Based on a study by Donna J. Amoroso in Making Sense of Malaysia, on post-colonial states, cultures and psychological developments.
Quoted from his book, The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia’s Subaltern History (2002) Dr. Farish A. Noor charges that “Malaysia today is ruled according to a neo-feudal political culture” in which “blind deference to authority” has been “re-invigorated and revived in no uncertain terms”. How can the words “feudal” and “neo-feudal” be applied to recent government’s relentlessly modernising Malaysia? In fact, by using this language Farish is situating himself within a current of Malay social criticism that can be traced back to Munshi Abdullah’s mid-nineteenth century condemnation of royal misrule (1970), through the radical, popular nationalism of the mid 1930s to 1940s, to more recent scholar-activists like Chandra Muzaffar (1979).
In this note, Farish also reminds his readers of Malay leaders’ collusion with colonial rule. After European incursions disrupted networks of trade and wealth in the wider Southeast Asian world, ushering in a period of economic stagnation and disorder, colonial intervention on the peninsula was justified by “the notion of the disabled native” whose decaying culture required European protection. But the imposition of central authority was obscured by the cooperation and entrenchment of elites. Native disablement, which also paved the way for the wholesale importation of labour, was then cemented in two ways: through a discourse labelling Malays as “superstitious,” “conservative,” “lazy,” “without method or order,” and having “proper respect for constituted authority” (Swettenham, quoted in Farish, 24); and through legislation that decreased their ability to move about geographically:
“The net effect was two-fold: Colonial ethnographic scholarship reconstructed the Malays as a backward race of agriculturalists and feudal serfs, while the newly-imposed Colonial legislation and regulations ensured that the Malay peasantry would be kept in precisely those areas of economic activity that were deemed compatible with their ‘natural’ Malay character: manual labour, farming and fisheries” (Farish, 26).
It was this society – defined by disability and an ossified class structure – that was the target of nationalist, reformist, religious, and other modernist critiques from the early twentieth century. By the 1930s and 1940s, the ruling class-colonial alliance was coming under increased pressure from Malay urbanisation and literacy, demands for new economic and political roles by all groups, penetration of foreign media, Japanese occupation, and postwar communal violence. Reviving the language of the secular left critique goes hand in hand with restoring the contribution of the radical Malay nationalists to the historical record.
Dr. Farish Ahmad Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian and is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University inSingapore. At the NTU he is part of the research cluster on the contemporary development of trans-national religio-political networks across South and Southeast Asia, where he is studying the phenomenon of Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist religio-political mobilisation in the public domain.
He received his BA in Philosophy & Literature from the University of Sussex in 1989, before studying for an MA in Philosophy at the same University in 1990, an MA in South-East Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before completing his PhD at the University of Essex in 1997 in the field of governance and politics.