Continuity and discontinuity: Prof Zainal Kling and Malaysian history

Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
Sept 13, 2011

SEPT 13 — It is not my objective to argue the historical facts of this issue, to take sides.

On the facts, Farish Noor and Art Harun are clearly right and Prof Zainal Kling, however ingenious the hair-splitting technicalities that he invokes, is wrong.

But that is not the end, or even the heart, of the matter.

We must ask, what is the purpose, and what are the practical effects, of Prof Zainal now making his seemingly fanciful argument?

Prof Zainal’s argument is simply wrong, marvellously eccentric and absurdly counterfactual historically. But it is wonderfully clever, cunning and “very strategic”, politically.

By denying that Malaya, meaning the Malay states, was ever colonised by the British, Prof Zainal opens yet another front for struggle over the now increasingly contested question of Malaysian national sovereignty.

There is no doubt that, as one of the world’s nations, Malaysia exists. So it has sovereignty. But the grounding of its modern national sovereignty is a contested, and now ever increasingly inflamed, question.

Where does Malaysia’s national sovereignty lie, on what foundation is the sovereignty of the modern nation-state grounded?

In the people themselves, who are the nation, and upon whom, under the doctrine of popular sovereignty, all modern democratic nations are founded?

Or in the Federal Constitution, which is the self-declared basis of the nation’s common character, legal order and political life?

Or in the Sultans and Malay Rulers? And if so, by virtue of their recognised standing in the Federal and state constitutions?

Or on some other grounds?

With Prof Zainal’s recent comment, we are drawn back to this aspect, understanding, or (as some would have it) attempted revisionist redefinition of the national sovereignty question.

From 1986 and throughout the 1990s until 2008, the notion of Ketuanan Melayu, the idea or assertion that Malay political ascendancy had somehow been written into the constitutional foundations of the nation as part of an originating “social contract”, took shape and grew in strength.

The results of the 2008 elections came as a surprise, even shock, to many. To those determined to uphold the notion of Malay ascendancy, they were a threat and a challenge.

Was the primacy, as they saw it, of the Malay stake in the nation now, and henceforth, at risk?

From that time, and with the growth of new Malay political pressure groups such as Perkasa, a new determination to assert Malay primacy and national political ascendancy was voiced.

As part of that response, some new understandings of the ideas of Ketuanan Melayu and national sovereignty began to be developed and promoted.

Ketuanan Melayu, some now ventured to suggest, was not the crude “ethnosupremacist” idea (that, to some, the NEP seemed to suggest and underwrite) of the categorical superiority, or greater national entitlement, of Malays over non-Malays among the state’s citizens.

It had to do with the historical foundations and “public personality” of the national political order, of the nation.

It had to do with the origins of the independent federation of Malaya and later Malaysia as the direct lineal descendant, by a clear line of succession, from the various Malay states of the pre-British phase of the peninsula’s and region’s history.

This line of argument was further developed by, or at least on behalf of, the Malay Rulers and royal houses themselves by YM the Raja Muda of Perak Raja Nazrin, in a pre-Merdeka Day address at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 2009.

On that occasion Raja Nazrin recalled the Wasiat Raja-Raja Melayu of August 5, 1957. Through that solemn declaration the nine Malay Rulers signified their assent to the constitutional arrangements of the new nation that was about to be born.

Their Wasiat, as they understood it, was not just a legal will or testament — the last political testament of the old political order, the ancien régime on the Malay peninsula.

It had, for them, an older historical meaning and also looked forward to newer times.

For them the term was not just a technical legal or constitutional instrument; it also had powerful connotations suggesting a sacred heirloom or legacy.

By their Wasiat their Rulers affirmed their consent to Merdeka and gave it their blessing. The new nation born of the “Merdeka moment” was in that way stamped with their great prestige.

Yet their action, in their royal eyes, implied something more than simply a stamp of kingly approval.

The daulat that the Rulers embodied, they implied, was not merely sacred royal prestige. Their royal consent and blessing suggested — or has subsequently been read to suggest — that the daulat of the Rulers was in fact sovereignty, in the technical jurisprudential sense.

This view, whether held at the time or retrospectively asserted, holds, or again further implies, that from pre-colonial times and throughout the years of British control, the sovereignty of the Malay Rulers, or “Malay sovereignty”, had continued: uninterrupted and unbroken, unimpaired and undiminished.

Those who wish to maintain this position can, it seems, do so in either of two ways. They may argue that there was never any diminution of effective Malay royal sovereignty, understood as ultimately authenticating power and “reality-creating” authority, under British rule. That is a difficult position to sustain.

Or they may argue that, while the Malay Rulers and their quasi-sacred political position had in fact been eclipsed under the British, that diminution was entirely without force or meaning, since British rule was itself fundamentally illegitimate. Hence its effects and implications for Malay royal sovereignty can be ignored, or set aside as if they had never been.

In either case, throughout the years of British administration and control, Malay royal sovereignty, some suggest, had continued: either in full force but hidden or else dormant and, so to speak, “underground”, only to awake and surface again at the moment of national independence.

However bizarre and counterfactual they may seem to some, Prof Zainal’s recent comments on Malayan history do not come from nowhere. They are not simply an individual eccentricity or folly.

Prof Zainal, with his recent intervention, is simply the latest Malay political commentator, activist and practical ideologist who has sought to affirm this notion of the continuity of Malay sovereignty.

His position seems to be an artful combination of the two possibilities noted above. He seems to hold that British colonial rule was illegitimate and therefore not entitled to be of any ultimate consequence; and that pre-colonial Malay sovereignty therefore persisted — was never interrupted, severed or broken — throughout the illegitimate British interlude.

Prof Zainal’s position, and that of those who are of the same mind in these matters, is that not merely Malay sacred royal daulat but “sovereignty” in the modern technical jurisprudential sense had survived in the hands of the Malay Rulers, unimpaired and undiminished, throughout the “British years” from 1874 to 1957.

More than that, having remained with them, in their traditional custodianship, this sovereignty could be, and in historical fact was, passed on by the Malay Rulers (as they asserted in their Wasiat of August 5, 1957) to the new independent nation.

In that way, a new nation was born, but born as the vehicle and instrument of a continuing sovereignty that was far older. It embodied a moral authority and sovereignty of far greater political and cultural authenticity than anything that the departing British might have managed through its Colonial Office to fabricate.

This view, which seems to be that of Prof Zainal’s, or to underlie it, has profound implications for the continuing nature, now and well into the future, of the Malaysian nation, for its political character and the underlying foundations of its sovereignty.

The idea that the British never ruled, or governed, in Malaya may seem absurd.

But it is a very inventive and resourceful way, in the political context suddenly created by the national elections of March 2008, to argue — whatever those results may have been, and whatever outcome future elections may yet disclose — that the nation’s sovereignty, both in its historical origins and its contemporary character, is a distinctively Malay sovereignty.

The argument is one that seeks to assert, and place beyond any partisan dispute or political challenge, the notion that Malaysia is still Tanah Melayu, a nation embodying Malay sovereignty, and a nation inscribed in whose innermost nature is the principle of Malay primacy.

This, like it or not, is the new post-NEP and post-2008 notion of Ketuanan Melayu.

That, at all events, seems to be, either explicitly or by implication, the position of Prof Zainal and those who are of the same mind.

As for the controversy that his views have prompted, the central question is not whether they are historically correct (which is contestable) but whether they can be made to prevail politically.

That too is perhaps contestable. That is a matter for all the people of Malaysia to determine. There is no other way, no basis other than common and ever renewed consent, to found and sustain a nation.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 2:38 am

    Ai yah ma, so many students were tot by dis kangkung prof, n many of them were unemployable what bcos they were tot by otak kosong prof, kena blardi conned
    But they paid good U fees 4 their education then, now they want MONEY BACK fr the U

  2. #2 by Loh on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 6:16 am

    ///Prof Zainal, with his recent intervention, is simply the latest Malay political commentator, activist and practical ideologist who has sought to affirm this notion of the continuity of Malay sovereignty.///–Clive Kessler

    The purpose of the declaration is to provide justifications why Ketuanan Melayu should remain. It is not because Malays were weak and had to rely on Article 153, and the UMNO had illegally transformed it through NEP to bring about Ketuanan Melayu. It is the right of Malays because Malays now have taken upon themselves to decide for the Rulers who they consider to be the subjects of the Rulers. Curiously, if the Rulers have to depend on tax revenues to run the country, would the Rulers not accept those who take upon themselves the responsibilities to pay taxes as their subjects? Would the Rulers choose to discriminate against those who are the nation’s assets?

    There is no urgency for the interested parties to endeavor changing the history if they believe that UMNO would remain in power after the next general election. Indeed if it was true that Malay Rulers had ruled with no interruption then UMNO-led governments since 1957 have been illegal. Why then should the Conference of Rulers accept constitutional amendments in 1992 on the establishment of a Special Court to try cases involving the Rulers’ personal conduct? Clearly, the intervention on the interpretation of historical event aims at denying a proper change of government through general election when the outcome terminates UMNO control. In that eventuality one may hear the claim that the constitution of Malaysia is null and void. With that excuse the defenders of the Rulers would demonstrate their loyalty, and hell breaks lose.

    It is clear that the persons who choose to re-interpret history which could undermine the democratic system for changing government would not agree to see proper and peaceful transfer of power.

  3. #3 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 6:46 am

    wasting all the money going for merdeka celebration since there was no merdeka in the first place. Thanks to prof zainal. give those money to the less fortunate. lagi them to be independent. at least for them independence still mean some little thing. financial independence

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 7:27 am

    ‘Prof Zainal’s argument…“very strategic” politically’ Prof Clive Kessler. Sure you’re not giving Zainal too much undeserved credit over Utusan? In any case an academic should speak historical truth to power instead of for power. Otherwise he should leave academia and join UMNO. What’s truth? It is certainly not playing around with words like national sovereignty as it pertains to Malay sovereignty in the Federated or Unfederated Malay States, continuing or discontinuing from the days of Malacca Sultanate – and implying that if such sovereignty embodying all feudal values including present day ‘Ketuanan’, started since then and has never been discontinued by British colonization -but merely eclipsed with Rulers’ tacit consent to take advice from British advisors/residents- then it has every justification to continue from the past, present and to the future

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 7:47 am

    Truth is matching circumstances (historical or present) against realities and felt experience and not some mind minding theories from out of a play of words. The very idea of a nation being sovereign in senses that its equal to other nations, that its government officials enjoy special privilege and supreme political authority and monopoly over the making of laws violating UN Charter of human rights or the legitimate use of force within its territory against its citizens; that there is no higher power whether foreign or international (unless consented to by the nation-state) to which it or its government officials would need to account – is already antiquated in the light of existing realities where nations, like Malaysia, is member of UN and has to live up to certain international norms on human rights standards set by UN, where absolute rulers like Saddam and: Gaddafi could be evicted from their own countries by foreigners or by their own people (eg Mubarak) based on sovereignty of the individual/people than national sovereignty… .

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 7:50 am

    The concern is that there is a long list of so-called Professors and Drs that basically provide politically motivated argument with little sound intellectual foundation that distracts and damages those who are collectively trying to solve real national problems face by this country and all races.

    Someone pointed out that Mahathir produced more than 15m graduates that are unable to replace the 1m graduates that have left this country. Among these graduates are thousands of doctorates and academics who are politicians not intelectuals whose purpose in being is to help UMNO many arguments, with no regard even if its disastrous and wrong. They are co-conspirator in the disasters, failures and malice of UMNO.

    Such senseless self-debasement and poor self-worth of their elites should tell the Malay community that UMNO/BN plan is failing and glorious promises will NEVER come true. They cannot count on their leaders and elite like it or not. The importance of self-reliance is EVER more important, not less since the implementation of the NEP. The are even in bigger danger of marginalisation from their dependency than they ever were after 40 years of UMNO/BN rule. UMNO/BN rule and plan has failed and they along with them..

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 8:11 am

    Ooops-“mind Binding theories”. Prof Zainal Kling should be mindful that States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. Individual/People sovereignty—the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in UN Charter including the right NOT to be discriminated against on grounds of Race, Religion, Creed or Gender or for expressing his Conscience – has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of individual rights as evinced by events of Arab Spring! National sovereignty as cover by its custodians, govt officials’ power to abuse or detract rights of its own citizens or sections of them without being held accountable, are no more, in the light of existing realities of Globalization, justifiable based on sovereignty of nation, past coming to present and proceeding to future.

  8. #8 by k1980 on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 8:13 am

    The Reid Commission was an independent commission responsible for drafting the constitution of the Federation of Malaya prior to Malayan independence from Britain on August 31 1957.

    Members of Reid Commission according to Wikipedia:
    William Reid – Chairman
    Ivor Jennings – Britain
    William McKell – Australia
    B Malik – India
    Abdul Hamid – Pakistan

    Now we want to ask the professor Zainal Kling and Umno leaders if Malaya had never been colonised by the British, why had our constitution been discussed in the British Parliament and not instead been decided by the Malayan government at the time?

    If Malaya were not colonised we should not need any permission from the British government and we would have done our own constitutional drafting.

  9. #9 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 8:19 am

    In sum, people world wide are more than ever conscious that the State should protect individual human beings under the concept of ‘individual sovereignty’, and not to protect those who abuse them under justification of national sovereignty! There is of course still this iea of national sovereignty but it’s no more unabridged as compared to the other emergent idea in vogue of individual/rakyat sovereignty being paramount. Why else our govt notwithstanding NEP sign free-trade agreements or try participate in UN Human Rights Council? Why else our govt has to be ‘seen’ adhering to principles enunciated by Bersih or, whether it likes or not, subject to international criticisms whether from govts NGOs or even Net Community/bloggers on conduct? So especially an academician whose first duty is scholastic dedication to truth than Machiavallian manipulation of political ideologies, don’t try to use this idea of national sovereignty (pre-dating – not discontinued by British) and the feudal values of antiquated times that it embodies, to try help the politicians in power here to defend the Indefensible or justify the Unjustifiable.

  10. #10 by Godfather on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 8:57 am

    Where did this guy get his PhD from ? When Tunku raised his keris and shouted “Merdeka” in 1957, who was he declaring independence from ? The Brits or the royalty ?

  11. #11 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 1:12 pm

    Let’s put it this way. Pembebesan dari penjajahan spiritual dan mental orang Inggeris. Pembebasan dari penjajahan spiritual dan mental orang________( fill in the blank)
    Permanent head damage phd or no phd, in the end, also another human.

  12. #12 by k1980 on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 1:26 pm

    Q: Where did this guy get his PhD from?

    A: Universitas Keling Antalabangsa in Kerala, where his neighbour wrote “a loktor in the house”

  13. #13 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 1:42 pm

    Dulu polluting UM, now polluting UPSI, kang-kung, kang-kung, kang-kung

  14. #14 by dagen on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 2:10 pm

    Facts shape events. Here the kling fella is using an umno created event to shape past facts.

  15. #15 by dagen on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 2:11 pm

    well more precisely, to re-shape past facts.

  16. #16 by asia on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 11:05 pm

    You are dealing with different mind set human beings

    They believe doing all type of sins it is ok

    After they attend the _ecc_ round n round

    Come back their sins are forgiven REBORN

  17. #17 by asia on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 11:32 pm

    To deal with them pls do understand their mind set

    If one like your wife so much he may offer you something you divorce her and he marry her

    It is not problem

    You are dealing with people different mind set

    To deal with them must know their mind set

  18. #18 by asia on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 - 11:42 pm

    For example

    If tell a lie a sin, tell 10 lies 10 sins

    then he/she do 10 above goodness

    After dead his/her goodness out weight the sin

    Do deal with them you must get to know their mind set

  19. #19 by boh-liao on Thursday, 15 September 2011 - 10:28 am

    U C, he sudah baru mohon maaf zahir n batin, so start again with a clean slate, can start 2 bluff again mah, then till next year, mohon maaf zahir n batin again lor, no big deal 1

  20. #20 by good coolie on Friday, 16 September 2011 - 8:29 pm

    Please cook up something on the same lines using Penang and Malacca. And while you are at it, add a dash of Singapore into the soup. You never know: Singapore could be conquered, one day, and we victors would need ready-made irredentist theories when we write history.

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