AgainstTheGrain: Coloniality in contemporary Malaysia

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 9, 2018 - July 15, 2018.
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Some Malay leaders have recently expressed the view that the time has come for the Malays to revise their image of themselves and to cease viewing the community as inherently backward, saddled by negative traits and weighed down by an inferiority complex. In fact, many of the derogatory views that Malaysians have of the Malays were formed during the colonial period by colonial officers and scholars.

These views formed an integral part of the ideology of colonial capitalism and functioned to justify colonial rule. The idea that the Malays had various incapacities and shortcomings helped to justify to the British the need for European control over and tutelage of the natives. This phenomenon had been studied in detail by Syed Hussein Alatas in his The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977) and Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer (1971).

The idea of Malay incapacities has survived into the post-colonial period and was even internalised among the Malays themselves. In other words, the old colonial image of the Malays has now become a feature of the Malay worldview. For this reason, we can speak of the coloniality of post-colonial Malaysia. To better understand this phenomenon, it is instructive to refer to two thinkers who spent a great deal of time thinking about coloniality. They are the pan-African activist, Frantz Fanon and Syed Hussein Alatas.

The formative period of the thought of Alatas and Fanon was European colonialism. For Alatas, the context was colonial capitalism in the Malay world, while for Fanon it was French Algeria. Both were concerned with the nature and perniciousness of colonial depictions and images of the native and how these images affected the colonised to the point of being internalised by them.

Colonial capitalism was characterised by a number of features including the control of and access to capital by an alien power, highest levels of trade and industry dominated by an alien community, a bias towards agrarian production as opposed to industry, production around semi-free labour, and minimal scientific and technological expansion.

The ideology of colonial capitalism emerged to justify Western rule or the interests of colonial capitalism. According to Alatas, a central feature of this ideology was the denigration of the natives and their history. They were held to be unintelligent, lazy, evil and unfit to rule. The colonial administrators and scholars made no mention of injustices and atrocities committed by the Europeans against the natives or other non-Europeans. This was done in the name of dispassionate, objective scholarship. Neither did they consider that the ostensible laziness of the native was actually a conscious sabotage on his part against the colonialism. As Fanon put it in his The Wretched of the Earth (1965):

“How many times — in Paris, in Aix, in Algiers, or in Basse-Terre — have we not heard men from the colonized countries violently protesting against the pretended laziness of the black man, of the Algerian, and of the Vietnamese? And yet is it not the simple truth that under the colonial regime a fellah who is keen on his work or a Negro who refuses to rest are nothing but pathological cases? The native’s laziness is the conscious sabotage of the colonial machine…”

Alatas detailed how colonialism created an object, that is, the lazy native. The purpose of the colonial image of the lazy native was to maintain the natives in an intellectual and moral state that left them inferior to the Europeans, although their numbers were far greater. Concomitant with the colonial discourse on the lazy native was their subjection to “[g]ambling, opium, inhuman labour conditions, one-sided legislation, acquisition of tenancy rights belonging to the people, forced labour…” all of which were part of the fabric of colonial ideology. While subjected to all these kinds of human degradation, the natives were also labeled as ingrates when they critiqued the coloniser, as pointed out by Fanon.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon says that his analysis is psychological. In fact, his discussion on the psychology of the colonized complements Alatas’ critique of colonial ideology. Whereas Alatas focused on the nature of colonial ideology and its function in advancing the interests of capital, Fanon was interested in the development of an inferiority complex among the colonized. Fanon speaks of alienated or duped blacks. He refers to as intellectually alienated the Negro professional who “conceives of European culture as a means of stripping himself of his race…”.

The inferiority complex had been created in colonised people by the death and burial of their local cultural originality and their being confronted by the culture of the colonizers. The colonized is subsequently elevated above his savage status in proportion to the degree to which he adopts the colonisers cultural standards.

The European image of the native was founded on colonial racism. The general incapacities associated with the natives was explained in racist terms. Alatas noted that while capitalism in Europe undermined and eventually overcame the forces of feudalism, in the colonies, colonial capitalism preserved aspects of the feudal order, underlying it with racism.

A race dominated status system was created. This reflected the derogatory views the Europeans had of the natives. For example, British colonial officers such as Thomas Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd regard the Malays as being rude and uncivilised in character, of feeble intellect and at a low stage of intellectual development, indolent, submissive and prone to piracy. Furthermore, much of their backwardness and negative traits was blamed on the religion of Islam. European civilization and its best representatives, not just the petty officials, small traders, adventurers and politicians, were responsible for colonial racism.

For Alatas, the internalisation of the European image of the native by the natives themselves and the concomitant development of an inferiority complex among them is a vital consequence of colonial rule. This internalization began in the colonial period. In the post-colonial period, we have a condition of coloniality without colonialism. As Fanon put it, there is only one destiny for the black man. He wants to be like the white man and had long admitted the “unarguable superiority of the white man”.

In Malaysia, some of the Malay elite developed the inferiority complex as a result of colonial rule and assumed control of the country upon independence. The native elite was manufactured by the Europeans. Promising young natives were picked out and had inculcated in them the principles of Western culture. Some may have had a short stay in the mother country and returned, as Fanon said, “whitewashed”.

They continued to propagate the notion of native incapacities. An example cited by Alatas is the work, Revolusi Mental, authored by members of the then ruling party, Umno. It was compiled by Senu Abdul Rahman, who was at the time secretary-general of the party as well as ex-minister of information and a former ambassador to Indonesia.

The book details a very unflattering image of the Malays. The Malays are not honest to themselves, lack the courage to fight for the truth, consistently fail to resist against exploitation and oppression, adopt a fatalistic attitude and do not think rationally, are uninterested in science and technology, have no spirit of perseverance, lack frugality, are ill-disciplined, are unoriginal and unimaginative, and generally backward. Although laziness as a trait is not explicitly discussed, Alatas notes that the attitude of Revolusi Mental to the problem is ambivalent and that it is inclined to view the Malays as lazy.

Alatas expresses his astonishment at the fact that the book characterises the Malays in “negative terms unexcelled in the history of colonialism. While many British colonial writers stressed the laziness of the Malays, they did not strip the Malays of so many other qualities which the Revolusi Mental did.” Revolusi Mental is a confirmation of colonial capitalist ideology, although its intention was to assess the problems of the Malays and suggest the way towards progress.

Throughout the decades, the Malay political and religious elite persisted in spreading such ideas about the Malays. These views functioned to develop a mentality of dependency among the Malays on the Malay ruling elite. The Malays were made to feel that they could not survive and progress without the patronage of the party.

If Malay leaders are to extricate the Malays from their current state of coloniality, and liberate them from colonial era ideas that denigrate the Malays, they must first of all understand the origins and development of these ideas. This is a prerequisite to successfully refuting them and constructing a progressive orientation for Malay society.


Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore

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