Happy 2019! 🎆🎉We have important updates for you. 📅

Happy New Year, everyone! Time really does fly by quickly. Where did 2018 go?? We apologize for being a little quiet lately.😅 We have been working pretty hard on some major stuff to make 2019 a very fulfilling year for Imagined Malaysia.

Here are some super important highlights that we want to share with our supporters. After all, it is because of YOU that 2018 allowed Imagined Malaysia to keep going. Check it out!


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