The “Plural Society” Concept of Malaysia May be Revised or Set Aside in the Future, says Historian

Friday, 28 January 2011 18:18
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By Kuah Guan Oo
Pix by Saliman Leman

BANGI,  28 Jan. 2011 –  The “plural society” paradigm now widely used in Malaysia to describe its race relations and nationhood is not a given but a constructed thing, said an Australian historian in a public lecture here.

And, the paradigm might conceivably be set aside or revised in some form in the future, said Prof Dr Anthony Milner, holder of the Pok Rafeah Chair of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

The Pok Rafeah Chair was set up by former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin in memory of his late mother. Prof Milner is the fourth holder of the Chair.

Giving the 7th public lecture of the Chair on “Malaysia’s Dominant Societal Paradigm: Invented, Embedded, Contested” here yesterday, he said the paradigm of a “plural society” has become embedded in Malaysia although it was created ideologically from a number of options and not merely from its demography.

And based on his studies that focused on the history of ideas that had shaped Malaysia from the pre-colonial days to nation state, he said the paradigm might conceivably be set aside or revised in some form in the future.

“The history of ideas reminds us not only of the historical heritage of thought that tends to govern our lives today – but also of the role of human agency in shaping that heritage.

“This would seem to provide a message of optimism at a time when Malaysians – looking to the future of their country – are assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the societal paradigm that has been dominant here since merdeka.”

Speaking as an outsider looking at Malaysian society, he said it was important to not only understand the different concepts and paradigms that had been developed and advocated in the past but also to examine carefully the way they had been responded to.

“As I hope my lecture has made clear, in some cases there may be mere confrontation but in others we find creative adaptation,” said the Basham Professor of Asian History at the Australian National University and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

He has written several books on Southeast Asia that include The Malays, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya, and Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule.   

He also said that pre-colonial ideas and concepts might make a come-back although they were seen as the alternative and rejected by mainstream leaders.

For example, the concept of “Bangsa Malaysia” was used to describe the people of Malaysia instead of “Melayu”.  But the concept of  “Melayu” still remains.

He disagreed with the view that colonial or western knowledge should be defined as baseline knowledge in the study of ideas in this country. The danger of such a view is that it ignored pre-colonial knowledge like the Shariah which is present in many aspects of life here.

In tracing the early history of ideas, he said it was Stamford Raffles and others who had helped to build the concept of the “Malay” as a “nation” or “race”  determined by descents as well as culture.

Local ideologues were partners in the constituting of the “Malay race,” he said. 


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