Book Review: The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality by Humairah Zainal and Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir

In 1994, Stuart Hall spoke of the “fateful triangle” between race, ethnicity, and the nation. “Identity is not a matter of essence but of positioning, and hence, there is always a politics of identity, a politics of position,” Hall provoked[1]. In 2010, Charles Mills, a contemporary of Hall, reminded his audience that race is socially constructed, built for particular political projects rather than an intrinsic reality of biology. “So if you ask a person, what is your race,” Mills explained, “what you are really asking is, where are you located with respect to the [political] system.”[2] Of course, the system, together with its structures and metaphysics, changes over time. However, this does not mean that race, or for that matter, identity, is unreal or frivolous. Historically, social constructs can be transformative and wear the permanence of nature itself – especially once cultivated across geographies and generations, or given discursive or juridical weight. For example, try crossing the border without your passport. Simply put, identities, or how power is structured along them, can determine the distribution of resources, life chances, and liberties within a given society.

That identities are continuously shaped and power-laden is a process remarkably transparent in today’s terrain. As a planetary order of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism undergoes its latest implosion, its supposedly natural hierarchies betray their actual manufacture and the cracks where new possibilities may rise. Subaltern groups see these shifts clearly, and renew their bid to resist and adjust their subordinate positions. In response, dominant coalitions move to re-validate the situated status quos. But as Antonio Gramsci reflected, maintaining hegemony is hard work. For instance, the gates and slots of a specified polity are policed and negotiated between numerous groups. Solidarity, too, cannot be assumed just because actors share a certain identity or class. But it is the subaltern, Gramsci clarified, that lives the inequities of those arrangements. The dominant bloc, then, must portray the pecking order – its hierarchies of identity and labour – as neutral, common-sensical, or even receptive to full democratisation[3]. This task, however, has increasingly struggled to persuade, particularly in the developed world. At one corner, post-racial and colour-blind dreams have been declared, but often at the neglect of underlying injustices and histories. At the other, the bogeymen of ‘identity politics’ and ‘culture wars’ have been summoned to tar attempts at reform and abolition. A politics of representation has also been preached, even though aesthetics cannot pose as substance. And should the rest prove ineffective, the banner of nationalism is waved to foreclose or delay different horizons. Still, the strains grow between the identities of the state and the self, and of the core and the margins.

Readers affected by these vast and varied contests will find rich insight in The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality: Contemporary Identity in Malaysia and Singapore. Familiar names in the critical scholarship of Singapore, the authors are local sociologists Humairah Zainal and Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir. Kamaludeen, for instance, is a veteran scholar. But Humairah, a junior, is fast amassing an impressive oeuvre of truth- telling – a fraught career path, yet one that Malay and Muslim women scholars have repeatedly and bravely walked.

In The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality, Humairah and Kamaludeen explore the construction and competition of Malay national identities at various levels: the government, elite, masses, and transnational. A ‘critical discourse analysis’ (CDA) approach underpins their study, and hence, they attend to the links between identity formation and discourse. Specifically, the authors recover and assess a range of ‘identity categories’ from multiple genres of texts – political speeches, newspapers, textbooks, magazines, and more – produced by the Malay ‘elites’ and ‘masses’. The authors define the two groups on a scale of political power, social capital, and normative influence. In this range, the authors describe the ‘elites’ as groups leading or prominent in government, economy, civil society, and religion. The authors, however, stress that the ‘masses’, or ordinary citizens, are very much active agents themselves. Still, the authors outline the evident power asymmetries between the two groups, and the multiple directions that they can act. The authors situate their study between 2010 and 2015, holding those years as eventful for Singapore and Malaysia. For instance, in Malaysia, Najib Razak’s administration began; the Malay right resurged; and the Bersih rallies responded. Likewise, in Singapore, the general public objected to top-down policymaking; Lee Kuan Yew passed away; and racial minorities challenged the government’s particular multicultural and authoritarian designs.

To demonstrate Malayness as a contested affair, Humairah and Kamaludeen consider two theories of identity: primordialism and modernity. To the authors, the former is the attribution of national identity to customs, kin, and language, while the latter denotes a national identity that developed along and within capitalism, industrialisation, and democracy. The authors combine the two theories to contend that Malay national identities exhibit a primordial modernity:

“[P]rimordial identities such as language, race and religion, are especially crucial in grasping the national identities of Malays in Malaysia and Singapore. [T]o a large extent, categories like Malay and Islam, and many times, Malay/Islam, are discussed nationally as crucial elements of national identity. In these countries, these primordial identities are nurtured and nourished in national conversations alongside modern concepts like cosmopolitanism and development, reflecting their respective multicultural populace and the position of both countries as first world countries, while at the same time emphasising the primacy of primordial roots.” [4]

The authors begin by introducing the Malays of Singapore and Malaysia. The two groups share a past of British colonialism and its ongoing afterlives of dispossession and orientalism. From that history, the authors list the dynamics that distinguishes and connects Singapore and Malaysia Malays. Their respective subordinate and superordinate positions are also explained. The authors report some well-known realities, like Malay ethno-nationalism in Malaysia, and Malay marginality in Singapore. Others, however, are less obvious, such as the uneven results of Bumiputeraism for the indigenous underclasses, and the anomie encircling Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution. Barring other differences, the Malays of Singapore and Malaysia also live under governments classified as ‘soft authoritarian’. Against this backdrop, the authors chart the routes of hegemonic and everyday forms of Malayness.

Chapter 3, for instance, examines the cosmopolitanisms of Singapore and Malaysia Malays. In Singapore, the authors illustrate a high rate of transnational and inter-racial marriages among Malays – a sign of cultural openness and inclusiveness. The authors reason that these cosmopolitan unions – almost absent among the Chinese majority – disrupt official fictions of Malay insularity. They also propose that the Malay community’s organic cosmopolitanism has tested the limits of the government’s ‘Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others’ (CMIO) system and its narrow racial meanings and policy pathways. On Malaysia Malays, however, the authors discern a mass reluctance to racial exogamy, then induced by segregative government policies and normative matrimonial expectations. When it comes to moral conceptions of cosmopolitanism, like that of social justice, the authors find that Malaysia Malays practice a form more proactive and globalised than their Singapore counterparts. Solidarity with the ummah, they observe, is salient and enacted among Malaysia Malays, who also possess wider spaces for political mobilisation than their southern neighbours. Evidence of this moral cosmopolitanism is seen in Malaysia Malays’ advocacy for Palestinian self-determination and relatively high intake of Rohingya refugees. That said, the authors caution that Rohingya refugees in Malaysia fall outside the ideal schema of Malaysianness, and thus, are beset by exploitation and exclusion. Through these examples, the authors deduce Malay cosmopolitanism to be primordially modern, where it intersects across a self-determined Malayness and a nation’s ruling paradigm.

In chapter 4, the authors elaborate the commonalities of Malayness and Muslimness among Singapore and Malaysia Malays. Depending on their countries’ ruling order, these primordial identifications incur different costs and comforts. In post-9/11 Singapore, the authors highlight the government’s controversial efforts to engineer an ideal Muslimness for believers, such as the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) project. However, the anti-extremist discourse and muscular secularism pervading these official definitions have failed to resonate. The authors are not surprised. To them, Singapore’s Malay and Muslim masses have long transcended the authorities’ severe secular-religious divide. Additionally, the authors remark that these communities have witnessed secularism be invoked to curtail their civil liberties, like that of the ‘hijab issue’. Moreover, to the authors’ bemusement, exhortations of anti-extremism redundantly presume that local Malays and Muslims are pro-extremist.

In a section pertinent to local audiences, the authors address the renascent anti-racism of Singapore’s racial minorities Malays included. Evocative of the Association of Muslim Professionals’ own efforts in 1990, as well as of prior minority generations, the racial minorities of today have steadily critiqued their country’s ‘Chinese hegemony’ and the distinct socio-political privileges and mobilities located in the Chinese category[5]. In citing local and global scholarship, the authors posit that “minority communities are not asked to accommodate themselves to an ethnically neutral hegemony, but to a Chinese-dominated one.” The authors then highlight that certain segments of the Chinese majority have tried to “quell” the revitalised anti-racist discourse, and preserve the status quo. These attempts, which the authors dispute, consist of appeals to motive; narratives of reverse discrimination and victimhood; and the suggestion that local anti-racist critiques have thoughtlessly imitated ‘Western’ vocabularies[6]. While these manoeuvres betray a disconnect from the histories and realities of Singapore’s racial order, the last claim of mimicry becomes especially unsound amidst the circulation of en vogue right-wing American moral panics on the country’s mainstream media[7]. To be sure, the minority masses have long tabled the same rebuttals as the authors’. For example, in 2020, their online counter- publics thoroughly disassembled one academic article of the “quelling” sort[8].

Like Singapore Malays, the stakes of identity are just as high for Malaysia Malays and in particular, non-Malays. In the same chapter, the authors review the debates over Maruah Melayu or the hegemony of Islam and Malay identity in Malaysia. They note that Malay elites and masses have generally taken that ruling order and its Bumiputera privileges as warranted. The authors identify that the institutionalisation of Islam has made the religion a cornerstone of Malay national identity and political partisanship. The authors, for example, broach the “Allah affair” in 2010, where the Islamic authorities and Malay reactionaries persecuted the Christian minority for using the eponymous Arabic word. Likewise, in 2015, the Malay political and religious establishment branded the Bersih rallies – then held against government corruption, and attended predominantly by Malaysia Chinese – as haram (forbidden in Islamic law) and a threat to the constitution. However, the authors show that other Malays, as revealed in the journalism of Malaysiakini and Projek Dialog, have opposed this chauvinistic and sectarian turn. Curiously, the authors discover that frictions over Maruah Melayu have barely registered in mass texts. They partly attribute this absence to anti-intellectual traditions and policies. Yet, the authors also note that the Malay masses broadly regard Islam as a moral compass, thereby placing the elites under scrutiny when they weaponise the faith for cynical politicking. Within these contexts, the authors estimate that Malay national identity in Malaysia and Singapore remains anchored in a primordial base of race and religion, but the lived realities of Malays reveal deep entanglement between their own identities and their government- prescribed forms.

In chapter 5, the authors survey the complexities between development, citizenship, and primordial modernity. According to them, Malaysia and Singapore Malays have stayed true to their cultural and nationalist roots despite facing varied inequalities at home. For instance, the authors state that Malaysia’s Malay masses, although the political core, suffer rampant impoverishment under their government’s bourgeois economics. Singapore Malays, however, demonstrate considerable patriotism even though their nation’s status quo places them as the deficient other and a potential fifth column. Seeking answers to these questions, the authors deliberate the dissonant myth of the ‘kampung spirit’, as well as the paradigms of the ‘Malay problem’ in Singapore and ‘Malay Dilemma’ in Malaysia. Instructively, amidst the pandemic, the authors’ appraisal of traditional Malay medicine in Singapore dispels the reductive, widespread belief that healthcare is not conditioned by race, class, and gender.

In chapter 6, the authors further dive into these equations of power, or specifically, the relations between the Malay elites and masses. For example, they respectively compare Singapore’s ‘veiled’ political leaders and ‘sanitised’ religious elites with Malaysia’s ‘expressive’ and ‘embattled’ ones. The authors also show that Malaysia’s Malay masses, long depicted as uncritical, are likely to organise against policies they deem unjust. Separately, on Singapore’s Malay masses, the authors ponder if their compliance to the government and lack of class consciousness can be tied to the authorities’ political rhetoric and policing. However, suggestive of what James Scott has called the “weapons of the weak”[9], the authors foreground the intricate, everyday resistance of the community and its cultural laureates and ulamas (religious scholars). Indeed, as the authors announce at the book’s start, “the government is not the ultimate arbiter of identity”, for the primordial modernity of Malays means that their identities that can move along or away from their rulers’ scripts.

At the book’s end, it is apparent that The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality is an engaging and encyclopaedic study. Under the authors’ care, the book is sensitive to history and agency, and diligent to the sociology of marginalized identities. Throughout its chapters, readers will find abundant threads to follow, and arguments composed on extensive textual research – which, as the authors declare, puts forth elements of Malayness previously understudied. Another review of the book, then, could report on a different set of covered topics, such as the oppressive patriarchy of contemporary Malay society, or the forerunning environmentalism of Southeast Asia’s Malays and Muslims. The book also provides fertile ground for further research. Potential offshoots, for example, could study Malay identities on social media, where Malays have nurtured their own socio-political spheres and interacted with global and regional ones[10]. Based on these strengths, the book is a worthy expansion of the scholarship on Malayness, nationalism, and identity formation. There are, of course, limitations. Like any comparative work, the book swings in its precision, and thus, analyses on Malaysia can read thinner than on Singapore. Discerning readers will no doubt unpack the book’s findings, extrapolations, and conceptual use of ‘primordial modernity’. The authors themselves wonder if their book is already outdated, given the historic vicissitudes since its selected time frame. But they believe, as does this review, that the book will be fruitful for understanding the continuities and splits of the present and perhaps, the future. ⬛

1 Hall, S. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Harvard University Press, 2017. p. 130
2 Dr. Charles W. Mills – Does Race Exist? Daily Motion, uploaded by Roby Captain, 2015. Available at:
3 Jones, S. Antonio Gramsci. Routledge, 2006. pp. 45-49
4 Zainal, H., and Mohamed Nasir, K. The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality: Contemporary Identity in Malaysia and Singapore. Routledge, 2022. p. 14
5 Ibid, p. 81. See also: Association of Muslim Professionals. Malays/Muslims in 21st century Singapore: Prospects, challenges & directions: National Convention of Singapore Malay/Muslim Professionals, 6-7 October 1990, NPB Auditorium. Organising Committee, National Convention of Singapore Malay/Muslim Professionals. 1990
6 For astute essays on this discourse, see: Bahrawi, N. What We Must Do, to Begin to Talk About Racism in One United People: Essays from the People Sector on Singapore’s Journey of Racial Harmony, ed. Koh, B. S. Marshall Cavendish International. 2022. pp. 34-40; and Haines, M. B. An (Indian) American Academic Teaching about Race (and Technology) in Singapore (paper presented at 4S-EASST 2020, STS Infrastructures, Prague, Czech Republic). 2020, August 18. pp.1-7
7 For greater context of this trend, see: Chong, J. I. Recognising the roots of racism in Singapore. Academia SG. 2021, June 18. Available at:; and Hoadley-Brill, S. Critical race theory’s opponents are sure it’s bad. Whatever it is. The Washington Post. 2021, July 2. Available at:
8 The article in question, which the book also interrogates, is addressed in Humairah’s latest publication: Zainal, H. Ethnic minority professionals’ experiences in Singapore’s multicultural workplaces. Social Identities. 2021. pp. 1-14
9 Zainal, H., and Mohamed Nasir, K. The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality: Contemporary Identity in Malaysia and Singapore. Routledge, 2022. pp. 128-132; 140-141. See also: Scott, J. C. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press, 1985
10 For an example of this research direction, see: Saleem, S., and Bharat, A. S. Politically apathetic no more? Young Singaporean perspectives on race and civil liberties. Academia SG. 2020, August 5. Available at:


Muhammad  Hyder is a graduate of Nanyang Technological University, with interests in the histories and socio-politics of technology and science.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Reply


Subscribe to our Mailing List