Against The Grain: Malay Studies and the School of Autonomous Knowledge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 24, 2021 - May 30, 2021.
Against The Grain: Malay Studies and the School of Autonomous Knowledge
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In the different fields of study in the arts and social sciences, there are some which are concerned with specific regions of the world. These are Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Central Asian Studies and so on.

Malay Studies is one of these so-called areas of study. At the National University of Singapore, the Department of Malay Studies adopts a broad definition of the Malay world. The geographical scope of interest is the entire Malay-Indonesian Archipelago comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand and southern Philippines. The department is also interested in areas with substantial Malay minorities such as Singapore, and countries to which the Malay diaspora had spread such as Sri Lanka, Madagascar and South Africa.

The Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore has an interesting history. Upon the recommendation of the Commission for University Education in Malaya, a department dedicated to the advancement of the study of the Malays was established at the University of Malaya, Singapore during the 1952/53 academic session.

The first head of department was Za’ba (Zainal Abidin Ahmad). He was succeeded by R Roolvink. Following the independence of Malaya and the establishment of a separate, autonomous University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, the Department of Malay Studies was transferred to Kuala Lumpur.

Meanwhile, on Jan 1, 1962, the Singapore division of the University of Malaya was re-established as the University of Singapore, later to be renamed the National University of Singapore in 1980. On March 1, 1967, the Department of Malay Studies was re-established in Singapore with a Malaysian, Syed Hussein Alatas, as its first head of department.

The Department of Malay Studies had presented a somewhat new and creative approach to the study of the Malays. Differing from Malay Studies in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the approach tends to be more language and literature based, Malay Studies in Singapore takes a decidedly more social scientific approach to the study of the Malay world.

While literature is by no means ignored by the teaching staff in the department, students are also given a great deal of exposure to sociological and historical perspectives with which they can study Malay society.

Furthermore, since the department was established in 1967, it promoted a critical perspective in the study of the Malays. This meant that the research and teaching of the department did not simply accept perspectives that were dominant in British or other Western studies of the Malays. Nor did the department simply accept without question perspectives that were promoted by governments or politicians in the region.

Syed Hussein Alatas pioneered this critical perspective. Before moving to Singapore, he was at the University of Malaya. Prior to that, he was a student at the University of Amsterdam, from where he obtained all his university degrees. While in Amsterdam, he spoke of the problem of intellectual imperialism or the “wholesale importation of ideas from the Western world to eastern societies” (“Some Fundamental Problems of Colonialism”, Eastern World, London, November 1956).

Alatas also suggested that the way of thinking of colonised peoples paralleled political and economic imperialism. Hence, the expression academic or intellectual imperialism (“Academic Imperialism”, lecture delivered to the History Society, University of Singapore on Sept 26, 1969).

Tham Seong Chee, a member of the Department of Malay Studies as well as its head from 1989 to 1997, referred to such colonial thinking as being informed by “a false consciousness about values, person and goals. It is a mode of seeing one’s society — its workings and the direction of its movement — by super-imposing on it another reality, that is to say, the reality of a foreign society” (“Intellectual Colonization”, Suara Universiti 2,2, 1971: 39-40). The idea of the colonial mentality was developed by Alatas in the form of the concept of the captive mind.

Because of this tradition of being conscious of intellectual imperialism, Malay Studies in Singapore has for several decades produced scholarly works that “swim against the tide” or melawan arus, as the Malays say. Examples of such writings include Alatas’ classic, The Myth of the Lazy Native, as well as his critical work on the political philosophy and conduct of Thomas Stamford Raffles.

In his work on Raffles, Alatas presents a critique of the philosophy of the colonial administrator at a time in Singapore scholarship when there was hardly any critical assessment of the man. In fact, Raffles had been presented by the independent Singapore state as a hero of sorts, one of the rare instances in history of a colonial administrator serving as a national icon.

Alatas’ task was to present a critical and not Eurocentric account of the thinking and deeds of Raffles. He concluded that the silence among scholars about Raffles’ questionable political philosophy and conduct was strange in that even by colonial standards, he fell short of the humanitarianism that was attributed to him. In Alatas’ The Myth of the Lazy Native, the colonial view that the Malays, Javanese and Filipinos were inherently lazy was critiqued and explained in terms of the economic interests of colonial capitalism.

Other scholars of the department, including Malaysians Shaharuddin Maaruf and Syed Farid Alatas, also worked on the critique and reconstruction in history and the social sciences. Shaharuddin, who headed the Department of Malay Studies for several years until he left NUS in 2007, also takes a critical approach in his research.

For example, his book titled Malay Ideas on Development critiques commonly held ideas about Malay thinking on development, showing that what often appeared to be progressive thinking was actually conservative or even regressive.

Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman, who headed the department from 2013 to 2019, is an expert on sociological perspectives on Muslim law. She has also contributed much to critical thinking about the Malays. One of her areas of concern has been the traditionalist religious orientation to be found among the Malays. Her works discuss what we may call progressive orientations as well as those that are backward and unable to constructively deal with the problems of Malay society.

Alatas encouraged the development of alternative and multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of the Malay world, and was adamant about the need to critically apply concepts, theories and methods that were relevant to the Malay world. He urged scholars to develop an autonomous social science tradition, a tradition of knowledge production that was free of Eurocentric, colonial and other biased orientations.

He was concerned about the role of the intellectual, whom he defined as a “person who is engaged in thinking about ideas and non-material problems using the faculty of reason”. There are many degree holders and professors who do not engage in developing their field or trying to find the solution to specific problems within it.

These are not intellectuals. On the other hand, a person with no academic qualifications can be an intellectual if he utilises his thinking capacity and possesses sufficient knowledge of his subject of interest (Intellectuals in Developing Societies, 1977). One of the roles of intellectuals is to think about the direction a society should take.

Although Alatas did not speak of a school of thought, his ideas for an autonomous social science tradition have influenced scholars for two generations. Scholars and writers of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore such as Chandra Muzaffar, Shaharuddin Maaruf, Wan Zawawi Ibrahim, Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman, Syed Farid Alatas, Norshahril Saat, Azhar Ibrahim, Teo Lee Ken, Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib and Okky Puspa Madasari are all part of this autonomous social science tradition in their various fields and can be said to represent the School of Autonomous Knowledge.

Young scholars of the third generation in the Malay world are incorporating this critical tradition in their scholarship as they embark on dissertations and other projects. The School of Autonomous Knowledge is likely the only school of thought in the human sciences to have emerged in the Malay world.


Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology and is also serving at the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore

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