The historiography of Malaysia is a performance of propaganda, the legerdemain by which governments gain their legitimacy, even if this legitimacy is wrested through manipulations of the democratic process, by instilling fear, passivity and apathy, by turning education into training for its foot soldiers through the repression of rigorous liberal arts education that can possibly challenge this legitimacy. This also comes through the manipulation of history, rendering its official version mostly sterile and unintentionally ignominious, performing a history that is ahistorical and filled with so many gaps in its grand récit that if the aim is patriotism, the purpose has been a priori defeated.

In the first half of the twentieth century, socialism was considered a potential liberating force for the colonised, stemming from the rise in agitation and belief in self-empowerment as they watched the feudal societies of China and Russia crumbling and reforming themselves into presumably egalitarian ones under the guise of communism. Between the 1940s right through the 1970s of South East Asia, socialism came at different waves. In Malaysia, it came around the time that coincided with the twilight period of the Japanese occupation of Malaya, continued right up through the British Re-occupation, and before being finally put down brutally by the then new Malaysian government that had negotiated its way into power with the British. With socialist thoughts also came the first inkling of ideology, or an understanding of ideology, and the notion of secularity that had not hitherto been fully known in Malaya, outside of the religion of Islam.

What is not known to most, other than to the participants of the process itself, were that the Left was a loose-collective of peoples with overlapping interests and was as heterogeneous as the different classes of people who existed at that time, from the members of the working class who inhabited the Labour Party, to the upper-middle and middle class members of the bourgeois who found the ideological philosophy of socialism as a voice to their ennui and class-consciousness, and members of the Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (whose members were mostly small-town and semi-rural Malays).

However, using whatever medium they were able to access, the multi-party governing elite of Malaysia sought to convince their constituencies of the unequivocal evilness of communism and the former’s attempt to wrest democracy from the hands of the citizenry and put in place the rule of autocracy and dictatorship. One of the manner by which they did so was to stake their claim to intellectual legitimacy through the drafting of the first Cultural Policy of Malaysia between 1971 and 1972, with the Malaysian Cultural Congress held in 1971, playing the game of consanguineous superiority in order to win the Malay nationalist-minded intelligentsia and creative community to their cause. The three core aspects of the policy were:

  1. that the national culture should have, as its core, the culture of indigenous people of the region;
  2. that appropriate and suitable elements from other cultural traditions could be accepted as elements of the national culture;
  3. Islam will be an important element in the creation of a national culture.

In the 1980s, the by then majority-Chinese Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan) of the 1980s also drafted a memorandum published in 1983, by which they attempted to establish a more multi-culturally inclusive policy to resist the hidden agenda of mono-culturalism in the 1970s policy. They claimed that the principles were formulated without proper consultation with other ethnic groups and conflate entire cultural values with artistic forms of expression.[1] Most of these policies were formulated unbeknownst to the members of the public, other than in policies that filtered through and affected their quotidian lives. However, both times, rigorous attempts at debating the intellectual and historical provenance of the claims made in the mostly polemical documents, with the exception of a few stray attempts at historicism in the working papers submitted, failed to take place.

To return to the period before Independence, the meagre schools provided by the British, and their various Christian charities, to a selection of local populace rested upon the recitation of the history, geography, language and social world of a country far remote from the students’ everyday reality, creating a sense of alienation and never being-good-enough as equivalent to never being Western or ‘White’[2] enough. However, with the dissipation of colonial rule and power, various politically motivated groups, ranging from hardcore rationalists who wanted to do away altogether with all links to the former colonial master to relativist cultural advocates that insist on a plural school system that takes into account the individual needs of each ethnic groups that now make up the fabric of the Malaysian (and Singaporean) society, what Malaysia has today is a mess of school system that does not take an altruistic educational philosophy as its motive for existence and development, but is subject to the interference and manoeuvrings of the political elites, the very same political elites who would have their children privately schooled or sent abroad to expensive first world institutions, usually with tax-payers monies.

Universities are not better off than the elementary and secondary education system. They have become the arena of political combat with chaotic policies that tried to cobble together what was perceived as ‘best-practices’ of various Western Universities without a thorough understanding of the philosophies, contingencies, and even cultural ideologies that drive these institutions. Moreover, the less than adequate public school system does not prepare the students for a life of the mind (except for the privileged who could afford to choose their education and where they could have it), let alone for critical and rational thinking to make sense of an informationally-complex world. Neither, in fact, does the university. The almost similar style of rote learning and regurgitation of the learned material is practised across university campuses, although the humanities (the arts) make half-hearted attempts at providing their students with the basics of reading, writing and comprehension just so that these students could do college-level work and be somewhat employable post-graduation.

While some arts departments such as English attempt to introduce Enlightenment European thinkers in graduate level classes, there was no move to engage or contextualise the philosophies or thoughts of these writers to the intellectual and cultural dilemmas and exigencies faced by a nation that is still struggling with its confused history even as it struggles to dismiss the uncomfortable reminders of its past failures by reconstructing itself in a historical and philosophical vacuum; torn between the need to learn the ‘progressive’ (utilitarian and positivistic) knowledge of its arch-enemy[3] while maintaining a distance to the former culture, society and policies. This schizophrenia stems from the inability to narrow and close the gap between the knowledge acquired and the nation’s own heritage.

However, the more self-aware and intellectually ambitious among the students are beginning to realise that the indifferent and utilitarian-motivated education, which they have obtained, is insufficient for them to attain the fulfilment and intellectual void in their lives. Moreover, the various institutions of higher learning are seldom the most conducive environments for intellectual discourse and thought as free-expression is arbitrarily censored through the invocation of religious and political reasons.

Moreover, Malaysia, not unlike many other post-colonial countries, has inherited the shell but not the philosophy of learning from their former colonisers. The void in the intellectual discourse stemmed from a feeling of alienation, distance and ignorance from its abject past (including its intellectual past), as well as a tendency towards demagoguery and cognitive dissonance fanned by religious fundamentalism and inability to reflect through the knowledge acquired. Sometimes, the cognitive dissonance remains even after a semblance of liberty is thought to be have been acquired because of the schizophrenic circumstances of their lived experiences.

Hence, Malaysia languishes intellectually, in terms of the production of original and highly insightful/creative work, despite the government spending millions in its currency (which would almost amount to millions in US dollars) in sending its more ‘promising’ cache of foot-soldiers abroad to acquire the technical know-how and knowledge speciality that they can bring back and implement in the country. Perhaps this inability to self-reflect and philosophise about what they have learnt are the reasons for the inability of the students to fully utilise the education received and to have the imagination to transform the knowledge acquire to revolutionise their society’s intellectual and cultural paradigm. This, in addition to an attitude of passivity, paranoia, as well as obsession with material and personal advancement, provided few incentives or sufficient motivation to rock the boat or bring about improvement to the intellectual state of affairs. At the same time, those with the foresight and vision to share what they’ve learnt are forced into mind-numbing duties by their educational sponsors while not given the opportunity to take up more challenging and difficult responsibilities as they advanced the career ladder.

Therefore, the Malaysian intellectual world remains in rut, with tired ideas constantly recycled and refurbished, the clarions call for change from different quarters remain a sort of pièce de résistance without a cause. Many public dialogues, conferences and seminars, some held to much fanfare and with much funding support, that purport to stimulate discussion and excite new ideas usually quickly arrived at the cul-de-sac as the participants are unable to bring fresh perspectives existing problems. They may have the training and a fully equipped tool kit to deal with the problems, but the root causes of the problems remain elusive to most of them. On a regular basis, new wheels are reinvented to replace older ones.

Outside the hallowed halls of the crème de la crème of the nation, beyond the clamor of youthful and not so youthful elites with their fancy college degrees from abroad, are the groups who have been mostly excluded from the discourse because of their pedigree and lack of network to power and wealth. They also formed the majority of the political movements that had been in ebb and flow since 1998. Some from amongst them realised that political movement without content is a movement prone to failure and perhaps the repetition of past mistakes. This was how various individuals got together to form study and reading groups to counteract the apolitical indoctrination and repression of universities. Many of those involved were also those who had been frustrated by the technocratic approach to education propagated by the universities’ administrations and the continuous refusal by these institutions to provide the students with the apparatus that would equip them to critically negotiate their way through the mess of their society.

Some of these youths were also motivated by the intellectual movements that were taking place in Indonesia in the past decade as Jakarta is fermenting with radical young intellectuals and liberal theologians, hungry for change, and therefore congregate in a commune to write, create art and engage in all forms of political arti-vism, to provide a voice for those in the margins, as well as to counteract the noise from the mainstream media. Furthermore, the strong growth of Internet technology in Malaysia, after Internet became available for the first time in 1994, slowly led to the creation of webzines, Internet radio (later, podcasts), and even web news-sites in a move to circumvent political control.

One of the groups is a group that sees itself as the country’s answer to a salon culture, but devoid of frills and bourgeoisie sensibilities. It is not even a group that one can compare to the former colonised elite who set up their own salons in the colonial ‘motherland,’ where they were obtaining an education with the purpose of formulating national agendas, agitating for independence, and establishing relationships with like-minded individuals. Instead, this localised group consists of members who were either born, or grew up in the aftermath of the drafting of the National Cultural Policy and have very little, if any, post-colonial sentiments leftover. Moreover, many are products of a national school system that have failed them in multiple ways, particularly providing with sufficient mastery of English, and surprising as it may seem, even Malay.[4] This group was formed sometime in the early part of the twenty-first century and referred to as Jalan Telawi[5].

The various members of this reading group, especially those forming its core, joined with different aspirations. They came from different academic backgrounds; some were students, some were not; running the gamut from fine art to law. A number were struggling financially, as they do not have families with the financial means to provide them with a buffer. A number were from traditional backgrounds of religious orthodoxy. Yet, these were the same young people studying philosophers whom they had never heard of, not even while at college; philosophers whose cultured and privileged educational backgrounds were far-removed from theirs.

Of the members of the group, none had taken extra classes in English beyond the formal schooling they had received. If one is to demand for their racial profile, they are predominantly Malays and males, the largest ethnic group in Malaysia.[6] The reason for the lack of females in this group has also to do with the culture of the majority of the members of this group, which is too complex to be entered into here, but would make for another article.

There is an informal attempt to emulate the “Great Books” study program of mid-century US, in the tradition advocated by Mortimer Adler, but with a less canonical approach by virtue of expediency and the accessibility of the materials. For them, access is much limited by what the university libraries could carry. Copies would be made of the reading materials for dissemination. Failing that, the books would be hunted out at sales, or bought at full price from a major book store. Books are expensive commodity since most are imported, due to the poverty of the local publishing industry and the scarcity of translations available.[7]

The members of the group wade clumsily and diffidently through the dense vocabularies and theories they were confronted with. As autodidacts, they were often bewildered at the abstract concepts that had taken shape in the quiet, comfortable studies of the authors, in stark contrast to their noisy and uncomfortable abodes. These youths try to make sense of the Latin and Greek words peppering the texts of classical philosophers, and French and German terminologies more frequently found in the texts of 19th century and 20th century philosophers, languages that give shape to ideas that have no equivalence in their own language and culture. However, even when they may not have grasped the ideas outlined in these texts completely, these youths began to consciously assimilate, integrate and relish in the language and ideas that they slowly try to incorporate into their lives, and soon enough, the ideas and thoughts initially so alien began to resonate with them. At the same time, grappling with “Western” philosophies also increased their alienation within a society that continues to keep them at the periphery of action, sometimes stemming from their diffidence when it came to wielding the sword of the English language that is the lingua franca of upward mobility.

To overcome this perceived lack, some of the individual members began to set up their own think-tank or link themselves to other think-tanks with foreign funders, usually from the First World, to obtain money for more ‘marginal’ activities, marginal in the sense of lacking the immediate commoditising factor. These activities included the establishment of a webzine that attempts to address issues and experiment with forms rejected by the established media; to translate and publish controversial writers, philosophers and theologians, which resulted in the banning of one of its books for a brief period during the 2008 General Elections because its content addresses Islam and pluralism; as well as to host and organise seminar discussion sessions on various topics, some controversial, other less so, mostly dealing with religion, politics and civilisation. The purpose of all these activities was to plug the philosophical-knowledge gaps perceived to be in existence in the public intellectual discourse. Ideologically, the members of the group were fragmented, with some purporting Marxist sentiments, a few libertarians, and a number more undecided.

This group today is no longer what it was more than five years ago prior to my leaving Malaysia in August 2008, or even the year after I left. With some of its original members moving on with their lives and preoccupied with other activities, the group as it was known has more or less dissolved, with remaining and newer members affiliating themselves with the other groups that had flowered in the meantime. However, the desire for political change and the frustration over perceived stagnancy in all areas of intellectual, cultural, and social conditions, remained the complaint of some of its former members.

Even as new generations of youth continue to organise and run their own workshops and salons, the emergence of other civil society groups founded by other career and part-time activists, while something to look forward to, still has a long way to go in advancing new discourse, and even challenging the modes of the old. At this time, the changes in the intellectual, cultural and social arena appear mostly cosmetic, advanced by developments in social media and new forms of knowledge dissemination and transmission that has yet to spark any radical engagement with ideas or politics of knowledge. In addition, there is also a growing class divide among the groups that form the intelligentsia of the country: a group consisting of mostly overseas educated middle to upper middle class who mainly communicate in English and groups that communicate mainly in Malay and all the other local languages of Malaysia. Of course, there are also other factors such as disagreements over religious interpretations, social cliquishness, and ideological disagreements. Such fraction itself has been detrimental to actually fostering the cross-fertilisation of ideas and intellectual discourse necessarily for moving out of the parking lot of statism, and therefore has to be seriously dealt with.

Clarissa Ai Ling Lee is an advanced PhD Candidate with the Literature Program at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, working in science and technology studies, literature and science, feminist epistemology, critical theory, and comparative media studies. She blogs at scandalousthoughts.wordpress.com and modularcriticism.blogspot.com, and is also a guest blogger for the Scientific American. She tweets as @normasalim.

[1] Foundation of National Culture: National Cultural Congress 16 August – 20 August 1971 (Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Youth and Sports, 1973). The papers in the congress also discuss on issues relating to language, education, literature and gender. Also, Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, Memorandum on Culture.

[2] White here has less to do with skin power than the position of privilege and power occupied by those identified with the colonial power, the Europeans.

[3] The Western civilization is this imaginary arch-enemy.

[4] One can say that the continuous indecision and in-fighting by various nationalists, particular those who have infiltrated the control of the national education, has led to very poor implementation of language learning policies in the national school systems, for the more commonly spoken and national languages of Malaysia, as well as for the learning of English, much to the detriment of the poorer and rural students, who become handicapped in their language capacity in adulthood due to being taught by incompetent teachers.

[5] The name derived from a popular watering hole in Kuala Lumpur of the upper-middle class juxtaposed over that of the lower-middle class. It is not so much of a name of the group but merely a convenient signifier to the popular hangout for the core members of this group.

[6] Malay is a group that is a conglomeration of many sub-ethnic groups. The original members of this race were Sumatran Indonesians, though the various majority (non-East Asian) members of Indonesia have now been given this label, as well as those with Arabic, Thai and Persian blood, as long as they are Muslims (another religious label marking the bodies of this race, ratified in the national Federal Constitution that equates the Being of the Malay with being a Muslim).

[7] While Indonesia managed to keep many books published abroad affordable and accessible by translating and republishing them, Malaysia lacks such as mechanism. This is due to a combination of apathy by the government, the inefficient administration of the organization charged with building up the necessary body of translated works, lack of resources channeled to creating more translations (and quality translations), the assumption that if you wish to read these works, you should read them in English (the discourse of knowledge as the privilege of those with the right language mastery) and even the perceived lack of demand for these translated works.