|The One-Dimensional Malay:
The Homogenisation of Malay Identity in the
Revisionist Writing of History in Malaysia
Dr. Farish A Noor (Dr. Badrol Hisham Ahmad-Noor)
International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)
Leiden, The Netherlands
The paper will look at the ways in which the pre-Islamic past of the Malays have been reinterpreted and recast as a result of the process of Islamist resurgence in Malaysia. Central to our argument will be the thesis that Malay history has been effectively re-written for the sake of securing a number of political (as opposed to academic) objectives. The approach will be that of discourse analysis (rather than textual analysis) and this will not be a study of textbooks and historical documents, though they will inevitably be part of the study as well. Our intention is to explain how notions of identity and difference, categories of mutuality and belonging are constructed discursively. We will attempt to identify the primary actors involved in this revisionist project, their aims and agendas and the interests that are being served in the process. The paper ends with a call for a more nuanced and multifarious approach to the question of Malay identity, one that recognises the porousness of identity categories and the boundaries that shape such identities in the first place.
‘New history begins while the older ones continue to flourish. Conflict might occur and the attempt to marginalize the old might be taken, but the old refuses to budge’.
The Formation of Political Tradition
The writing of history, as we all know by now, has never been an objective or neutral enterprise. History is more often than not the narrative of the victor over the vanquished and a discourse of Sameness where the Other is relegated to the margins.
The Other is question may be those who have been defeated after a conflict of one kind or another. Post-war Europe’s history of itself has been marked by its concerted condemnation of the Germany and her Axis allies, and this has been at a cost as well: the atrocities and double-standards of the other allied powers (Britain and France in particular) have been conveniently left out of the picture and relegated to silence. Britain and France’s own record as imperial powers with colonies that spanned the globe, and the abuses that took place within those colonies, have hardly ever mentioned. Even less has been said about the rise of the United States of America at that time, which was already showing signs of wanting to become a major global hegemon in the wake of a war that they were sure to win.
Likewise, a plethora of feminist critiques have argued (convincingly) that history is not free from gender biases as well. History, in this respect, is fundamentally a history of men and not women, and the efforts and labours of women in the process of human development and progress have been pushed into the background as ‘Man’ assumes the privileged role of the universal standard against which rationality, agency and identity are measured.
In the context of a post-colonial society like Malaysia’s, the writing of history is fraught with just as many dangerous pitfalls and obstacles. Many post-colonial narratives have tried to do a number of things at the same time: To string together an array of historical threads in order to create a unified and inclusive national story that can serve as a reference point for the new society as a whole; to serve as a narrative that explains the logic of defeat and reconciliation (while often obscuring the fact that there was a great deal of collaboration with the colonial powers as well); and to foreground elements that were relegated to the margins by the discourse of the colonial power itself. In the case of Malaysia, the writing of the nation’s post-colonial history has also been coloured by other needs and agendas- not least of which was the desire to re-write the history of the country and her people in terms that were relevant to the immediate circumstances of the present. History is therefore always politically correct, and never so at the same time.
Our concern here is to look at how the discourse of Malaysian history has been re-written with a certain view of the past, present and future. Our thesis is that with the advent of an ‘Islamisation from below’ that took off from the 1970s onwards, Malaysia’s history has become a highly contested discursive terrain where the struggle to define Malay history and Malayness itself was fought. Those of the Islamist tendency began to impose a new definition of Malay identity which conflated it with Islam and being Muslim. The immediate effect of this move was to relegate to the outside the pre-Islamic past of the Malays and to introduce a radical break or rupture between the pre-Islamic past of the Malays and the Islamic/Muslim reality of the present. The pre-Islamic past of the Malays therefore became, in effect, the Other to the Malay-Muslim of the here and now. Just how and why this came about will be the main subject of this paper. Our aim is to examine how certain concepts (in this case Islam) were elevated (via a number of discursive strategies and narrative devices) to the status of a transcendental signifier (to borrow Derrida’s term) that escapes the play of meaning/signification so as to create a closed and totalised discourse that forecloses any possibility of alternative interpretations/readings of the past. But we begin with an unlikely encounter that took place in a remote (and now forgotten) inn somewhere in the murky English countryside, of all places.
II. A stranger comes a-calling: How the Malay from nowhere spooked the English Opium Eater
‘That Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. Every night, through his means, I have been transported into Asiatic scenery... the seat of awful dreams and associations. As the cradle of the human race, it would have a dim, reverential feeling about it. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, above all their mythologies- is so impressive that to me that the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual... Man is a weed in those regions.’
Thomas de Quincey,