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Contested Nationalisms and Propaganda: Birth Pangs of a Malaysian Nation, 1957-1969


This dissertation looks at how the newly independent Malaysian state used propaganda as one of the tools in forging a new nationalism and specific values of citizenship in the face of enduring ethnic cleavages and contesting visions of nationhood. I look at the period from independence in 1957 to the race riots in 1969 that claimed nearly 200 lives and plunged the country into a state of Emergency for a year.

As Malaya achieved independence, the contest between competing visions of the nation that began after World War II not only remained unresolved but also continued to intensify during the 1960s. One vision constructed a nation based on the primacy of the indigenous ethnic group, the Malays, while non-Malays advanced a vision that emphasized the equality of all ethnic groups in the nation. The former became the basis of the official nationalism of independent Malaya/Malaysia, but the ruling coalition tried to blunt opposition to it by co-opting elements of the latter without resolving fully the tensions between these diametrically opposed ideas. The post-colonial government found itself having to continually defend, justify and advance the official meaning of Malaysia through its developmental policies and propaganda campaigns in the 1960s.

The state conducted its propaganda campaigns through both personalized and mass channels using two departments: the Information Department that placed men and women on the ground to conduct face-to-face propaganda across the nation but with an emphasis on rural and semi-rural communities, and Radio Malaysia, the state's primary medium for mass communication until television ownership and broadcasting overtook radio from the 1970s onwards. The dissertation looks at the history, operational procedures and goals of the two agencies from the standpoint of the practice of governmentality. It examines their colonial roots, during which they were key components in the anti-Communist war, to their post-colonial iterations, when they had to adapt to meet peacetime objectives.

I suggest that the Department of Information and Radio Malaysia could not fully transcend their colonial legacies and the operational challenges inherent in bureaucracies to meet these new post-colonial challenges. More importantly, the two organizations could not resolve the tensions within the message they were preaching, i.e. a contradictory official nationalism that stated, in effect, that all are equal but one is special. Also, some of the entrenched operational structures of the agencies undermined key

planks of the official nationalism. It is for these reasons that the two agencies, and by extension, the government, failed to win over decisively the hearts and minds of its new citizens to its vision of the nation; a failure that contributed to its electoral setback in 1969 and the race riots that occurred as a result.

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