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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.