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Home and the Malaysian epic

THAT great meandering epic otherwise known as the Malaysian story is and can only be a narrative without a full stop; it is and will be a story that is complex as it is long, trailing away in a plethora of diverse directions, and including in its cast the biographies of millions.

We are, each and every one of us, part of that national narrative that we call the Malaysian story, and each of us should have a place in that collective national memory. That, at least, is how I see it. My task as a historian is to record in detail the convoluted, complex and at times confusing multiplicity of narratives that make up the national story that we can all lay a claim to.

From this week onwards, The Other Malaysia makes its appearance on The Nut Graph, and we hope that both the column and the online news site will do their best to record the unfolding story of this nation for posterity’s sake.

My only lament is that as a historian who has to trawl through the pages of history passed, I have of late laboured under the impression that Malaysia’s history is nothing more than the repetition of the same tired dramas of the past, with staid and stale scripts being brought to play time and again.

Ten years ago when I first left the country to pursue an academic career abroad and when I first began writing the Other Malaysia columns, the country was awash with lurid tales of sodomy in high (and low) places. Ten years on, my return to the region has been greeted with a sad repeat of the same old story, as if the fate of bottoms were as important as the rise and fall of nations and economies in our corner of the world.

Home and the Malaysian epic

As recently as 9 Aug 2008, we were treated to yet another spectacle of mass moral panic that occasioned yet another public forum being rudely interrupted and brought to a halt, ostensibly for the sake of defending the injured and ever-so-fragile sensitivities of one community.

Sure enough, moral outrage and histrionics gave way to volatility and excess; and it was reported that in the midst of the din and clamour on the part of a group of self-proclaimed “defenders of the faith”, chants of “babi” and “balik Cina” were hurled across the floor.

Confronted by the sad spectacle of history repeating itself and a national consciousness that has evolved ever so slowly, we need to ask ourselves: Is this all that Malaysia can claim for itself, after five decades of independence and three decades of material and economic development?

The contradiction between our first-world aspiration and our third-world mentality has become so painfully evident that one is left resigned to the sorry conclusion that perhaps, after all, we have not merited the independence we clamoured for not too long ago.

Which is where and why history serves as that important reminder of what we are and what we could be, had other paths been taken instead.

Home and the Malaysian epic
Police and the media outside the Bar Council building on Lebuh Pasar Besar in Kuala Lumpur, 8.30am on 9 Aug 2008, the day of the forum (Pic by Seira Sacha)
I am perturbed, to say the least, that the cries of “babi” and “balik Cina” were uttered by the group of demonstrators who forced their way into the Bar Council’s forum on conversion in Malaysia.

More troublesome still is the thought that among the ranks of those who had entered the council’s auditorium and called for the forum to be stopped were members of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Peoples’ Justice Party (PKR).

Now we are not certain whether those responsible for the racial taunts were from the parties of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, but even if they were not, it moves us nonetheless to ask the question of why the members of the Pakatan Rakyat were there at all in that capacity, and whether they could have done more by calming the tempers of the hot-headed demagogues among them.

Burhanuddin’s Malay identity

That the cry “balik Cina” was uttered at all is lamentable and shames us all; but for members of PAS in particular, the incident would have warranted a stern rebuke by none other than their very own former president, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy, the third president of PAS and arguably the most enlightened and progressive Malay-Muslim nationalist and Islamist this country has ever produced.

Members of PAS today seem to have all but forgotten the progressive ideology that was the legacy of Dr Burhanuddin, the man who led the Malay left as well as the progressive wing of the Islamists during the struggle for independence in the 1940s.

A left-leaning nationalist who was first and foremost a committed anti-colonialist, Dr Burhanuddin was also the Islamist leader who showed the most sympathy and understanding towards the leftist-nationalists of Malaya and the Malayan Communist Party.

One episode in particular is worth recounting in the life of Burhanuddin. As the Malay leftist-nationalists began to mobilise themselves and form the PKMM (Malay Nationalist Party of Malaya) in the 1940s, several of the young nationalists were doubtful about Dr Burhanuddin’s definition of “Malayness” and Malay identity.

One of them happened to be Ahmad Boestaman, father of the late Rustam Sani. In his memoirs he recounted his discussion with Dr Burhanuddin, who simply stated that “my (Burhanuddin’s) understanding of Malay identity is not found in the context of ‘race’, but in the context of the ‘nation’”, and that Burhanuddin accepted all who were born in Malaya as being of that same “Malay nation”, in the broadest sense of the word (Boestaman, 1972).

Though all this might seem as little more than semantic acrobatics to some, the import — both ideological and political then as now — was considerable. Dr Burhanuddin was proposing a broad-based nationalism that united all Malaysians as Malaysians, while also de-racialising Malayness by making it a political category of identity and citizenship.

Home and the Malaysian epic
A collection of Burhanuddin’s political writings and speeches
It was this broad-based approach to a de-racialised politics that paved the way for the inclusive pan-Malayan political campaigns such as the pan-Malayan strikes and hartals that were aimed at bringing about the collapse of the colonial economy, and forcing the colonial government to grant an early independence to Malaya then.

Furthermore, it was the dream of a Malaysian Malaya, a homeland where all who were born in Malaya (as it was then called) were regarded as natives of the land and “Malays” in the widest, nationalist sense of the word.

Five decades on, the memory of that generation of Pan-Malayan nationalists who were colour blind seems to be diminishing with each passing day; and with their eclipse the barbed and poisonous slurs of “babi” and “balik Cina” have grown louder.

In the wake of the election results of 8 March 2008, this nation of ours is calling for a new national narrative that reflects, perhaps for the first time, the multilayered complexity of the Malaysian nation in motion.

Now more than ever the idealism of the likes of Burhanuddin al-Helmy, who could imagine a plural nation with a complex culture, is needed. And now more than ever we need a voice like that of the late Doctor’s who will remind the bellicose hate-mongers among us that this is the home of all Malaysians (including pigs born and raised in Malaysia); and that the only “Indians” and “Chinese” who will return to India and China one day happen to be tourists here on holiday.

For the rest of us, this is our home — whether the sectarian communitarians among us like it or not. End of Article

Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is the co-founder of The Other Malaysia website, which is a sustained effort to highlight the marginalised aspects of Malaysian history, politics and popular culture.

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4 Responses to “Home and the Malaysian epic”

  1. James Selva says:

    I think it is a good piece. Now I know who is Dr.Burhanuddin is and they have a raod named after him in Tam Tun Dr Ismail. Hope it is the same person.My best wishes on your online news site.

  2. glen e says:

    Good news, indeed, that you’re still writing, Dr Farish! Your fans miss you at The Other Malaysia! Thank you for the continuing effort to light a torch where darkness prevails.

  3. Anne says:

    Pleased to know that I will still be able to enjoy your articles.

    By the way, if (according to the neanderthals who cannot fathom intelligent discourse), the Chinese must return to China and Indians to India, where would one of mixed parentage like me go….?

  4. Victor Chin says:

    That Burhanuddin Helmi was such an outstanding Malaysian at his time and if we all knew more of his thoughts it would be even more important for our fellow citizens in the future. His name is also connected by geography to a piece of news about a photographic exhibition in Taman Tun Dr Ismail. My fellow photographer friend Eric Peris and i happen to be having a photographic exhibition at No 80 Jln Burhanuddin Helmi till the 31 August. This show ‘Form & Emptiness’ explores the Buddhist ruins and dessicated statues of Buddha in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya 400 years ago in Thailand and what is left of the two cities today. The picture of the past of our neighbours and also in our country has many dark and contradictory sides. At the heart of it is the our human nature to dominate and subjugate another by any means. This battle is still being fought not just here but in every corner of this planet. Come a take a look at the exhibition and it may be our waring-selves we are looking at.

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