Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Malaysian nationalism

I've always been somewhat fascinated with nationalism as a social phenomenon, and Malaysia makes for an interesting test case.

August 31, 2007 marked the 50-year anniversary of Malaysian independence, and the country was covered in flags and celebratory banners. Some of these appeared in obvious contexts. Government buildings, like the one here, were either draped in enormous national flags over one wall, or smaller flags over every window. This particular one went for the "gaudy monstrosity" school of nationalist decor. That is no surprise.

But Malaysia is the only country I've ever been to where more private homes and business are flying national flags than in the United States! Consider this photograph of an apartment block in M(a/e)(l/ll)a(cc/k/q)a, a.k.a. Melaka:


Yes, every single apartment has a Malaysian flag hanging on the balcony. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, and it seems unlikely to me that the government would mandate flag-waving, and particularly unlikely that they would choose to enforce the mandate selectively, on one apartment building in an entire town. That said, all of the flags in this building are quite uniform in size and production, as are most of the ones you see around town.

So my question is, what's the mechanism at play here? Is flag display somehow enforced by the government? Is it not mandated, but encouraged and subsidized? Does the government provide national flags at discounted rates? Hand them out for free? Do they charge full price but have a monopoly on their production? Are people truly that patriotic, or are they required to be, or do they pretend to be to keep up an appearance for their peers, the authorities, whoever?

An entire country is covered in flags and I want to know how and why it got to be that way.

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