On May 13, 1969, the general election results sparked riots in Kuala Lumpur. Violence between different language communities led to a suspension of parliament and civil liberties. The conflicts exposed the fragility in a Malaysian Nation that claimed to be able to accommodate differing linguistic and ethnic communities.
This brought to my attention the constitution itself. Drafted by a commission lead by Lord Reid in 1957, the goal was to provide recommendations for a constitution that satisfied various communities in Malaysia at the time. The focus was on “the safeguarding of the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities.”1 As a result, the document embodies the process of mediation between plural communities of Malaysia.
Written through consultation between ethnic communities in what was then British Malaya, the final text reveals the compromise between those communities. In the text, on one hand it grants privileges, on another, it provides safeguards. The establishment of the state required a rule book; if not to unite, then to appease the population to accept this new independent nation-state.
In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson points towards mass print media as the catalyst for a national consciousness among communities who otherwise have little interaction with each other.2 The social construct of nation-states rests on the association through mediation between local communities.
For my project I have created a handheld print block, its content is a collage of constitutional articles that negotiates between the rights of each community and their aspirations for the nation-state. The articles are written in the Malay, Chinese and English.3 The idealism usually associated with national constitutions are less apparent with this juxtaposition of phrases; rather than a unified order, it represents a compromise carved in stone. These compromises are remediated by me in a block print fashion entitled An instrument of state. The articles are engraved in separate ‘print blocks’ bound together in a paragraph. Read as a cohesive block, it can be used to print the text by hand and is designed small-enough to be portable. The blocks are held together by a strip of silk fabric embroidered with the national motto: Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu (Strength in Unity). On the printed text, the cohesion of the articles in paragraph is contradicted by the variety of languages it is written in. This is not a ‘neutral’ reading of the constitution but rather it is a reading that focuses on the difficulty and fragility of that process of mediation.
Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission, 1957; In preparation for independence, a constitutional conference was established and held in London by the Colonial Office. This report with its recommendations would serve as the basis for the ratified constitution upon independence. ↩
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, New York: Verso,2006. In this book Benedict Anderson laid down a theory for the rise of nationalism and nation-states in the Modern world. ↩
The wording of the constitution is drafted in both English and Malay. The Chinese text is a translation of the original. ↩