A History of an Identity, an Identity of a History: The Idea and Practice of 'Malayness' in Malaysia Reconsidered

By B., Shamsul A. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2001 | Go to article overview

A History of an Identity, an Identity of a History: The Idea and Practice of 'Malayness' in Malaysia Reconsidered


B., Shamsul A., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Shamsul A. B. (*)

This article is a critique of ethnicity theories based on essentialism - the idea that ethnic traits are innate (essences) both in the individual and the 'ethnie' as a social group - which have been adopted, wittingly or unwittingly, by historians in mainstream Malaysian historiography in their effort to explain the formation of 'Malay-Malayness' as a social identity. It proposes instead that Malay ethnicity is not innate but rather learned or constructed, and Malay-Malayness has been created as a result of intersecting historical, cultural and social factors at a particular moment in a culture's life and history. Indeed, Malay-Malayness has been constructed by a colonial historiography and subsequently adopted uncritically by most historians in postcolonial Malaysia, both Malays and non-Malays.

Introduction

At the outset it may be useful to elucidate my interest in the study of identity in general, and of identity formation in Malaysia in particular, a project that emerged literally 'from the field' about two decades ago, when I was conducting anthropological fieldwork (1979-81) for my doctoral thesis. The findings from that research helped me to gain a better understanding of politics, culture and economic development at the grassroots level in Malaysia. (1) My research also made me realise that a number of fundamental issues relating to Malaysian state and society as well as to Malaysian studies needed to be addressed; the most critical of these were questions of identity contestation and identity formation, in their individual as well as their collective forms.

My earliest response to this question took the form of an attempt to answer a deceptively simple question, namely, 'is a Malay anthropologist's knowledge of her/his own people superior to a foreigner's? (2) In a rejoinder to an article by Judith Nagata on the dakwah movement in Malaysia and in my subsequent essays on the same topic, I elaborated on the religious aspect of Malay identity, that is, on the question of how the experience of Islam, since the colonial period an 'ethnic identifier' for the Malays, intensified with dakwahism. (3)

My first attempt to examine the theme of 'identity formation in Malaysia', particularly amongst the Malays, in a concrete, if not material way, commenced with a systematic analysis of the concept of kampung ('village'), a term that has long been taken for granted by Malaysianists who have too easily treated kampung as synonymous with 'Malay' and 'Malayness'. (4)

Kampung has many meanings, and sooner or later we all will come to realise that these meanings are the result of a never-ending contestation between numerous interest groups within 'authority-defined' and 'authority-defining' collectives in Malaysia, both in the past and in the present. I decided to cast my analytical net wider to deal with popular and modern Malay sociopolitical concepts, categories and classifications on a macro level. Bangsa ('nation'), for instance, and negara ('state'), ketuanan Melayu ('Malay dominance'), gerakan kebangsaan ('nationalist movement' or 'nationalism'), jatidiri bangsa ('national identity') and bangsa idaman ('nation-of-intent'); each has many meanings that ask for further exploration. In a series of essays published between 1996 and 1999 I focused on the 'authority-defined' rather than on the 'authority-defining' perspective. (5)

In analysing these concepts, categories and classifications, I quickly learnt that it was impossible to avoid sensitive issues such as the role of Islam, dakwah, the Malay language and Malay royalty. In the most general terms I realised that most knowledge about the Malays has been constructed and elaborated in an Orientalist mould by colonial administrator-scholars and that anthropologists and other specialists in Malay studies subsequently used this knowledge, usually without problematising many of the key terms. These very same concepts, categories and classifications subsequently instituted a host of ideas which politicians, bureaucrats and administrators have been all too happy to use and perpetuate in the form of governmental and official policies up to the present day; references to 'Chinese-ness', 'Indian-ness', 'Kadazan-ness', 'Iban-ness' or 'Asli-ness' have been as difficult to avoid as 'Malayness'. …

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