Legacy of mud­dled iden­ti­ties

This book should be re­quired read­ing for all Malaysians be­cause it shows how Bri­tish colo­nial­ism helped to pro­duce mod­ern race re­la­tions in this na­tion.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS -

RACE is a con­tentious and yet defin­ing term in the mod­ern Malaysian so­cial, cul­tural, and political land­scape.

So­cial re­la­tions be­tween peo­ple are de­pen­dent on racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, but cru­cially, so are le­gal def­i­ni­tions and cit­i­zen­ship.

The mat­ter be­comes even more ab­stract and dif­fi­cult to pin down when it comes to talk­ing about the in­dige­nous peo­ple of Malaysia and racial cat­e­gori­sa­tion.

In this re­spect, San­dra Khor Man­ickam’s Tam­ing The Wild: Abo­rig­ines And Racial Knowl­edge In Colo­nial Malaya at­tempts to pro­vide read­ers with his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge and con­text about how race and in­di­gene­ity shape not only the cul­tural discourse but also political rhetoric and its at­ten- dant ma­te­rial ben­e­fits that ac­crue for cer­tain racial groups – ben­e­fits that are not dis­trib­uted evenly across the board.

As the au­thor is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of South- East Asian his­tory at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity, Sin­ga­pore, her book is rig­or­ously aca­demic but not at all out of reach of the nonaca­demic reader.

The pur­pose of the book is to in­ter­ro­gate an­thro­po­log­i­cal forms of knowl­edge used by the Bri­tish colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tion from the early 19th cen­tury to pro­vide a sense of con­text for the un­cer­tain­ties of cat­e­gori­sa­tion of race and racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the present day.

This long his­tor­i­cal view is a nec­es­sary one for many Malaysians, es­pe­cially ow­ing to the paucity of dis­cus­sion on any­thing re­motely im­por­tant or rel­e­vant in the his­tory syl­labus of the cur­rent pub­lic education sys­tem.

Malaysians who think colo­nial­ism is so yes­ter­day and that we need to “move on” might find fault with this book and my re­view, but it’s a short­fall com­mon to pop­u­lar think­ing that the only way to make things bet­ter is to think of quick fixes.

Academics like Man­ickam pro­vide a valu­able coun­ter­point by pro­vid­ing us with the men­tal tools and space to learn about how things have come to be, and how we might make a dif­fer­ent sort of fu­ture.

As she writes, “The book’s cen­tral con­cern is how dom­i­nant forms of knowl­edge on abo­rig­ines came into be­ing from the turn of the 19th cen­tury, when Euro­peans be­gan to write at length about the Malay Ar­chi­pel­ago, to the height of Bri­tish power on the Malay Penin­sula in the 1930s.”

Ac­cord­ingly, Tam­ing The Wild is struc­tured in six chap­ters that go from the “mak­ing of ” abo­rig­i­nal races to the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of racial cat­e­gories dur­ing the Bri­tish colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tion that was

done to sim­plify census- tak­ing and thus make the pro­ject of ex­ter­nal, im­posed gov­er­nance an eas­ier one for the rul­ing class.

Man­ickam minces no words, as part of an aca­demic obli­ga­tion to the truth is to present his­tory as it oc­curred – this is why the ti­tle of the book al­ludes to the process of “tam­ing the wild abo­rig­ine”, as colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors and early elite Malays would put it, so that the abo­rig­ines would be grad­u­ally ab­sorbed into “Malay­ness”.

In­ter­est­ing facts in the book in­di­cate that early Euro­pean an­thro­pol­o­gists, whose body of work would pro­vide the knowl­edge re­quired by colonis­ers to ex­ert con­trol over the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion, had a hard time dis­tin­guish­ing the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of the land.

In other words, “Malay­ness” and “in­di­gene­ity” were of­ten in­dis­tin­guish­able and fre­quently over­lapped.

As such, cer­tain an­thro­pol­o­gists fo­cused on ways of life and liv­ing to de­ter­mine the “real” abo­rig­i­nals, while oth­ers used so- called sci­en­tific meth­ods to de­ter­mine if a group was abo­rig­i­nal or not: study of phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics and other de­ter­mi­nants like the size and shape of the skull, hair-type, and so on.

There has been much crit­i­cism of this form of sci­en­tific racism, be­cause to no one’s sur­prise, “ex­otic” brown hu­mans on the other side of the world who most re­sem­bled Euro­peans in phys­i­cal fea­tures or char­ac­ter­is­tics were deemed more civilised than their coun­ter­parts with less reg­u­lar fea­tures.

Man­ickam’s fo­cus on lan­guage is in­trigu­ing for its ex­plo­ration on how hu­man dif­fer­ence was con­cep­tu­alised in the Malay lan­guage, and how it was ( mis) trans­lated into English to fit pre­vail­ing Euro­pean and English views about the world and the process of coloni­sa­tion. In study­ing Mun­shi Ab­dul­lah’s

Hikayat Ab­dul­lah in its orig­i­nal Malay and the sub­se­quent ver­sions of English trans­la­tions, Khor Man­ickam un­earths some in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­er­ies.

While Malays dis­tin­guished the Jakun peo­ple on the ba­sis of ke­lakuan ( which Man­ickam de­fines as “be­hav­iour/ man­ner”) and ke­dudukan (“place, in so­ci­ety”), for ex­am­ple, to point out dif­fer­ences be­tween how groups of peo­ple lived, Euro­pean an­thro­po­log­i­cal ideas of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion were put to use in terms of sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion via gov­er­nance and so­cial con­trol.

As such, there was also a con­certed ef­fort to cre­ate forms of knowl­edge to pro­duce the Malays as “out­siders” to the Malay Penin­sula or as lo­cal colonis­ers of in­dige­nous lands.

This, Man­ickam points out, was con­ve­nient be­cause it was used as a way to jus­tify Bri­tish colo­nial­ism.

The ram­i­fi­ca­tions of th­ese mud­dled and racist forms of Euro­pean think­ing con­tinue to re­ver­ber­ate in Malaysian race re­la­tions to­day.

Tam­ing The Wild is a rich text that yields much in­for­ma­tion and many in­sights not only about his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, but about knowl­edge pro­duc­tion in gen­eral and how it is put to use.

It should be re­quired read­ing not only for peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in his­tory, an­thro­pol­ogy, and colo­nial knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, but for all Malaysians be­cause it is a valu­able les­son in how we have come to know our­selves, and how much Bri­tish colo­nial­ism has not just af­fected but also pro­duced mod­ern race re­la­tions in this na­tion.

Booked Out has been held over this week.

Photo: re­search. ntu. edu. sg

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