eli james

This Strange Thing Called Patriotism

10:10pm, 21 August 2015


Another year, another emotional exhortation to return and contribute to Malaysia.[1]

This time the argument is familiar. “We need smart young Malaysians to return to contribute to the country. If all the good people leave, where can change possibly come from?”

This argument is familiar because it is easy to make. It doesn’t require new ideas, and it certainly doesn’t require a strategy for change. I’ve probably had it made to me more times than I can remember.

The last time that I do remember, I was at a Ramadhan gathering at my university, sitting on mats around bowls of rice and rendang; a Chinese boy from Klang told me he intended to return to Malaysia after his graduation, “… because Malaysia needs me. If we all don’t go back, Malaysia is doomed.” I remember admiring him for his resolve. I never saw him again.

I guess everyone who lives abroad has a complicated relationship with their country. I think most Malaysians certainly do: our love for our country’s food is matched only by our distaste for the government. Our opinions are usually tainted by the institutionalised racism we’ve all grown up with.

I struggle with this because I, too, have decided to live abroad. I was born in Kuching, Sarawak, where I studied at a Chinese vernacular primary school and then a government secondary school: I played Judo for my state and coached debate in Form 6. I then went to university in Singapore. I’ve interned in startups there and in Silicon Valley. I now work in Vietnam.

I normally say that I don’t identify as Malaysian – that I feel more kinship with ‘citizens of the world’ than I do with those that hold the same blood-red passport that I do. But there are moments: when I smell Sarawak Laksa, overseas, when I watch Sepet (which I do, once a year), or when I see the overgrown lalang in the compound of the Malaysian Consulate in Singapore – something so out of place, for Singapore is so well maintained – my heart lurches.

The call to return bothers me.


All calls to contribute to a cause are made with the belief that it’s possible to change things. Miss Gan argues that “not all hope is lost”, for instance. Revolutionaries are likely to say that a successful revolution is just around the corner, even if it isn’t.

But no change comes for free. Most of the time, change extracts some personal cost. Because you can’t have change without paying something in exchange, I think exhortations for a cause can be evaluated on two things: first based on how much they cost, and second whether it’s worthwhile to pay that cost.

If a change is costly to the point of failure, then the call for young Malaysians to return are no different from the calls made by generals to enlist in morally-questionable wars. Both demand that young people give up their lives for a greater purpose. To ask for commitment without justifying the cost is to be dishonest at best, immoral at worst.

We can’t, however, expect the people making the call to be completely honest about the costs. Most people pad their exhortations to make them seem less costly than they actually are, because that’s how rhetoric works. Instead, you’ll have to evaluate these calls yourself.

One way to do that is to pay careful attention to the caller’s acknowledgement of the costs involved. In theory, the exhortations that neglect any mention of costs, when there are clearly huge ones, are the ones you can safely ignore. (Miss Gan’s hand-wavy treatment of the costs of choosing to live in Malaysia is probably enough to reject her entire essay.) In practice, most calls acknowledge the cost; they simply justify the costs by appealing to its worthwhileness.

The metric we use to evaluate an exhortation may now be reduced to: “is it worthwhile?” This is both an easier and harder question to answer.

The easy bit of whether a cause is worthwhile is that it’s a matter of individual interest. If someone has found their calling (say, she’s good at making art, doing research, or creating technology) it’s probably better for humanity if she pursues it in a less dysfunctional country. You certainly can’t fault her for chasing her dreams, even if it takes her out of the country, because to her this is more worthwhile than other causes. On the flip side, if someone feels very strongly for her nation, then it’s justified that she pay the costs for her cause.

However, the hard part of asking if something is worthwhile is that some causes demand things of everyone. Appealing to patriotism somehow gives people a free pass, as it applies to all citizens of a country. This is a hack: the people who call for contributions to a country can therefore make such calls in the name of national duty, and get away with quite a bit.


What is it about patriotism that works this way? I think a small part of it is that nations are far better at instilling patriotism than we are at resisting it. The ceremonies, anthems and symbols of our nation, imprinted on us in our childhoods, stay with us for a long time. In the same way that the best food is often what you remember eating growing up, so too is patriotism constructed by whatever you experience when you are young.

A large part of patriotism, however, appeals to our sense of altruism: you feel good when you contribute to a group you belong to. While anthems and symbols may stir deep-seated feelings in you, they cannot compel you to return and contribute to your country. However, the shared identity that you get from anthems and symbols trick you into thinking that you belong to a polity, and that you owe something to it. [2]

George Orwell once described the difference between nationalism and patriotism as the difference between an aggressive and a defensive attitude. Nationalism is the belief that one’s country is better than other countries, and is often tied to a dangerous desire to impose your country’s will onto others. In contrast, patriotism is the devotion to an identity and a way of living, without the desire to impose it on other people.

Going by the above definition, what I feel is patriotism, not nationalism. While I am willing to defend the superiority of Sarawak Laksa, I cannot imagine myself imposing some Malaysian-ness on another country. I suspect many Malaysians feel the same way.

My patriotism is therefore tied to my investment in my Malaysian identity. I am a Malaysian Chinese, and I share a set of foundational things with my fellow countrymen: the use of Malay, and Manglish, the racism taught to us by our parents and our institutions, the deep anger at our politicians, the love of the same food, the feeling of helplessness about our country.

As much as I might deny it, some part of me still identifies as Malaysian. This is probably why I was so bothered by Miss Gan’s essay. The reason an appeal to patriotism works on me – as it might work on you – is because it is an appeal to identity.

Patriotism is powerful because identity is powerful. There is a reason English football hooligans fight over their devotion to a specific team, and why religious fanatics are willing to blow themselves up: when you let something become part of your identity, it gains power over you.

Patriotism works in exactly the same way. It becomes part of your identity, and then it reminds you that you share that identity with a larger group of people. An appeal to patriotism thus taps into a person’s obligation to fellow members of that group. It overrides logic, as most such forces – built into humanity through centuries of living in groups – usually do.


So how much do you owe your country?

Most people would say that you owe your country a lot. Given that it’s in the interests of a country to get you to believe that, it’s not surprising that most people do.

There’s at least an economic case to be made about owing a country a debt. I am where I am today because of public services the Malaysian government has built and paid for - I was immunised for free, as a child, I grew up in relative safety, and my parents made enough due to Malaysia’s progressive economic policies. All Malaysians owe that same debt.

But it doesn’t matter how much you owe. What matters is the mechanism with which you feel obligated to contribute to the country. That mechanism is patriotism. More accurately, that mechanism is the degree with which you identify as Malaysian.

On this front Malaysia isn’t doing well. Every call by a Malaysian politician for Chinese and Indian citizens to leave the country is a tear in the very thing that binds them to contribute. It is hard, after all, to do things for people who hate you. Group altruism doesn’t work if you don’t feel like you belong to the group. Most of the time, the only things binding Malaysians to their country are friends, family and food.[3]

The people declaring that they are eager and willing to leave the country are essentially declaring how little they want to identify with being Malaysian. I would wager that if you polled these people, they would feel very little investment in the anthems or symbols of citizenship.

Their disengagement is what makes their flight possible.


[1] Serene is likely writing the piece to promote her Producky project, which I’m happy to link to. But her argument is so common that I felt it was justified to write a reaction to her piece.

[2] I truly mean ‘tricking’ here: some nations are able to construct a national identity based on race. Malaysia has had to create a different sort of identity, as it does not consist of a single race.

[3] Interestingly enough, Singaporeans have more than just ‘friends, family, and food’ binding them to their country. The Singaporeans I know, at least, love Singapore a great deal.

Thanks to Charlene Chin, Liew Zhe Rong, Daniel Chong, Joash Wee, Stacey Tay and Samantha for reading drafts of this.

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