Construction of national identity in contemporary Malaysian state narratives and life-writings in English by women writers of Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnic origins


Kavitha Ganesan

PhD defended at: 




This thesis examines “nation”, “nationalism”, and “national identity” in three ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian life-writings, Adibah Amin’s This End of the Rainbow (2006), Christine Ramsay’s Days Gone By (2007), and Muthammal Palanisamy’s Shore to Shore (2002), in relation to the perspective of identity forwarded in Malaysian state narratives (i.e. secondary school history textbooks) published between 2001 and 2010. Using Homi Bhabha’s conceptualisation of nation through the act of narration, this thesis explores the ways in which the idea of nationalism is the root of identity formation in modern Malaysia; it argues that in state narratives national identity is determined by ethno-religious concerns, while the life-writings are situated as nationalist, transnationalist, and diasporic texts respectively.

The reading of Amin’s Malay nationalist text identifies an attempt to show homogenising elements between multi-ethnic characters; but that reading also highlights the presence of fissures in this concept of nationalism, which in turn suggest that, in practice, the concept of Malay nationalism is ethnocentric, as well as being fragmented by class and gender divisions. By contrast, the examination of belonging in non-Malay transnationalist and diasporic life-writings, and which takes into account the different textual embodiments of these works, reveals identities that are multiple, shifting, and heterogeneous. Ramsay’s narrative indicates that the Chinese-Hakka migrant’s distinct contribution to nation-formation can be represented through buildings and artefacts, as evidenced in the text through interleaved photographs. Palanisamy’s narrative suggests that the Indian-Gounder migrant’s role in the making of the nation is through a distinct linguistic identity, displayed textually through a complex form of storytelling and use of a Tamil funeral chant.

When the three life-writings are read in relation to state narratives, they display a divergence; this thesis argues that the Malay life-writer is situated on a parallel course towards realising a pro-Malay national identity, but the non-Malay life-writers demonstrate an inversion of the hegemonic homogeneity advanced in state narratives.