PRESS STATEMENT: Response to recent inaccurate coverage of “A People’s History of the Malayan Emergency” Event


For Immediate Release

8 August 2018

Issued by,

Gerakbudaya, Imagined Malaysia, Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, Malaysia Muda, KLSCAH Civil Rights Committee, Projek Dialog, Students in Resistance, Amateur, Persatuan Persahabatan Berpanjangan KL-Selangor, Persatuan Persahabatan Abad ke-21

RE: Response to recent inaccurate coverage of “A People’s History of the Malayan Emergency” Event

“A People’s History of the Malayan Emergency” was held on the 27th to the 29th of July, 2018 in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Malayan Emergency, a central period in the struggle for Malayan independence. 

The event featured an exhibition, a series of forums, documentary screenings and performances of songs and poems from the period. The event sought to generate a people’s perspective as well as challenge conservative and elite-driven narratives of the Emergency. 

This bottom-up approach can be seen by the involvement of historians from our local public universities, students, civil society activists and those who experienced the Emergency period. Our forum panellists attended in their private capacity to present their research and personal stories of the Left-Wing nationalists’ role in the struggle, and there was no agenda to promote any specific political party, past and present. 

On the evening of the 28th a Facebook user by the name of Tun Carlos began to circulate an old copy of our flyer for our third forum, ‘Should We Rewrite Our History Textbooks?’, with an additional line stating “Semua dijemput hadir ke forum perbincangan mengiktiraf komunis, Orang Melayu dan bekas tentera juga dijemput hadir”. This post was subsequently shared 1,800 times. 

By the morning of the 29th Perkasa requested for PDRM to cancel the forum for its insults to ex-servicemen. In response to such false narratives several individuals attended the forum in expectation that the panellists were speaking to defend the role played by Parti Komunis Malaya. One turned up before the forum screaming at panellist Fahmi Reza, most others arrived after the panellists had spoken, giving them no chance to listen to their presentations which spoke about the pro-UMNO bias of the textbooks, and the need to remember other anti-colonial movements such as the PUTERA-AMCJA coalition. 

During the Q&A session there was initially disruption from those who had arrived based upon the false posters but after discussion the forum calmed down and the panellists were able to speak with them afterwards.

In the aftermath however Utusan Malaysia ran three days of prominent and front-page stories on the forum, with headlines such as ‘Nilai semula buku Sejarah, iktiraf PKM’, ‘Wajarkah perjuangan PKM ditulis semula’, ‘Komunis bukan pejuang’. The organising committee refutes this misrepresentation of the forum’s content which has served only to stir-up anti-communist sentiments against the panellists, Fahmi Reza and Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and questions the motives behind Utusan’s reporting. 

We note that an Utusan journalist was present throughout the entirety of the forum to listen to both speakers presentations, neither of which supported PKM, but their reporting has focussed heavily on the topic of communism and that they released only the portion of video from the Q&A session.

For this reason the organising committee is making a video recording of the third forum is available online for the general public to evaluate the veracity of these allegations. 

Moving forward the organising committee would like to reaffirm the need for a deeper understanding of the Emergency and a revision of the country’s history textbooks, particularly in reference to the independence struggle. As panellist Fahmi Reza noted in the current Form 3 textbook 10 pages is given to the role of UMNO in the independence struggle, whilst only one small paragraph mentions PKMM. 

The organising committee believes that it is important in the aftermath of GE14 for political bias to be removed from the Sejarah curriculum and that it be made more inclusive and critical to allow students to reflect on alternative and widely forgotten narratives of the struggle for Malayan independence.



Looking Through a Creole Lens: Moving Beyond Race Categorisations and Towards Transnational Histories

Did you miss our book discussion on Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World by Dr Sumit K. Mandal? One of the discussants, Afra Alatas penned her thoughts on this publication and adds a personal touch by reflecting on her own heritage.

On my last trip to Kuala Lumpur in July, I was invited to be a discussant at Imagined Malaysia’s discussion on Sumit Mandal’s latest book, ‘Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World’. Dr Sumit himself, and another discussant, Mayang Al-Mohdhar, were also present.

Before properly commencing my reading and preparation for the discussion, I was curious as to why the title was Becoming Arab and not Being Arab. However, my curiosity was quickly satisfied when the author revealed the historical circumstances which resulted in the use of the word ‘becoming’. 

The first factor has to do with Dutch racial categorisation in nineteenth century Java. In his book, Dr Sumit focuses on Hadramis who have been coming to the Malay world since at least the 1500s. As a result of their long history of interaction with the region, these Hadramis had begun to assume creole identities which were neither exclusively Hadrami nor local. Dr Sumit thus refers to them as creole Arabs. 

However, with the advent of Dutch crown rule in nineteenth century Java, the Hadramis there were subjected to Dutch policies, and came to be categorised as simply ‘Arab’, thus reflecting the attempt of the Dutch to erase their creole histories and identities. It is therefore in this first sense that the Hadramis became Arab, as their identities were constrained. 

Yet, while this might have been the desire of the Dutch, Dr Sumit uncovers what he refers to as the “disjuncture between colonial fantasies at the centre and hybrid social realities at the margins”, in the sense that these histories and identities were never completely erased. 

While these identities might have been tightened and constrained, Hadramis responded to racialising policies through their own advancement of a modern Arab identity, thus defying the racial categorisation. It is therefore in this second inter-related sense that I understood how the Hadramis became Arab. 

Dr Sumit Mandal (extreme left) donating a copy of his book, “Becoming Arab” to Imagined Malaysia. From right to left: Imran Rasid, Afra Alatas, Mayang Al-Mokhdar and Dr Sumit Mandal.

As a student of History, an important aspect of the book which I appreciated was the fact that it focuses on the nineteenth century, a period in Indonesian history which we often forget. Either that, or we tend to remember that period only for the Cultivation System. 

However, by bringing attention to the nineteenth century and the development and intensification of Dutch racialising policies during this period, the book not only allows readers to understand the period from the top-down, but also sheds light on reactions from the ground, in the form of the shaping of a modern Arab identity as a response to these policies. 

This way, the book also sets the context for the developments in twentieth century Java, a period which we tend to be more familiar with. 

Ironically, yet another point about the book which I appreciated was the inclusion of a valuable amount of statistics, whether it was within the text, or in separate tables. This was especially helpful and informative in the first half of the book as the statistics really prove the extent of Arab wealth, influence and presence in Java, as well as the reach and impact of Dutch policies. 

The reason I say this is ironic is many times I have been guilty of almost naturally glossing over tables and statistics when I come across them in my readings, because I tend to be more engrossed in the text and often find numbers hard to absorb. As Dr Sumit rightly said during the discussion, numbers can be hard to work with. Yet, his provision of statistics and tables was not overwhelming but was in fact highly informative. 

However, as intriguing and thought-provoking as the book was, and as Mayang passionately expressed, we were left desiring to know more. One of the points which Mayang raised was that she wished there had been more information on how exactly the natives interacted with the Arabs and how they responded to Arab leadership over them. 

In discussing the emergence of a modern Arab identity, Dr Sumit demonstrates how this modern identity was heavily centred upon the genealogical prestige of the Arabs (or Sayyids, to be more specific), which allowed them to assume leadership over the native Muslims. This later evolved into a paternalistic relationship. 

As a result, the third part of the book which discussed the Arab response to Dutch policies was heavily focused on the perspective of the Arabs themselves. While it was consistently emphasised throughout the book that there was always interaction and inter-mixing between the Arabs and the natives, it would have been more enlightening to know more about the nature of their interactions and to have a more in-depth understanding of how the natives perceived the Arabs. 

Like Mayang, I was also interested in the granular details. From the book, we know that there was an elite minority of the Arab community who decided to make their grievances known to the Dutch. However, I wanted to know how the rest of the Arab community- the poorer Sayyids and the non-Sayyids- felt about Dutch rule. While we know how they felt about Sayyid domination, we are not very aware of how they perceived and responded to Dutch rule. 

Could they and did they express their grievances regarding Dutch rule? Were there any platforms for them to do so? Were the elites in any way a voice for the masses? 

I was also curious to know more about levels of literacy. In the shift towards pergerakan, or ‘movement’, the Arabs were not only inspired by the periodicals that were published in Istanbul, Beirut, Egypt and later on, Singapore, but even set up their own press by the 1850s, with the peak of its expansion in the 1910s and 1920s. 

Arab-run printers and publishers emerged in Surabaya and Batavia, facilitating the publication of several periodicals, touching upon a range of topics such as education, theology, pan-Islamism, and the war in Europe. 

While some of these periodicals were catered to a broader readership, others were not. What I was particularly curious about, however, was the level of literacy among the Arab and wider Muslim population. 

How vast was the reach of these periodicals which were a means to advance the modern Arab identity, and to what extent were Muslims actually receptive to them? To what extent did these periodicals actually spur political mobilisation in the move towards pergerakan

But, alas, not all questions can be answered. The writing of history requires one to glean information from sources and the sources which could provide us with such information are not always available, or may not even exist.

Bringing the discussion closer to home, the book also addresses how racial categorisation was not just exclusive to the colonial period, but in fact has continued in modern nation-states today. 

Despite the initial pursuit of equality as a characteristic of anti-colonial nationalism, the leaders of newly independent nation-states reproduced a similar colonial thinking in order to govern their people. In turn, this led to the erasure of the historical presence, identities and contributions of creole communities in their countries. 

Furthermore, it has led to a narrow understanding of race and identity, as people are boxed into these neat categories. Malaysia is not an exception this, and we spent a considerable amount of time during the discussion talking about the social and political implications of such thinking in Malaysia. 

Thus, a question was posed to me during the discussion: “how does it feel for you to be a creole in this part of the world?” Being a Malaysian of Arab and Iranian ethnicity growing up in Singapore definitely attracts a lot of curiosity, and consequently, confusion and/or surprise. I responded to the question by recounting my experiences in both Singapore (where racial categorisation also exists) and Malaysia. 

On the one hand, in Singapore, the first question that I am often asked by Singaporean university mates is whether I am an exchange student. This leads to further questions concerning my race, after which they express their lack of knowledge about (a longstanding) Arab presence and history in Singapore. 

Does this lack of awareness and confusion about my multi-layered or creole identity stem from the fact that many Singaporeans are so used to looking at society in terms of the ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Others’ (CMIO) categorisations? 

On the other hand, in Malaysia, people often express shock that I am Malaysian, and that I can speak Malay: “Where are you from?” “Malaysia”. “No, where are you really from?” “Dari Malaysia”. “Huh? But what’s your race?” “Half Arab and half Iranian”. “Ohh patutlah muka lain”. 

Is it so surprising that someone of mixed ethnicity like me could be Malaysian and speak Malay? Is this not the reality of creole histories and identities? What is the understanding and state of multiculturalism in Singapore and Malaysia?

All these questions, comments, and expressions of confusion and surprise of which I- and I’m sure many others- have been at the receiving end certainly prove the problems and ramifications with racial categorisation. 

It is therefore a valuable and pertinent contribution that Dr Sumit has made with his book as he casts doubt on racial categorisation in the governance of modern nation-states. 

He calls for an understanding of modern nation-states through a creole lens, by examining the history of inter-connectedness and hybrid identities. 

Thus, it is for this reason that I believe the book would be applicable to not just students of History or those interested in Indonesia or the Hadrami diaspora, but anyone who has an interest in issues concerning identity, globalisation, and multiculturalism, as well as looking into and beyond state policies and categorisations.

*Afra Alatas has just completed her Bachelor’s degree in History at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where she wrote her thesis on the history of the management of religious harmony in Singapore. She will be starting her Masters degree in the Malay Studies department at NUS this August. 

Photographs © Wong Siew Lyn


Intersectionality in Malaya’s Feminist Movements

Missed our public lecture? Fret not! Read on to get a detailed (like really, really, REALLY detailed) recap of the event:

Intersectionality is an analytic framework which considers that the various forms of what it sees as social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are complexly interwoven. In the case of Malaya’s once thriving political movements, how do we speak about feminism from various angles of experience and memory? 

This public lecture was an in-depth account of the multiple struggles of the Malaysian women’s movement, from securing gender equality in a patriarchal society to achieving unity among members of a multi-ethnic society that are further divided along class and religious lines. 

As co-author of “Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia: An unsung (R)evolution” Maznah Mohamad presented in this lecture, most historical versions of national struggles have created icons out of male figures. 

They detail the importance of the role of the women’s movement, led by numerous unsung personalities in promoting social change in Malaysia in the context of an ethnically fragmented post-colonial, authoritarian society.

Prof Maznah began by addressing the question of relevant exactly is a concept like “intersectionality” in understanding the feminist movements in pre-independent Malaysia. “All this multiple identities cause complex problems and we suddenly realize that “Hey, look, I am of many parts and sometimes they don’t always come together””, she said.

Intersectionality and the feminist movement – is it that easy?

More often than not, such conceptions of feminism are attributed to the West? Referring to a comic strip by artist, Rosalarian, Prof Maznah shed light on how the emphasis on equalist approaches to feminism do not completely articulate the disenfranchisement of various groups of women.

“Universalism was a fashionable concept. It came with liberalism. It came with the fact that everyone likes justice, equality and liberty. That was an assumption. That was early feminism, uniting on the basis of gender”, Prof Maznah added.

 The concept of a feminist movement was said to have sparked with the Suffragettes in Great Britain and Ireland, campaign for women to have the right to vote. Nonetheless, women actually happen to be not the only ones who were denied the right to vote, such as different classes. This could be identified as feminism’s “1st Wave”. 

The “2nd Wave” began in the 1960s. The discourse of feminism strive to refocus and explain inequality through gender relations. “They talked about the need to recognize women power… Men had more power than women in what is structurally a patriarchal order”.

In feminism’s “3rd Wave”, things were getting even more complex. Prof Maznah illustrated this by pointing to the feminist and religious discourse surrounding the hijab. To some, the use of a headscarf is their right and pride, and does not necessarily contradict with their belief in women’s rights. “Do you call it a feminist movement?”, she asked. This is because there are similarities between Islamic and feminist interventions in the debate on the hijab. On one hand, it can be considered a socially restrictive device that men use against women. On the other hand, Muslim feminists may confine the veil in the form of a symbol, not beholden to men,  but to God. To her, this could be considered as a manifestation of “transcendental feminism”.

Intersectionality and the ‘absent presence’ of women in the early colonial period

In the midst of deconstructing the colonial and administrative nature of Malaya, Prof Maznah illustrated the “color bar” that acts as a marker in the social divisions in British colonialism. As much as race is a master signifier in the organization of colonial society, class was also equally important. This can be observed in the status of colonized coloured women, who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

1928 poster of N°4711 Glockengasse (Eau de Cologne). Illustrated by Lutz Ehrenberger. Source: HPrints 

Evidently, among the women of Malaya, “the quintessential English ma’am” was at the top. Prof Maznah mentioned that this could be seen in the marketing of products in local newspapers, which evidently targeted white women, in spite living among a colored majority. As an example, she read out a passage titled “Beauty and charm reveal themselves” from a perfume advertisement in a 1928 copy of the newspaper, Straits Echo:

 Many women look with envy at the marvel of their sex who spends her early morning out of doors riding, swimming or walking; changes for an energetic game of tennis, changes again for her morning’s shopping which she does efficiently and well; appears at lunchtime in the role of the perfect housewife; turns to her book after lunch, yet appears fresh and elegantly groomed at tea time. And the evening will find her the centre of attraction in the ballroom or beautifully groomed in her box at the theatre. And if one conquers the secret of her never failing energy and all conquering charm, answer is amazingly simple. It is “4711” Eau de Cologne with the gold and blue label – always ask for it.

In spite of how women of the colonial elite may be represented as passive agents that have their lives dictated by patriarchal demands of sexual objectification, Prof Maznah emphasized that although these women were not necessarily at the battle front of history’s unfolding, certain significant events would not have occurred without their presence.

Inspired by philosopher Jacques Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence, Prof Maznah argues that the role of elite women in colonial Malaya are not completely represented in historical narratives due to the play of absence and presence. She demonstrated this by telling the stories of three women.

Martina Rozells, wife to Penang’s founder, Francis Light, is a woman shrouded with mystery. It was claimed Rozells was a daughter of the Sultan of Kedah. She was of Siamese descent but went by the name Rozells to accentuate her European heritage. 

An unverified portrait of Martina Rozells. Source: Unknown.

Quoting an article in The New Sunday Times, Prof Maznah stated that Rozells, “according to the research and script, [was] used as an intermediary by the sultan while he was negotiating with Light, but went on to develop a relationship with him”.

It is here that Prof Maznah explains how women of the elite class played a major role in the power politics of colonies in the region. Daughters were often married off to build strategic alliances, but were painted as an exchange of gifts. It is perhaps a significant yet unnoticed event that Rozells would be the reason for Light’s political career, Prof Maznah mentioned.

Rosaline Hoalim  was a young medical student who met her Peranakan husband in Cambridge, England. Hoalim and her siblings would eventually become one of British Malaya’s most influential families. Hoalim’s British Guyanese heritage brings an equivocal sense of cosmopolitanism to what would be a determining factor in her children.

Most notably, her daughter PG Lim would rise into prominence in the making of modern Malaysia. Not only was PG one of the first women to practice law in the country, she would be best known as the first female ambassador.

British-born PG Lim,  the eldest daughter of Hoalim was the first female Malaysian diplomat. Source: Merdeka Award

“She kept her faith in herself, ignoring class consciousness, the shine and glamour of wealth, going about her business on a bicycle rather than using a car. It is significant when the end came, she owned nothing more than a pair of slippers, a few sarongs and a shirt, yet she was always ready with a helping hand for a friend…this sums up the history of a family whose mother came from the West and whose dreams inculcated the principles of social reform, a mother who was, in her own way, an evangelical idealist.” 

–  Lim Kean Siew, The Eye Over the Golden Sands (1997) 

As described by her son, Lim Kean Siew, who would be best known as one of Penang’s best lawyers and the founder of the Labour Party of Malaya, Hoalim never failed to instill the values of social reform in her children. Inevitably, this had resulted in a family that would be remembered through the course of Malaya’s historical changes.

Rugayah (Roquaiya) Hanim, of Turkish descent, was also very pertinent in leaving a legacy of honour. Hanim’s marriages to elite men such as the brother to Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor, Syed Abdullah Syed Mohsin al-Attas and later Datuk Ja’afar Haji Mohamed had resulted in the flourishing of one of Malaysia’s most remarkable families consisting of world-renowned scholars and other illustrious offsprings.

A portrait of Rugayah Hanim. Source: Pinterest.

Some of these figures include Ungku Aziz, Zeti Aziz, Syed Hussein Alatas, Syed Naquib al-Attas and Dato’ Onn Jaafar. All of which are household names in the nation-building project of Malaysia. 

Prof Maznah highlighted that with Hanim not being originally from Malaya, the intercultural mixing of her marriages had “brought a sense of political cosmopolitanism that shaped an idea of a multicultural Malaya”. “You cannot categorize any of them because their background is so plural”, she said.

By exposing us to the lives of women like Martina Rozells, Rosaline Hoalim and Ruqayah Hanim, Prof Maznah demonstrated how the concept of ‘absent presence’ sheds light on the role of women in historical events in ways that would have been rendered invisible in official narratives of a nation’s history. 

 East-West conjuncture and conundrum in the “modern girl’

Approaching the 1930s,  the world witnessed the rise of print capitalism. It inspired a sense of interconnectedness and consciousness of a world beyond our own boundaries. It is due to this, the idea of the “modern girl” was borne out of the reinvention of the native woman’s identity. 

To Prof Maznah, this part of the world began to follow the progress of the West and clothing is one of its markers. For instance, the modernization of the kebaya as seen on popular Malay women icons. 

She further reinforces this point in a more prominent example – the cheongsam. A Chinese traditional costume that is well represented in pop culture for its figure-hugging shape and sensuality, is actually a product of Western fashion trends. “The idea of being modern permeated ethos and values”, she said, and quoted the following:

“Fashion played a major role in debates surrounding the Modern Girl. Fashion was the most outward expression of cultural identity, and readers negotiated between the adornment of modern, European styles of dress and traditional costume, ensuring that one did not trade in the dignity of one’s own cultural heritage to ‘falsely’ imitate others.”  

– Su Lin Lewis (2009), “Cosmopolitanism and the Modern Girl: A Cross-Cultural Discourse in the 1930s Penang”, Modern Asian Studies.

Variations of the kebaya as worn by one of Malaysia’s most loved singers, Saloma. Source: Kinta Chronicles.

The women’s wing of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) known as “Kaum Ibu” during a meeting. Source: Arkib Negara.

However, Malaya was envisioning a different kind of “modern girl” at this point of time. Along with the spark of national self-determination and discussions on female emancipation, the Malay community would still identify traditionalism and Islam as extremely important signifiers of their identity.

Religion was not an inhibitor for the political mobilization of Malay women. This was evident in the example of Zainon Munshi Sulaiman or better known as Ibu Zain. Before pursuing a political career in the Malay nationalist party, UMNO, Zain was a chief-editor of the magazine, Bulan Melayu in the 1930s.

Not only was the magazine “the first Malay women’s magazine in British Malaya”, it was a platform for the Johore Malay Women’s Union to voice themselves. Abiding to her slogan, “Moden Dididik, Agama Dibela” (Modernity Nurtured, Religion Defended), Ibu Zain was committed to an inclusive representation and contestation of ideas through the magazine. Prof Maznah then added a surprising detail about this:

“Ibu Zain’s ideas of modernity for Malay women eventually clashed with that of Khatijah Sidek who was more vociferous in claiming for women’s rights. You might think that Khatijah Sidek was influenced by the liberal west while Ibu Zain was not.”

She went on to explain that Ibu Zain was English educated whereas Khatijah Sidek, her successor, was educated in a religious school in Sumatra before coming to Malaya. The Islamic education that Sidek received had more radical tendencies as opposed to the more conservative, Western background that Ibu Zain had. “Both were one of the earliest women leaders in the country, contesting against each other – truly a manifestation of the period of the modern girl”, Prof Maznah concluded.

Nationalism, nation-state and the narrative of rights

According to Prof Maznah, intersectionality was a very significant theme for the women’s movements involved in Malaya’s phase of national liberation. She cited numerous examples of how women were elevated to a focal position in attaining absolute freedom from colonial oppression.

“The concept of the nation-state was relatively new. People were not thinking about Independence. Take the Malayan Communist Party for example. Did the women who joined the Party want to be a part of Malaya? In history, they were more drawn to international communism and the struggle in China”, she said.

Another example is the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). Since the Indian “government in exile” had its operations based in Singapore during the Japanese occupation, many Indians in Malaya, both men and women alike, were recruited to join the fight for India’s liberation. Prof Maznah described this as one more expression of “an affiliation to primordial attachment to elsewhere”.

Subhas Chandra Bose, with Captain (Dr) Lakshmi Sahgal, inspecting the guard of honour presented by the Rani of Jhansi Regiment during the opening of the Rani of Jhansi camp at Waterloo Street, Singapore, on 22 October 1943. Source: National Library of Singapore. 

To emphasize this point, Prof Maznah shared the story of Rasammah Bhupalan as detailed in her book, Footprints on the Sands of Time. Bhupalan and her sister were part of an Indian diaspora that was convinced to join Bose in the liberation struggle. Both women were recruited into the Jhansi Regiment. They travelled by train from Malaya through the death railways of Burma to reach India. However, the train journey was cut short by British troops intervention which ended with Bhupalan being deported back to Malaya.

Some of the women leaders during a street demonstration before the commencement of the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) Congress in 1949. Source: Arkib Negara.

Beside differing national allegiances, there were also women who believed in different conceptions of the Malay nation such as Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS). The women’s faction of the Malay left nationalist Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Muda (PKMM) had the original goal of unifying the Nusantara region and realize “Melayu Raya” as a living vision. She noted:

“They were fighting for war on Malayan soil. But vision of the nation was elsewhere.”

While modern day West Malaysia was a great focus on this lecture, Prof Maznah pointed out that Singapore was still a part of Malaya before indepedence. She illustrated how developments in Singapore were also important for the promotion of women’s rights in the country.

A testament to this is the formation of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) in 1952. To Prof Maznah, this was the marker of the “earliest feminist movement in Malaya”. The organisation was founded by Shirin Fozdar, a woman of Pakistani-Baha’i origin. She was very much involved in activism in India, before moving to Singapore and playing a key role in organizing women politically.

The front page of the 1961 Women’s Charter Bill.

What made the multiracial committee of SCWO so significant in the fight for women’s rights was because it was the first organisation to represent issues concerning women on a national scale – particularly, polygamy. In 1959, the SCWO lobbied for the billing of women’s rights in marriage. They attempted to get the endorsement of religion-based organizations but were rejected by the Muslim Advisory Board. 

At the end, the People’s Action Party (PAP) supported it in hopes of winning women’s votes in the 1959 elections. Upon a landslide victory, the Women’s Charter Bill was passed in 1961.

Intersectionality and the making of “Malaysia Baharu”

“Although the focus today is on the women’s movements in Malaya, I felt that we should end the lecture with a discussion on women during the recent elections in Malaysia”, Prof Maznah said.

She commented on the political will of women politicians to represent women’s issues on the national front:

 “Goods and Services Tax (GST) and 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) appeared to be more important issues during campaigning. When asked about their plans for Malaysian women, they would reply, “If I get elected, only then I will promote women’s issues”.

While expressing disappointment about the failure to fulfill the 30 percent quota of female representation in the Pakatan Harapan led Cabinet, she used this opportunity to talk about how dominant historical narratives play such an important role in building a nation. It is without the course of history, the progress of the country would not have evolved the way it did. In spite of this, it is still pertinent to ask what are the opportunities for women today if we were to move forward from our past.

During the Q&A session, some members of the audience asked how can a theoretical concept like intersectionality be used purposefully and beyond the vicinity of academic discourses. Prof Maznah felt there was no need for that, arguing that the very concept of intersectionality was borne out of an understanding of the lived experiences of women from different walks of life. 

This is what makes intersectionality such a relevant concept to Malaysia and more in the so-called “New Malaysia”.  In reference to the poor protection of migrant workers, children and abused women, Prof Maznah wrapped up by saying, “Politicians do not have the consciousness. We need to bring out these issues. It is not just about using the term “intersectionality”. It has a lot to do with practice too”.

Photographs © Dennis Ong


Our Story: Movers of the Re-imagination of Malaysia

Two years ago, Imagined Malaysia started off as a Facebook page focusing on online content creation about the aspects of Southeast Asian history that are not known to the Malaysian public, as excluded in textbook education. We later ventured into organizing our own reading group that focuses on postcolonial theorists.

Today, we are looking towards publishing books and our own bi-annual magazine while continuing our sharing of fascinating histories through workshops, lectures and panel discussions.

Imagined Malaysia is intended to be a research project based on the alternative history of Malaysia and Southeast Asia.  We hope to participate in the efforts of creating public awareness and education about the differing narratives and stories that may be omitted from official/master history.  

This is to not only change our understanding of the nation’s history, but to also deepen and evolve it to have a more inclusive and rich discourse.   The crucial point for us to organize this project is to address some of the present concerns regarding historical literacy in Malaysia. There is a lack of contestation in the perspective of historical events taking place at the current moment in the public sphere – whether in the form of writing, lectures or even debates. 

Hence, we wish to re-popularize interest in attaining knowledge by drawing means of what the region’s intellectual history has to offer.   In the long run, we hope that this will be a platform that promotes the role of activist-historians in public education as well as a source of encouragement and inspiration for Malaysian youth to have a critical appreciation for history. 

However, none of this would be possible without the support from our friends in civil society and those who have given us financial aid to cover the costs of our activities (yes, our patrons!). Most importantly, our newly expanded team is the reason we are able to do more than we could two years ago.

Here is what we are all about:

Yvonne Tan is an English Literature major most probably running around KL with Kembara’s Gadis dan Kota blasting in her ears after completing her thesis based on spectrality within our national myths Hikayat Hang Tuah and Hikayat Seri Rama. She also co-runs a zine called Students in Resistance that aims to advocate intellectual activism in Malaysia. 

“My interest in history sparked when developing a wavering sense of belonging here amidst polarizing identity politics, discovering possibilities to our current mainstream thought”, she said. 

Hoping to spark critical discourses on our nation’s narration and expand our collective history, she joined IM believing these are crucial steps in forging a more promising future for alternative politics and social change here. She hopes for a country where alongside a democratized historiography, “Takkan Mamak, Chindian, Peranakan, Orang Asal, Pendatang, Pekerja Asing etc. hilang di dunia.”

Dennis Ong is usually driven by his curiosity to venture out and learn about all things cultural and historical. During his free time, he goes out to photograph what fascinates him and anticipates the unexpected. 

“I hold dearly the idea that Malaysia is a land of diversity and hybridity, and envision a country that embraces and appreciates that. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” I believe that knowledge, virtue, and the truth should be pursued passionately and relentlessly to lead a good life!”, he said.

He will be pursuing a Master’s Degree in Visual Arts in University of Malaya in September 2018. His interests in history include mysticisms, cultural practices, and architecture of both ancient and modern times.

Jeremy Lim currently works as a researcher on national energy policy at Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, Sunway University. He is a graduate of Monash University and holds a Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering. 

His research interest in history revolves around the history of direct democracy and radical democratic movements around the world. Driven by a desire to see alternatives to the current elite-dominated parliamentary democracy, he strives to revive the history of radical democratic experiments, from the Paris Commune to the cooperative movements of Latin America. 

“In doing so, I hope to educate others on this subject in order that social movements will struggle for a more inclusive democratic future in Malaysia as well as globally”, he continued.

He joined Imagined Malaysia in 2017 with a mission to see greater public awareness of Malaysia’s forgotten histories and narratives of its marginalised.  

Kalash Nanda Kumar is currently in his final year towards a BA in Digital Film & Television at Limkokwing University, Cyberjaya. He used to attend Imagined Malaysia’s public lectures on the weekends as he had always enjoyed the subjects we explore, some of which are taboo in Malaysia such as: May 13th, Capitalism, Communist History of Malaya. Slowly, he became more involved because these were the education he did not receive in public school. 

“The Arts in Malaysia have been completely neglected and 60 years under the Barisan Nasional regime pushing a supremacist narrative and ideology have created an impoverished culture. Now, with a historic change in government, I remain hopeful for a better Malaysia and more motivated to continue the small work we at Imagined Malaysia do to drive discourses forward”, he remarked.

 As a student & budding filmmaker, the question he gets asked the most is “when will you be leaving overseas?”. He has always resented that question as he felt that Malaysia’s rich history of mythologies and legends are fertile ground for storytelling. To Kalash, Imagined Malaysia’s motto  and guiding principle “History Beyond Boundaries” speaks to his personal philosophy of a Universal Society that is free from prejudice and the vices of “-ism”. All these aside, he thinks that the friends he has made through his participation in Imagined Malaysia is invaluable and what he cherishes most. 

Dorothy Cheng is currently an undergraduate majoring in History and minoring in English Literature at Trent University, Ontario. Her interest in history stems from a need to understand the contradictory natures of humanity and thus reconcile with the past. As a Malaysian, she is particularly interested in decolonizing our history and also in charting the course of diasporic histories both of the past and currently occurring. 

“Imagined Malaysia is an amazing platform to connect with like-minded individuals and to get other Malaysians more interested in our own history. I believe that present disharmonies can be understood and curbed by attaining a  holistic and empathetic understanding of history”, she said.

Thus, she hopes that Imagined Malaysia’s work can create a more historically literate society and help  individuals reconcile with their identities, heritage, and culture.

Lay Sheng Yap is a trained political scientist, amateur design hobbyist and tea collector. His fascination with tea led him to amass a huge trove of exotic tea leaves. Besides an obsession with Ceylon, Darjeeling and ahhh Keemun tea, he is also a Tunku Abdul Rahman scholar pursuing Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. 

He is curious about the production and re-production of gendered bodies and discourses as it is expressed through multiple forms of media–what does the age of internet portend for the ideas of femininity as it circulates through algorithmic spaces and the unaccountable deep web. When not sipping Pu’er and doing armchair theorising, he can be found languishing on bed playing the highly addictive PUBG game.

Netusha Naidu is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC).  If she is not binging on books or RuPaul’s Drag Race, Netusha is most likely anxious about not keeping herself obsessively busy. As an aspiring historian, she is an avid researcher with a taste in culture, philosophy and politics. She imagines a different kind of Malaysia, that is accommodating, inclusive and sincere. 

“I find that a lot of people my age have become disillusioned with history. It’s like, “Oh, just study for exam only.” Not enough people see history as a story that shapes how we perceive our identity. When asked the question, “What makes you Malaysian?” We give superficial answers like, “Food!””, she quipped.

She thinks our answers are often about the external. To her, there is something more complex to the idea of what it means to be Malaysian, and the official narrative taught in government schools does not sufficiently equip us to answer this question, leading to the founding of Imagined Malaysia. Much of her thinking is attributed to her belief in human agency to change the world today through themselves. As Verse (13:11) of the Quran goes, “God does not change the condition of a nation unless it changes what is in its heart”. 

Imran Rasid is a graduate student in Southeast Asian History at the History Department, University of Malaya. He is in the process of completing his thesis on “The Colonial Capitalism in East Java during the Cultivation System”, which examines the nature of capitalist structure and the mode of surplus extraction from that period. He also runs another collective called Universiti Terbuka Anak Muda, which aimed at promoting intellectual discourses in public spaces in Malay languages. 

“I have been a curious student of history and philosophy. I believe that the combination of the two, the abstract and the concrete,  will result in a more definitive understanding of the world rooted in the spirit of praxis”, he said.

Imran truly espouses the advice of the late Howard Zinn: “Students should be encouraged to go into history in order to come out of it, and should be discouraged from going into history and getting lost in it, as some historians do”  and has centered his activism around this motto. 

History, he believes, should not be mere academic exercises but also perform social function that will highlight injustices and encouraging dialogues between members of the society. It is in this spirit he founded Imagined Malaysia with hopes that the activities we do will bring our complex past closer to public’s memories.


Post-GE14: Malaysia’s Democratic Wave – Expecting the Unexpected?

This is Part 1 of  our report on Post-GE14 Conference: Making Democracy Deliver, an effort done in collaboration with the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and Universiti Malaya Centre of Democracy and Elections (UMCEDEL). 

The purpose of this conference after Malaysia’s 14th General Election was to discuss the broader direction of Malaysian society in light of the recent change in political administration. 

This conference hoped to elaborate on what made this change possible and how we move forward from here. More specifically, how young Malaysians, who make up a majority of voters, perceive this change and what role they can play in keeping our leaders accountable to the promises they have made. An emphasis was placed on the ways in which more inclusivity can be injected in all aspects of democratic life. This included understanding the future of race and religion in Malaysia’s political discourse.

The idea behind this event was based on a realization that anticipation of GE14 has been a very unique moment as it has brought forward refreshing perspectives and mobilization of diverse interest groups. Given that this was the “mother of all elections”, it is worth reflecting on this event and its connection with Malaysia’s most recent past. 

Imagined Malaysia is committed to the plurality of narratives and providing greater public exposure to critical and marginalized perspectives. Historical literacy is our main interest and this also means that contemporary events that become turning points in the country’s history is of our interest too. 

This public event brought together eminent political scientists and nongovernmental individuals to share their reflections on GE14 in order to promote more mature and nuanced discussions about politics in Malaysia. 

Keep reading to get a picture of our conversation.

The first session focused on the recent general elections changed the course of Malaysian politics for the first time in 60 years.  It explored the factors that made this democratic wave possible through the 14th general election, the reasons it took Malaysia this long to elect an opposition party and the possible direction the political discourse in Malaysia.

“Malaysia has entered a new path. How can we set the debate not only relevant for now but also long term relevancy?” asked Ali Salman, the CEO of IDEAS during his opening remark. 

Malaysia – authoritarian regime disguised as fair-game democracy 

Electoral authoritarianism 

William Case, Professor and Head of School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, was the first to present. As an expert on South East Asian politics, he discussed the system in which democracy operates in this region. 

He explained that in Malaysia, specifically, democracy functioned under a false pretense. Although the system in place appeared to have the mechanics of democracy, it functioned under electoral authoritarianism.  

By establishing an institutional facade of democracy, especially by holding regular multiparty elections, the truth of the authoritarian governance under full control of a dictator was somewhat concealed. 

“The average life expectancy of an electoral authoritarianism regime is 23 years,” William said. “But in Malaysia, it lasted a lot longer.” 

Electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia was most effectively reinforced through a single dominant party – United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Ironically, it was under Tun. Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s presidency from 1981 to 2003, when there was no strong opposition party that could threaten UMNO’s position. 

According to Professor Case, by using strategies such as but not limited to posing as a protector of the Malay-Muslim community, forging and elite-level unity within the party and energizing mass-level support among the Malay community, the party has dominated the country’s politics for more than six decades. 

The Alliance of Hope

As any developing country progresses and its people’s educational levels increase, the socio-economic change that is a result of this modernization, inevitably causes a shift in mindset. As an upper-middle income country, Malaysia’s fast modernizing society not only consists of a large middle class but also one that is dissatisfied with the country’s prolonged economic stagnation, he said. 

“I think it’s rapid economic growth followed by economic stagnation of this kind that drives the middle class to bring about political change,” William added. 

William attributed the outcome of the 14th general elections to several strategies used by the opposition party – Pakatan Harapan. To overcome electoral manipulation and avoid a repeat of the 2013 general elections, Pakatan Harapan made deep inroads into the rural Malay community as their votes largely determine the outcome of an election. 

 Nazir Sufari © The Malaysian Insight  

Tun Dr. Mahathir preached a consistent message – that Najib Razak was not only ruining the country but also stealing from the people and was making them pay a Goods and Services Tax (GST) because of his own 1MDB scandal, William said. 

Instead of forming a coalition, he said, Pakatan Harapan presented itself as a loose consortium of four parties, each appealing to a different voter segment and neither of the parties appearing as dominant. 

What could go wrong?

According to William, if the new Pakatan government strengthens civil liberties and reduces electoral manipulation, a democratic transition has taken place. 

However, if the new government pushes institutional reform too far and too fast or if it fails to undertake reforms at all, the credibility it relies on could be lost. UMNO, now the opposition party could even coalesce with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and unleash a right-wing populism that energises voters through more exclusionary appeals to Malay-Muslims. 

Multicultural politics post-GE14 

New politics

Khairil Izamin Ahmad, an Assistant Professor based in the Department of Political Science, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) discussed the New Politics in Malaysia which isn’t just literal but also has an academic meaning. 

The term New Politics, was first developed during the reformasi era by Francis Loh Kok Wah, a professor at University Science Malaysia (USM). 

Khairil explained that according to Francis, Malaysian politics contested along three things which are long standing ethnic based political formulation, developmentalist ideology and participatory democratic consciousness. 

What seems like a breakdown in ethnic relations in New Politics in Malaysia, according to Khairil, can be attributed to the emergence of the political cultures of developmentalism combined with a more participatory form of democracy, which allows the slow demise of ethnicism. 

Forming an alliance

From 1999 to the 2008 general elections, the opposition party has posed itself simply as the Barisan Nasional (BN) alternative, said Khairil. In 2013, the opposition party started having a more solid and differentiable identity for itself and then finally formed strong enough of an alliance in 2018. 

“One if the things that defines these alliances is, they realised they needed to come together and work together despite ideological differences and offer themselves as a single alternative, a grand coalition,” Khairil said. 

By negotiating for the contest to be one on one, the opposition party was able to maximize its chances on winning. 

Besides that, Khairil said that the manifestos used by opposition parties through 1999, always offered the same type of unified option as a BN alternative. However, since then, a different kind of rhetoric was offered. “We saw the opposition trying to portray themselves as the more progressive and inclusive choice,” he said. 

The racialized politics played by BN was contrasted with Anwar’s proclamation which was a play on inclusion, Khairil said. His (Anwar) famous line, “Son of a Malay is my son, son of an Indian is my son and the son of a Chinese is my son,” effectively worked against BN’s sentiment. 

What to anticipate

Wrapping up his presentation, Khairil discussed possibilities of what the political climate will be like post GE-14. 

“Is it going to be a mirror image of the BN approach but with more openness or will it be a radical democratic reform,” he asked rhetorically. Referring to the opening speech by Salman, he too pointed out that institutions in Malaysia need to be enhanced in order to strengthen the democracy. 

Will this change in governing party also mean the end of race based politics and is there still a need for a mono-ethnic party? 

Effective changes cannot be rushed 

Khairil explained that regardless of predictions and theories, for now we can only speculate as to what will happen and we should remain optimistic but cautious. 

“We need to adopt a cautious attitude to the possible rise of new liberal tendencies,” he said. 

Drawing parallels to Margaret Thatcher’s approach in the United Kingdom when she was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Khairil said that if the new government used radical austerity and radical privatisation as an approach, it will slow down the GDP growth and there will be a lot of suffering as a result. Hence, he said these things cannot be rushed as there have been eerily similar experimentation abroad that have failed. 

Khairil ended his presentation by reinstating that we, as the people, can and should play a role in cultivating a new democratic ethos. 

Malaysia’s erased history

Fadiah Nadwa Fikri a human rights lawyer and a mover in the recent Malaysia Muda movement presented on the role of youth in navigating change in present day Malaysia and how it has been done in our history. 

Who are we as a nation, what is our history and how do we discover our mission are questions Fadiah said are important for us to ask. 

“Some of us are still in this euphoria but we have to ask the important questions to move forward,” she said. Questioning these things and understanding them ourselves is important to figure out how to sustain it. 

Fadiah also added that understanding our history is pivotal as it shapes a lot of our present reality. 

The missing history

The history taught in government schools in Malaysia omitted parts of its own history to conceal some of the controversial yet important discourses that took place, said Fadiah. When she was made aware of this missing history, she felt betrayed because according to her, it was something that needs to be told. 

The history she speaks of specifically is the left anti-colonial movement that took place about 10 years before independence. This movement was powered by political organisations such as Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API), Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS) and the coalition – PUTERA-AMCJA. 

Focusing on API, Fadiah explained that they played an important role reminding the youth that they have an obligation to contribute to the change they want to see and to build a world that is more just. 

API advocated for the concept of a broader Malay which included the Malay civilization that they believed to be held together by a shared culture and language that went beyond the artificial borders created by the British-Dutch agreement of 1824. 

The principles API stood for which were radical change, genuine democracy, social justice and world peace, appealed to a lot of of people and this is evident as the number of members they had grew immensely from 2,560 in 1946 to somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 in 1947. 


API was the first political organisation that was banned by the British, Fadiah said. The justification used by the British to ban API was “API have been and could have been used for purposes that are not in accordance with peace, stability and welfare of Malaysia.” 

Drawing parallels to the our present reality, Fadiah pointed out that the justification used is essentially the same reason used by a lot of the oppressive laws created in Malaysia by the past government to stifle freedom of speech such as the sedition act and the fake news act. 

“Laws are used as a tool to oppress and control the population,” she said. 

Learning our history, teaches us about the goals that didn’t get to materialise back then and gives us an idea on how to move forward. ”We have to capitalize on the euphoria we’re feeling right now,” Fadiah said. 

Narrowing the gaps

Moving on, Fadiah discussed the concept of “lesser evilism” and how it has become an accepted standard. “That is why fascism is thriving around the world and we see history repeating itself,” she said. 

She pointed out that the human life, in so many instances has been reduced to papers such as identification documents and to statistics. This combined with an over reliance on icons and politicians to bring social change, has caused us to forget that a genuine democracy means people are part of it. Hierarchical structures, she said, should not change this. 

Creating a democracy that narrows these gaps is important, because instead the notion of change becomes so narrow that it limits our creativity to explore alternatives that are different from what we are used to. 

“The agenda of change is so distant from the masses and so reliant on a few figures,” Fadiah said. “It undermines the people power and people as an agency for change.”

Lastly, Fadiah re-emphasised the importance of historicising and conceptualising our current political system. Doing so will provide us with a clear analysis of power hierarchies and will allow us to understand how power works. Perhaps more importantly, this exercise will teach us to identify how the exclusion of certain voices are being perpetuated and will equip us with the ability to Identify and dismantle systems and structures that perpetuate oppression and injustice. 

 * Special thanks to our volunteer rapporteur Vasuki Rao for producing the 1st part of this report. She currently works at the Human Resource Development Fund (HDRF).

Photographs © Kalash Nanda Kumar 


Post-GE14: Is Democracy a Weapon for the Weak?

This is Part 2 of our report on Post-GE14 Conference: Making Democracy Deliver. Click here to read the Part 1. 

The second session focused on how marginalised communities in Malaysia have interacted with the democratic system in the past, and whether or not their voices can now be heard amidst new political configurations.

“We need to speak about democracy in a broader sense…because it goes beyond institutions. How do marginalised, unfamiliar, unheard voices engage in democratic processes?” asked moderator Imran Rasid, who is currently enrolled in a masters programme in Southeast Asian history at the University of Malaya.

The rise of orang asli voices

First to speak on the topic was Dr Rusaslina Idrus, senior lecturer and coordinator for gender studies at the University of Malaya, who shared her observations of the orang asli community, their struggles and how they have made their voices heard in Malaysia’s democracy.

While the orang asli – or orang asal, including indigenous peoples from Sabah and Sarawak – make up a collective 14% of Malaysia’s population, there is no shortage of issues facing their communities.

For starters, legal and economic problems range from disputes over land rights, displacement by large infrastructure projects, widespread poverty, poor quality education and a lack of basic infrastructure such as treated water and electricity, she shared.

“The disparity is very stark (considering how) some of these villages are not very far from the nearest town,” Dr Rusaslina said. She also highlighted the case of children who had starved and died in Pos Tohoi, Kelantan in 2015 due to a fear of facing punishment at school.

On top of that, cultural and administrative barriers such as politicisation of choosing leaders and bureaucratic structures have resulted in adat, or traditional customs being abandoned. There is also a lack of emphasis on the culture and contribution of orang asli to nation-building in Malaysia’s school textbooks, as well as a unconsciously internalised derogatory “mindset” that views the orang asli as backward, she shared.

Despite this, the orang asli communities have been active in protecting their land rights starting from proper legal channels such as their local councillors and relevant ministries.

“If these don’t work, they also use litigation and demonstrations to assert their rights,” Dr Rusaslina added, highlighting their participation in blockades even public rallies for civic issues such as the Bersih rallies.

Perhaps the most notable “weapon for the weak” that they have used is political representation in the 14th general election. Three orang asli candidates campaigned for seats in Peninsula Malaysia on polling day – namely Bob Manolan for PKR in Kemayan, Pahang, Nasir Dollah for DAP in Gua Musang, Kelantan, and Mohd Nor Ayat or Mat Nor for PSM in Cameron Highlands.

“None of them won a seat but their political participation was very important in providing visibility (for their communities),” Dr Rusaslina noted.

Based on her personal observations, she shared that while the majority of orang asli communities both in Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak supported the status quo, younger members of the communities leaned more towards a change in government. In Sabah, wins of indigenous rights champion Jannie Lasimbang, her sister Jennifer, and activist lawyer Baru Bian in Selangor were seen as notable gains for orang asli communities.

While the Pakatan Harapan manifesto lists several targeted pledges for the group, it remains to be seen when and how these promises will be kept. One sign of progress ha been the engagement of previously ignored voices championing orang asli issues by JAKOA, the Department for Orang Asli Development, Dr Rusaslina said.

She advocated a four dimensional approach in approaching redress mechanisms to achieve greater equality for these marginalised communities, not only in terms of outcomes but also of access to equal opportunities in society.

This included redistribution of benefits, recognition of their rights, encouraging more participation in the wider community and transformation via both institutional and societal reforms.

“We need more inclusive democratic participation. It is time we address past injustices and put mechanisms (in place) to ensure that structural inequalities can be addressed,” she said.

Pondoks still relevant in Malaysia’s democratic narrative 

Badrul Hisham Ismail, programme director of IMAN then discussed the development and role of pondoks – independent religious schools – in Malaysia’s democracy.

Pioneered by graduates from religious schools in Patani and Jawa, these non-profit institutions mushroomed as religious and educational institutions in the early 20th century as more affluent villagers began sending their children to study in the Middle East.

A notable feature of pondoks is the high involvement from the local community in funding, building and engaging with these schools. “There is a very strong relationship between the pondoks and the local communities, which differentiates them from more exclusive modern schools,” Badrul said.

However, these religious institutions suffered several setbacks post-independence as state-funded religious and national schools began to emerge. On top of that, religious education was incorporated during amid the Islamisation wave in the 1980s, a development in which Tun Dr Mahathir was highly involved, Badrul pointed out.

“Because of that, pondok education became less mainstream and were somewhat trivialised by the wider Malaysian community. They also faced financial issues, as they were initially funded not only through charity but through the collection of zakat. After zakat collection was institutionalised, they did not have access to that funding source anymore,” he said.

Although several graduates of these institutions have gotten involved in politics, they are more party leaders than national figures that all Malaysians can relate to, Badrul added.

Despite this, pondoks currently continue to play a large role in very specific communities in Malaysia now, namely among rural and economically disadvantaged Malay Muslim groups. “For many rural Malaysians, pondoks are not just an alternative means of education but the only way they can get an education,” Badrul said. This is due to several reasons, which include the spiritual direction provided by pondoks, their role as remove schools for students who cannot catch up with the pace of education in national schools, and their capacity in providing education to the needy.

“A distinct element of pondok education is that it is a community-based approach. They aspire, whether they are able to or not, to produce a more holistic Malaysian citizen, proven by previous generations of graduates. The kitab Jawi curriculum also talks about what it means to be a citizen, the importance of being active in politics either as a voter or as a politician, the importance of paying tax, of defending the country,” Badrul said.

He then contrasted the waning political participation of Malaysian pondoks with their Indonesian counterparts. Known as pesantrens, members of such institutions are actively involved in politics and have staunchly defended state ideology and institutions, as well as promoted justice, democracy, citizenship and freedom of religion.

“This level of involvement was not just supported by the strength of the pesantrens, but public acceptance of Santris (their graduates) as leaders in democratic progress,” Badrul said.

Back in Malaysia, the results of GE14 showed that identity politics, especially political Islam, is here to stay. The success of UMNO and PAS in securing 70% of the Malay vote indicated that many Malays still vote along religious lines, he noted.

As such, it is important for Malaysia to ensure that religious platforms remain open so that the Malaysian public can engage and be involved in these communities.

“The question is not the role that pondoks can play in our democracy, but whether we as Malaysians provide space for these institutions to be part of the democratic process,” Badrul said.

Balancing Islam and religious minorities

Immediately after he learnt that Tun Dr Mahathir was Pakatan Harapan’s prime ministerial candidate for GE14, Dr Mohd Faisal Musa, research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation, National Unviersity of Malaysia (UKM), revisited The Malay Dilemma, a book the fourth prime minister had written in 1970.

“After reading the book for the third time, I was convinced that Dr Mahathir was the one person who would be able to defeat Datuk Seri Najib (Tun Razak),” said Dr Faisal, who is better known to the public as Faisal Tehrani.

While many Malays may still disagree with the characterisation of their race as indifferent (acuh tidak acuh) and subscribed to old-fashioned religious views, Dr Faisal opined that Tun Dr Mahathir had harnessed this understanding of Malay attitudes in shaping his campaign.

He highlighted that Tun Dr Mahathir had, in a 2002 speech, opined that the only cure for the Malay dilemma is anajibn open mind.

“I believe that by working with DAP, PAS and his old foe Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Tun Dr Mahathir himself internalised this spirit of open-mindedness,” Dr Faisal said.

However, the one challenge the PPBM leader needed to overcome was a 30% swing in Malay voters to Pakatan Harapan, which was touted by analysts as the minimum needed by the opposition coalition to topple Barisan Nasional.

“From my perspective as a Malay Studies researcher, Tun Dr Mahathir addressed this by shifting the Malay community’s focus from the past to the present. He did this by highlighting damage that had been done to the country by the Barisan Nasional administration, more specifically under the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib,” Dr Faisal said. 

This, coupled with the Goods and Services Tax, were used to draw attention away from the fear instilled in many Malays of what they stood to lose if they did not vote for UMNO.

Tun Dr Mahathir also leveraged on another attitude he attributed to Malays in The Malay Dilemma – the tendency to run amok.

“And 30% of Malays did “run amok” by lining up for hours in extreme weather order to cast their votes. This was enough to change the government,” Dr Faisal said jokingly.

Despite this, three new challenges related to the Malay dilemma still face the country’s new democracy. These were feudalism, the risk that reformists may decide not to implement reforms after coming into power and problems associated with traditional Islam.

Dr Faisal chose to elaborate the last point as it is most concerns religious minorities. Traditional Islamists, he explained, do not believe in sovereignty of the people, or political equality, as religious scholars are always seen to be more knowledgeable than the masses.

“For example, Muslims considered more worthy of becoming prime ministers compared to non-Muslims,” he said. 

On top of that, religious traditionalists assume that it is the role of the government to enforce the doing of good and forbid evil according to Islamic principles. “When it comes to decision making, (they believe) religious teachings can and should be made law,” Dr Faisal said. The challenge is to make it understood that while religious commandments can be considered in law-making, they should be subject to public approval.

“This is the dichotomy between traditional and reformist Islam. I believe the fate of the religious minorities very much depends on who is next appointed to the committee of Jakm,” he said.

Dr Faisal opined Malaysia’s religious minorities such as the Christians and even Shia Muslims were openly supportive of a change in government for two factors: first, the Barisan Nasional government under Datuk Seri Najib was closely linked to the country of Saudi Arabia, leading to more hardcore approach towards Islam in in his administration.

Second, reports leading up to GE14 by human rights group Suhakam found that four people who had gone missing in recent years were subjected to ‘enforced disappearance’, suspectedly due to their religious leanings.

These minorities, he said, were hoping that a change in government would stem the rise of radical Islamisation  and offer them security to practice their own religions freely.  

* Special thanks to our volunteer rapporteur Samantha Ho for producing the 2nd part of our report. She is currently a journalist at The Edge.

Photographs  ©  Kalash Nanda Kumar


Malaysia Before Malaysia: A Labour History of Malaya

Missed our first lecture for the year 2018? Read on for a quick recap:

The significance of Malaysian trade unions in the shaping of our history is seldom discussed. From its origins in the 1920s as scattered General Labour Unions to the height of its influence under the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions in the 1940s, the role played by labour movements in our independence struggle and their subsequent suppression has largely been erased from mainstream narratives of Malaysian history. 

This installment of the Malaysia Before Malaysia series discussed the history of the Malaysian workers, their organisations and their role in Malaysian history. Speaking on this subject was Professor Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Saminathan Munisamy. The session was moderated by our coordinator, Netusha Naidu. 

The struggle of Indian workers in colonial Malaya

Saminathan Munisamy, an independent researcher has dedicated much time and effort to collect newspaper cuttings, photographs, letters and other archives to document the history of the Indian working-class in former British Malaya.  He shares his findings on a website known as Malaya Ganapathy 

“This is a story that has been left out from our school textbooks”, Saminathan said in the opening of his presentation. 

He explained that his research attempts to narrate the making of Malaysia from the perspective of Indian labourers. It tries to see them as human being rather than factors of production. This can be told through the instances of which these workers politically organized themselves to demand for their human rights. 

For example, the Kajang Strike in 1941 demonstrated the class antagonisms that were evident between the kangani  chiefs and workers. Although the protestors learnt that a pacifist approach would help them achieve their means, British governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas did not hesitate to use force in dispersing the strikes. As a result, journalist and strike leader RH Nathan was deported upon his arrest, along with 300 other demonstrators detained.

Neither labour wages nor other demands were realized after the strikes. However, what was pointed out by Saminathan was the colonizer’s perception of worker rights movements to be an inhibitor to the war effort during the Malayan Emergency. He illustrated this through the documentation of RH Nathan’s deportation to be politically motivated, as he was accused for being an instigator that would undermine the fight against communism in Malaya. There were even pressure groups for an inquiry into the violence that entailed in the Klang Strikes of 1941. However, the investigation was never concluded due to the war. 

Saminathan also emphasized that it is important to take note that not all workers’ strikes were organized by the Malayan Communist Party, and this is seen in the 1941 Klang Strikes. The party had previously been more isolationist in its approach and were mostly active in Singapore. This distinction made by him allows for the ability to grant the workers of Malaya a certain degree of agency in advancing their fundamental liberties.

The complexities of narrating labour history

Following this Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former Tun Hussein Onn Chair in the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) and former Assistant Director General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations since 2012, began his speech by posing a question to the audience, that being – what does it mean to talk about labour history in Malaysia? 

Jomo argued that a distinction which might be useful in discussing Malaysia’s labour history is whether what was being talked about is “a class by itself or for itself”? He illustrates this by characterizing the act of working and how labour, as a socio-economic entity, has always existed ever since the beginning of human society being organized. However, as modernity progresses, the meaning of labour became oriented towards wages, erasing any discussion about slavery or indentured workers. Labour as commonly understood in the present is now referred to as ‘free labour’. 

By bringing this up, Jomo tried to compare and contrast the past and the present, examining the differences in ethnic breakdown of Malaysia’s labour class. While Saminathan focused on the plight of Indian workers in Malaya, Jomo reinforced the impact of colonial capitalism in the stratification of the labour class along racial lines. 

He brought up about the dominance of associating the Chinese community with wage labour has long historical ties as well since in the 19th century, many of them worked in the tin mines. Many Chinese labourers left mainland China in search of livelihood as it was in this period that the country was plagued with famine and political turmoil. Jomo highlighted that tin and rubber were fundamental to the making of modern Malaya and the preservation of British colonial rule. Class antagonisms were also rife between Chinese secret societies and the Malay rulers, as seen in Larut Valley.

Keeping this in mind, Jomo showed that it is significant to compare the way in which Indian labour was organized in comparison to the Chinese. As a result, it informs of how the use of force to create an indentured labour class was necessary to British domination because Chinese arrangements were fairly autonomous and had greater bargaining power, coupled with the influence of the secret societies. Indenture became the main mode of control for the labour class in Malaya. He touched quickly on how this is made further complicated by the different demands and experiences of ethnic groups that are not frequently touched on, such as the Javanese community.

On the other hand, when thinking about labour as a class for itself, Jomo said this would only appear more apparent in the mid-19th century due to the rise of left-wing, socialist movements. It was a time when the Communist Manifesto was written, and the later the creation of a working class movement that would be splintered into various ideological factions. In demonstrating how this phenomenon was also in Southeast Asia, Jomo mentioned the revolutionary leadership of figures like Tan Malaka, Sutan Syahrir, Ho Chi Minh, SA Ganapathy and others. To Jomo, this makes it clear that the struggle for workers’ rights was not exclusive to communist parties as often told by official history.

In the case of Malaya, Jomo told that the political mobilisation of workers were made possible by organizations like the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) and the Central Indian Association of Malaya (CIAM). However, all this came to a tragic end with the introduction of the Trade Union Ordinance in 1940 and preceding amendments.

Jomo elaborated on how these historical accounts serve as a reminder to locate domestic political developments within the broader changes in the international sphere. The labour class in Malaya was most definitely subjected to this as well. For example, during the Japanese Occupation during World War 2 witnessed the exploitation and manipulation of Malayan workers. Particularly, their recruitment into the Indian National Army (INA), a collaborator with the Nippon Army, resulted in torture at the infamous Death Railway. 

“The history of power is cruel […] The rebuilding of the British empire was done on the backs of working people”, said Jomo. 

The only way such an aspiration could be fulfilled would be through the repression of the labour class. As seen through these elucidations, it can be seen that the forceful measures by the British colonialists to suppress left leaning movements like Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) and trade unions were due to the perception that the political organization of Malaya’s working class would be a major threat to their political and economic interests.

Rewriting labour history for Malaysia today

In the Q&A session, the questions posed by the audience focused on the relevance and purpose of revising labour history in contemporary Malaysia. Both Jomo and Saminathan shared concerns for the treatment of undocumented foreign workers, working-class women and other discriminated communities who are not being represented politically and are persistently marginalized. Both speakers concluded by reinforcing the importance of efforts to revise Malaysian history to be more inclusive about the participation of the working-class in advancing the fundamental liberties many believe in, as it will inform the present generation about the oppression faced by Malaysia’s labourers today.

*Special thanks to a member of our audience, Ong Li Ling for volunteering as a rapporteur for this forum.

Photographs © Kalash Nanda Kumar


The Mysterious Ali of the ‘Malay Archipelago’

Tom McLaughlin holds a Masters in Political Science and International Affairs and currently resides in Sarawak. Together with his wife, Suriani binti Sahari, they conducted an oral history and archival investigation of the enigmatic persona “Ali” in the classic text on Borneo’s natural history, Malay Archipelago by Alfred Wallace. This essay explores the oral history of Ali through a Kuching Bomoh, traces the verbal history through living relatives, examines the work of the American Dr. Thomas Barbor and provides additional evidence with a pantun. It concludes the Ali was from Sarawak and returned here after his journeys with Alfred Wallace.This is an abridge version of their findings and more can be discovered on his website,

In the Malay Archipelago, Alfred Wallace describes a relationship between him and a boy named Ali. Several Western  writers have attempted to explain where he came from and what happened to him. Piecing together both oral history and scholarly sources, my wife and I have finally found the answer to this quest. Through a seven year search and a dukun named Sapian bin Morani, the following narrative, translated from the Sarawak Malay, explains where Ali came from and what happened to him.

Sapian bin Morni is a dukun. In the Sarawak Malay world, a dukun uses herbs to treat disease. He uses  fragrance oils to help those who have marriage problem and  to make the couple fall in love again. Sapian bin Morni can also use verses from the Koran to treat people. He has travelled widely throughout Borneo, the south Philippines and west Malaysia to acquire more knowledge. Sapian acquired this knowledge from his father and grandfather who were both dukuns and probably further back. He also acquired the historical knowledge from a lineage that spans several generations.  His knowledge has been translated from the Sarawak Malay to English by Suriani binti Sahari.

Ali bin Amit

Ali, Wallace’s invaluable employee and friend.

The South China Sea washed the fishing village of Kampung Jaie about two hours northeast from Kuching. Most of the houses were probably on stilts to allow the waste to wash away. Ali bin Amit was born around 1840. He was not alone. He was the youngest of his siblings, Chek, Osman, Tad and Lon. While growing up, he learned about jungle medicine from his brother Tad (Panglima Putad) then they went to Kuching to work for the Rajah, Mr. James Brooke. Ali soon followed a as young teen lad. He worked under the tutelage of his brother Osman soon to be known as Panglima Seman. The title of Panglima was usually earned in battle as leader of soldiers.

Panglima Putad had learned medical skills from his father and Ali assisted in treating the wounded.  In his book, Ten Years in Sarawak volume 1, Charles Brooke describers the Malays as “the worst kind” except for Panglima Seman and Abang Ali. Later he tells of “good Panglima Seman”.Finally, he informs that he kept a small force back to guard the stockade under Panglima Seman. Ali probably followed his brother through battle, helping to bandage wounds and cooking for the troops.

Following the raids, Ali knew that his fortunes lay with the white people who came to rule Sarawak. He befriended a person named “Edward” to learn the English language. According to the Rajahs letters, Edward was the groom, a person who took care of horses. Ali was no stranger around the Astanna where he learned English from Edward.

The skirmishes ended and  Panglima Seman was granted a tract of land in 1852 from the Rajah for services to him. The land still bears his name.  The first year, Ali did not live in the kampung. Only Panglima Putad, (Tad) one of the brothers,  worked with Seman. He opened a prosperous blacksmith operation and people came in to fill up the kampung. However, a person named Awang Mat (Pengiran Ahmad) became jealous of Seman’s success and started to spread rumours to the Rajah about Panglima Seman. He stated that Seman was plotting to overthrow the Rajah and to make himself  the head of government. The Rajah believed in the plot because Panglima Seman’s family members were there and able to forge arms from the blacksmith shop. He could also produce weapons to fight the Rajah. The Panglima went to see Brooke eight times but Brooke refused to meet with him. A few months after that, Brooke went to Singapore. While he was there, rumours spread that Brooke was forming an army to attack the Panglima Seman.

When Brooke returned from Singapore, the ship passed the kampung. It was three days after his return, he planned to meet with Brooke but he was not allowed to see him. They sent someone to tell Brooke that Panglima wanted to meet him. He was not permitted to enter the Astanna.  Rumors spread again that Brooke want to attack Panglima Seman and his followers. A few weeks later a large ship docked at the mouth of Sarawak River. The debates became heated between the Rajah and the Panglima, and in a fit of temper, The Rajah threatened him and his family. Upon seeing  the ship, they assumed the rumors were true and fled to Kampung Jaie. He packed everything out. His residence  and the land is called Mungguk puang (Sarawak Malay for an empty place.) The Panglima, along with Ali, evacuated his family to Kampung Jaie. He changed the names of his children to Chinese and white men names because he took the threats seriously. Bibi, Tang, Chong, Ben and Mu are their names. It was not true that the Rajah wanted to attack the Panglima’s family. Panglima Seman  disappears from history and it is thought he fled to Sambas. Ali arranged people to take care of the children and returned to Kuching where he met Alfred Wallace. Ali used his skills a speaker of English, his ability as cook and his knowledge of jungle medicine to gain a place in Wallace’s entourage. He actively solicited the position. In his first conversation with Wallace he told him of the herbs but he had not been hired.  He got to know Wallace and thought he was close friends with the royal family in England. He remained with Wallace, off and on, for six years. During his off  time with Wallace he returned to Kampung Jaie  to check on Seman’s children. His exploits have been dissected elsewhere and are  described in Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago.

The Pantun

Most pantuns written during the 1860’s and 1870’s were composed by people who could neither read nor write. They relied on sounds and memory to pass the pantun from one generation to the next. The following pantun is written in Sarawak Malay as they were heard from the people of Kampung Jaie.

pantun has four lines with an abab rhyming scheme. This means the first line rhymes with the third line while the second rhymes with the fourth. Each line has between eight and twelve syllables. The first two lines usually have no relation to the second two. They are often performed at weddings and other kampung celebrations. Each kampung has its’ own pantun unique to that individual setting.  An old pantun in Sarawak Malay from Kampung Jaie relates:

Apa kaba Weles serani

Abang Ali duak sekawan

Apa daya setuan ini

Berpecah kongsi berputus seratan

The first line Apa kaba Weles serani

Apa kaba means how are you; Weles is Wallace; serani is Sarawak Malay for white man.

Abang Ali duak sekawan

Wallace (from the top line) and Abang Ali  are good friends

Apa daya setaun ini

Unfortunately, this year

Berpecah kongsi berputus seratan

Our cooperation and team work has ended. Berpecah kongsi in Sarawak Malay means to break up. Berputus seratan means  the end of a relationship. The last  line in Sarawak Malay mean the breakup of a relationship who will not see each other for a long time. All four lines refer to the relationship between Wallace and Ali. (This pantun is translated from the old Sarawak Malay by Suriani binti Sahari)

This pantun tells the story of Wallace and Ali and confirms Ali came from Kuching and Kampong Jaie.


thomas barbour
Dr Thomas Barbour

A young western author by the name of Thomas Barbour said he met Ali in 1908 while on a trip.  When we visited Ternate,  our driver took us to the home of a lady, Mbk Iss, who, he said, went into a trance could tell the things about the past. I was expecting an old woman but a motorbike drove up and a beautiful girl of about 27 years old drove up. She put on a tudong and started her incantations. In an elderly persons voice and seemingly in a trance, she told the driver to quit having an affair with a local lady. She told us about Ali Wallace and said he was buried in a plot about a two hour boat ride from Ternate. When she came out of the trance we thanked her very much. The next day she rode with us around the island showing us the intensely beautiful sights of the island.

We were not going to take a two hour boat ride looking for Ali. However, we did visit a graveyard and people collecting fallen flowers for the perfume trade told us that a white man and two Malays from Java had said Ali Wallace grave was close by. We visited the site and noticed new cement and blue paint around the grave. This was all the information we had. We asked around the Malay community and nobody had heard of Ali, the new cement or the blue paint..

The Kampungs

Our adventures in the search for Ali Wallace turned to the kampungs on the Sarawak River. We interviewed hundreds of people, off and on, over a seven year in our search. We combed kampungs from Tupong to Panglima Seman .We gave up our search for Ali  He was not to be found.

It was at Kampung Hilir Batu  that we  interviewed   Sapian bin Morni  for a paper iI was writing which was totally unrelated to Ali. This was about three month later. We were about to leave, and as an afterthought, I asked about Ali. The  narrative flowed forth. I didn’t believe it until he came to the pantun. Then, I was almost convinced.

I told him we were going to Kampung Jaie. He said he couldn’t make until mid September (this was early August, 2016) I I told him we were going anyway and would meet Ali’s relatives. He came with us. A two hour drive and a winding road towards the sea took us to the Kampung. There lived the relatives of Panglima Seman .The man who sang the pantun for us was Jompot bin Chong the son of Chong whose father was Panglima Osman. (Seman). We interviewed several of the relatives, noticed the physical similarities and came away convinced this was indeed the home of Ali, the boy who accompanied Alfred Wallace through the Archipelago.

Ali’s grave at Kampung Jaie.

Ali’s grave is located at the centre of the grave yard. One must walk through high grass  and traverse soggy ground before one comes to the non descript wooden head and foot stone. The aged timbers are spread around as if a flood had lifted and resettled them, which, indeed it had before the building of a huge berm between the sea and the land. Ali’s 20 post house is gone, reclaimed by the South China Sea on the seaside side of the berm.

For footnotes and citations, the author can be emailed at


Collective Amnesia: The Japanese Occupation of the Phillipines

Stephanie Ann B. Lopez, a student of Psychology at University of the Phillipines Dilliman writes a short story about the horrors of the Japanese Occupation in the Phillipines during the Second World War. Her descriptions are based on documentaries and narratives about this particular period of the country’s history.

It was like any other afternoon. I was sitting on my rocking chair, staring at the drying laundry that draped our balcony. I almost fell asleep, but then I heard my granddaughter’s hurried footsteps and the clatter of her suitcase. As she headed towards me, she started slurring the lyrics of her song. I snorted in disgust and she finally stopped singing.

I told her my story so she knew how I can’t bear to hear the sound of those words. She knew perfectly well how much I hate those people, their putrid language, and how everything about them disgusts me.  She knew that I’d rather die than forgive them. Who can blame me? Seven long decades have passed and yet I’m still haunted by that memory.

I was nine years old when it happened. The air was humid and the sun was nearly setting. I was fetching water from a well just a few yards from our house when I heard the first blast. At that very moment, I abandoned my half-filled bucket and I quickly ran back to our house. When I entered the hut, I saw my mother carrying my five-month-old brother in one arm and a bag of clothes on the other. My older sister dragged me by the arms and yelled, “Hurry! Hurry! They’re coming!” When we left the house, we saw that the village was already surrounded by the troops. The smell of gunpowder dominated the air. Our neighbors were running for their lives, crying hysterically and pleading for mercy. Many of the houses were set to flames; we were lucky to get out before ours was burned.

“Daraga! Daraga!” [Girl! Girl!] somebody from behind said in a shrill and excited voice.   My sister lost her grip on my arm. Somebody grabbed her and pointed his bayonet at her breasts. I was terrified so I ran as fast as I could away from them. I was lucky enough to spot a hole in the ground where I covered myself with mud and hid the rest of my body under fallen leaves.

The soldier demanded my sister to dance or else the bayonet will cut through her chest. She didn’t. She struggled to break away but he slapped her several times until she lost consciousness. I saw how my father tried to save her but another soldier pointed his sword at him and yelled, “Ikaw Pilipino loko! Ikaw pugot ulo!”  [You stupid Filipino! Off with your head!] They tied his hands and forced him down. I couldn’t bear to see it happen so I averted my gaze. I looked to my right and saw my mother kneeling before a soldier. He was holding my brother by the neck. The soldier tossed the baby in the air and bayoneted him as he fell. He hurled my lifeless brother like a dead rodent and then laughed at my mother’s pain. The soldier aimed his bayonet at my mother, and the next thing I know, she was thrown in the well along with the other women. They incessantly fired their machine guns at them. I wanted to cry so badly but the faintest sound would endanger my life. I shut my eyes and waited for it all to end.

What’s more disturbing than the blood-soaked ground, the pile of chopped and beheaded bodies, and the cries of those who were buried alive?

Well, it’s as though nothing but petty crimes had happened. Only a few years after the Whites won the war, the prisoners were freed and the collaborators were given amnesty. The offenders had shown no sign of remorse; no official apology was given.  They have forgotten the ruthless crimes, the massive destruction, and the countless deaths. Everything was erased from history.

And now, my granddaughter will be flying off to the land where those soulless demons thrive. She has to give them entertainment, to sing and dance for them; their money will keep us alive. I begged her not to go, but she didn’t listen.  I want to cry so badly, but that won’t change anything. Like everyone else, she has forgotten my story.


The Hybridity of Malay Islam (1500-1800) Part 2: An Entanglement of ‘Adat’ and Politics

This is a two-part essay on the complex history of Islam in the Malay World by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The first part of the essay outlines how the process of Islamisation took place in the region due to the openness of Malay cultural life which allowed for easy assimilation of Islamic practices and values. It also touches on the significance of Sufism, a form of Islam which was spread across the Malay world. In the second of the her essay, Lhavanya takes a look at the manifestations of Malay-Islam in modern politics, governance and social life.

Islam as a Political Tool

Legitimacy is seen in the people’s support of the King and this was a gradual process, the effect of persuasion rather than force (Marsden, 1812, xxxiv). And scholars opine that they were a dominant force in leading Islamisation (Milner, 2008, p.40) building upon a similar process that had occurred centuries earlier with Hindu-Buddhism. Once Islam became the preferred basis for rulers it was relatively straightforward and easy for their subjects to convert with the sanction and support of their leaders. The Melaka-Johor chronicle, narrates the decree the newly converted ruler of Melaka gives his people “whether of high or low degree” to convert (Milner, 2008, p.65).

Islam reinforces the concept of daulat, which in the Malay world refers to the mystical powers of rulership, by imparting to the ruler divine sanction to establish God’s ordained rule (Means, 2009, p.21). The ruler would be considered the head of the Ummah and at the apex of the system of moral authority. In the 17th century, the Sultan Agung of Mataram sought legitimacy by Islamicising local traditions and Javanising Islam, by marrying Ratu Kidul, a Goddess of indigenous Javanese tradition while also inaugurating the hybrid Saka calendrical system with the Islamic hijri calendar (Feener, 2011, p.479). Yet others sought to serve political agenda with appeals made to piety to reinforce legitimacy. In Mataram in the early 18th century, Ratu Pakubuwana, the grandmother of Pakubuwana II sponsored a series of pious Islamic works which praised her piety such as the Carita Sultan Iskandar which claims authentication as a text from exegesis of the Quran. Her following texts Carita Nabi Yusuf and Kitab Usulbiyah do the same (Feener, 2011).

Sultan La Maddaremmeng, the ruler of Bone during the 17th century, put in place a new rule appealing to the sharia to prohibit practices such as the third gender bissu priesthood and to emancipate slaves (Feener, 2011, p.482). Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa from Banten encouraged Islamic values such as the prohibition of opium and the adoption of popular perceptions of Arab forms of dress (ibid). Sultan Pakubuwana II from Mataram banned all forms of gambling except cock fighting in 1731. By adopting selective aspects of Islam, the claims to the religion could be made which would also be of benefit as it increased access to trading networks as seen in Melaka which established a system of favoured treatment for Muslims both involving trade agreements and payment of transit duties (Means, 2009, p.21). However in many cases rulers were selective in their implementation of Islam for fear of losing the popular support of the locals or engendering dissent over the abolishment of some of their practices. Arguably however, the selective adoption of aspects of Islamic principles, in some of these contexts, could be viewed in the reflection of the Quranic revelations on alcohol. There was a series of three revelations over time (2:219, 4:43 and 5:90-91) progressively dissuading the use of alcohol to finally outright prohibiting it because it was the best means to achieving this, perceived, moral outcome. Therefore this selective application, at least within the timeframe of a ruler’s reign could be a means to an end.

Whether rulers managed to successfully harness the support of the people through this means was not guaranteed however. Pakubuwana’s grandmother and himself did not manage to successfully cement themselves in their people’s good opinion (Feener, 2011). This could be because these rulers were not successful in convincing their people that they were truly pious Muslims as there was a cleavage between the ideal pattern of behaviour and their praxis. This can be seen in 1660 when Shaykh Yusuf unsuccessfully attempted to persuade rulers to impose Islamic principles like prohibiting gambling, cock fighting, arrack drinking and other habits that were frowned upon by Islam (Reid, 2011, p.456). In addition, in many situations Islamic teachings discriminated against female rulers therefore the case for the legitimising capabilities of Islam being a dominant factor in the Islamisation of the Malay world does not stand, although it does qualify as a significant factor. As Ricklefs (1997, p.252) comments on Java, the Islamic elite were something of an anomaly, with other Javanese courts seemingly indifferent to Islamic piety at best and its enemy at worst and between the two cultural streams, the Javanese one is dominant in court affairs between the period of the 17th century til 20th century.

At another level, there is reason for the conflict between ‘original’ Islam and ‘Malay’ Islam because as seen in many instances, the adoption of Islam by rulers was done for purely political rather than pious reasons. The somewhat piecemeal adoption of Islamic ideas and practices was a calculated approach to make claims to piety while still appealing to popularity and could very much be considered a syncretism and possibly not even Islamic. As an example of what could be perceived as a systemwide failure of Islam in the Malay world lies in its supposed egalitarian nature, removing the ascriptive social status of birth and caste and making all members of the Ummah socially equal, in praxis however the systems of patron-client linkages and hierarchical social systems were still maintained to a large extent across the Malay world with Islamic festivals such as Eid serving as opportunities to reinforce these relationships (Means, 2009, p.25).

Islam and Adat

The verdict on whether Islam and adat were conflicting or complementary has still yet to be made but we can assume there was some conflict but the differences were negotiated and an effective compromise reached and maintained in the 17th and 18th centuries. The example of Minangkabau as given by Abdullah (1966) will be used to illustrate the synthesis between adat and Islam.

In the late 17th century, records talk about the first religious teacher Sjech Burhanuddin in the region, from the town of Ulakan in 1704. He had been instrumental in setting up the first religious school (madrasah) from which later on many others grew out of. At the early stages of the Islamisation process, Sufi missionaries were more concerned with individual morality over the religious correctness of a person’s actions and also with the more pressing issue of the “re-structuralisation of adat in order to interpret the heterogenetic change as orthogenetic.” (Marsden, 1783, p.343). It must be noted that the Minangkabau attitude toward adat is one that recognises the imperative continuity of the system while also acknowledging the importance of change. Therefore the hybridisation of adat and Islam was a long drawn, subtle process. There are four classes of adat and the first, adaik nan sabana adaik (adat which is truly adat) is considered to be eternal, since it is also identical with natural law and it was to this, during the process of codification (which happened only after the Arabic script was adapted in the region) that a new category of supernatural law was added to contain and insert the Quran and the hadiths and these were collectively perceived as eternal principles that guide human spiritual and secular activities.

Abdullah posits that over the two centuries, the madrasahs grew in size and influence posing a threat to the royalty as a symbol of tradition as well as because the madrasahs also practised patrilineal inheritance of their leadership just like the royalty. The commoners on the other hand practised matrilineal inheritance. The influence and power of the royalty waned because of these madrasahs although there was no direct conflict and no direct impact on society till the end of the 18th century (p.13). At the turn of the 19th century adat is changed far more significantly and arguably, even hijacked and its original elements downgraded by the incoming Padri movement led by the “three hajis” who were influenced by the initial success of the Wahabi movement in Arabia (p.18).


Undoubtedly, in many parts of the Malay world and across the centuries, ‘Malay’ Islam was a syncretic rather than a creole synthesis, with many contradictions that would warrant the criticism of Muslims practicing ‘original’ Islam. Many of its amalgamations with the Hindu-Buddhist culture was deliberately done to serve a political agenda, either to reinforce legitimacy or to convince locals to convert to Islam. The nature of Sufism was particularly effective Islamising the Malay world because it permitted the fusing of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism. Arguably without that openess, the Malay world might not have taken Islam so successfully. This then paved the way for more rigid formulations of Islam to take hold in the Malay world after the 18th century.

The political machinations behind the adoption of Islam was also key in getting large numbers of Malays to declare themselves Muslims even if they did not follow all its principles. And it could be argued that not all of these machinations were purely political as many of these rulers could have truly believed in Islam, but simultaneously were aware of the reality that their people may not have welcomed the religion if it had been too restrictive. Therefore while ‘original’ Islam was valid in some of its criticisms of Islam, it is also unrealistic to expect a rigid fixed form of Islam to develop identical to it, especially when Islam itself is diverse and varied. The moral judgement passed on such a syncretic but rich creation is unwarranted. The diversity enriches the scholarship of Islam while also giving rise to conflicts that need to be dealt with rationally as do all conflicts of belief systems whether religious or otherwise.


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