This simulating new reading of constructions of ethnicity in Malaysia and Singapore is an important contribution to understanding the powerful linkages between ethnicity, religious reform, identity and nationalism in multi-ethnic Southeast Asia.
The narrative of Malay identity devised by Malay nationals, writers and filmmakers in the late colonial period associated Malayness with the village or kampung, envisaged as static, ethnically homogenous, classless, indigenous, subsistence-orientated, rural, embedded in family and community, and loyal to a royal court. Joel Kahn challenges the kampung version of Malayness, arguing that it ignores the immigration of Malays from outside the peninsula to participate in trade and commercial agriculture, the substantial Malay population in towns and cities, and the reformist Muslims who argued for a common bond in Islam.
The project was further complicated by another kind of challenge, a challenge to the tradition of ethnographic writing that sees itself as giving “voice” to heretofore “silenced” peoples. As numerous critics of colonialism and nationalism have been pointing out for some time, colonial discourse and nationalist narratives have both served to obscure, erase, or silence other perspectives, narratives or voices. And there has been a tendency for postcolonial theorists and anthropologists to contest such erasures by attempting to recover these heretofore excluded perspectives, narratives and voices.
Like many others, the author has been disturbed by the high levels of racism, patriarchy and exclusion that continue to exist at all levels of Malaysian society, a consequence of the hegemony of a particular nationalist narrative of Malay indignity. The national story of an indigenous race (the Malays) formed in a traditional society of courts and kampung, disadvantaged and marginalised by the twin forces of colonialism and large-scale foreign immigration, and rescued by a postcolonial state guaranteeing Malay rights certainly suppresses the role of other Malaysians – Chinese and Indians, peoples perhaps more deserving of the indigenous label like the Orang Asli on the peninsula, various tribal groups in Sabah and Sarawak, women and others – in the making of modern Malaysia.
It is hoped that this research on the formation of a nationalist narrative of Malayness and Malay disadvantage, and the racial exclusions that it has effected, might make a small contribution to the growing effort to construct a more inclusive narrative and hence a more cosmopolitan vision of Malaysia. Owing to a rising dissatisfaction with the established order and new modernist sensitivities, especially among the younger generation, it is perhaps time to revisit the alternative, more cosmopolitan narrative of Malayness.
About the author: Joel S. Kahn is a Professor of Anthropology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia‘ He has authored several books on culture, politics and modernity in Indonesia and Malaysia.