The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality : Contemporary Identity in Malaysia and Singapore book cover
1st Edition

The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality
Contemporary Identity in Malaysia and Singapore

ISBN 9781032055831
Published December 15, 2021 by Routledge
196 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

Humairah and Kamaludeen examine contemporary Malay national identity in Singapore and Malaysia through the lens of ‘primordial modernity’, taking on a comparative transnational perspective.

How do Malays in Singapore and Malaysia conceptualise and negotiate their ethnic identity vis-à-vis the state’s construction of Malay national identity? Humairah and Kamaludeen employ discourse analyses of both elite and mass texts that include newspaper editorials, school textbooks, political speeches, novels, movies, and letters in local newspapers. Extending current notions of Malay identity, the authors offer a comprehensive overview of Malay identity that takes into consideration both primordial dimensions and the more modern aspects such as their cosmopolitan sensibilities and their approach to social mobility.

A valuable resource for scholars of Southeast Asian culture and society, as well as Sociologists looking at wider issues of ethnic and national identity.

Table of Contents

Chapter1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Discourse Analysis, National Identity and Malay Texts

Chapter 3: Fragmented Cosmopolitanism

Chapter 4: Ethnoreligious Identity

Chapter 5: The Developed Citizens

Chapter 6: The Elites

Chapter 7: Conclusion



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Humairah Zainal is a Research Fellow at Singapore General Hospital and an Associate Lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author of seven books including Globalized Muslim Youth in the Asia Pacific: Popular Culture in Singapore and Sydney and Representing Islam: Hip-Hop of the September 11 Generation.


"In this excellent study, Humairah Zainal and Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir provide a conceptually nuanced and empirically rich account of Malay identity in a transnational context. Drawing on a wide variety of texts, including speeches, editorials, novels and films, they carefully explore the discursive construction of what it is to be Malay, as primordial sentiments combine with modern political and national aspirations. The cultural richness and diversity of their material places the reader in the midst of identity in action, constantly reminding us that there is nothing more modern than tradition."

Professor Andrew Walker, President and Pro Vice Chancellor at Monash University Malaysia

"Humairah and Kamaludeen, following Edward Shil’s concept of primordial identity, recognise that the ties of nationalism cannot be created simply by state decree. They compare the forging of both elite and popular visions of national identity in Malaysia and Singapore. National identity and sentiment have local, mundane, and often unrecognised roots in the everyday world. Their book starts with an amusing story over the public dispute as to whether Malaysia or Singapore make the best Nasi lemak – a delicacy in both societies that serves as a mark of identity. The dispute reminds us that our sense of ethnic identity and social belonging may depend as much on what we eat as the language we have to describe it. The authors uncover the primordial attachments to nationality by an examination of newspaper articles, films, music and popular fiction. In other words, national identity is always embedded in the everyday world of ordinary citizens. It requires some degree of state management, including the definition of citizenship in terms of Islam, but the primordial reality lies elsewhere. In short, national identity, whatever else it is, must be an everyday experience. Their study provides a rich sociological analysis of the complicated process of national independence and modernisation taking place in both societies over the last half century."

Bryan S. Turner is Emeritus Professor at The Graduate Center (City University of New York) and Professor at the Australian Catholic University.

"What it means to be "Malay" has been a subject of scholarly debate and a source of political contestation in recent years, influencing state governance and everyday politics. This thoroughly researched and highly original book furthers the extant scholarship on Malayness through an in-depth scrutiny of the discourses of elites and non-elites who are inflected by the centripetal forces of nationalism in Singapore and Malaysia. Reflexive, engaging, and packed with lurid details, the study of identity politics, its primordial forms, and its modern excesses will take on new theoretical significance with this fascinating book. Critical sociology of the highest quality!"

Khairudin Aljunied is Professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam and Senior Fellow at Georgetown University, USA.

"The history of identity formation of a particular modern nation-state is inseparable from the identity of its history. This is most obvious in former colonies, such as those in the maritime Malay world. The advent of colonialism through an elaborate application of colonial knowledge transformed what was once ‘traditional societies’ to ‘modern ones,’ with elements of the former embedded in the latter. In short, modernity did not erase traditional elements in the colonized societies, indeed they co-exist until today, such as the experiences of Malaysia and Singapore have demonstrated. The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality, captured this embedded phenomenon remarkably well supported by detailed and persuasive empirical evidence. A must read for those interested in the study of identity formation in post-colonial societies and, especially, the experiences of the Malays in Malaysia and Singapore."

Shamsul A.B. is Distinguished Professor and UNESCO Chair (Communication & Social Cohesion) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

"The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality is an important contribution to wider literature on Malays. The book was effective at "expand[ing] current understandings of Malay identity," by assessing how elites and masses perceive it "at the intersection of the macro-level of societal construct and the micro-level of individual construction of their national identity" (p. 7). The strengths of the book lie particularly in its conceptual and methodological inputs, and the depth of discussions within its thematic chapters. These contributions can offer insight into studies and analyses of other national identities globally, residing within the duality and dynamism of both the "primordial," and "modern."""

Anwar, Nur Diyanah. Review of The Primordial Modernity of Malay Nationality: Contemporary Identity in Malaysia and Singapore by Humairah Zainal and Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir. Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, April 2022, pp. 165-171. 

 "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...the book is a worthy expansion of the scholarship on Malayness, nationalism, and identity formation."