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Contesting convention in Malay-world historiography.

Anthony Milner. The Malays, 2008. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, Pp. xiv, 293. ISBN 978-0-631-17222-2.

Many of us indulge, from time to time, the affectation of writing in the third person ("the present writer suggests") in order to create an impression of neutrality or objectivity. The device employed by Professor Milner in his third book is rather distinct from this: a way of tempting readers on board as companions on a "first-person" journey of discovery, whereby, if we consent to the illusion, we become, as it were, accessories to the author's conclusions. The technique is charming but will not work like a Malay charm on most social scientists, who, even if they were not teased for making their own contribution to the stereotyping of "the Malay character," will surely query the conclusion that the Malays across the centuries have been involved in a process of induction into a "Malay civilization" or cultural system of "Malayness," rather than "Malay ethnicity." Their primary reservation about this could relate to the definition of ethnicity in terms of race and biological descent. We may well consent to the proposition that "the Malays" have been recruited, through cultural induction, from a wide range of racial stock, but was it not because of problems about the restrictive meaning of "race" that the more behavioral and contextual concept of "ethnicity" was first coined? If so, then "ethnicity" as understood by social scientists is precisely what Milner is talking about when he refers to "Malayness" and a closely related concept, "Malay civilization." A couple of the clearest statements of Milner's dichotomy occur on pages 227 and 237, but it informs the whole book in a very consistent manner, being apparently grounded in the leading perspective of his The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya (1995, marginally revised 2002) that the rise of the notion of a Malay bangsa in the 19th century reflected Western thinking on the biological classification of peoples at that time. Nevertheless, whilst labelling as "ethnicity" this concept that Malays are a biological race (as soon as they themselves had adopted it), he now demurs from the relevance of "Malay" (in that sense), and swims with an alternative scholarly consensus on the way forward for the historiography of the Malay world, which emerged at a conference in Leiden in 1998, itself part of an ongoing project between Leiden and Pekanbaru.

It appears that Milner attended the conference, bur without contributing a paper. Nor is his work represented in the Symposium which the conference engendered in turn, in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 2001. However, in view of the remarkable demand for that issue of the journal, Timothy P. Barnard gathered a slightly larger group to contribute to his subsequent edition, Contesting Malayness. Malay identity across boundaries (2004). Anthony Milner was invited to write the concluding overview to this collection, which he did with all due conscientiousness and polish. It ought to be entirely otiose to rehearse this background, yet it may merit a mention as the author of The Malays has somewhat defied presentational convention by omitting from his "Preface and Acknowledgements" any reference to the Leiden conference, least of all as a possible source of stimuli for the book, notwithstanding the striking affinities between Milner's emergent emphasis and the consensus in question. Among a handful of scholars whom Milner does single out for acknowledgement is his one-time student and now ANU colleague, the pre- and early-modern Sumatra specialist, Jane Drakard, but here too there is a puzzle, for the online publicity of none other than Wiley-Blackwell themselves, on the very eve of publication, announced her as joint author. Meanwhile, the extensive citation of other scholars within the text (by the author/date system) entirely takes the place of footnotes, making the text visually rather heavy and possibly distracting for the general reader. It is not wholly clear whether a book which attempts to pull together the wealth of not always easy to reconcile data which we find here, could have been conceived with a general readership in mind--though the division of the eight chapters into quite short, titled, sections is indeed helpful to all.

Not even the community of arch-specialists is entirely obviously the main target audience for this work of impressive aggregative sweep and philosophical application. Often one senses oneself witness to a dialogue between Professor Milner and his former self, A.C. Milner, with whose Kerajaan. Malay political culture on the eve of colonial rule (1982) he now disagrees on one point: its confidence in attributing subjective Malay identity to all pre-modern ancestors of "the Malays" of the present era. In my own first reaction to that book (Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, 1987) I thought that, as ruling class ideological texts, the two chronicles studied should not have been classified as representing necessarily the "political culture" of all Malays, but it did not occur to me that it might be misguided to label all such rakyat of the many kerajaan as "Malays" in their own minds. Even now, after reading the new book, I do not think this is an important issue, bur no doubt the Leiden consensus deserves attention. No doubt, also, if the defining mark of any "Malay" community were rule by a local raja, there would be a logic in denying a wider, regional identity. Still, if those groups of subjects all spoke forms of Malay, it was hardly untoward that Europeans tended to call them Malay. Be this as it may, somewhat later in academic time (East Asia, 2008) I commended the more explicit references to language as a vehicle of ideology (an ideology of ummah as well as bangsa, by the way) in The Invention of Politics, and now The Malays proves to be pleasingly replete with the concept of "ideological work"--the "Malay experience"--and changing subjective identity being seen not so much as the products of language at all (or at any rate only of Western categories, not from within the Malay linguistic treasury) but of the "top-down" endeavors of didactic rulers from Mansur Shah to Mahathir Mohamed. Where I would certainly take issue with the new book is with its tendency to regard the development of Malay nationalism out of, or on a foundation of, a previous (possibly also partly constructed) Malay ethnic identity as sui generis in the modern history of Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Recent work on nationalism by Anthony D. Smith is germane.

In a rather similar way one could criticize Kerajaan, still echoed in The Malays, for seeing the characteristic political structure of the 18th and 19th century Malay principality as distinguishing it, even more than did Islam and the Malay language, from its regional comperes and thus being almost the key element in the "Malay experience" and definition of this people-tentatively-in-the-making. How much is the Malay polity, dubbed a "kerajaan," seriously distinct from Thai counterparts, for instance, with their far more extensive lexicon of political terms featuring the word raja (as: Phraraachaaanaacak, 'a kingdom'; Phrabarornaraachaoongkarn, 'a royal command')? How much is the chronic Malay fear of being submerged fundamentally different from the anxieties for Siam's future which motivated Rama VI and the Thai officer corps at the time of the First World War? As for the inclusion of bilateral kinship as a distinct and identifying mark of Malay society by earlier Western observers and Japanese anthropologists today, it is difficult to credit that the author does not deny this by invoking--and immediately--the "loose structure" paradigm that was so long prevalent in the study of Thai society, having originated in a comparison of Thai bilateral kinship with the Japanese system.

For the twentieth century, either side of political independence, the book gives pride of place to Malaysia, and this is not unnatural, for even if the concern is to present the evolution of a concept more than narrate political events, the most significant "ideological work" has indeed taken place in Malaya/Singapore and Malaysia. However, there is perhaps a consequential tendency for the Malaysian polity to come across as the modern norm. This is helped by an occasional taciturnity on any deviation from it, even within Malaysia: for instance where Milner virtually brushes aside the constitutional crises of 1984 and 1992 (pp. 210-11), and with Dr. Mahathir cast as a prime mover of confrontation with the rulers, the immensely significant "kerajaan"-type revivalism of the Sultans of Kelantan and Johor being ignored. This omission marks a missed opportunity in terms of Milner's perception that the ancient kerajaan principle has not disappeared amidst constant pressures for adaptation. As for places beyond Malaysia, one arguable effect of the focus on the Malaysian "heartland" is that Patani, Indonesia and Brunei appear to constitute deviations from its "norm."

The Malays of Patani are treated as if deprived of a historical birthright by the territorial thrust of Siam and later nation-building by Thailand--unlike the seemingly more "correct" experience of Malays under British and Dutch colonialism, which surrendered to nationalism, having done much to secure, and ultimately bequeath, varying degrees of continuity in the institution of the raja. Milner singles out (p. 107), as a symptom of official Thai insensitivity, what he calls "a Thai tendency" to call Malays khaek, which he understands to mean 'visitor' or 'guest' (hence 'alien'?). It needs to be affirmed that this is a term of some longevity and dates back to the first Muslim (thus, Arab or Indian) traders who came to Siam--no more modem, or inherently offensive, I would suggest, than the term farang (literally, 'Portuguese') which Thais have a "tendency" to apply to me when I am in Thailand. Milner is hardly happier with the official category "Thai-Muslim" (pp. 167, 226), because it smacks of a denial of Malay ethnic birthright even while acknowledging religious identity. He seems less offended by the fact that Thai-speaking Muslims (or "Sam-Sam") have been included as "Malays" in censuses of Kedah (p. 124) and have lately been abandoning their Thai tongue in favor of Malay (p. 18l). Whether the "Sam-Sam" were in fact an ethnic group defined by religion, rather than a creole-speaking population resident astride two language zones (and comprising, as it happens, both Muslims and Buddhists), is a specialized question which need not detain us, for it should not occasion surprise if a book of great scope which draws predominantly on secondary sources, and apparently not at all on "hands-on" research in any parts of "the field," reveals a few anomalies.

Indonesia would test the ingenuity of any writer who attempted to include it in a history of the Malays, whether or not in a deconstructionist mold, for only the elusive Srivijaya (progenitrix of Melaka?) and, in later times the Sultanates of the east coast of Sumatra, qualify manifestly for inclusion. Deviation from a "Malaysian norm" is not merely inferrable but pretty much manifest in nearly all the relevant material. The claim of modern, nationalist Indonesia to be included in a "Malay world" discourse appears to be derived more from the vision of a handful of Peninsular Malay intellectuals such as Ibrahim Yaacob and Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy in the mid-twentieth century, or Professor Ismail Hussein of the Dunia Melayu movement in the late twentieth. I cannot speak for the first two, but Professor Ismail, in a personal communication in Brunei at one gathering of the period, was all too well aware of the vanishing prospects for "pan-Malay unity" today, as the development of modern Indonesian under the influence of Jakarta vernacular makes it less and less accessible to Malaysians. As Milner himself reminds us (p. 169), Sukarno appropriated the term bangsa for his "Indonesian nation," which was chiefly a geopolitical construction, only racial in a very broad sense. Three decades later (p. 174), the Malays of east Sumatra had been reduced in official parlance to a mere suku or ethnic splinter within that exclusively legitimate nation-state ("civic-nationalist" in type, as some might classify it). On the other hand, the post-Suharto period has seen "a widespread revival of sultanates" (p. 177). At least, we can observe some reconvergence here--though by definition the Javanese are not more probable candidates for "Malay" membership than before!

The case of Brunei, as presented in this book, prompts the reservation that while its non-democratic, indeed absolutist, monarchy defies the would-be "Malaysian norm," it does seem to represent a striking exemplar of the core of the "Malay essence"--a kerajaan--in Milner's early writing, however reluctant he may now be to speak of "essences." The exceptions to historical form are the fact that ceremony is now augmented by strict control of national wealth, and is complemented by the generously funded propagation of neo-traditional ideology. One could certainly argue that Brunei deserves not less than the mere two pages which Milner devotes in aggregate to modern Brunei ideologies (including the bangsa ideal of the Peninsular Malay, nationalist teacher Harun Rashid, exiled to Brunei in the 1930s, and the 1950s agitator and ultimate rebel, Sheikh Ahmad Azahari), but considerably more than this, starting with a more thorough and precise analysis of monarchical revival than has been provided (see p. 164--though p. 223 offers a little more). It is less than edifying to read that B.A. Hussainmiya, in his Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III and Britain (1995), was "astute" in pointing out that Azahari failed to emulate Tunku Abdul Rahman's manipulation of the traditional ruling class. I rather think that the Tunku had an easier time of it because he was himself of that class. At the same time, it is quite inaccurate to suggest that Azahari did not try for an alliance. What of the attempted inducement of a Brunei monarchy of revived pan-northern Borneo scope? But it was a sticking-point for this activist Sultan that Azahari wanted the Ibans already present in the state to be granted citizenship of Brunei. It happens to be Milner's view that the absorption of non-Muslim ethnic groups as "Malays" through conversion has been an important historical norm around the region (see especially p. 83 on the Dayaks of Sarawak). In this light, it would have been academically more astute to explain why Sultan Omar was reluctant to "conform with history" in this respect: it simply seemed too risky until the power of monarchy had been consolidated. Of course his reluctance to contemplate northern Borneo union and the challenge of integrating a predominantly non-Muslim native population was similarly motivated. Yet this is not to say that Sultan Omar lacked long-term ambition as a leader of pan-Malay revival--however late, and under Peninsular influence, the concept of "Malayness" may have come to Brunei, and (we could add) however much it would depend for its effectiveness within Brunei on the initial assimilation of non-Muslims to the Brunei-Malay culture but also acceptance of a shared citizenship as "Bruneieans," rationalized as reflecting membership of "the Malay race." The international aspiration of Brunei's neo-monarchical state does seem to have been missed in this book. The fact that the Islamic component in Negara Melayu Islam Beraja (M.I.B), the state ideology, is so much stronger than its "Malay nationalism," and to that extent seems in step with the rewriting of Malay identity in Malaysia since the 1970s (a dimension which Milner handles very convincingly for Malaysia), could also have provided grist for the author's ideas-mill.

At the same time, one would not want to overlook the probable power of the notion of racial qualification for membership of a nation-state, let alone as a foundation of ethnic identity, even if the reality of racial descent is scientifically unprovable or disprovable. As was insinuated in the previous paragraph, Brunei potentially offers much stimulus for discussion in this connection, and its sidelining in several respects is regrettable. Symptomatically or predictably, there was a complete lacuna where we might have expected to meet Robert Nicholl's and John Carrol's work on the dating of the monarchy's conversion. This is no merely academic question for contemporary Brunei ideologues, who have been seeking to establish a competitively early date, not only for the purpose of the regime's domestic legitimation but in the context of their pan-Malay leadership aspirations. It is a pity that the role of historical imagination in Malay identity-formation, which is clearly enunciated in connection with the Melaka past (cf. p. 19), is not given more salience for the modern era, especially with reference to the Abode of Peace-- though Milner is ideologically "correct" in keeping silence on the reputed hatching of the father of the founder of the dynasty from a cosmic egg (p. 50).

Still, the overarching thesis that what counts in the Malay world is the continuing reformulation of identity based on shared culture or perception of a common "civilization" (now almost exclusively at the hands of "Malays" themselves, we will notice--but logically incompatible with "unchanging essence"), is well maintained and sustained up to Professor Milner's final bow on p. 242. I have mainly depreciated the terminological anomaly--also consistently maintained--that this is not "ethnicity." If I have made too much of this distinction, and have neglected much else of interest in this thoughtful and wide-ranging book, readers need to be urged to take it up and engage, for themselves, with its great fund of insights and panoply of conventions revisited, Insofar as post-modernist scepticism may have become conventional in some circles, readers may be reassured to hear that in this book construction is not deconstructed with the aim or effect of denying that "the Malays" do have an objective existence, in spite of the use of inverted commas at every appearance of the term.

Roger Kershaw

295 Clashnessie, Lochinver

Scotland IV27 4JF
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Title Annotation:The Malays
Author:Kershaw, Roger
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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