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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