It was an innocent query posed during an intellectual forum. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was asked about the concept of Bangsa Johor with respect to the topic discussed — the federal-states relations.
Being the architect of Bangsa Malaysia — an identity that was formulated to support the national “Vision 2020” in making Malaysia a truly developed state, it was expected for Dr Mahathir to raise such a concern on the rising sentiment of state solidarity (kenegerian), which he deemed “unhealthy” and could pose a risk to the unity of the Malaysian federation.
But that very remark kick-started a great commotion and debate in the society when the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, lashed out at Dr Mahathir in his defence of Bangsa Johor — a supra-racial identity which has bound the Johoreans of all walks of life since the reign of the first king of modern Johor, the late Sultan Sir Abu Bakar Tun Temenggung Raja Daing Ibrahim.
As rightly stated by Sultan Ibrahim, the idea was actualised, and concretely embedded into the minds and hearts of every Johorean even before the Federation of Malaya ever existed.
Questions should be raised: Is being a Bangsa Johor pre-supposes a diametrical opposition to Bangsa Malaysia? What really undergirds each identity? Are they real or imaginary?
To answer such questions, one needs to probe deeper into the annals of Malay modern history, to be exact during the eve of British colonial rule.
The Invention of Malay Politics
About late 19th and early 20th century, for the first time in the history of Malay civilisation, the old political order of kerajaan (government), which connotes “a state or condition of having a raja (king)”, was challenged by the rise of a new form of political consciousness among the masses: The rakyat (citizen).
There were two competing political ideas that galvanised the rakyat, especially among the Malay masses to be politically active in the middle of colonial rule: The Malay nationalist that carried the banner of kebangsaan (nationalistic) and the pan-Islamic Malay leaders who championed the spirit of “keumatan”.
“Kerajaan” being the original and sole political ideology that has governed the socio-politics and identities of Malay civilisation for hundreds of years was now facing two competing political currents from the below — a reflection of changing times and spaces in world history.
Perhaps the change was indirectly shaped by French and American revolutions, technological advancements in communication (production of books, pamphlets, and newspapers) that empowered the masses to be more cognisant of their individualities vis-à-vis society and state.
One of the leading authorities in this subject matter is Professor Anthony Milner. His original research focused on the role of ceremonial raja in Malay society had led him into more complex and nuanced studies on the confluence of Malay nationalist and pan-Islamic movement that indirectly challenged the exclusivity of kerajaan in their struggle to demand for independence from the British.
According to Milner, the race consciousness (semangat kebangsaan) that underpins the Malay nationalist movement in the early 20th century was shaped by the colonial experience in administering local subjects.
Milner sees the usage of sociology and cultural anthropology by British scholars and administrators in studying and classifying the colonial subjects — like how Stamford Raffles had done — was gradually altering the consciousness of the Malays in the manner they identify themselves, in this case along the racial line or “bangsa”.
Prior to the British, the idea of bangsa Melayu let alone bangsa did not matter so much back then not because it was not relevant, but because it was too obvious and need not be exteriorised among the original inhabitants — the Malays.
Infused with a strong feudal influence that seeped into the societal consciousness, the identity of Malays as a royal subject was more dominant than bangsa in shaping their individual and societal identities.
This identity did not go down well with the outsiders, especially the foreign colonialists who prior to their arrival in the Malay Archipelago, they were experiencing radical changes with respect to identity formation during the Enlightenment period. Not only that, the political upheaval in Europe that created the Westphalian nation state had influenced greatly the formation of their new identities.
Since then, there was a clear rupture in Europe: Their identities were no longer associated with the old kingdoms — the likes of Habsburg (replaced by Hungary, Austria) or Merovingian (now part of France) that once ruled their forefathers rather than they as in the present day, are more identifiable through their nation-state, a political identity that is based on nation or race.
Arising from their own European experience, it was more convenient for them to lump different and various Malay groups coming from different territories and kingdoms into a single category based on their shared biological and cultural traits.
During that time, being Malay was self-evident as part of the larger and regional identity, which was commonly shared by over hundreds of small Malay kingdoms, scattered throughout the Malay archipelago. It was natural for the Malays to identify themselves more as subjects of the Malay kingdoms.
The Malays did not need to define themselves as a race. It was only later when the influx of foreign labours from China and India brought in by the British to support their imperial economic exploit, the Malays, out of this new alien development, were forced to think about their collective survival as a race.
Back then, the idea of state as in the Westphalian model was still non-existent. The Malay conception of polity was largely influenced, just like the medieval Europeans, by the reigning monarchies who have been ruling the lands as kingdoms or empires for centuries.
Malays were known to be first and foremost the subjects of their respective rajas, hence their allegiance to the classical Malay political identity of kerajaan was more immediate than the pan-racial kebangsaan identity.
The idea of citizenship (kewarganegaraan) was not conceived until the acceptance of the English-based common law in 1948, which later became the basis of the Federal Constitution of the Federation of Malaya: A nation state composed of both the nine Malay states and two of British Strait Settlements where each of them possessed their own rich and unique identities, but shared the same racial character of Malayness.
It was in this environment that the idea of Bangsa Johor was conceived and concretised by the Johor royalty as a new identity to accommodate and strengthen the unity of both locals, as well as the increasing number of foreigners who ply their trade working in Johor’s plantation, agriculture and mining sectors.
It’s not difficult to see how kerajaan permeates through every nook and cranny of a Johorean’s life. The Johor royal coat of arms could be seen adorning many major locations in Johor. The love of the people of Johor for their royal family is mutual, as how we normally observed during the royal tour of Kembara Mahkota across every realm of the Johor sultanate.
It is plain clear in Johor: The political identity of kerajaan is more influential than kebangsaan as well as keumatan. The concept of Bangsa Johor as a reflection of kerajaan is real and alive.
How could this exceptionalism become so rooted in Johor? The history of modern Johor offers many clues to this.
The Bangsa Johor Exceptionalism
The kingdom of Johor was regarded to be the natural successor to the once cosmopolitan centre of the Malay empire, the kingdom of Malacca. It was in Johor that both the purest form of Malay language and culture — legacies of the high culture of Malacca — were used as the foundation to develop the present national languages of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Looking through the political angle, Johor too was exceptional to all other Malay states. Johor did not succumb to the same fate of the Federated Malay states of Selangor, Pahang, Perak and Negri Sembilan, which were forced to accept the British form of colonial control, while the eastern and northern Unfederated Malay states of Perlis, Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan were under the suzerainty of the Siam kingdom.
This ingenious leadership was played by none other than the first modern Ruler of Johor, Sultan Abu Bakar. Unlike other Malay states that were forced to accept the British residents, Sultan Abu Bakar was able to deflect British encroachment through his shrewd political acumen domestically and internationally.
He modernised the political and economic systems of Johor by taking advantage of the economic spillover from the British Singapore. A truly local leader with a global outlook: He forged a diplomatic relationship with the Ottoman Empire and being an anglophile, he was the first Malay ruler to travel to Europe and cemented a close friendship with Queen Victoria.
Under his rulership, the state government was fused with modern English and traditional Malay-Islamic governance ethos. Due to the governance prowess of the Johor state government, the Sultan had been able to delay at the same time continuously diffusing the British pressure in demanding him to accept a resident for the Johor government. Sultan Abu Bakar had performed extremely well in managing Johor’s diverse populace and presented good economic conditions that favoured both Johor and British business interests in Singapore.
With this outlook, it is not strange if the general Malays were to view Johor as the last bastion of Malay power and autonomy in the face of British colonial onslaught.
The pride of Bangsa Johor is genuine. History has truly testified the prowess and of Johor as an indigenously modern Malay state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Johor’s achievement as a state under the yoke of British imperialism was unparalleled to any other Malay states in the region: A real exceptionalism.
Bangsa Malaysia: A Fragile Entity?
Mistakes are often made when people try to view Johor as a “creature” of the Federal Constitution that gave birth to the Federation of Malaya and later Malaysia.
Johor like any other states were not “invented” and “given legitimacy” by law. They — the present Malay states — existed as kingdoms before. It was later under the British colonial influence that the kingdoms were forced to be framed into a Westphalian nation-state, bound artificially by the constitution.
Bangsa Johor, unlike Bangsa Malaysia, was not created out of the established legal edifice of Rule of Law called the Federal Constitution. It was conjured and breathed into life by the decree of the Sultan of Johor, who legitimised the identity through a different mode of legitimacy: The Rule of Clan.
Bangsa Johor, unlike Bangsa Malaysia is a clan-based identity. It was not a legal entity enforced through law, it was formed through trust and allegiance to the kerajaan where the sultan is regarded as not as a mere political figurehead, but also a father-like figure where the rakyat as his subjects are considered to be part of the extended family of the Johor royalty.
Bangsa Johor transcends the rigidity and artificiality of biological racebased and legal identity that we commonly see, feel and experience in modern Malaysia today.
It has become more protruding lately (on top of the classy Johor football revivalism championed by the present Crown Prince of Johor Tunku Ismail Idris Sultan Ibrahim) because the fate of Bangsa Malaysia is now being challenged by numerous political upheavals that have revolved around the tensions between the federal and state governments.
For example, the ongoing crisis of federalism with respect to wealth distribution (in the case of Sabah and Sarawak) and the increasing marginalisation of other races through legal enforcement of state-sponsored Islam and entrenched Malay special rights proven to be a paradox to the real egalitarian spirit of Bangsa Malaysia.
Looking through this context, Bangsa Johor is seen differently because they have performed above the expectations of ordinary Malaysian states. Even with little assistance from the federal government, Johor as a state is progressing steadily — economically, socially and politically — thanks to the commitment exemplified by the Johor royalty in serving their subjects, the Bangsa Johor.
Time For A Renewal?
The time has come for all warganegara of Malaysia to reflect what sort of political governance and social identities that we truly deserve to secure our future. What sort of identity that could really transcend the racial and religious differences, which could really bind us for the next 50 years when the present model has exhibited its languidness.
Perhaps Bangsa Johor — an extension of the kerajaan-type of Malay political identity that was forged in the era where Westphalian nation-building had not yet taken place in the Malay world — could show us the way forward?
After all, the support for Bangsa Johor among native Johoreans has proven to be inclusive in nature where all races from all walks of life feel proud to be associated and identified as such — a genuine sentiment and a rare sight to be seen in other states.
This posed a serious question on the feasibility to continue promoting the experimented identity of kebangsaan-type Bangsa Malaysia. Although backed by legal and economic instruments of the federal government, it has yet to resolve its seeming contradictions and its promise to deliver the same egalitarian solidarity as how Bangsa Johor has done remains questionable. For the sake of this country, the floor must remain open to debate.
- The author is a fellow at Putra Business School.