01 May 2016: Taming the Wild

The question of who is indigenous, and the role racial identification plays in indigeneity, permeate the discussions raised in Taming the Wild. It is part of a longer history of racial politics involving the interplay between ruling government exigencies and scientific ideas about race and origins that has been taking place since the late 18th century and is still ongoing. – Sandra Khor Manickam

Orang Asli, a catch-all phrase that includes a variety of indigenous or aboriginal peoples in the Malay Peninsula, had been understood as referring to Malaysia’s own ‘backyard primitives’ since the British colonial period of the 19th century. Like indigenous communities found elsewhere, theOrang Asli constitute only a very small percentage of the local population.

In 2011, Malaysia’s former prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad cast aspersions upon the accepted anthropological position that Orang Asli were the indigenous peoples of Malaysia. Not surprisingly, Mahathir’s statement resulted in scathing responses from several quarters, including one from an Orang Asli spokesperson, who retorted that the statement was made not out of ignorance, but out of arrogance and power because Mahathir knew that the Orang Asli would not challenge him. ​Approaching the same issue, in a more academic, less confrontational but no less challenging perspective is Sandra Khor Manickam’s Taming the Wild – a book which deals with this complex history of indigeneity and racial ideas in Malaya, and shows how scientific knowledge, framed within contemporary political circumstances and popular beliefs resulted in the ‘racial schism’ of inferiority/superiority and separation of the Asli and the Malays.

In Malaysia, race is viewed not as an external attribute attached to a person but rather as an innate characteristic, claims Sandra. Drawing on research during her time as a PhD student at the Australia National University, the author shows how the classifications of “indigenous” and “Malay” depend on a mixture of cultural, social, and religious knowledge that is compressed under the heading “race” but differs according to the circumstances under which it is produced and the uses to which it is put. The writer further posits that race and indigeneity featured prominently in Malaysian politics throughout the post-war era, influencing both the civil status and property rights of broad sectors of the population. For the most part, people were categorized as Malay, Chinese or Indian, with some mixture in-between but predominantly falling into one category or another. A now popular way of categorizing Malaysians has been pared down to bumiputeraor non-bumiputera, or as another observer wryly quipped, either this or not-this.

By historicizing the categorization of aborigines and British engagement with “aboriginal” groups in Malaya, Taming the Wild situates racial knowledge within the larger issues of anthropological and racial thought, and highlights the persistence of nineteenth-century understandings of indigeneity and Malayness in racial contestations in modern Malaysia.

About the author: Sandra Khor Manickam is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian History at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She obtained her PhD from the Australian National University. She is a historian of colonial Malaya, focusing on the history of anthropology and ideas of race.