Rakyat Malaysia : contesting nationalism and exceptional multiculturalism

Menon, Sheela Jane
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“Rakyat Malaysia” maps the contradictions of Malaysian multiculturalism through integrated readings of Orang Asli/Orang Asal activism, contemporary literature/film, public performance, and state narratives. As an interdisciplinary project focusing on questions of race, nationalism, and identity, my dissertation bridges critical conversations in English Literary and Cultural Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, and Cultural Studies. The first chapter of “Rakyat Malaysia” maps how Indigenous activism – encompassing lawsuits, public protests, and community initiatives – is contesting the rhetoric and policies of exceptional multiculturalism. I argue that these efforts are acts of “survivance” (Gerald Vizenor) that assert Indigenous rights to “land, culture, and community” in Malaysia (Simon J. Ortiz).

Situating the stakes of Orang Asli/Orang Asal activism at the forefront of my project, I detail how Malaysian literature, film, and public performance evince intersecting investments in their responses to state multiculturalism. The second chapter of this project focuses on two of Jo Kukathas’s performances, “The 1Malaysia Virus” and “Puan Badariah Talks to Mr. TED.” Through the language of viral disease and the embodiment and transgression of Malaysia’s “contact zones” (Mary Louise Pratt), Kukathas’ performances function as “immigrant acts” (Lisa Lowe) designed to unravel state narratives of multicultural harmony. Chapter three turns to Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel, The Gift of Rain (2007), and the film and advertising work of Yasmin Ahmad. Reflecting on Malaysia’s past and present – from World War II, through Independence, and into the 21st century – these texts suggest that mixed-race identity and interracial romance offer alternative conceptions of Malaysian identity.

My project concludes by considering how dominant state narratives – Prime Minister Najib Razak’s “1Malaysia” platform and the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism campaign – attempt to stifle the contradictions articulated by these texts and by Orang Asli/Orang Asal activism, in particular. I argue that what the Malaysian government actually produces is a model of “exceptional multiculturalism” that aims to position the country as the ideal version of a “harmonious” multicultural nation. These campaigns advertise a sanitized and commodified version of Malaysian identity, relying on the rhetoric of multicultural harmony in order to police racial diversity and obscure systemic socio-political inequalities.