Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Autonomous History and 'The Invention of Politics.'

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Autonomous History and 'The Invention of Politics.'

Article excerpt

GREG LOCKHART Australian National University

The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya. By ANTHONY MILNER. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. viii, 328. Index, Bibliography.

The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya is a beautifully written book about the birth of modern Malay consciousness. It combines textual analysis with the daring thesis that, in Malaya, "politics" was a product of the colonial experience. But what is so interesting about the thesis is the way it enmeshes the local perspective in a global one and unifies the two. For as it does this it may be seen to challenge the main assumption of the so-called "autonomous" strand of Southeast Asian historiography as it has evolved since the post-1945 period of decolonization. This is the assumption that, while Southeast Asia has crystallized as a political-cultural entity in an interactive process of acculturation with external civilizations, it is necessary to describe this process from an internal, regional perspective. Rather than deal with the region's history as though it were an appendage of Indian, Chinese, Islamic or Western history as colonial historians had formerly done, one must write it from "the vantage point of Southeast Asians" themselves (D.J. Steinberg, In Search of Southeast Asia, 1987, p. 1).

Of course such a vantage point remains vital for historians of the region - as it does for Milner who stresses the need to read "the writings of the Malays themselves" (p. 5). Yet I want in this essay to offer a reading of his work, which is prompted by my own, and which shows that "autonomous" history as we currently understand it is outdated by its binary opposition to the imperial world view. In other words, I will attempt to show that by shifting the burden of the discussion from preoccupations about the nature of colonial domination to others about the nature of political-social change, Milner's postcolonial approach gives new life to "autonomous" history. This is because of the way in which it describes the process of Southeast Asian acculturation less as a battlefield for "external" and "internal" influences and more as a process of integrated historical transformations. The major historiographical issue here is one of continuity and change. In their opposition to "external" imperial interests, many modern historians tend to stress indigenous "cultural continuities" in order to clarify the historical agency of Southeast Asians themselves. For the same reason, others who study pre-colonial history, have stressed indigenous change in order to overthrow orientialist notions of the "unchanging East". We will see, however, that these "autonomous" constructions of both continuity and change are flawed by their inability to integrate the colonial experience into the history of the region. In concrete political terms, I will thus demonstrate that "autonomous" historiography has generally failed to incorporate what The Invention of Politics shows is a central feature of the transformation that made Southeast Asia modern: the unprecedented destruction or modification of the ritual basis for monarchical power and the rise of secular political-social consciousness - in the age of Western imperialism.

It is indeed to "identify transition as well as continuity" in the history of colonial Malaya that Milner's approach is to look forward into events so as to go on, as it were, and describe them in progress. "From a prospective rather than a retrospective angle of vision," he says, "it is easier to perceive the uncertainties, the ruptures, and the tensions in any social situation" (p. 4). The influence of Foucault can be felt here, As Milner's acknowledgments and bibliography suggest, however, his ability to read his Malay texts prospectively owes more to the textual criticism of O.W. Wolters and others at Cornell University.

In History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspective (1982), for example, O. …

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