By Ooi Kee Beng in Southeast Asian Studies Vol 41. No. 2, September 2003
Eurocentrism continues to inform the political discourses of former colonies like Malaysia to a large extent. Solid ethnicities were constructed and concretized, first conceptually and later through institutional means, to ease the governance of distant lands by Europeans and to make policies comprehensible to the home audience. In the Malay Peninsula, the “Malays” were essentialized, and declared “native” to the region, in contrast to migrants coming from outside what the British proselytized as a given regional and cultural entity, the Malay world. Such tactics stemmed from the Social Darwinistic mode of thought popular in European thought at the time. In application, an unspoken three-tiered ethnography came into being: The world was made up of spontaneous natives, museal peoples of failed and frozen civilizations and modern Europeans burdened by their recent enlightened state. The pluralistic reality existent in the region was not given recognition, and together with the idea that nations seek expression in united polity, plural societies of segregated ethnicities with minimized interfaces were formed. This is the heritage of the modern state of Malaysia: Ethnic bargaining as a necessity, nation-state rationale as a source of social knowledge, modernization as mankind’s unavoidable fate and western concepts as natural tools of thought.
Keywords: colonial knowledge, political discourse, Malaysia, Social Darwinism, ethnography, orientalism, post-colonialism, ethnic politics