Nationalist fundamentalism

It is very difficult to characterize the Malaysian government’s recent action against Filipinos living in Sabah.  The cruelty is astounding. One can only call it “nationalist fundamentalism” – the belief in national identity, in this case Malaysian, as a source of rights, to the exclusion of all other human affinities.  If the situation had been reversed, an action like this would lead the world to think that Filipinos were engaged in religious cleansing.

For, almost all those who are being ejected from Malaysian territory are Muslims from Malay stock.  They include not only Filipinos but also Indonesians.  Physically and culturally, they would pass for “bumiputra” (son of the soil) – that favored segment of the Malaysian population that Prime Minister Mahathir once called his country’s “definitive people.”  Why is the Malaysian government going after them?  And how do we explain this seeming paradox?

The official explanation is that Malaysia has recently tightened its immigration policy.  A new law was passed in April 2002 and its strict implementation began only this August.  Filipinos are not the only targets of this campaign against illegal migrants, we are told.  More Indonesians have been deported since the campaign started.  This is believable; there are far more Indonesians residing in Malaysia than Filipinos.

The ruthless crackdown caught these “aliens” by surprise.  Malaysian authorities had previously maintained a lenient policy towards undocumented migrants from the neighboring islands.  They kept them under regular surveillance, but left them alone.  They knew more or less where they were, but conducted only occasional raids to keep their numbers in check.  Most of these “illegals” have lived in Malaysia for decades.  Their children, a number of whom are infants who have died from disease and dehydration in crowded prisons, are Malaysian-born.

It may be argued that none of these deportees think of themselves as Malaysian anyway.  But then it is doubtful whether they think of themselves as Filipino or Indonesian either.  These are national identities that, in all likelihood, have no bearing on their selfunderstanding as ethnic Malays.  Their ancestors – the Tausug and the Samal traveled and settled in these parts for centuries without restriction.  Long before there were nations, they shuttled freely between Southern Mindanao and Borneo, formed autonomous communities and mingled with other groups.  They had their own dialects but they communicated with other communities in the lingua franca of the region, Malay.

Colonialism carved this region into separate territories, and from these colonial possessions arose the modern nation-states that today exclusively confer identities on their populations, and issue passports, visas and identity cards.  The British took Malaya, the Dutch controlled Indonesia, and the Spaniards and later the Americans took possession of the Philippines.  They drew the boundaries that marked the extent of their imagined political authority, completely oblivious of the pre-national relationships that had evolved among the peoples of these islands over many centuries of interaction.  This historical blindness was then passed on to the national elites that took over the reins of government of these newly independent states.  In time, we too — the postcolonial descendants of these ancient peoples — began to recite our history only from the moment of European “discovery.”

Today, these immigrants without papers are a living challenge to the hegemony of the Malaysian, Philippine, and Indonesian states. Their basic communal affinities, cemented by Islam, constitute a powerful base for an oppositional identity.  It is not farfetched to think that the nationalist cleansing and sealing of borders that Malaysia is now undertaking were prompted by its fear of becoming a regional center for the resurgence of Islam as an armed political force.  Malaysia sees its porous borders in Borneo, settled by impoverished Muslim communities, as the breeding ground for militant Islamism, and it is determined to pre-empt this.

This fear is shared by its neighbors, all modernizing secular states with large Islamic populations.  As their economies falter, these postcolonial states find it increasingly difficult to sell the idea of modern nationhood to the impoverished segments of their populations.  Soon they must come face to face with the challenge of separatism based on alternative identity and paradigms of community.  Today, militant Islam is providing the most attractive alternative to the excesses of modernity and the inequities of unbridled capitalism.

It is interesting that nationalist fundamentalism should find roots in Malaysia, a multi-racial society with a relatively small population and a more successful economy than the Philippines or Indonesia. But so much changed in one year.  Malaysian authorities arrested MNLF leader Nur Misuari when he landed in Sabah a few months ago — the same separatist rebel they harbored in the 1980s.  Now they are deporting ordinary immigrants from Tawi-Tawi and Sulu – the same people from whose labor Malaysia profited for decades.

This can only spring from the same xenophobic paranoia that has spread like a virus around the world following America’s response to September 11.  It is a sickness, and it would be a tragedy if we went to war with Malaysia over this.


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