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Commentaries, The Edge

Malaysia has to start reexamining its histories


By Ooi Kee Beng

For The Edge Malaysia, 26 June 2016.

When studying humanity and its history, what one does is construct a narrative. And in that narrative, one distinguishes heroes from villains, outlines territories and peoples, and differentiates steady trends from turning points.

Since different choices result in different stories, it is understandable that power holders use whatever means they can to popularize storylines that they think serve them best. That is the nature of states. But what happens when the narrative leads consistently to negative outcomes?

In the case of Malaysia where quarrelling and squabbling now pass for discussion and debate, what we are often left with are disjointed ideas about what Malaysia is, what Malaysia was, what Malaysians are and what Malaysians are supposed to become. This would seem to have resulted from the over-politicisation of the national consciousness, and over a long time.

Another way to describe this is to equate the Malaysian way of doing politics with the spraying of ink by the shrewd sotong. It sprays ink to confuse more than to contest. It does not wish you to know where it is going.

The problem is, if it does this too often and for too long, the sotong becomes as lost and confused as its enemy. It too does not know where it is going. The contest becomes everything; it becomes its own goal, it becomes a way of life. All are locked in a futile fight where even the winner recognizes that his triumph is really a loss. There are no real winners.

But how is the country to break out into a new consciousness and attain a new way for Malaysians to relate to each other? Short of having an authoritarian figure forcing his will onto the whole of society, it would seem that sustainable change has to come from young adults who wish to break the tortuous trap in which the country is caught.

There is a tragic pathology involved. The diagnostician has to wonder over questions such as: How did UMNO, once a secular – or at least non-religious – party become a champion of religious politics?; How did the relative inter-ethnic harmony of the early decades end in the tensions in daily life that Malaysians now live with?; How has the acceptance of multiracialism as the basis of Malaysian life been overturned?; How did the cultured traditionalism of the Malays lose out to the harsh legalism of the Islamists?; Is it all the fault of the players or are external forces involved?

It would seem that it is knowledge of history that can lead the trapped fly out of the bottle; that can empty the sotong of ink.

Revisiting history unconditionally means an embracing of diverse interpretations of history, and that requires as many periodisations and rethinking of conditions as possible. New and substantive narratives become necessary.

Let me mention some unique historical conditions and periodisations to make my point, and the reader can then taste their possibilities as he or she wishes.

• Just as the first 25 years of Malaysian history occurred with the Cold War as its back drop, the second 25 years are shaped by the rise of China. How is this reflected in domestic politics?

• Malaysia was colonized in very unique and varied ways. The parts that made up the Straits Settlements came first. They were basically small bases functioning as part of the China trade to serve the European market. Then came other parts ruled often indirectly by the British—the federated states certainly more directly than the un-federated ones that switched from Thai control to British control to Japanese control, then back to British control and then to Malayan control. What indirect rule actually meant for states that were under it only for a few decades is an important point to consider. The East Malaysian states were even stranger, one being ruled by a timber company and the other by an English family. Sabah is also interesting in that it was bordered to the east by a part of the world that European colonialism reached only when it had run out of steam.

• All other parts of Southeast Asia (excepting Thailand to an extent) were also colonized, and by other European powers. What did this cutting up of the region, and the politicizing of every square inch of territoriy do to the political consciousness of Southeast Asians?

• To what extent where the sultanates sovereign states and to what extent did some of them exist only as colonial creations? How does this affect how we should understand the Malayan Union and the level of colonisation that was visited on various Malay communities?

• How did the changing political conflicts and political concepts in Europe over the last few centuries affect the mode of colonisation and the nature of economic development in distant areas like Malaysia?

• To what extent do Southeast Asia’s cultures reflect the influence in recent times of external powers, be this European, Chinese, Japanese or American? And to what extent is that a problem; to what extent a boon?

• What is nation building in relation to state building in this part of the world?

• How have traditional understandings of power, ownership, political representation, communalism and statehood interacted with western notions of the same; and how does that effect how politics and power are understood and practised today?

• What are the long-term economic, cultural and political costs of the split between Malaysia and Singapore? How do these differ for the two?

There are many more such approaches to Malaysian history and self-understanding to consider, but I think you get the point. The over-politicisation of the Malaysian mind is a process of provincialisation. It keeps the katak under the tempurung—the frog under the coconut shell.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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