Archive for category Farish Noor


— Farish A Noor
The Malaysian Insider
May 04, 2013

MAY 4 — It is close to midnight and I am typing this as I try to pack up my things and finish off the fieldwork that I have been doing for the past two weeks, covering the election campaign in three different places — Temerloh, Kuala Selangor and Kota Kinabalu.

Lugging an antiquated laptop that dates back to the Jurassic age made of granite has not helped, and my back is wrecked as a result. My eyes are failing me, so excuse the typos as you come across them, too.

I have been following elections in Malaysia for ages, in 1999, 2004, 2008 and now this one, in 2013. In the course of my work as a wandering academic I’ve also covered elections in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

And I have since grown somewhat cynical about the promises that are made during campaigns, for I have seen them broken too many times as well. Read the rest of this entry »


How myths can be necessary and also dangerous

— Farish A. Noor
The Malaysian Insider
Feb 12, 2012

FEB 12 — Over the last two days I have been interviewed three times by three different media publications over the question of where I stand on the latest silly debate in Malaysia, namely the question of whether Hang Tuah existed or not, and whether it ought to be taught in schools.

This is, I have to confess, one of the smaller histories of Malaysia that has been in the footnotes of my mind for ages, and I recall how I was once asked by an elderly gentleman during a forum discussion in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 if it was true that Hang Tuah was of Chinese origin.

Let me state what little I know of the matter, and make my stand relatively clearer:

Firstly, I don’t know or care if Hang Tuah was Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Eskimo or Serbo-Croat. He could have been a mix of all of the above with a Martian wife and a Venusian mother-in-law, for all I care.

Secondly, no, there is no record of the keris Taming Sari either, and every antique shop that claims to have one is lying to get your money.

Thirdly, please note that in the Hikayat Hang Tuah, we also have stories of kerises that fly, magical potions, demons and monsters, and a magical bean that when swallowed allows you to speak all languages. (A bit like the Babel fish in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy methinks.) Read the rest of this entry »


The road to Malaysia is sometimes paved with grammatical errors

— Farish A. Noor
The Malaysian Insider
Feb 07, 2012

FEB 7 — There are times when I can only assume that Malaysians have so much free time on their hands that they don’t know what to do with it. Today, as I was marking my students’ book reviews, I chanced upon an item on Facebook that caught my attention: A minor kerfuffle had erupted thanks to a naive and well-meaning, though poorly executed, attempt at political correctness and inclusivity. The JKMM Facebook page had announced a Happy Thaipusam, but to Buddhists instead of Hindus. Almost immediately scores of irate Malaysians wrote on the page, accusing the JKMM FB page administrators of being stupid and insensitive.

Now allow me to contribute my two cents’ worth here (I’m paid in Singaporean dollars now, so my two cents are worth five sen ok, don’t play-play … )

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that anyone at the offices of the JKMM would deliberately set out to insult Hindus on the page of the JKMM. That would be so insanely counter-productive as to beggar belief. True there might be racists anywhere and everywhere (even in academia) but they seldom use official channels to insult others, what more in such a case where anyone responsible can be tracked down and eventually identified. Read the rest of this entry »


A year-end look at Malaysia from afar

— Farish Noor
The Malaysian Insider
Dec 22, 2011

DEC 22 — I began my academic career more than a decade ago — and I can wryly state, with a smirk on my face, that my career began in the previous century.

From the outset the subjects that I have taught have been in keeping with my own academic interests as a student years ago: Philosophy, political theory, literature, history and Area Studies, of which the study of Malaysian society, politics and history has always been an ongoing concern of mine. For a decade now I have been offering and teaching a handful of courses, one of them being the history of the society and politics of Malaysia, and this is a course that I have taught in Germany, France and now here in Singapore where I am presently based, at least for the next couple of years or so.

Of all the subjects I have taught, none has had as much attraction – or been the cause of so much anxiety and concern — as the subject of Malaysian politics and history. And perhaps none of the courses that I have taught have cost me so much, emotionally and psychologically.

This is simply because the prevailing norm of academic research and teaching is one that lays emphasis on reason, balance and objective distance from the subject at hand. But when the subject at hand happens to be the country of one’s birth, and to which one presumably has some emotional attachment to, then maintaining that sense of objective, critical, balanced distance becomes difficult even at the best of times.

What compounds matters for me is that my focus on Malaysian society, politics and history is shaped by my other related concerns about the linkages between politics and economics, power and violence, race and religion, and the instrumentalisation of all the previously-mentioned for the sake of power and the use of it by political elites the world over. Parallel to my focus on Malaysia has been my other research interests in radical and potentially violent ethno-nationalist politics, as well as religious politics, communitarian politics and religious violence. Put all of these ingredients into a crammed head like mine and the result is a catalogue of neuroses and anxiety that leads to depression and suicidal inclinations even on the sunniest of days. Read the rest of this entry »


Toying with history again in Malaysia

-Farish A. Noor
The Malaysian Insider
Sep 12, 2011

SEPT 12 — In all honesty, I really have many other things to do than waste my time commenting on what has to be one of the most inane and counter-productive debates in Malaysian politics today. Yet as the tide of silliness gains strength all around us, I feel it necessary to add my two-sen’s worth to this debate before I get back to my real work which happens to be teaching and research, so here it goes…

It appears that some academics in Malaysia now claim that Malaya (as it was then called) was never colonised by the British after all — or at least that the Malay kingdoms were never colonies in the fullest sense of the word, but rather protectorates. This is, literally, correct and it has to be said that the legal-political status of these states was precisely that: protectorates rather than colonies. But we need to raise some crucial questions at this point in order to flesh out the debate a little further, and try to understand how and why such an arrangement came about in the first place.

Firstly, it ought to be noted that the use of the term “protectorate” rather than “colony” offered (then, in the 19th century) a fig-leaf of respectability to what can only be described as a mad scramble for power and domination by the British who were not satisfied with the acquisition of their outright colonies in Penang, Dindings, Malacca and Singapore. Read the rest of this entry »


Historical Reconstruction Again?

By Farish A Noor
5 September 2011

And so, for reasons that are both complex and irritating, the past is being dragged into the present yet again; while we Malaysians bury our heads in the sand and neglect the future. By now most of us will be familiar with yet another controversy-in-a-teacup that has grabbed the headlines: namely the question of whether the events that took place during the attack on the police outpost in Bukit Kepong ought to be remembered as a historic event in the Malayan struggle for independence.

Unfortunately for all parties concerned it seems that the issue has been hijacked by politics and politicians yet again, as is wont to happen in Malaysia on a daily basis almost. More worrying still is how the manifold aspects of this event have been taken up selectively by different parties and actors to further their own arguments, while neglecting to look at the wider context against which the event took place. It is almost impossible to be truly objective when it comes to the writing and reading of history, and perhaps we can do away with that pretense. But for now perhaps some marginal notes on the matter might come in useful to clear the air a bit. Read the rest of this entry »


Still dreaming of a Malaysia to call Home

By Farish A. Noor | August 12, 2011
The Malaysian Insider

AUG 12 — A Malaysian ambassador once asked me if, after living and working abroad for more than 2½ decades, I still kept my Malaysian citizenship. And I answered yes. He was surprised somewhat and added: “Thank God, at least we haven’t lost you as well.” I replied: “Well, we have lost so many good academics and professionals by now I’m not sure if that makes any difference by this stage…”

Yet out of some naïveté on my part I would still state that I believe in the Malaysian project, for all its quirks and shortcomings. And now, as Malaysia looks ahead at a decade that will undoubtedly transform the face of Southeast Asia and will witness the gradual decline of American influence and the rise of China’s in Asean, we hold fast to the ship of state that is due for a severe battering as never before.
Read the rest of this entry »


Revisiting the Spin of Malaysia and Indonesia as ‘Moderate’ Muslim states

By Farish A. Noor November 2nd, 2009.

It is now ‘moderate’ season once again when the leaders of the developed Western world are on the lookout for moderate Muslim states and leaders to engage in dialogue with as strategic, economic and political allies and partners.

Needless to say, the leaders and governments of the Muslim world are equally pleased with this open invitation, particularly from the White House, and there are plenty of Muslim leaders and governments that are prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate the demands of the man who is currently residing in the White House too.

On top of that it ought to be noted that the honour of being anointed as a ‘moderate Muslim’ leader is something that most Muslim leaders today would wish for and cherish above all else, cognisant of the fact that such an anointment would be followed by a blanket support of their own domestic policies at home as well as lashings of economic, political and military support to boot. Read the rest of this entry »


Injecting Reason Back Into Indonesia-Malaysia Relations

By Farish A. Noor

It would appear as if Reason and Rationality have gone on holiday in Southeast Asia recently: In Malaysia a group of angry residents who wished to protest against the construction of a Hindu temple in their neighborhood decided to demonstrate their anger by marching to the government offices in Selangor with a severed cow’s head, a gesture that was guaranteed to offend the sensibility of pious Hindus who regard the cow as a sacred animal. In Indonesia a misunderstanding over a tourism ad commissioned from a non-Malaysian company has angered scores of Indonesians, simply because it mistakenly featured a scene from a Balinese pendet dance which the Indonesians regard as being exclusively theirs: The net result being a new round of anti-Malaysian protests leading to local vigilante groups harrassing tourists in Jakarta and going out into the streets to ‘sweep’ the country of Malaysians.

In both Malaysia and Indonesia, tempers seem to be rising out of control and for all the wrong reasons. Making matters worse is the fact that in both countries these mob actions are neither accidental nor unavoidable. Mobs do not form themselves and move into the streets for no reason; vigilante groups do not miraculously form themselves out of this air without funding and political support.
Read the rest of this entry »


Punishing the Body or the Person? Why Some Cannot Accept Physical Punishments

By Farish A. Noor

In his book ‘Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran’ (1994), the scholar Darius Rejali looks at how the processes of torture and punishment have evolved over the centuries in Iran, from the period of the Qajar dynasty all the way to the regime of the Shah and the Islamic Revolutionary government. He makes one interesting and important observation which remains relevant to all of those who are concerned about the use of corporal punishment and torture by modern states today: that corporal punishment dates back to the medieval era where the popular perception of punishment was that it was a public spectacle that ought to be enacted upon the body of the individual, and not the subject him/herself.

In this respect, the modes of torture and punishment that were used in pre-modern Iran were no different from the modes of punishment that were used in China, India, Africa or Europe. Throughout the world during the pre-modern era the popular understanding of punishment was that it was meant to be a form of public humiliation, operating through the mode of public violence, that was intended to compel the guilty to repent and alter his/her ways through the threat of violence and force. Hence we see how in medieval Europe, Asia and the Arab world the modes of public punishment were all equally gory and bloody: Heads were chopped off, bodies were impaled, whipped, burned, branded, broken, quartered and sliced to pieces. Most of these punishments were carried out in public, ostensibly as a ‘lesson’ to others. But as many modern psychologists have pointed out, these public spectacles of violence also served the voyeuristic inclination of those who relished the sight of bodies being violated in public, and were thus also forms of bizarre public pornography.
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So who has ‘Misunderstood’ the ISA?

By Farish A. Noor

It is now being claimed by some that the Internal Security Act has been ‘misunderstood’ by a significant section of the Malaysian public, and if only they can be made to ‘understand’ it they would come to realise that it is after all a good tool that ought to be kept in the coffers of the state.

That such a claim can be made today is interesting, for at least it makes the concession that there are enough Malaysians out there who reject the manifold uses and abuses of the ISA so as to warrant the call to have it abolished, or at least so radically revised that it cannot be abused further. However we are left with the question: Who, exactly, has ‘misunderstood’ the ISA? The Malaysian public or the politicians who run the country?
Read the rest of this entry »


Politics, Power and the Violence of History

By Farish A Noor

The guillotine, it ought to be remembered, was originally conceived of as a safe, clean, efficient and ironically ‘humane’ method of murdering people when it was first introduced. Dubbed the ‘revolutionary razor’ when it was first used to execute the enemies of the state at the outset of the French revolution, it was seen as an improvement and advancement from the age of neo-feudal rule where the despotism of the King of France was manifest in the macabre and gruesome spectacles of public violence that were enacted in the kingdom against those who were seen as the enemies of the regime.

In time however it is clear that even this mode of public execution has been inscribed with negativity and regarded as a brutal way for the state to express its power in the public domain. Robbespiere, Danton, Saint-Just were all victims of the same mode of state violence that they had originally supported and promoted, and it is ironic that Robbespiere and his contemporaries met their end at the same guillotine that they had used to execute their enemies earlier.

The tale of the guillotine is an apt reminder of the historical impasse that Muslim societies are in today, and how the dream of political Islam is now Read the rest of this entry »


Arresting the Slide in Our Public Institutions

By Farish A. Noor

The term ‘Asubhabhavana’ is familiar with many historians of Buddhist theology by now, for it refers to a meditative mode of introspection that has become ritual practice over the centuries. In layman’s terms, Asubhabhavana refers to the simple process of self-reflection and mental back-tracking where one contemplates the manifold paths, steps and mis-steps that were taken to get us to where we are today; prompting the simple yet direct question: “Why have I become what I am today, and what were the mistakes that I made that continue to hurt me now?”

As it is with individual subjectivities, so is it with states, governments and institutions. For when we look at the process of historical development and decline of so many post-colonial societies we also need to ask what were the steps and mis-steps that were taken to get them to their present state of degeneration and decline?

A case in point is the recent one in Malaysia, where a young political assistant to the DAP opposition party was found dead under the most suspicious of circumstances. The young man had been summoned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to its offices in order to answer some questions related to allegations of corrupt political practice. The next time anyone sees him, he is found lying dead on the rooftop of the building next door. Needless to say the fact that the young man may have died while under MACC custody begs the immediate and obvious questions: How did he die, and why? This is the burning question that has brought Malaysians of all walks of life, across the political divide, together. Already the same question is being asked even by the component parties of the BN ruling coalition, and prominent BN leaders have likewise called for an enquiry into what happened that day at the MACC office.
Read the rest of this entry »


Governance between Idealism and Realism

By Farish A Noor

Malaysia-watchers would have noticed by now that cracks have begun to appear in the opposition People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) and that recent events have given some cause for worry. Notably, public spats and open rows among PR leaders in state assemblies have not given us any reason to be confident about the coalition’s future, and at the rate that the PR is going today one is not surprised to hear much speculation about the impending fall of two more state assemblies. There are, understandably, many reasons for these rows to have come into the public domain – though none of these reasons could justify such acrimonious and self-defeating displays by public politicians whom we expect to behave with more decorum and professionalism.

One of the reasons, we are told, is the constant bickering and demands that are coming from the business community – predominantly in Selangor and Penang – who feel that their earlier support for the Pakatan should now be reciprocated by the handing out of lucrative development projects and other perks and bonuses that come with political sponsorship and patronage. This, however, is precisely the root of the malaise to Malaysian politics, and was one of the primary reasons why the vote swing in March 2008 was as strong and vocal as it was.

It is known to many in the business world and corporate sector that the mode of governance in Selangor has changed: Calls for transparency and accountability have been met with a more stringent form of quality control and hands-on management. Contracts have to be tendered for openly, and the accounting has to be visibly cleaner and more transparent. Likewise the very nature of the development contracts have changed as well, with environmentally-dangerous forms of development (such as hillside development) put on hold for the moment.
Read the rest of this entry »


Empathy and Myopia: How Malaysians No Longer Understand One Another

By Farish A. Noor

Malaysia is once again landed with yet another predictable mini-controversy (as there are too many controversies at the moment, this one has been relegated somewhat) involving a report that was purported written by two Muslims for the magazine al-Islam. The report was written by the two Muslims who claimed that their intention was to investigate the allegations that Muslims were being converted to Christianity in the country, but the cause of the controversy lies in the fact that the two writers chose to pretend to be Christians and took part in Christian rituals of worship in the Church. For many Christians the most offensive aspect of the investigation lay in the claim that the writers took part in the rituals without revealing who they were, and that they consumed the holy wafer/bread of Christ, then spat it out, and photographed the remnants of what they had consumed later.

Now of course this begs the obvious question: How would Muslims had reacted if some non-Muslim journalists had done the equivalent; to enter a mosque, take part in rituals, photographed them, and then published the report in some journal?

In response to the clamour of complaints that have been issued, the authorities now claim that the two writers will be investigated, and if found guilty of carrying out acts detrimental to public order may even be imprisoned. This would not, however, address the key issue which is this: Have levels of emphathy and understanding in Malaysian society dropped to such an extent that someone could even contemplate doing such a thing without considering its wider impact on society and the consequences to others and themselves? Could the writers of the article not even consider the potential offence that they might have caused by assuming a fake identity only to take part in rituals they did not believe in; and did they not realise that this might have been seen as outrageous by others?
Read the rest of this entry »


“You Are Not Qualified To Interpret my Religious Text”: How to Respond to Attempts to Close the Public Domain- Part 3

By Farish A. Noor

These days we often hear the accusation that someone or another is doing something nasty by interpreting a book or text out of context. The common refrain that follows goes something like this: “Who are you to interpret our holy book on your own without the guidance of our supreme religious elders who are so knowledgeable in scriptural knowledge that your own petty knowledge is like that of a gnat’s in comparison?” From this bombastic salvo there usually follows the same train of accusations and slander, which include the following: Muslim/Christian/Buddhist/Hindu feminists are simply reading and re-reading the holy scriptures with their own agendas in mind; that they are engaged in wilful and unregulated interpretation that goes against orthodoxy, etc.

Before we deal with the political nature and consequences of such accusations, let us return to the original premise and deconstruct it a bit. Read the rest of this entry »


“You Are Not Qualified To Talk My Religion”: How to Respond to Attempts to Close the Public Domain- Part 2

By Farish A. Noor

If I were to tell someone that I don’t like Satay, loathe batik shirts and cant stand keroncong music, does it follow from that that I hate Malay culture in toto? Now one would have to be deliberately and consciously paralysingly stupid to believe that, by assuming that the rejection of some aspects of normative culture amounts to a total rejection of an entire culture as well. If that is the case with culture, then why cant we see that the same rule applies to talk of religion as well?

I raise this point because it has become ever so trendy in Malaysia these days to assume that any rejection, critical questioning or even debate over some normative aspects of religious epiphenomena amounts to a total rejection of the religion per se. This arises because of the unscrupulous manner in which some religiously-conservative individuals have erroneously equated the normative aspect of religiosity with the dogmatic aspect of religion in general. The two spheres, however, are distinct and should remain so.

This explains in part why groups such as Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam have been in the limelight for so many years, and why this group of Muslim feminists have been attacked again and again, and accused of being anti-Islamic. The fact however is that Sisters in Islam (SIS) Read the rest of this entry »


“You Are Not Qualified To Talk About Islam”: How to Respond to Attempts to Close the Public Domain

By Farish A. Noor

“You are not qualified to talk about Islam”. How many times have I heard and read that same line, again and again? And more often than not, the same sentence is uttered or written by precisely the sort of self-trained autodidact whose own knowledge of Islam came from whatever he or she read on the internet or some cassette he bought at the local market.

It has become rather commonplace for conservative Muslims – as well as conservative Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews – to claim monopoly over the discourse of Islam and to try their best to close off the space of public discourse on all matters religious for the sake of protecting the integrity and sanctity of that discourse. Or so we are told. But one can also argue that such attempts at restricting the participation and contribution of others in a discursive arena that is hotly contested is little more than a conventional and predictable attempt at censorship and the narrowing of the Muslim mind.

A recent case in point is the attempt to once again label the Muslim feminist movement Sisters in Islam of Malaysia as a group of ‘western-educated’ ‘liberal’ feminists who have no right to speak on matters Islamic. And once again we are in a paroxysm of anxiety as to how to deal with such accusations. Read the rest of this entry »


Another Lesson in PAS History: The Malaysian Public Does’nt Like Extremists

By Farish A. Noor

The repercussions of the somewhat clumsy attempt by some sections of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS to call for the investigation, and possibly banning, of the Muslim women’s rights group Sisters in Islam are still being felt today. Many questions have arisen in the wake of the proposal that was passed without debate at the recent General Assembly of PAS: How and why was the proposal passed as one of the ‘non-debated proposals’ in the first place? Why was it not vetted properly and why was it tabled at all? What does this say about the internal cohesion of PAS and its internal discipline? Does this proposal reflect just a faction of opinion among PAS members, or is it actually representative of the party as a whole? And what does this mean with regards to PAS’s avowed claims to be a modern party that supports the democratisation process and dialogue with others?

It is hard, to say the least, to believe that a party can be supportive of democracy if it starts by calling for the banning of NGOs even before it comes to power…

For now however we are left to watch the internal and external drama of PAS unfold as the party seeks to re-consolidate itself after what was clearly a hectic assembly for all. The lingering question of where PAS really stands, and where it goes from here though will have to be addressed sooner than later. Read the rest of this entry »


How Soon We Forget: Malaysia’s Ahistorical Politics

By Farish A. Noor

How soon we forget. Malaysian politics is characterized by a curious form of ahistoricity and a willful neglect of history in general. The contribution of the diverse communities of Malaysia to the country’s nation-building process is often forgotten in the official narratives of the country, the role of women in our national history is seldom even mentioned.

Malaysian politicians and political parties are likewise blind to history, and even recent history at that. Which has prompted many of my students to ask me the same question: “How come people don’t seem to remember anything in this country, and how come alliances can be made one day and broken the day after?” Well that, dear students, is precisely what Malaysian politics is made up of: Pragmatism that is grounded on political ambitions rather than the empowerment and education of the people. Politics here seems to be more directed towards the acquisition of political power for politicians than the political empowerment of the public; for the latter means having to educate the public, and to remind them of their history as well.

Now that all of Malaysia is abuzz with talk about the impending collapse of the Pakatan Rakyat and the moves to bring the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS closer to UMNO, let us revisit the history of these two parties for a while… Read the rest of this entry »