What’s Next in the Battle for Southeast Asian History?

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ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

What’s Next in the Battle for Southeast Asian History?

Independent collectives in the subregion are building new platforms to give voice to alternative histories.

What’s Next in the Battle for Southeast Asian History?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The renewed global momentum to decolonize public spaces, curriculums, and mindsets has taken new forms in Southeast Asia in recent years too, with homegrown collectives working to popularize alternative histories of the region.

Netusha Naidu, a 24-year-old history graduate from Seremban, a town near Kuala Lumpur, co-founded Imagined Malaysia (IM) in 2016. “The idea was to think about how we could reimagine Malaysian history and our past to make it more inclusive,” she told The Diplomat during a phone interview.

The project explores perspectives omitted from the official version of history taught in schools through public forums, lectures, and now a magazine. It also aims to spark a more critical appreciation of the past and the “contested spaces” ignored in state-sanctioned narratives, says Naidu.

Last year, for instance, the collective — a small team of eight who develop the project after work or university hours — held a series of discussions about the role of left-wing intellectuals in Malaysia’s anti-colonial movement. One panel included prominent activist Fahmi Reza who has documented how the left were jointly branded as extremists by both British colonial rulers and the Malay nationalists who would later come to power. With a new multi-racial coalition finally ending the dominance of the United Malays National Organization party in 2018 was it finally time to rewrite the nation’s history textbooks, IM asked.

The project, often collaborating with similarly-minded groups, such as the earlier established People’s History Centre or Malaysia Design Archive, also seeks to unpack the ongoing impact of colonialism on contemporary Malaysian life. In recent months I’ve written about the draconian colonial-era laws still thwarting civil liberties and human rights in postcolonial states — such as the criminalization of gay sex or suicide. Then there’s the effect of the racial theories British colonialists propagated to subjugate and divide populations. The IM project (inspired by the work of historian Farish Noor on marginalized histories) has been trying to raise public awareness about such colonial roots on present-day Malaysian conflicts over race or religion, including problematic parts of the country’s constitution.

“Decoloniality is an essential part of Imagined Malaysia’s mission and vision. We try to open up the space to intellectually detangle colonial structures,” says Naidu, in a way that “can reach a broader audience” to inform current debates.

The decolonization movement has a long history in Southeast Asia, as in other now postcolonial societies. While the term itself is used mostly by academics rather than the general public “the idea has long been widespread,” said Dr. Rommel Curaming, an assistant professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam who specializes in Southeast Asian studies.

It’s been “nurtured by deep-seated revolutionary traditions in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines and fueled by the increasing confidence and sense of pride wrought by economic development in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and in the past few decades, Indonesia,” he wrote in an email.

But the term has gained broader appeal in recent years with a growing number of people calling out the bitter legacy of colonialism. It gained particular traction during the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign that began in South Africa in 2015: the student protest for the removal of a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town grew into a wider movement to decolonize education in South Africa and the UK.

In the UK the debate has focused on “a greater representation of non-European thinkers” and “better historical awareness of the contexts in which scholarly knowledge has been produced,” wrote Dr. Meera Sabranatam, a senior lecturer in international relations at SOAS University of London and chair of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group, in a 2017 blog. The movement has gained force in other universities too (and separately has inspired fresh calls for students to be taught about the realities of British colonialism at schools) but still faces resistance in some quarters, including a predictable backlash from the UK’s right-wing press.

In Southeast Asia the decolonization movement also focuses on challenging the way postcolonial states have themselves adopted colonial power structures. New Naratif, a member-funded website that launched in 2017, explores some of these ideas in its own movement for democracy and free speech in Southeast Asia through journalism, art and research.

“One of the things we want to do is contest the new colonization of Southeast Asia by Southeast Asians,” said Dr Thum Ping Tjin, a historian and co-founder of the platform, pointing to the political forces that took over from colonial powers in the region. His team aims to build a community of people across Southeast Asia, celebrating the shared history and diversity of a region where authoritarian regimes have typically limited alternative perspectives.

Singapore’s bicentennial commemoration this year of the 1819 landing of British colonialist Sir Stamford Raffles was the subject of one of New Naratif’s recent podcasts. On one level the city-state appeared to be commemorating the start of its own colonization. But in simultaneously projecting a new narrative that Singapore’s history goes back much earlier, spanning 700 years, some analysts have described it as an official attempt to “decolonize” the country’s past.

It hasn’t gone far enough, according to the February podcast co-hosted by Thum, where guests discussed the country’s limited critique of colonial exploitation, and the absence of teaching about subjects such as local anti-colonial movements, which would offer an alternate lens on this period.

Syed Farid Alatas, a professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore, says that unlike the more robust criticism of colonialism found in the Philippines or Indonesia — countries that made a clearer break with their colonial past, in part due to the violence of their independence movements — Malaysia and Singapore “have internalized many colonial ideas”. He points to racial stereotypes in Malaysia such as the slurs of the “lazy Malay” or “greedy Chinese” that originated with the British but later “functioned to prop up power” for Malay elites.

The decolonization movement is ultimately about questioning the roots of power. For the groups at the forefront of raising these debates, whether in the UK or Southeast Asia, the hope is that more people will speak up to ask questions about the past that their textbooks have left out.