Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Common Ground: Race and the Colonial Universe in British Malaya

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Common Ground: Race and the Colonial Universe in British Malaya

Article excerpt

This paper deals with the history of knowledge formed in or influenced by a colonial setting, in particular the history of ideas of race in colonial British Malaya. Using the case of colonial Malaya, and exploring the history of race ideas by Malay intellectuals and British colonial administrators, I seek to question the history of what can be termed 'colonial knowledge' on race and, in particular, to ask whose knowledge it is. The impetus for asking this question is to inquire in what ways colonial knowledge was not only formed by the coloniser, but also involved the colonised, not merely as subjects of that knowledge but as practitioners, innovators, developers and perpetrators. This line of argument follows from calls by scholars such as Bernard Cohn, Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper to put the coloniser and the colonised in the same frame of study, and to question the bases and workings of colonial knowledge. (1)

Another reason for asking whose knowledge colonial knowledge on race belongs to is to question two basic assumptions of race knowledge. Authors such as Lim Teck Ghee and Colin Abraham focus on race as an unfortunate 'hand-me-down' from Malaysia's British colonial past that was perpetuated by colonial officers and institutions. (2) This basis of Malaysian history seems to be taken as a given. The second assumption comes from works on colonial situations in general that trace race back to colonial powers in attempts to show that the colonised were oppressed. Both arguments suggest that race is typically a Western construct with a Western history which was imposed on colonised peoples. While not denying or eliding the coerciveness of institutions of rule in British Malaya which spread the idea of race, this article breaks down this opposition between race as owned by colonisers and race as transferred to the colonised, and complicates a simplistic characterisation of colonised peoples as victims. I do so by looking at the complicities between the two groups and by not assuming that race was only an imposition or that agency of colonised peoples did not play a role. I hope not only to expand the framework of race knowledge so that it involves a genealogy that leads back to Europe, but also to trace driving forces from within the Malay Archipelago. In studying the writings of Malay intellectuals in colonial Malaya as part of the production of knowledge on race, I am building on the work of Anthony Milner, who deals with the emergence of race as an ideological vehicle in relation to the emergence of a discourse of politics in Malaya. (3) This article hopes to contribute to this discussion of the use of race by Malay authors through a closer comparison between racial theories espoused by a few prominent Malay intellectuals and those of British scholars. The implications of this comparison for understandings of colonial knowledge will be drawn out in the process of doing so. Through such an analysis, it will become clear that the 'adoption' of race knowledge in British Malaya occurred not because local actors were clean slates waiting to be written upon, but because it was a strategy taken to engage with the exigencies of their time and fitting with local histories.

In trying to map intersections in race knowledge, difficulties crop up due to the use of different languages to express that knowledge: English for British scholar-officials, and Malay, sometimes English, for Malay intellectuals. What were comparable terms for the English 'race' in Malay? In his book, The invention of politics in colonial Malaya, Milner discusses the nuances of various emotive group terms from writings in Malay ranging from Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, a prominent teacher of Malay, in the first half of the nineteenth century to the nationalist Ibrahim Yaacob in the twentieth century. He focuses on 'bangsa' as the near equivalent of 'race' in the sense that it describes the group identification of Malays and subdivisions among people, a definition also used by Virginia Hooker. …

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