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The One-Dimensional Malay: The Homogenisation of Malay Identity in the

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V. Conclusion: Homesickness and homecoming

The real question we have been trying to ask here is how and why we need to have a coherent, unified, totalised history of the Malay people in the first place. If Malay history is to be written at all, does it have to refer to any Malay located in any particular point in time? Or would it not be possible (or better) to think of Malay history as a discourse that recounts the story of its particular subject while problematising it at the same time? Rather than see Malay history as a narrative that provides us with only answers, could we not see it as one which also raises more questions as well?

This is not to suggest that we are partial to the calls for extreme relativism, or that we advocate a multiple, fractured and splintered approach to ‘histories’ rather than History per se. We would insist that the rejection of a totalised and unified History does not necessarily open up the floodgates to multiple and infinite narratives for their own sake. Such demands for specific and unique histories are themselves often problematic, as particularist demands tend to be couched in terms of universals in the first place.
But rather what we are calling for is the recognition of the fact that History, and the writing of history, is always a narrative process that is bound by the vicissitudes of discursive activity and intertextuality. History is inevitably a contested space that can only remain open and forever contestable. Rather than trying to impose a unified centre which arrests this flow of discursivity (which often happens when history becomes aligned with specific agendas and political projects), we call for an acceptance- even celebration- of the productive ambiguities that lie at the heart of any historical writing.43
In the specific case of Malaysia, this may open up the way for a more serious and sensitive reading of the pre-Malay past, one which allows us in the present to come to terms with our constitutive Other of the past without necessarily having to relegate the Malay from nowhere to the lower register of the bizarre, obscure, pagan, alien or un-Islamic. The least we can do at this stage is to recognise the Malay from the past as a subject endowed with the same rational agency, free will, identity and rights as we claim for ourselves. S/he stands mute before us, but the face of the Other nonetheless compels us to act in an ethical way and to exercise our own inescapable moral responsibility towards the Other as Levinas has argued.
Lest it be forgotten, Malay culture and history is so deep, so rich and so vast only because the Malays of the past were themselves the inheritors of the traditions from all of Asia. Today those of the Islamist tendency want to erase this pre-Islamic past, claiming that Malay civilisation only came into being with the coming of Islam. Some of them who are even more short-sighted and close-minded have gone one step further, claiming that it was Islam that made the Malays civilised (as if we were all savage animals before that!). That such prejudice can rear its ugly head at all is already a shame for all of us who call ourselves Malays. But for such puerile nonsense to creep into the hallowed halls of academia makes a mockery of the educational system of the country, and reduces our history to nothing.
Thomas de Quincey’s earlier encounter with the unnamed and unknown Malay of the past should therefore remind us of what we were and what we have lost. Malay civilisation, like all civilisations, is a hybrid amalgam of many civilisations. We were Hindus and Buddhists before, and before that we were pagan animists who lived at peace with nature. The coming of the great religions- Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam- and the arrival of new modernist schools of thought should not be seen as distinct episodes that keep our histories apart. Instead they should be seen as layers of civilisational acculturation that have added depth to our collective sense of identity, who we were, who we are and who we want to be in the future. Thomas de Quincey may have been unnerved by the arrival of the unknown Malay who triggered the return of the repressed in him. (Such things do happen after a bad trip) But we need not fear our past and the unknown. We would be able to face the future with much greater confidence if we could admit our own internal heterogeneity and complexity, rather than continually trying to deny the past and to homogenise the present into one flat, monolithic discourse of sameness.

Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian academic and human rights activist. He has taught at the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya and the Institute for Islamic Studies, Freie Universitat of Berlin. He was also the Secretary-General for the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian-based NGO which campaigns for global justice and human rights couched in terms of local traditional and religious discourses. Author of 'Terrorising the Truth: The Demonisation of the Image of Islam and Muslims in Global Media and Political Discourse’ (Just World Trust, Penang. 1998), he is at present a visiting fellow at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), Leiden, the Netherlands.


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1 Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Folio Society, London. 1948.

2 Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves. (Translated by Leon S. Roudiez). Columbia University Press, Columbia. 1994.

3 The colonial administrator Hugh Clifford’s own view of the cultural backwardness of the Malay race was typical of the common prejudices and perceptions held by many colonial scholars and administrators of the late 19th century. In his writings, he clearly presents an image of the Malays as being not only backward, but also living in a past age that was centuries behind that of the colonial present: ‘One cannot but sympathise with the Malays, who are suddenly and violently translated from the point to which they had attained in the natural development of their race, and are now required to live up to the standards of a people who are six centuries ahead of them’. Hugh Clifford, In Court and Kampong (1896). Pg. 74.

th This is not to suggest that the earlier generations of Muslim missionaries and mystics were out of touch with the rest of the Islamic world and the developments there. Malay Sufi teachers like Hamzah Fansuri were educated at Mecca and other centres of Islamic teaching. But by the end of the 19 century (and particularly after the opening of the Suez canal), many more Malays were traveling to the Arab world and back, thus exposing their own societies to new ideas and developments in the Arab world.

4 The Deobandi school refers to the Wahhabi-influenced ideas developed at the Dar-ul Ulum seminary at the town of Deoband in India. It produced some of the most prominent conservative reformists and revivalists of Islam who were worried about the influence of Hindu culture and practices in contemporary Muslim life in India by the late 19th century.

5 Syed Sheikh Ahmad al-Hadi was born on 22 November 1867 in Malacca. His mother was Malay while his father, Syed Ahmad ibn Hasan ibn Saqaf al-Hady al-Ba’alawi, was a Peranakan Arab of Hadrami descent. In his youth he was adopted by Raja Ali Kelana of the Sultanate of Riau and was brought up along with the princes in the royal household. He travelled widely to the Arab countries and studied in Mecca, Beirut and Cairo. At Al-Azhar he came under the influence of the Egyptian reformist thinker Muhammad Abduh. Back in Malaya he came under the influence of the Sumatran Shaikh Mohamad Tahir Jalaludin al-Azhari who exposed him to the reformist ideas of Abduh and Rashid Rida. Along with Shaikh Mohamad Tahir, Sheikh Mohamad Salim al-Kalili and Haji Abbas Mohamad Tahar he started the reformist magazine Al-Imam in 1906 in Singapore. Between 1909 to 1915 he served as an attorney at the Shariah court of Johor Bharu. But in 1915 he decided to leave the post in order to return to Malacca and open a Madrasah there (along with Haji Abu Bakar Ahmad), which came to be known as the Madrasah Al-Hadi. In 1919, he moved to Penang in order to open another Madrasah, the Madrasah Al-Mashoor. One of the teachers at the Madrasah al-Mashoor was Sheikh Mohamad Tahir. The Madrasah al-Mashhor was perhaps one of the most famous of the radical ‘reformist’ Madrasahs of the colonial era. Along with other radical new reformist Madrasahs like the Madrasah Al-Hadi of Malacca, Madrasah al-Ikbal al-Islamiyyah of Singapore and Madrasah Ma’ahad Ihya al-Sharif of Gunung Semanggul, the Madrasah al-Mashoor was instrumental in the education of young reformist Muslim thinkers and activists. [See: Elijah Gordon, (ed.) The Real Cry of Syed Sheikh al-Hady. 1999. William Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, 1967.]

6 Sheikh Mohamad Tahir Jalaludin al-Azhari was originally from Minangkabau, Sumatra. He was born at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra in 1869. Orphaned as a child, he was later sent him to study in Mecca. After twelve years of study in Mecca, Sheikh Mohamad went to Cairo and studied astronomy (al-falak) at the famous University of al-Azhar in 1893. During the four years he spent there he was exposed to the teachings of the famous Islamic reformist Muhammad Abduh and in time he developed a friendship with the disciple of Abduh, Muhamad Rashid Rida. When Rida launched his journal al-Manar in 1898, Sheikh Mohamad contributed to it as well. After receiving his diploma at al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamad Tahir returned to teach in Mecca for two years before going back to Southeast Asia. He settled in Singapore and became part of the active circle of Malay and Peranakan Muslim reformers over there. In 1906 he started the reformist magazine Al-Imam in Singapore along with Syed Sheikh Ahmad al-Hadi. Between 1909 to 1911 he held several positions at the Shariah courts of Johor and Perak. Because of his modernist outlook and reformist tendencies, Sheikh Mohamad was regarded as dangerous by the conservative Ulama. Despite these setbacks, he took active part in teaching activities and taught at the Madrasah Al-Mashoor that was set up by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi in Penang. In 1927 he was arrested by the Dutch while travelling in Sumatra on the grounds that he was suspected of working with the Communists. He died in 1957. (See: William Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, 1967.)

7 This new generation of Malay-Muslim reformists managed to spread their ideas deep into the Malay world through new modes of communication such as the vernacular press. In 1876 the newspaper Jawi Peranakan was launched in Singapore by a number of prominent Indian-Muslims. In 1906 another Muslim paper, Al-Imam, was launched in Singapore as well. Al-Imam was started by a number of prominent Malay-Muslim reformers such as Shaykh Mohammad Tahir Jalaluddin, Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al-Hadi, Haji Abbas Mohammad Tahar and Shaykh Mohammad Salim Al-Kalili.

8 The Muslim papers like Jawi Peranakan and Al-Imam in particular were concerned about the corrupting and weakening influence of pre-Islamic rites and rituals in Malay society, which they argued had kept the Malay-Muslims behind in the race for development.

9 In this respect, the predominant mindset of these modern Islamic movements (like the Sarekat Islam) was a world apart from the early Muslim missionaries and mystics like Hamzah Fansuri, Abdul-Rauf Singkel and Shamsul-din Pasai of the 16th and 17th centuries. While earlier generations of Sufi thinkers were able to adapt the symbols of the Hindu past to the discursive terrain of their own Islamic cosmology, the Muslim modernists of the 19th-20th century proved to be less open minded and flexible when dealing with the symbols and symptoms of the pre-Islamic past.

th The generation of younger Malay-Muslim activists and nationalists known as the Kaum Muda were made up mostly of the urban-based Malay and Indian Muslim traders, teachers, religious scholars and Hajis who were based in the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Melacca and Penang. As such, for much of the 19 century they actually lived as colonial subjects under British colonial rule. Their resentment towards living under the rule of a non-Muslim power was aggravated by the realisation that life in the Malay-Muslim Sultanates was much worse. In particular, they were incensed by the corrupt and wanton ways of the Malay rulers and nobles and felt that many of their courtly practices and culture were responsible for the decline of the Malay-Muslim powers in the archipelago. Consequently, their political agenda was to modernise the Malays so that they could compete with the non-Malays in the colonial settlements. But this could only be achieved, they felt, if the pre-Islamic courtly culture of the Kerajaan could be eradicated first.

10 Puja Laut refers to the ceremony of paying homage to the Goddess of the Sea. It was openly practiced by many Malay fishermen communities up to the 1960s.

11 The United Malay Nationalist Organisation (UMNO) was formed in 1946 after a Pan-Malayan Congress that brought together all the major Malay-Muslim political groupings of the country. The Congress included representatives of the conservative, leftist, nationalist and Islamist camps, but the leftists soon left the movement altogether. UMNO was formed in the same year and it remains the most dominant party in Malaysia today, with more than two and a half million members. It was formed in 1946 as a conglomeration of Malay nationalist organisations. UMNO’s ideological stand remains right of centre, with strong neofeudal and conservative-traditionalist elements in the party’s culture. UMNO has also been at the head of the ruling alliance which has been in power in the country since independence was granted in 1957. At first the Alliance (Perikatan) was made up of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Assembly (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). In 1974 the Alliance was disbanded and replaced with the National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition that included UMNO, MCA, MIC and others parties such as Gerakan, PPP, SUPP, Berjasa, and even the Islamic party PAS (which joined the coalition between 1973 to 1978).

12 The nucleus of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) lay in the Bureau of Religious Affairs of the conservative-nationalist Malay party, UMNO. By the early 1950s, the Ulama and religious leaders within UMNO felt that the time had come for them to break away from the nationalist organisation and form a party of their own. This was due to the conduct and poor leadership shown by the UMNO leaders themselves like Dato’ Onn Jaafar. In 1951, PAS was formed under the leadership of Haji Fuad Hassan, who was the head of the UMNO bureau of religious affairs. By 1956 the party members felt that their party needed a new leader with greater vision and political commitment. The radical nationalist and Islamist thinker Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy was then invited to take over as president of PAS at its fifth conference in December 1956. Between 1956 to 1969, the combined leadership of Dr. Burhanuddin and Dr. Zulkiflee Muhammad (the party’s vice-president) managed to broaden the political base of PAS and open it up to the rest of the Muslim world. Both men were veteran activists who had studied abroad. Dr. Burhanuddin had studied at Aligarh while Dr. Zulkiflee at al-Azhar. During the elections of 1959, 1964 and 1969, PAS managed to do quite well and it came to power in the state of Kelantan. In 1969 Dr. Burhanuddin passed away after being put under detention without trial by the Malaysian government. PAS then came under the leadership of Mohamad Asri Muda, who was a staunch defender of Malay rights and privileges. Between 1970 to 1982, Asri Muda brought PAS into the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and out again (1973-1978). The period of Asri Muda’s leadership was highly controversial one. The president himself was involved in a number of major corruption scandals and later accused of abusing his power within the party. In 1982, Asri Muda was forced to step down by a new generation of Islamist Ulama who had infiltrated the party from ABIM. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the radicalisation of PAS as its new leaders began to confront the UMNO-led coalition government and the state apparatus on the grounds that the latter were ‘secular’, ‘unIslamic’ and working in league with Western and Zionist interests. In 1990 PAS regained control of the state of Kelantan, and in 1999 it won control of Trengganu as well.

13 Post-war Britain was experiencing a second coming of sorts then. Prime Minister Harold MacMillan (‘Super Mac’ as he was called) had managed to disentangle the country from its colonial past with such finesse and elegance that his own Tory party seemed reconciled with it. The Welfare State, which was put in place by Clement Atlee (with the help of Beveridge and Rab Butler) was also up and running. For ordinary Malayans, the mother-country seemed to embody all that was worthy of emulation. They spoke of the free health and education services in glowing terms, painting an image of Britain as the land of milk, honey, subsidised housing, central heating and free dental check-ups. Malayans were also impressed by Britain’s election process (the first elections in Malaya were only held in 1955) and the freedom of expression enjoyed by the vocal press in the country (at a time when Malayans were still technically living in a state of National Emergency and open political discussion was illegal in many cases.)

14 The term ‘chain of equivalences’ is taken from the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Laclau and Mouffe have argued that such chains of equivalences are formed when there are attempts to instrumentally link together disparate elements and ideas for specific (political) ends. Thus, the idea of the West can be linked to other unrelated concepts like ‘civilisation’, ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ via the adept and skillful manipulation of language for political purposes. This does not, however, mean that there is any natural connection between these terms and concepts, and it obviously follows that each chain of equivalences is an unnatural, non-essential construct that can only be maintained through certain hegemonic practices. Nonetheless, Laclau and Mouffe have argued that such practice is indeed commonplace in political activity in general and the struggle to define, create, break and disarticulate different chains of equivalences is part and parcel of the struggle for hegemony in political life. See: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso press, London. 1985.

15 See: Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben, The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. In Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben (eds), The Formation of Modernity. Polity Press, Cambridge. 1992.

16 The Aligarh-educated Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy was not a product of traditional conservative Islamic education like the rest of the Ulama who led the Islamist party. He envisaged an Islamic state that was both modern and dynamic, openly in competition with the more dominant and powerful liberal-capitalist economies of Europe and the United States. Rather than the cherished dream of the Prophet’s community of Medinah or the ‘golden age’ of the Caliphate, Dr. Burhanuddin turned to Sukarno’s Indonesia and Gammel Nasser’s Egypt for examples of modern, progressive Islamism at work. In defence of this view of Islam as an ideological alternative and political model, he had argued thus: ‘Those who naively say that PAS is a party of Pak Lebai (village elders) should look around them or turn to the middle east. Whether or not PAS is competent in its role in the struggle for national liberation, the Middle East provides the answers. And Abdel Gammel Nasser provides the example… The role of Egypt under the leadership of Colonel Nasser provides the unchallengeable example of the triumph of Islamic nationalism against international imperialism’ (from his acceptance speech as the third President of PAS in December 1956).

17 The Darul Arqam Movement was formed by Ustaz Ashaari Muhamad in 1968. It began as a study group among Muslim scholars and reformers, many of whom were university lecturers, academics and students. In time it evolved into a Sufi-inspired alternative lifestyle movement that was very much centred around the personality of its founder. Its activities were based at the Madinah Al Arqam Saiyyidina Abu Bakar As-Siddiq, Sungai Pencala near the capital Kuala Lumpur. The movement’s aim was to create an alternative model of an ideal Islamic society that was organised and managed according to the standards and norms set by the Prophet Muhammad himself and his
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