Don’t ask, don’t tell – majulah Malaysia

April 7, 2011 § 4 Comments

It seems that Malaysia only has one prominent public intellectual and he is Farish Noor. Public intellectuals, it seems, are a rare breed over here – or if they exist, it’s like they’re shrouded under a mountain of invisibility cloaks. Perhaps if one is an intellectual, one tries not to make it public. The act of thinking is always regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. So it’s a shame that our only prominent Malaysian public intellectual doesn’t live and teach in Malaysia.[i] In his introduction to What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You, Farish talks about the difficulty of doing the kind research and academic work that matters – the kind that goes against the status quo or isn’t government-sanctioned:

It was by chance that I began to read and write about Malaysia’s convoluted history, as a result of several years of frustration while trying to do something that resembled decent research in the region. The lack of books, archives, and primary sources meant that much of my material had to be culled directly from interviews; searching for books that were out of print in the second-hand bookstores of London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Leiden; and piecing together fragments of a history that seemed to have been deliberately torn apart.

I can sympathise with this position. While not even doing anything remotely close to sustained research, I found it hard to know where to start to write a basic undergraduate paper in a Critical Theory class on orientalism, Malaysian history, and Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy. I heard about Syed Alatas and The Myth of the Lazy Native for the first time ever in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which filled me with a sense of shame that I still find somewhat eviscerating many years later. The notion that one had to learn about home by-way of people outside of it was a common one, however, for many of my friends who were also undergraduates at the time in various humanities disciplines.

This is precisely what Azmi Sharom (the Robin to Farish’s Batman? In a scholarly manner, I mean) alludes to in his preface to What Your Teacher Didn’t Know:

Academic freedom, the autonomy to teach and to research what one wishes is therefore not a luxury, it is a necessity. Unfortunately, it is in rather short supply in Malaysia. We have ridiculous laws in this country that hang over the heads of academics like the sword of Damocles, waiting to fall if the government feels that one is being disloyal to it.


No longer "fighting" communism, Malaysia is still rife with symbolic divisions between white and black areas.

Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive

It’s an additional shame that What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is only a book instead of the 10-part reference series I was hoping it would be. This is, after all, Malaysia. Those of us who attended national public schools in Malaysia and then went on to pursue undergraduate and tertiary studies abroad will have at some point or another come to this realisation: there is a whole lot of shit our teachers didn’t tell us. It is, of course, the inevitable fate of the Malaysian humanities student to discover a shitload of information about her country in the reference library of her university located in the wintry prairie depths of a White Man’s Country and not, as it so happens, while living in her own. I remember history lessons in secondary school where classes began with all of us standing up. Our teacher would go around asking questions, and those who got the answer right got to sit down. The last girl standing, of course, is meant to be the paragon of failure. I was the last girl standing quite a number of times, because I was never good at suck-and-spit. Get your mind out of the gutter, dear blog-reader. What I refer to as suck-and-spit is the way in which history lessons were taught in school: suck the marrow and the joy out of history and life (memorise, memorise, memorise), and spit (regurgitate all that you’ve memorised). Surely I wasn’t the only one having trouble keeping straight our various incarnations of Sultan Mahmud of Melaka? There was the first Sultan Mahmud, and after that there were a whole bunch of ‘em, but who gives a shit when all you had to do was keep the names straight without really understanding what these various Sultan Mahmuds did?

The thing called World History was indeed summarised in one or two short chapters; so much so that my abysmal knowledge of the history of other nations shocked even my mother, who enjoyed rubbing it in that “even in my village school in Sri Lanka I learned more than you.” So yes, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is an essential book for every Malaysian – so essential that I hope by the time I’m done writing this review I’ll learn that it has been translated into Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. It’s a thick, very beautifully-produced book by Amir Muhammad’s Matahari Books, amply illustrated with pictures and maps from Farish’s personal collection of Malaysiana or taken from what’s available in the public domain. As it happens, this book ends too soon. As it also happens, it whets your appetite for more more more… gimmeMOARKNOWLEDGE.

Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive

What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is culled from Farish’s series of lectures at The Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, none of which I managed to attend. There are six essays altogether, but only five are from the original lecture series. The sixth is a “bonus” written for the book, one assumes, and it shows because it is the least engaging one. It’s an important essay on the early “left-leaning years” of PAS, which as we’re all aware, has now transformed into an ultra-religious party with ultra-right leanings (even as there are remnants of its early pioneering spirit). But it’s also a heavy essay that sometimes borders on the ponderous. It lacks the spice and verve of the rest, probably because it wasn’t intended to be a lecture designed to enthral and educate a broad-based audience. The other five chapters in the book, in contrast, are imbued with a sense of play and creativity, no doubt an indication of the general spirit of those Annexe lectures.

At the heart of all of Farish’s essays/lectures is the complex and engrossing subject of intertextuality and intersectionality in Malaysian history. Whether he’s talking about the genesis of the keris in socio-cultural use, the roots of conceptions of sexuality in Southeast Asia and Malaysia, the colonial construction of race politics, or the current incarnation of feudal politics via the Barisan Nasional machinery, Farish’s consistent and laudable aim is to point to the multifariousness of our roots and the futility of trying to find or create a single, unified source. This is precisely the danger of current political rhetoric in Malaysia, with its full-on slide into conservative, right-leaning singularity. Singularity of thought, mind, and future – where our differences, which should be recognised and celebrated – are subsumed under tepid nation-state sloganeering. 1Malaysia, yes, but whose Malaysia?

Much like everything in our shared, collective culture, the keris, as Farish describes in the first chapter, has become an “over-determined signifier.” In his exhortation to us to “pity the keris, not blame it”, Farish attempts to rescue it from nationalist posturing and chauvinist patriarchy by tracing the intricate roots of its symbol and meaning from the Malay-Hindu epic, Hikayat Pandawa Lima (taken from the Mahabharata)  and its journey through the lands of Java, Champa, and much of the Malay peninsula:

Thanks to the influx of ideas and beliefs from both the mainland (Champa, Lankasuka, Siam, Patani) and the islands (Java), the Malay world was exposed to Vishnuite and Shivaistic schools of Hindu thought as well as aesthetics. The keris, as the ritual object into which these new forms, ideas, and meanings had been invested, became the living embodiment of the dominant Hindu cults of Shiva and Vishnu and it had penetrated deep into the popular imagination of the Indo-Malay peoples.

I’m unsure why Farish chose to use the word “cults” to describe certain sects of Hinduism that exist up until today. Etymologically, the word cult doesn’t have the resonance with the “freaky” as it does in current parlance, but the Shiva and Vishnu sects are not mere ancient forms of belief, if Farish intended to use it in that particular context. The Saivite and Vaishnavite sects are still two of the key sects of Hinduism still in practice. There other moments in the text when Farish’s choice of words gave me pause, such as when he talks about the keris gaining popularity among the landed merchants, traders, and Muslim clerical class. “The keris enjoyed new patronage and custom from these new groups,” he writes, “but also became popularised and vulgarised in the process.” This easy slide from ‘popular’ to ‘vulgar’ contains a not-so-faint whiff of Eau de Elitism; my nose thus wrinkled in minor WTF-displeasure.

One gets the sense that Farish values the sophisticated and the elegant, and occasionally his work lacks a sharp focus when it comes to critiquing ancient or modern practices in terms of class and gender. In the chapter on the history of sexuality in Southeast Asia, for example, which he revisits through the Hikayat Panji Semirang texts, he writes:

In both cases, the men and women who are attracted to Panji are struck by her/his sexually androgynous appearance and her/his refined (halus) manners. The ideal type that is constructed in the narrative conforms to the traditional Javanese register of halus culture, as contrasted to the kasar category of the brutish, vulgar and excessive.

This contrast of halus versus kasar is interesting, not least because androgynous, fluid (bi)sexuality is celebrated in these tales, as opposed to the rigid “heterosexist gender distinctions” that are accepted and touted as the norm. But it’s also interesting because the characters in the Panji are earthly manifestation of gods and goddesses, and these semi-divine figures belong to the aristocratic semi-heavenly court of kings, queens, princes and princesses. Farish is somewhat uncritical of the distinction between halus and kasar and attempts to recapture it as a positive reading of fluid sexuality – the refined androgynous man-woman as the ultimate object of desire – without locating it in the class divisions of the semi-divine monarchs versus the… regular folk. His reading of the Panji is uncritically positive and focused only on selective parts that boost his argument. While sexual mores may have been fluid and playful in the past, the happy ending at the end of the text – as described by Farish – only comes by way of the characters finally falling into their prescribed gender roles as man and woman. This is not something Farish chooses to focus on.

But in light of the Malaysian public’s current preoccupation with the very act of sexual intercourse, whether it be of the male-male variety or the male-female variety, this chapter is an illuminating one – signalling that our conceptions of halus and kasar are always shifting. The current spectacle of sex that has graced the pages of our newspapers and online websites and social media focus on one person – Anwar Ibrahim – and on the threat he apparently still represents to the ruling coalition. This is a spectacle in which not only are the emperors naked; their subjects are, as well. This spectacle of sex has stripped the Malaysian public naked, with our so-called Asian values left hung out to dry. The revelatory point is that these values are as “dirty” as everything it purports to be “against”. The loud defenders of our Malaysia-truly-Asia values have revealed these values to be essentially filthy in its very conception not because of sex, but precisely because of the element of corruption and truth-smearing and its basic core of hypocrisy. This hypocrisy relies on the laziness of its manipulation: using sex by which to project an image of filth or depravity to obfuscate the indulgence in lies and nepotism by public means (cover-ups of police and custodial deaths or election fraud, for example, of championing the strengths of a despot in Sarawak).

Pornography is banned in Malaysia, as is prostitution, but our leaders manufacture videos to display pornography – that of a prominent opposition leader, supposedly, having sex with a prostitute – and expects the rakyat to pretend that we’re all still fully-robed; that none of it is ludicrous and an insult to our collective intelligence. If anything, reading the Panji tales by way of Farish arouses a feeling of deep melancholy, an ache for a time in the past where different modes of sexualities were not merely in existence but celebrated; a time when people were encouraged to and were expected to respond to their own impulses of lust and desire with both feeling and thought. With sex used as a weapon or a means of political obfuscation in our current discourse, the ability to both think and feel seems more antiquated than ever – like the heart and mind are relics of history, and all that we are left with is brutish, aggressive anger with which to harness our biological drives.

Similarly, the recent brouhaha over school literature text, Interlok, and the objections by both the Chinese and the Indians to its supposedly racist content is one that will be put into relevant context for Malaysians after reading Farish’s chapter on ‘The Lost Tribes of Malaysia’. The government, missing the point and the opportunity of the controversy surrounding Interlok to address and find solutions to perennial, simmering race-based tensions, have instead tried to find the easiest way out – by amending the literary text. Artistic integrity, issues of censorship and textual modification, racism – in one fell swoop, all these issues are at once elided and ignored in this pea-brained solution. As Farish points out, Malaysia’s pre-Islamic, pluralist history is consistently concealed in favour of a right-wing, ethno-nationalist discourse that favours Islam and ketuanan Melayu. Race groupings are inherently unstable, which is why the fixation on ‘Malay’ identity is doomed before it even begins, why race-based policies are doomed from its very inception. Try as you might to erase history, you can’t erase the people in whom history lives. Our former Prime Minister of twenty-two years, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who mastered the breathtakingly sinister art of championing ‘Malay rights’ while holding ‘Malay people’ in contempt, has ethnic roots in South India that he carefully elides while trumpeting his apparent ethnic Malayness.

Dr. Mahathir wrote Malay Dilemma in 1970, a book that along with Revolusi Mental by Senu Abdul Rahman, comes under strong critique from Farish:

The most striking thing about both the Malay Dilemma and Revolusi Mental is that both texts have accepted and reproduced the conventional stereotypes of Malay identity that were first formulated and instrumentalised by the colonial masters. As Alatas (1977) has shown, both texts are entirely devoid of auto-critique and introspection, and they both faithfully reproduce the logic of colonial racial difference and race-relations in an uncritical manner.

Having had our independence from the British handed to us on a silver-platter (and, we should note, handed over to the silver-spoon elite), we have since 1957 repeated without fail the pattern of politics rooted in colonial race-based discourse that, in Farish’s words, remain “configured along divisive sectarian and communitarian” lines, dominated throughout by one ruling coalition comprising three parties representing the “three main races” of Malaysia – the in-betweens, the indigenous, and the “lain-lain” be damned.

Further clues to the political mire we seem to be in can be found in his chapter ‘Of Rajas, Maharajas, Dewarajas and Kerajaan’, which attempts to trace the genealogy of four thousand years of feudal politics with roots in Hindu-Buddhist governance and monarchy, leading to what is our current ampu bodek culture – which Farish notes isn’t unique to Malaysia alone, but continues to exist in different degrees in present-day Thailand and Indonesia. Launching a much-needed critique on Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Farish writes:

Most of the accounts given by writers like Mahathir (1970), Chandra (1979), Andaya (1982) and Abdullah (1985) have noted that the Tunku’s style of government was very much determined by his own elite background, values, and worldview. In their reading of his style of government and leadership, many of these scholars have dubbed the Tunku a traditional Malay ruler, governing in the typically autocratic manner of the Kerajaan establishment. So deeply ingrained was the feudal mentality of protection and patronage within UMNO under the Tunku’s leadership that it even became part of the party’s vocabulary and ideology.

Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive

Lest we assume that all this is in the past, all we need to do is bring ourselves back to the present, where current Prime Minister Najib Razak sees fit to warn Malaysians not to “question the social contract” or “question Malay rights”. The key factor of a social contract – the consent of the governed – that surely renders the social contract negotiable is never referred to or even honoured. We didn’t have to fight for our independence, and we’ve never had a revolution. Malaysia’s comfortable trajectory has traversed Kerajaan-style monarchy to colonial-rule to, finally, a colonial-inherited parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch (how’s that working out for you?). This is something Farish alludes to in the chapter titled ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, and it’s worth quoting at length:

The Federation of Malaya inherited the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, along with a constitutional monarch as its head of state, something that the UMNO leaders in particular were keen to install. Because of the consensus of values and ideology that already existed between the two sides, the transfer of power and authority from the departing colonial powers to the traditional Malay ruling elite proved to be uncomplicated. In the words of Chandra [Muzaffar, whose Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia Farish cites] “both feudal history and British colonialism had thus conspired to bestow the privilege of power upon this group.” It was just a matter of legal procedure before the Malay Sultans were installed as the ideologically potent symbols of Malay power, while the Malay aristocratic elite manoeuvred themselves into positions of real political power as the de facto rulers. Decades of British colonial rule had ensured the integrity and viability of the Malay royal families, something which the conservatives of UMNO were quick to recognise and exploit in what Roger Kershaw has termed a ‘sociological symbiosis’. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that The Times of London reported the birth of Malaya with a resonant chord of approval.

Like most Malaysians, Malaysia herself proved to be a good, obedient student who follows the rules unasked. First rule for free colonies: If the colonial power from whom you gained independence is cheering you on, you know something’s wrong.

This chapter on ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, which focuses on the “left-leaning years” of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), is further indication of how a distinct lack of class consciousness among Malaysians makes it unable for us to successfully and collectively fight for rights from the bottom-up instead of the top-down approach that views the middle-and-upper classes as the default point of origin. Farish traces the roots of PAS’ pro-rakyat tendencies, when it was led by the charismatic and formidably intelligent Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy from 1956 t0 1969. Dr. Burhanuddin’s “philosophy of Islamist-nationalism”, as Farish puts it, was greatly informed by Marxism, leading to a kind of Islamism that “called for the Malays to transcend their narrow ethnocentrism and parochialism to focus on the wider struggle against foreign domination and exploitation of their economy.” Much of this is lost in the current incarnation of PAS, which in response to UMNO’s increased move towards conservative neoliberal policies under the guise of globalisation, has opted to respond with an increasingly right-wing agenda of narrow, parochial Islamic governance.

After twenty two years of our very own Maggie Thatcher, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, class consciousness seems to be all but erased among the post-80s generation. From activism to civic rights campaigners and young politicians, all assume a hyper-capitalist, middle-and-upper class mode of being as the default – and therefore promote and advance causes from that particular starting point without any critique of their own position. This is precisely why the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) folk give me the heebie-jeebies, inspired as they are by “the vision of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia”. Part of their philosophy is quoted below:

Our mission is to improve the level of understanding and acceptance of public policies based on the principles of rule of law, limited government, free markets and free individuals.

“Free individuals” inspired by the Tunku is, if we agree with Farish’s assessments thus far, deeply suspect indeed. A “limited government” with a “free market” – what does that mean? A government limited only by its abilities to protect the free market, as opposed to its people? I’m being facetious, no doubt, but one need only look to the US to see how this has worked out for them.

That we’ll continue to reap much of the same without end in sight is pretty much guaranteed for as long as UMNO is in power (Barisan National, as we all know, is just a front for UMNO-rule. MIC who? MCA what?) This pretty much bears itself out among the “younger generation” of UMNO politicians, particularly in one Khairy Jamaluddin, whom the liberal elites drool over as a symbol of potential change in UMNO. Khairy recently tweeted this:

That’s like the Ghost of Dr. Mahathir past, present, and future all in one tweet. That the Twittering elite, with their multiple iPads and Mac laptops – and where Khairy is concerned, Oxford-educated, privileged, moneyed, and with a former Prime Minister of Malaysia as his father-in-law – are able to sum up “the Malay mind” as “backward” with no one, as I’ve seen thus far, objecting to it, says a lot about how we view ourselves and our respective privilege. [I’ll also like to take a moment, since this is my blog, to note my distaste for Khairy and his stable of middle-class yuppie male fanboys ready to retweet him at any moment.] Do they ever take a moment to consider his privilege, and their own, the position from which he speaks and the position from which they retweet? I mean, seriously, this[ii]:

Farish’s work does have its hiccups, and this is mainly where his own analysis doesn’t seem to leave much room for gender and class-based critique. While he is an excellent historian, teasing out strands from the past to deftly weave them into a coherent, elegant narrative fabric, his own preference for the culture of halus over kasar, and throwaway comments about the popularisation of the keris among the masses leading to its “vulgarisation” are occasionally jarring.  I don’t know Farish but have attended some of his other lectures and book launches in the past, and while humour is not his forte, his brand of serious and precise oratory has always been consistently compelling. Yet somehow in this book his prose occasionally veers into snootiness of the nose-in-the-air variety, and this cannot but entail the attendant eye-roll on the reader’s part. There may have been some self-consciousness on Farish’s part with regards to how to present his prodigious and intellectually-demanding research in a manner that is accessible to readers at all levels of knowledge, resulting in the occasional attempts at cheekiness and jokeyness that unfortunately fall flat. The line between scholarly and popular is a broad chasm, and one may occasionally stumble.

That said, Farish’s doing valuable work, and if you’re the least bit interested in understanding Malaysian history beyond government-dictated history textbooks, you best ensure that you own a copy of What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You. If you find it difficult, at this precise moment, to imagine a better Malaysia – perhaps a journey back to the past can provide the stirrings for creative reimagination. Or, at the very least, it allows you to envision a Malaysia unhampered by the screaming far-right rhetoric of the present-day news and saves you from flushing your head down the toilet.

[i] If anyone can point out others (besides Azmi Sharom), please do. I’ve thought and I’ve thought, but I can’t come up with anyone else. Can anyone think of a Malaysian public intellectual who’s a woman?

[ii] Privilege Denying Malaysian Guy. Please, just go look at it now already.


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§ 4 Responses to Don’t ask, don’t tell – majulah Malaysia

  • chaosbogey says:

    I thought your point about singularity was an incredible insight– we do seem to be trending that way pretty much everywhere in South Asia, don’t we?
    Also, as a law student in India, I totally relate to your point in re the manner in which we talk about ourselves. While I s’pose by Malay standards (which I don’t know very much about, so I’m just going by this post) we *do* have a somewhat vibrant intellectual scene and plenty of genuine scholars, at uni level it always felt like we were studying the legal system more by deflection and refraction from the ‘outside’ (problematic language, but ‘foreign’ would be even worse, no?) rather than as a reflection of our unique realities. I think that’s what Baxi meant when he said post-colonial common law systems embody a ‘morality of aspiration’ when they should focus on a ‘morality of survival’.

  • Subashini says:

    I love that term – “deflection and refraction from the ‘outside'”, and yes, that’s pretty much how it is here. Well, I didn’t study law, but I know people who have, and this seems to be the general malaise.

    I don’t want to give the impression that there isn’t a vibrant intellectual scene here, because perhaps there is (and I’m pretty much out of the loop for not being in academia, anyway) – but a lot of it is stifled, undercover, and perhaps not to be found amongst “official” intellectuals in the academy, where regressive laws don’t permit students from becoming involved in politics, for example, and professors in public unis have to toe the line and refrain from projecting or representing any sort of political opposition to the ruling coalition.

    Are you referring to Upendra Baxi here? I’ve not read him at all, and that’s a pretty interesting dichotomy he posits there, between ‘aspiration’ and ‘survival’.

    Thanks for your comment, by the way. 🙂

  • chaosbogey says:

    I was talking about Upendra Baxi, yes. I have a huge pdf archive of his work, if you’re interested. I was going to send you his first book- Crisis of the Indian Legal System- but tis too large to email. Tis available on the AAAARG archive, though, I think, or similar online place. Tis where he first outlines his ‘moralities’ thesis, but he develops on it over the course of his theoretical work.

  • Subashini says:

    Excellent, many thanks for the tip. Will aaaaarg it out or hunt for it. May email you about his other work, though – especially if there are essays, then perhaps I’ll start with that. 🙂

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