The conclusion of World War 2 resulted in the British ceding control of their former colonies, which presented Singapore and Malaya the challenging task of independence and self-governance.

That post-war period was rife with discord and strife, while S. Rajaratnam’s play, “A Nation in the Making”, was able to encapsulate the social, political and cultural environment which shaped the development of the Malayan identity. Presented through multiple perspectives, it tells a compelling tale of the challenges and philosophies that plagued Malaya back then. One of the key socio-cultural issues that emerged after the second World War was the issue of identity. As PM Lee Hsien Loong warned: “The long-term survival of a country, especially a small one, depends in large measure on a strong sense of identity.”

When the Federation of Malaya was granted independence from the British Commonwealth, approximately 49% and 38% of the population were split between Malays and Chinese respectively . There existed a wide gulf between a broad Malayan identity and communal identities of the Chinese, Indian and Malays. To quote the Pessimist in the play, “I see no Malayans. I see men of many worlds and many nations. I see faces of all colours. Faces that look at each other in mute incomprehension. Blank stares. Because they don’t understand each other”.

Part of the reason for this divide was due to the residual influence left behind by the British colonialism. Direct colonial rule had brought European racial theory and constructed a social and economic order structured by “race” ; society and jobs were stratified based on one’s races in the name of labour efficiency. Compounded by the steady influx of migrant workers, there was never really a unifying factor rally the nation together. Even the Optimist acknowledged that nationalism was a relatively new concept, that even globally hadn’t really taken off. The viewpoints presented in the play also highlight the underlying political issues that undermined the nation’s endeavours to achieve self-independence. To quote Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, ““The prerequisite of Malayan independence is the existence of a Malayan society, not Malay, not Malayan Chinese, not Malayan Indian, not Malayan Eurasian, but Malayan, one that embraces the various races already in the country.”

Political parties furiously contested this notion of “Malayan society”. To begin with, there was no easy way to define it. The radio play suggests that the first step that must be taken would be the establishment of a common language, one that people from all races are expected to speak. This was supposed to promote a nationalist mindset, as the population would have something in common to build around. And yet there arose conflict too. As mentioned in Part V of the play, the move by the Federation government was to nominate the Malay language as the official language. This prompted not only great disagreements and feelings of oppression by the other races, but also the Malay people themselves did not fully understand the rationale behind it.

There was a fair amount of alarm with some Malays reacting with protectionist instinct to prevent the erosion/degradation of their language, as they worried that their unique language would be butchered by non-native speakers and “corrupted into some sort of pidgin talk”. A possible extrapolation of this language biasedness would be the promotion of a pro-Malay culture, something that the nationalist UMNO party sought to capitalise on during the formation of Malaysia. The nationalist ideals that UMNO sought to preserve slowly evolved into a point of contention, as other political parties sought to challenge this notion of a “Malay Malaysia”. The counter campaign of a “Malaysian Malaysia” instigated by Singapore’s government was deemed so acrimonious and disruptive that the Malaysia government eventually decided to expel Singapore from the union.

The way the exhibition was laid out provided an interesting backdrop when considering the “Malayan identity”. The running text across the display wall immerses visitors in the experience, as they literally have to take a walk through the evolution of philosophies and viewpoints that surrounded the issue. The first excerpt that is encountered is actually from Part VI of the play, the finale, and yet is the most engaging as it presents a humorous perspective on what to expect from the exhibition, that of deep ideological conflicts which though affect the everyday-man, is not a subject that is of utmost concern to them. All in all, the NUS museum radio exhibition was indeed thought-provoking and insightful, and painted a multivariate perspective of how identity evolved in those founding years.


1. Lee Hsien Loong, “The National Identity — A Direction and Identity for Singapore”, Speeches 13, no. 1 (1989): 29.

2. Hirschman, C. (1986, March). The making of race in colonial Malaya: Political economy and racial ideology. In Sociological Forum (Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 330-361). Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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