‘Amok’ Season Again: How We Perpetuate The Myths Of Empire
Written by Farish A. Noor
Saturday, 18 November 2006
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
‘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
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 history(2).
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 phenomenon(3).
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 alike(4).
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…
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.
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
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.]
Source: The Other Malaysia
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