The recent spate of polemics on Bangsa Johor and Bangsa Malaysia provides a good window and opportunity to discuss the nature and direction of the Malaysian nation and state. The argument of this column is that Malaysia’s unity and well-being would be better served by a broad and inclusive idea of Malaysia in the vein of a civic nation, which facilitates multiple identities that reinforce each other, rather than narrow conceptions that pit one identity against another.

The civic nation model is more conducive to multiple identities than one based on ethnicity or religion. Citizenship, equality and commitment to a common political-legal order are basic elements of a civic nation that would place and treat all citizens on the same plane. Entry and exit from the nation will be regulated by laws. A civic nation would help maximise the loyalty and commitment of all citizens to the nation, making it easier to harness the full potential of all citizens in support of the well-being of the country and its peoples.

Alternative conceptions of nation are based on ethnicity or religion. Privileging certain ethnic or religious groups, ethno-religious nations tend to be exclusive. Ethnic or religious beliefs reign supreme in these nations with group rights taking precedence over individual and minority rights. Entry to the nation is only by birth or religious conversion. Exit is exceedingly difficult. Pitting one identity against another, ethno-religious conceptions of nations polarise and divide multiracial and multireligious societies. Arguing the case for unity and loyalty of all citizens to the country makes little sense in such context.

Though the two models are distinct, they are not mutually exclusive and neither is free of challenges. On balance, however, the civic nation conception would appear to have the potential to better serve multiracial and multireligious societies as well as in keeping related countries intact and in harnessing the loyalty and commitment of all citizens.

The civic nation is liked to political structures like federalism and democratic frameworks that provide ample political space to citizens, including those who have difficulty identifying with the nation as constituted. The civic nation conception keeps open the options of autonomy and if absolutely necessary, even separation and independence. These options support the survival of countries as presently constituted and allow for peaceful change.

The ethno-religious nation, on the other hand, is linked to the idea of a unitary state that views autonomy and separation as threats to national security. Emphasising the state over its peoples, it has greater potential to make for conflict and violence.

Both Bangsa Johor and Bangsa Malaysia as articulated by their proponents belong to the category of civic nation with the common purpose of uniting all peoples in the multiracial state and country. Being proud to be Johorean should not be viewed as parochial or detrimental to the Malaysian identity and vice versa. Both conceptions of identity argue for inclusiveness and equality irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The only difference is the level. Bangsa Johor is at the state level while the Malaysian identity is at the federal level. Their salience and usage would depend on the context.

Within Malaysia, one may identify as and be proud to be Johorean, Perakian, Kelantanese, Sabahan or Sarawakian. At the international level, one would normally identify as a Malaysian. Only if the Johor or Perak identity is advanced in opposition to and as an alternative to the Malaysian identity, would they become problematic. It is important to not let this happen. The idea of Malaysia should be conceived broadly to prevent such conflicts from arising.

Further, the danger of divisiveness or demands for separation would be minimal if federalism is properly tended to and states are accorded due powers, including autonomy where applicable. Malaysia is a federal state that came into being with the consent of the sultans and the peoples of relevant states. Increasing the power, authority and identity of states need not undermine national cohesion and identity. It could in fact enhance democratic governance and citizen participation in that governance.

A narrow or exclusive conception of Malaysia and attempts to forge a unitary state based on ethnicity or religion, on the other hand, can give rise to demands for separatism and independence. The fear of divisiveness would become real if the Malaysian nation is strongly grounded in narrow and exclusive conceptions. For example, if the Malaysian nation is conceived in exclusive ethnic or religious terms, then a more broad and inclusive notion of Johorean or Sarawakian identity could become a threat to the narrowly conceived national identity.

However, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s articulation of Bangsa Malaysia appears grounded in his earlier vision of a Malaysian Malaysia as an inclusive nation that puts all citizens on an equal plane. Thus, Bangsa Johor and Bangsa Malaysia, as articulated by their proponents, should be viewed as complementary rather than antithetical.

The ongoing debate does, however, shed light on the dangers of attempts by certain authorities within the country to frame Malaysia more narrowly as a Malay or Islamic nation. Not only do these narrow and exclusive conceptions permanently alienate certain segments of the population, casting them as second-class citizens with unequal rights and obligations, but it could also lead to the disintegration of Malaysia as presently constituted.

Johor and Sarawak, for example, may be less inclined to continue as part of a federation that marginalises certain segments of their population. Although Dr Mahathir articulated the idea of Malaysian Malaysia as part of his Wawasan 2020, he appears to have backtracked. Since then, certain other groups have strongly supported making Malaysia more Islamic as a state.

Initially, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s idea of “1Malaysia” appeared similar to the idea of Malaysian Malaysia. However, since the 2013 election, he appears to have backtracked as well, according greater emphasis to ethnicity and religion as the basis of the Malaysian nation.

Political mobilisation to stay in power appears to have trumped the vision of “1Malaysia”. The requirement now is for Malaysian leaders and indeed most citizens to commit themselves to a Malaysian nation based on citizenship rather than ethnicity or religion. In that context, the idea of Bangsa Johor would not be a threat to national cohesion and identity or lead to disintegration of the Malaysian nation and state as constituted.

Likewise, a genuine federal political arrangement that enables regular constitutional reviews of the distribution of power and authority between federal and state governments would enhance the survival of the Malaysian nation and state as constituted and not undermine them.

States would not be satisfied with a political-constitutional arrangement that greatly limits their powers. The present constitution drawn up at time of independence privileges the federal level. Over the years, Malaysia has witnessed a steady erosion of the states’ authority and rights with a corresponding increase in the power and authority of the federal government. That sustained effort has made for a more unitary state but has also given rise to concerns of division and disintegration.

Limiting and eroding state power have also undermined the democratic rights of citizens to participate in governance. It is now necessary to review the distribution of powers between federal and state levels. An exercise to that effect has already begun in relation to Sarawak and Sabah. That exercise needs to be broadened to include all states. This is not to deny the rights of Sabah or Sarawak as co-founders of Malaysia but to facilitate a federal structure that is more in tune and relevant to the times.

All those interested in the continued survival of Malaysia as presently constituted must support a broad and inclusive notion of the Malaysian nation and strengthen federalism in the country by enhancing the power and authority of states. That should be the direction of change.

This article originally appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly.