Written by Farish A. Noor
Ho hum... Another day, another amok.
Perhaps it is no longer possible for us to wish for an UMNO General Assembly where the delegates would refrain from uttering the same lamentable slogan of ‘Malays in danger’. Perhaps it is too late for us to imagine of an UMNO assembly where the keris would not be unsheathed in public, accompanied by the familiar rhetoric of blood and belonging. Perhaps it is too late for us to hope that one day the leaders of UMNO would grow up and leave behind the colonial construction of the Malays of the past.
The recent UMNO General Assembly proved to be the predictable let-down that many had expected it to be. Despite the appeals of the leader of the party, and his reminder that Malaysia’s struggle for independence was a collective effort on the part of all communities, the baying echoes of the Malay heartland resonated time and again. The keris was unsheathed and stabbed heavenwards; and all talk was of insidious ‘threats’ and ‘conspiracies’ against the Malay race.
Forgotten was the simple fact that the category of Malayness itself was a colonial construct in the first place. And likewise forgotten was the fact that the racialised politics of exclusive communitarianism dates back to the bad old days of Empire. ‘Melayu mudah lupa’ was the old adage, though how true the saying is is questionable considering how some Malays have never forgotten how to play to the gallery whenever it suits them.
In the midst of this, the reproduction of the Malay archetype goes on in earnest. As the UMNO delegates bemoaned the fate of the Malays, every conceivable stereotype and cliché was brought out of the closet and put to work. Our former colonial masters would have been proud: After a century of colonial indoctrination, the Malays (of UMNO at least) have finally internalised the myth of the irrational, backward and lazy Malay as never before. One is reminded of the words of Frank Swettenham who described this as the land of the amok. In his words:
‘Malaya, land of the pirate and the amok, your secrets have been well guarded, but the enemy has at last passed your gate, and soon the irresistible juggernaut of Progress will have penetrated to your remotest fastness, ‘civilised’ your people, and stamped them with the seal of a higher morality’1.
Former UMNO leader Mohamad Rahmat was among the first off the starting post when he uttered the dreaded A-word: “Don’t test the Malays, they know ‘amok’”. Melaka delegate Hasnoor Sidang Hussein added more blood to the feast when he bluntly stated that “UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood in defence of race and religion”. UMNO Youth Exco member Azimi Daim added that “when tension rises, the blood of Malay warriors will run in our veins”. (Prompting the obvious question: What happens when there is no tension? Whose blood is running in their veins then?) But the first prize for grandstanding has to go to Perlis delegate Hashim Suboh who directed his question to UMNO leader Hishamuddin Onn: “Datuk Hisham has unsheathed his keris, waved his keris, kissed his keris. We want to ask Datuk Hisham: when is he going to use it?”
The threat of going keris-waving bloody amok has become so commonplace by now that we have grown accustomed to it. Ranked alongside other familiar threats like the recurrence of ‘May 13’ or yet another ‘Operasi Lalang’, the ever-present threat of the Malays going amok is now seen as part and parcel of the political vocabulary of Malaysia and Malaysian politicians in particular. Blood and violence have become part of our political language.
Yet how many of these great ‘defenders’ of the race, who are willing to spill blood (whose blood, one wonders?) in defence of their race, are aware of the long-term implications of their words and deeds? How many of these great communitarians are aware of the simple fact that with every reiteration of the threat of amok, the stereotype of the irrational Malay is being sedimented and hegemonised? During cheerless times such as these it would pay to take a trip back down memory lane and to look at how the ideology of racialised politics and racial stereotypes were first introduced to the Malaysian imaginary.
The phenomenon of amok is and has been seen as something particular and specific to the peoples of the Malay archipelago. Indeed, writings on the phenomenon date back to the 16th century, beginning with the first European encounters with the peoples of the region. From the start, it was argued by many an Orientalist scholar that the Malay people were essentially an irrational, emotional and highly-strung race. The introduction of the pseudo-scientific concept of ‘Race’ (a crucial tool in the ideological construction of the colonised Other which justified the divisive and hierarchical politics of Empire) was made possible with the attribution of certain essentialist traits to the colonised subjects themselves. In the case of the Malays, the phenomenon of amok was seized upon as that all-important debilitating factor that subsequently justified paternalistic colonisation of this weaker, irrational and emotional ‘race’ of human beings…
During the British colonial era, colonial functionaries and administrators in Malaya conducted their affairs with the Malays according to their own decidedly jaundiced understanding of Malay culture, politics and history2. To further reinforce the general observations made about the Malays, the colonial authorities also relied upon pseudo-scientific instruments like ethnographic studies and the population census which were employed to help locate and identify the different native groupings and rank them according to the violent hierarchy of colonial discourse. Alongside the claims of the governors and architects of Empire, the eurocentric theories of racial scientists and social Darwinists added scientific credibility and justification to the policies of divide et impera that were being implemented in the colonies and were translated into political realities through the creation of a racially segregated and stratified plural society.
As Alatas (1977) and Winzeler (1990) have shown, colonial studies of Malay characteristics and cultural practices were often used to provide the basis of justification for the paternalistic attitude towards the colonised Malay subjects. Malay cultural traits such as amok, latah and others were superficially studied and documented, with undue emphasis on the more sensational aspects of the phenomenon3. Such studies were also used to further consolidate the belief that the Malays, as a people, were culturally and genetically inferior to their western rulers due to their weak character. The stereotype of the child-like, unstable and unreliable Malay was thus developed on all possible levels and in all possible spheres: from orientalist literature to ‘serious’ academic studies, from the field of health and welfare to public housing and town planning. So pervasive and influential were the beliefs regarding the culturally and environmentally-determined defects of the Malays that they would endure even up to the postcolonial era in the perceptions of Europeans and Asians alike4.
So when UMNO leaders of today reach for their kerises and mouth their slogans of blood and defiance, are they aware of the fact that their very rhetoric bears the stains of a colonial anthropology and ethnology which were part and parcel of the colonial construction of the Malays?
Having accepted the simplified colonial construction of the Malays as a fixed, static, essentialised ‘race’, are these leaders prepared to perpetuate these colonial fictions just a while longer? It is ironic, to say the least, that the very party that claims the right to wear the mantle of anti-colonialism in Malaysia should be the one that protects and preserves the colonial heritage the longest. Every time a Malay leader utters the threat of yet another bloody amok in the streets, one cannot help but hear the scornful laughter of the colonial administrators of the past, trailing away in the distance, harping back to the days when the Malays were cast as that irrational race, going amok at the drop of a hat…
1 See: Frank Athelstane Swettenham, ‘Malay Sketches’. The Bodley Head, London. 1895.
2 See: : S. H. Alatas, ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th century and Its Function in Colonial Capitalism’, Frank Cass Publishers, London, 1977.
3 See: Alatas (1977) and Robert Winzeler, ‘Malayan Amok and Latah as ‘History Bound’ syndromes’, in ‘The Underside of Malaysian History : Pullers, Prostitutes, Plantation Workers’, Edited by Peter J. Rimmer & Lisa M. Allen 1990.
4 As late as the year 1960, European social scientists and academics would still be lamenting the fate of the ‘disabled’ Malays. In his survey for the Fabian Society the socialist leader John Lowe described the Malays as ‘an unsophisticated, technically underdeveloped rural people’ (pg. 1) As far as the Malay race was concerned, Lowe’s condemnation of them was a blanket one: ‘The mass of the Malay peasantry are traditionalist, suspicious and often superstitious, offering formidable resistance to change’ (pg. 22). [See: John Lowe, ‘The Malayan Experiment’. Fabian International and Commonwealth Bureau. Research Series no. 213. The Fabian Society, London. 1960.]