Organized Panel Session
In Malay, “bangsa” denotes both “nation” and “race,” a controversial concept ripe for sloganeering in Malaysia’s political landscape. The term bangsa Malaysia entered contemporary political discourse in the 1990s when current and former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, instituted the Bangsa Malaysia Policy. Touted as a more inclusive version of the previous National Culture Policy, it remained contentious by privileging majority Malay groups, i.e., bangsa Melayu (Malay), over Malaysia’s diverse population—symbolically and through affirmative action legislation. This panel explores how bangsa Malaysia is revised and reconstructed through a performance lens, focusing on themes of gender, race, nation, and how state/religious authorities police these intersectional categories. Each paper demonstrates the diversity of Malay expression, dispelling notions of homogeneity propounded through concepts like bangsa Malaysia. The first paper traces these themes in relation to the national pop icon, Sudirman (1954-1992), who used the cultural capital of Malay folk songs to subtly transcend Malay hegemony and subvert traditional understandings of gender and sexuality. The second paper shows how the dance drama, mak yong, complicates notions of Malay Muslim piety and state-sanctioned “national” arts. The third paper considers how extravagant state-sponsored displays of heritage work against stereotypical understandings of a “gentle” Malay aesthetic while at the same time reframing gender and racial norms. The last paper analyzes a relatively recent (1960s) revitalization of gendang silat (martial arts drumming), reflecting how ideas of Malay Muslim culture and identity were transforming in the national imagination well before the bangsa Malaysia slogan became part of mainstream politics.