A Critique of 1Malaysia: The Universal Conscience (4 of 5)

The forth part of critique focuses on the exploitation of post-political tsunami effects (so called ‘Collective Common Sense’), that gradually brings about the relevance of 1Malaysia as a notion to redefine the already defined but left unsettled, to re-evaluate the already evaluated but left unselected, to promise again the desired needs that are left unmet.

pt4_1Malaysia paparich

Sociologist Shamsul A.B. outlined our inter-ethnic experience as a ‘state of stable tension’ sustained through a ‘framework of conservative forces1. The pillars sustaining the framework are security, ethnic bargaining and development planning, all indicated the phenomena of modernity and post-colonial insecurity.

Political tsunami, on the other hand, can be understood as a reaction against the framework; it is a concerted effort demanding for more liberty and participation to achieve social security and equilibrium; an attempt to penetrate the carapace of modernity by defying the institutionalised deadlock; and one that imposes stability through terms and forces authoritatively defined. This tsunami has had an incursive blow to our socio-political landscape; it has viably transposed the concerns of ethnicity to that of the populace as a whole, questioning ethnocentric prerogative with the enthusiasm to substantiate the cosmopolitan identity in Malayness and Malaysian-ness.

The aftermath witnessed efforts to nullify ethnocentric identities, but not without retaliation. It also foresaw the conservative bastion reaffirm racial politics. The authority definitely faced the challenge from both of these alternatives when the idea of ethnicity and community became fluid. We begin to notice the questioning of ethnic categories, ethnic boundaries, or the definition and redefinition of ‘Malay supremacy’. Some persistently rehabilitate politics under these compartments through such impending doubts. In this case, the ‘framework of conservative forces’ reached its limit of control forcing the government left with a major challenge.

The government was seen playing an ambiguous role since the political tsunami, most notably 1Malaysia. Prior to this, the government employed the politics of recognition and widely publicised its communitarian multicultural agenda through their political framework without considering its own paradox.

The paradox was expounded by Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity – also a response to modernity – who suspected the impossibility of a general identity construction in a community because ‘all communities are postulated’2, whereby individual has to choose to succumb to communities, and by referring to the conception of category, communitarianism has indeed admitted one’s individual freedom of choice and denied another – exclusion by inclusion. ‘Liquid modernity’ therefore explicated the blurring of categorical restrictions or the ‘liquefaction’ of identities3. It was against this liquidated state that 1Malaysia was inaugurated. It substitutes the aforementioned framework, employing strategic ambiguity to advance in the present paralysis4.

Almost a year after the inauguration of 1Malaysia, the prime minister Dato Seri Najib Abdullah remained persistent with the flexibility of the concept:

1Malaysia is not rigid…it is a national discussion.

We will incorporate other views and opinions…It is a strategic ambiguity. 5

Strategic ambiguity is a communication strategy endeavour to be inclusive to varied viewpoints; it is an open-ended enduring commitment to assembling a depot that minimises the possibility of conflicts.

Communication expert Eric Eisenberg has attributed 4 advantages to this strategy:

  • to promote unified diversity
  • to preserve privileged positions
  • to foster deniability
  • to facilitate organisational change6.

Thus far the strategy seems quintessential to the fragmented historical condition of Malaysia – the ambiguity never anticipates a perfect solution but an almost equanimous process to unite differences in order to reach a consensus. But in the concept of 1Malaysia, the assemblage of differences was inevitably victimised because the strategy naturally denies unity as a subject of practice.

It commodifies the ‘stable tension’ and objectifies the negotiations towards achieving unity. This underlying ambition can be decoded in the 1Malaysia concept map found in ‘Chapter 4: Building 1Malaysia’ of Government Transformation Programme (GTP) Roadmap, in which, 1Malaysia was seen as an amalgamation of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusiveness’7, it employed strategic ambiguity within a dualism, to ‘constantly manage the polarity between assimilation and segregation by enlarging the common ground in between’8.

This ‘common ground’ hinted the notion previously stated: to commodify ‘stable tension’ and to objectify negotiations. It centralises the opposing forces in order to manage the dialectics within the post-structuralist play of category.

The notion is almost versatile if one notices the expanding universality. Enlarging the common ground universalises the methodology per se. Theoretically, at first, the inclusivity of 1Malaysia oscillates like a pendulum taking charge of the incommensurability of things, and secondly, the diversity of 1Malaysia evinces the specifics for the convenience of the former. The later is attentive to differences, the former is good at generalising, this notion somewhat becomes a universal logic that any groups are dependent and independent as it works within a dualism that discriminates nobody, thus permitting the authority the full capacity to control.

‘Universality’ henceforth becomes an effective tool for hegemony. Wendy Brown saw this as an ideology taking effects in the politics of globalisation: ‘…one in which the universal tolerates the particular in its particularity, in which the putative universal therefore always appears superior to that unassimilated particular – a superiority itself premised upon the nonreciprocity of tolerance’9. It seems to Brown that the universal act of ‘tolerance’, or ‘unity’ in our case, has legitimised hegemony.

Furthermore, while the prime minister allows individual interpretations, it causes the citizens to believe that they are all in agreement, for everybody must agree in unity to a certain degree, and, 1Malaysia is indeed about unity. However, there happens to be a fallacy within these premises10.

This new syllogism is crafted for a contextual shift, it is paradigmatic, it applies to the same conception but a rather different methodology of understanding, of what the post-positivist Thomas Kuhn would describe as another ‘disciplinary matrix’11. The idea of ‘unity’ was redefined to constrict the chaos under the ideology of 1Malaysia. In Kuhn’s seminal postmodern critique The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he outlined the anatomy of revolution (or paradigm shift) by stating that scientific ideas arrived as an attempt to fit nature into conceptual boxes12. When 1Malaysia was read under this framework – not that 1Malaysia is a revolution – the populace is seen confined by the provided strategy. The strategic ambiguity is a puzzle per se upholding a special category of problem, and this setup posited the populace within a docile scenario, keeping them gravitated by the set of puzzle characteristics, with preconceptions and established viewpoints13.

It is evident that the post-tsunami chaos today was preoccupied by the questions and definitions of 1Malaysia. It stealthily extrapolates this precise ineluctability of postmodernism to the propagandas of a singular political vision, thus making Barisan Nasional’s vision a universal conscience.

As terminology, ’1Malaysia’ has replaced ‘unity’, ’1Malaysia’ is the brand new ‘unity’. When an ideology attempts to define and to own ‘unity’, it threatens the fundamentals of the common practice. The paradigm shift has postulated an ideological hegemony that none could resist, or else, condemned as recalcitrant for disunity or politcising the very ‘noble’ 1Malaysia14, wherein the eventuality of 1Malaysia is genuinely a political one. It is the ‘effective universality’15 naturalising the politicisation of culture and common practices.

Slavoj Zizek has examined the existence of ideology through such crafted contingency, that ideology ‘regulates the relationship between the visible and the invisible’16. He contended that ideology assesses to function through reciprocity within relation of social domination, and ‘the very logic of legitimising the relation of domination must remain concealed if it is to be effective’17. On another note; ‘…(the) reversal of non-ideology into ideology – that is, the sudden awareness of how the very gesture of stepping out of ideology pulls us back into it’18.

Denying 1Malaysia as a political play is indirectly admitting it. It is therefore even more important to understand 1Malaysia as a political notion, and to be aware that 1Malaysia is an ideology by not becoming one.


  1. Shamsul A. Baharuddin, “Why is Malaysia not Disintegrating? Islam, the Economy and Politics in Multiethnic Malaysia,” Project Discussion Paper 14 (2001).
  2. Communities are ‘projects rather than realities, something that comes after, not before the individual choice’. See Zygmunt Bauman, “Community,” in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 169.
  3. Bauman has outlined the difficulty of classifying ‘a community’ today; individuals can interplay between identities where the idea of ‘communities’, in the comparison of their similarity and differentiation, is unstable and liquefied. See Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).
  4. The post-tsunami disarray is a causal factor of 1Malaysia, as direct reproach against its unwillingness to be coherent. Ironically, the paralysis, its stagnancy is a collection of dynamism and movements (dynamic activity and passivity, or, dynamic inactivity and impassivity), immobilised by its sheer publicity. The hostility of aggression is extreme that the turnover effect is diminished by its own dialectics. The stagnancy has suffered from its gullibility and allowed 1Malaysia to hold control. It speaks: ‘do not argue, let’s sit down in a room and talk.’ 1Malaysia becomes a self-elected master, the mediator, yet by relocating a space to anticipate a discussion, the mediator becomes an arbitrator, the final decision maker. The discussion space is singular, hegemonic and contained a pre-existing framework that answers to the disorder and its craving for solutions.
  5. Datuk Seri Najib Abdullah addressed his concerns on 1Malaysia in ‘An Evening with the Prime Minister’ organised by Bakti (Welfare Association of Wives of Misniters and Deputy Ministers). This quote was taken from an online news article from The Malaysian Insider on 8th July 2009, written by Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani. See “Najib spells out 1 Malaysia, again, ” The Malaysian Insider, July 08, 2009, accessed January 12 2011, http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/Najib-spells-out-1-Malaysia-again/
  6. The 4 main advantages are clarified in Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization and Identity (2007) by Eric Eisenberg. He started developing ‘strategic ambiguity’ in the 1980s while noticing the change in communication strategy. In the essay ‘Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication’ (1984), he stated that ‘the overemphasis on clarity and openness in organisational teaching and research is both non-normative and not a sensible standard against which to gauge communicative competence of effectiveness.’ He thus argued between the binary of content versus context, the functionality of communication and posing a big challenge to the classical-structuralist view of organisational behaviour. See Eric Eisenberg, “Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication,” Communication Monographs 54 (1984): 227-42. and Eric Eisenberg, Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization and Identity (California: Sage Publication, 2007).
  7. Unit Pengurusan Prestasi dan Perlaksanaan (PEMANDU) of Prime Minister’s Office (Jabatan Perdana Menteri, JPM) defined unity as:

    ‘Unity = Diversity + Inclusiveness;

    “Diversity”: We are not a homogenous society, but are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religions and multi-lingual; “Inclusiveness”: We accept, respect and celebrate diversity of cultures and religions.’

    The notion is to be inclusive and united with diversity. This is considered imperative in reducing the ‘tension of various polarities’. The ‘various polarities’ hitherto refer to the different social classes classified under literacy, age, geography, religion, ethnicity and class, as illustrated in Fig 4.5, page 73. See PEMANDU, “Chapter 4: Building 1Malaysia,” in Government Transformation Programme Roadmap (Putrajaya: JPM, 2001), 63-88.

  8. PEMANDU, Ibid., 66. Also refer to Fig 4.3 of the same page.
  9. Wendy Brown, “Tolerance as/in Civilizational Discourse” in Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 186.
  10. The previous statements appear logical but the conclusion derived from the premises could lead to a syllogistic fallacy of undistributed middle:
    Major premise: Everybody agrees to unity.

    Minor premise: 1Malaysia is about unity.

    Conclusion: Therefore, everybody agrees to 1Malaysia.

    The middle term is ‘unity’ where unity is undistributed. The conclusion is merely an assumption since ‘unity’ is ambiguous; the common intention of unity does not prescribe the realisation of its effect. ‘Unity’ is the general set where 1Malaysia is a subset, like a policy on implementation in regards to a universal law. To conclude that 1Malaysia represents unity is to narrow down the allowance for unity.

  11. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 181-87. ‘Disciplinary matrix’ refers to a set of laws upheld and practised by a particular discipline or school of thought. This matrix comprises different formulated methodological components that assist the practitioners in their judgments. Kuhn argued that this ‘disciplinary matrix’ has 3 commitments: symbolic generalisation, belief and value. Therefore, scientists are prone to work within the subjectivity of value as opposed to the common understand of science as an objective study of reality. Reading under this context, 1Malaysia has produced a conclusive method of thinking while striving for an end in post-tsunami conflicts. Such application utilised the objective effects of unity to summarise everything ‘Malaysian’, preaching national unity that is suspiciously objective but subjective in nature. The ‘objective effects’ will be discussed later in the following paragraph, under the term ‘effective universality’.
  12. Thomas Kuhn, Ibid., 5.
  13. Thomas Kuhn, Ibid., 35-42.
  14. The dispute over whether 1Malaysia is political, or how has it been politicised are rather interesting aftereffect of its own promotion. On mid-December, state Housing and Local Government Committee chairman Ronnie Liu publicly announced that Selangor would ban 1Malaysia logo because it is a political logo. Such controversial statement backfired on him, or Pakatan Rakyat in general, as they seemed to politicise, victimise or demonise 1Malaysia. This precisely demonstrated the resilience of 1Malaysia: its ultimate effect of being political without being political, simultaneously classifies its hostilities as political even when the intention is not.
  15. Slavoj Zizek, “Tolerance as an ideological category,” Critical Inquiry 34 (2008): 665-75.
  16. Slavoj Zizek, “The Spectre of Ideology,” in Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 1994), 1.
  17. Slavoj Zizek, Ibid., 8.
  18. Slavoj Zizek, Ibid., 10.

Tan Zi Hao holds a diploma in Advertising and Graphic Design. His interest lies somewhere between the arts, sociology, philosophy and cultural studies. He notices many similarities between politics and advertising, and contended that the contemporary interplay of power is an addiction towards ‘special effects’ rather than ‘purpose’.

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Tan Zi Hao keeps an eye on the discourse in Malaysia and looks for issues where the public and himself have overlooked. He writes about conflicts in the process of socialisation, identity formation and representation.

Posted on 15 April 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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