Malaysia: Why do I care?

— Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
Feb 01, 2012

FEB 1 — Part 1: The personal quest

Now back in Sydney yet again, after two more months in Malaysia, I sigh from both exhaustion and relief.

Exhaustion, since as I age I find it ever more punishing physically just to get around Kuala Lumpur and keep up with things there.

… And relief. Relief since I am here at home spared the daily onslaught of anguish and stress that is my lot there, as I contemplate Malaysia’s future and prospects “from within”: from the midst, or at the least from my vantage point close on the sidelines, of the nation’s current travails.

I enjoy here, in short, some of the pleasure of a little distance from it all, some blissful detachment.

But it is a guilty pleasure, an enjoyment that makes me feel uneasy. Why?

As I now think, from afar, about how exercised and agitated and concerned I become about Malaysia’s current situation and trajectory — especially as I contemplate Malaysia’s current situation and prospects from “inside” or “close up” there — I pose a challenge to myself. A basic question.

The question

Why, I now ask myself in my easeful Australian summer holiday relaxation, why do I care? Why do I care so much about Malaysia?

The same question, I suppose, occurs, if perhaps in a slightly different form, to a number of my Malaysian friends, as they see me thrash around in their company and become increasingly agitated the longer that I am there among them.

Why, I imagine they ask themselves, often in amused exasperation, does he bother? What is Malaysia to him?

A fair question.

And it is one that I have been thinking about posing, to myself and to my friends, in a brief commentary that has occupied me ever since I left Kuala Lumpur three weeks or so ago.

I have been toying with the idea, but not getting very far. Being here and enjoying the Australian summer’s pleasures makes Malaysia’s travails seem ever less immediate and urgent. With every day they become just that little bit more distant.

Even when the news seems less than encouraging, it becomes daily more endurable, more readily sustainable. As one post-Christian wit once put the matter, God in his great mercy has given us an almost infinite strength to bear the misfortunes of others.

Yet, every now and again, something stops me in my uncaring tracks. Something causes me to stop and consider whether I should resist the comfortable slide into a measured, and congenial, forgetfulness about Malaysia.

The challenge

Something of that kind dramatically confronted me the other day.

Two short sentences from The Malaysian Insider commentary by Azrul Mohd Khalib on “Rejecting religious fascism” (23 January) did not simply catch my attention but slammed me in between, and a little behind, my eyes — which is where, rather than in my “gut”, as is regrettably the case with so many of the ideologues who are making the “political running” these days, I do my thinking.

“Religious fascism,” those two short sentences declared, “is a tapeworm in the gut of modern Malaysia. It is time we recognised it for what it is.”

These resonant words posed a challenge that I simply could not ignore.

They demanded that I “come clean”, that I give myself, and also friends, some account of myself in this connection.

Some account, that is, of why it is that, given who I am and how I became who I now am, I do care so much about “other people’s business”: about the Malaysian people’s national business and future.

Addressing that question, it now seems to me, has two parts: the biographical and the thematic or “philosophical.”

The beginning

In part providing the answer is a matter of personal biography.

I remember writing my first brief essay about Malayan historical development and prospects as a high school student, in mid-1957, in the heady weeks immediately prior to Merdeka.

The country entered my mind, if not yet my soul, at that time, as I tried, as one schooled in the standard history of European nationalisms, to think about what the forging of a common national consciousness and destiny upon a diverse and in many ways disconnected human foundation in Malaya might entail.

All I could conclude was that this new country could be a success only if the official approach to be adopted to that required process of “forging” a national identity understood that ambiguous term “forge” in the metallurgical sense, of intently hammering into shape and refining the cohesive character o the nation, not in that of the counterfeiter.

It would work only if it were genuine, not fraudulent or deceptive, not a fake.

And for it to be genuine and effective, it would have to be based upon the cultivation and enlargement of trust. Of a sense that — however diverse the origins of their convergent paths towards Malayan nationhood citizenship might be — a sense of “we, all of us, together” among the citizens of the new Malaya was indispensable.

Only in that way could the new nation “forge” ahead, in hope and confidence.

The appeals and benefits of a prospective and common future had to become more powerful, and be made more real and palpable, than any differences that they might have had and still, as was natural, might wish to maintain and preserve.

First sight

I passed briefly through Malaya, from Sydney via Perth and Jakarta, one day in early 1960. It was a brief refuelling stop, on an international flight westward toward Europe, at the old Sungai Besi airport, then both a military and civilian facility.

For an hour or two there, and as I looked at the “tanah ayer” from above — that complex intermingling of water and land, of rivers and jungle, of rubber estates and rice fields and fishing villages, I again thought of my high-school essay.

So this, I said to myself, was the very ground, the geographical and historical terrain, up which that Malaya I had written about would have to resolve that central “existential” national question of the indispensable overarching “we.”

At university

As a university student in the early 1960s I became interested in Southeast Asia. Clifford Geertz’s classic on “The Religion of Java” (1960) had just appeared and we read, even devoured, it with fascination.

It was unwieldy. It was “unencompassable.” In its bloated proportions and grandiose aspirations, in its floridly displayed sentiments and grand human scale, it was like an ethnographic “Gone With the Wind”, we joked. But it was gripping.

It certainly made many of us think about Islam not solely as a “dry” phenomenon of the Arabian deserts, the spirit of an “arid” world, but also as a fresh component, in complex and perhaps mutually enriching, interaction with the verdant green world of jungle and irrigated rice fields — and of Hinduism and Buddhism, of peasant spirit-world animism and palace-centred aesthetics and mysticism — to Australia’s north.

Many of my fellow students focused their rapt attention to where Geertz’s own endeavours were then directed, to various parts of Indonesia. For some reason, I was impelled to take the insights that I drew from Geertz’s work, as well as the criticisms that I felt myself increasingly driven to develop of it, to Malaysia.

I became interested especially, as Geertz and many of his followers who followed him to study Indonesia were, in the political salience and impetus of Islam, beyond the Islamic heartlands in Southeast Asia.

Malaysia, Kelantan, & the politics of resurgent Islam

I had heard that a political party that called itself Islamic had surprisingly captured control of the “remote” Malayan state of Kelantan from the power of the Tunku’s federally-dominant Umno-led Alliance Party, and I became increasingly fascinated with exploring the meaning and implications of that dramatic fact.

Other fellow students (and it was then a remarkable time for student curiosity and adventurousness!) had noted that the Communist Party had come to power electorally and established its political grip over the Indian state of Kerala. In that they saw some straws in the wind, perhaps some pointers to the emerging future.

In a similar way — and we talked together about such issues — my interests was seized by the rise of what was then always referred to as the PMIP. It was not a matter of political ideology or historical analysis, but simply of a “feeling in my bones”. But my sense was that in future, in the non-European world especially, the political career of Islam was growing and might well prove fateful.

I was not sure what this new political affirmation of Islam might portend.

But of one thing I was sure. That the continuing political salience and even growing human power of Islam in social mobilization were not, as all the conventional “political development” theories of the time maintained, simply a surviving, yet rapidly dying, residue — the proverbial last gasp — of “traditionalism” in the modern world.

Rather, I sensed, there was something dynamic, enlivening and powerful at work here — something, I felt sure, that was already animating new political challenges and responses, and was not just the tired, spasmic reflex of a dying political consciousness born of traditional or pre-modern allegiances — and I wanted to know what it was and how it worked.

A detour, not a change of direction

By the time I wrote, in 1964, a very long honours thesis I had decided not to write about Malaya itself.

The recent formation of the expanded Federation of Malaysia and the beginnings of Konfrontasi or the Indonesian “Confrontation” made the matter all too fraught at the time.

But something related to my Malayan interests came to mind and I pursued that question with great seriousness and dedication.

That was the idea, first developed in the Southeast Asian world and at the time routinely employed, often in a lazy and cliché fashion, to describe and “explain” Malaya: the concept, developed by the noted colonial administrator J.S. Furnivall, of “the plural society.”

I read all that I could on that subject, including but not only what had been written about Malaya. But at that time I strategically put both “Malays” and “Chinese” aside.

Under the influence of a wonderful teacher who had written about Indians in the West Indies, I read all that I could find about overseas Indian migration, both “free” and “indentured”, worldwide, especially within the lands of the former British Empire.

My focus the was on Indians in South and East Africa (Natal, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar): upon the difference between overseas Indian communities and societies of “free” and “indentured” origins, upon the contrasting dynamics of their engagement with their host societies, and upon the differing effects on that process of different kinds of political regime or colonial structure.

That, I concluded, was the key to the notion of “the plural society” and also the basis, historical and theoretical, of its limits.

To Kelantan, an indirect route

My brief turn to the Indian diaspora, in the end, proved not a turning away from Malaya and the analytical relevance of the idea of a “plural society” but, rather, a productive strategic detour.

In the end, unable to get research funding for any such work on “the new post-1959 Kelantan question” in Australia (“What possible relevance did that have to Australia’s needs and future?”, important people kept asking!), I had to go to London and enrol for a London doctorate to qualify for access to British and USA funding (from the then London and Cornell Universities Project of Research into East and Southeast Asian Societies — to which I remain eternally grateful and hugely indebted for life) to enable me to get to Kelantan.

I spent almost two years in rural Kelantan from 1967 to 1969 and wrote my doctoral thesis, which in a different form later became a book, on “Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 1838-1969” (Cornell University Press, 1978).

On my flight back to London in July 1969, I recall, I read a copy, just bought in Singapore, of Clifford Geertz’s celebrated “Islam Observed” (1968) contrasting the distinctive historical patterns of religious development, namely of Islam’s political engagement and expression, in Morocco and Indonesia.

No sooner had I arrived in London than my London School of Economics colleague, the great social theorist and anthropological analyst of Islam, Ernest Gellner, seeing me still clutching that book, asked me: What do you think of this latest work by Geertz? What do you see as its main weaknesses? How do the Malaysian developments that you have been tracing “sit” with Geertz’s latest comparative analysis?

I have been worrying ever since how to answer him — and still do, years after his death.

‘The rest is history’?

I cannot quite say that “the rest is history.” But I can certainly affirm that by then, so far as the prospects and fate of Malaysia were concerned, I was “well and truly hooked.”

I have now been “working on Malaysia”, as academic types like to say, for half a century. I have been writing and publishing seriously about the country — as well as a number of other scholarly matters, since I am not just a “Malaysia specialist” and nothing more — for almost as long, certainly for well over 40 years.

The things that, from the outset, I have written about have not lost their relevance.

The political salience and power of Islam, the effectiveness of Islam in providing both the social basis networks and the intellectual or moral idiom and “popular logic” of political resistance, the role of Islam as a kind of “para-political” domain where more direct or explicit or conventionally modern forms of politics may not be available: none of this has declined in importance since the early 1960s.

On the contrary.

When, at the 1999 elections, the Islamic Party PAS registered a dramatic revival of its political fortunes, I read commentary after “shocked” commentary suggesting that the new Islamist challenge had, so to speak, “come unannounced from nowhere” — and that it was time people began taking the Islamic appeal seriously, analysing its dynamics thoughtfully, and exploring how it operated.

All I could say was that I had been doing just that for years — and that very few people had ever paid much attention.

‘Curious outsiders’ & national identity

That is one of the strange things about writing, as an international scholar, about Malaysia.

My colleagues who write seriously about France and Germany, about Italy and the India, about the United States and Japan, have the satisfaction, as well I suppose as the problems, of seeing people in those societies respond to their work.

Other scholars and serious commentators and journalists at times take up their ideas and “run with them”. So their contributions, for better or worse, become part of the “national conversation” in those countries, part of the great public debate about national identity and character and destiny.

For whatever reason, in Malaysia it is not like that.

I suspect that curious outsiders do not become absorbed within, and part of, the public debate about national identity because in Malaysia there isn’t one.

There is much partisan rhetoric, all couched within a dichotomised discourse: latter day absolutist Malay nationalism, now the ideology of “Ketuanan Melayu”, versus its critics, the loyalists to the 1957 “Merdeka moment” national aspiration towards ethnic convergence and the transcendence of the communal divisions of the “plural society.”

Dichotomized dissatisfaction, but no inclusive “national conversation.”

So there is nothing for those outside friends or informed scholars to engage with, other than partisan polemics. For them it is like urging mellow detachment and constructive family therapy to a divided, adamantly unreconciled household.

In the end, writing as an outsider about Malaysia is very much like spitting into the wind. The most that happens is that it blows back into your own face, without ever reaching anybody else standing there in front of you, whom you have been facing and your words addressing.

So, strangely, one remains largely unknown. Anonymity and obscurity, I suppose, do have their distinctive pleasures.

Who am I to speak?

But when people occasionally challenge me, demanding to know “by what right do you as an outsider presume to speak about our society and pronounce upon our political dilemmas”, I can only respond, as I have occasionally done, with the riposte (which puzzles some younger politicians, but “tickles” others) that I have, as an adult with a serious interest in these matters, been writing about “the fate of the Malayan and the Malaysian national idea” since before they were even born.

A leading (and even now still active) Malaysian journalist at the time of the 1999 elections inveighed against the role, and the credence widely given to the pronouncements, of “clueless outsiders.”

For myself, and despite all the acknowledged limitations of my work and understanding, I can only say “Clueless, I think not.”

And an “outsider”? After all these years, I am no longer sure about that either.

Certainly, I am no Malaysian “insider.”

I merely write for one — for a fine journal by that name — and for its readership of people of that kind, to whom the term may genuinely apply.

Yet an insider myself? I never was, anywhere. But a total outsider, a naïve stranger?

Again, I think not.

* To be continued tomorrow.

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

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