Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule Book Cover Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule
Anthony Milner
Remove term: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre SIRD Strategic Information and Research Development Centre SIRD

This is a guest post written by one of my friend, Kaif who also attended the book launching at GerakBudaya.

The only force that brought me to the book launch for Prof. Milner’s second edition of Kerajaan nearly three weeks ago was sheer curiosity. And as always, it didn’t disappoint: the panel discussion which included the author himself was absolutely eye-opening, at least to a complete neophyte of Malaysian politics, history and anthropology. Two weeks and a little more later, I’ve finally finished it and cannot recommend it enough to anyone (Malay or otherwise) even remotely interested in the questions of nation-building and unity in Malaysia. Why? Because, to our advantage or not, we are not building a nation in vacuo, and thus to make headway sustainably beyond the superficial level of economy and government, we first need to really understand the cultural and psychological matrix in which we are all embedded. This then implies, at least to my mind, learning about the history of our worldviews and mentalities, and how they might have turned out as they are now.

Anyway, reading it has been no less than a journey of self-discovery. I think I have understood myself a lot better both as a (half) Malay as well as a rakyat under a uniquely Malay royal umbrella. The following then is a short summary as well as a collection of some highlights of ideas, some the author’s and others my own, gleaned from this little journey, and I hope that they will be of some use to the reader, if only to whet his or her appetite to get hold of a copy (Christmas is around the corner?) and enjoy it as much as I have. Before going further, I’d just like to point out that it is quite dangerous to read too much into such works as history, which are themselves ultimately speculative, and that I’ve had my own share of qualms and apprehensions. Nevertheless, seeing that they are most probably either too naïve, too uninformed or just plain wrong, I won’t bore you with them here.

First, a short summary to orientate those who have yet to read it. It has been noted before by scholars such as Clifford Geertz that the Malay political culture is disproportionately preoccupied with the formal and the ceremonial, hence his coining of the appellation ‘theatre state’. And even without such works, it is not difficult to observe this in today’s Malaysia where the king appears to be nothing more than a ceremonial puppet conferring too many titles that make our preprandial speeches too long. With this in mind, Kerajaan then is basically Prof. Milner’s take on explaining all these at the level of the ancient worldview and value system of the Malay realm; he attempts to achieve this by studying malay manuscripts in the form of two hikayats alongside the colonial documents.

Now, as many of you would know by going through SPM, hikayats are not the most trustworthy of historical sources, not least because facts and fiction stand on equal footing among their pages. So unsurprisingly, they have long been neglected by past historians chary of becoming writers of fiction. The author, however, took a different turn: he used these texts, alongside the colonial ones, not to authoritatively chart chronologies but rather, switched deftly between his historian and literary analyst hats, and combed through them to distill the categories of experience, the concepts, and the worldviews of the olden Malay societies from studying their vantage points on certain events, the language and the words they used as well as the style of writing of these works. Therein lies his path-breaking contribution to the arsenal of analytic toolkits available to historians.

This emphasis on the history of ideas, I think, is a lesson worth learning for everyone. We have to remember that many of the landscape features of our thoughts that we take for granted are not universal across societies and across time periods, and so this book is a particularly good reminder for us re-examine our thought process and sharpen our analytical abilities by questioning background assumptions we take for granted. In his closing words, the author said that “The discovery of Malay concepts reminds us that categories which we seldom question, but constantly depend upon, categories such as ‘political institutions’, ‘real power’ and ‘individualism’, are no less culture-bound than the kerajaan and nama which defined Malay ‘political’ experience.”

Having mentioned the merits of his method, let’s turn our attention to the subject matter at hand. After a very masterfully narrated study of two hikayats, that are, Hikayat Pahang and Hikayat Deli, the process of which I would consider a tour de force of creative and sensitive analysis from a man steeped in the culture, he concludes that there are two important concepts at play, namely that of the kerajaan, which he defined as the condition of having a raja in contrast to the governmental connotations it has today, and nama (good name, reputation, public image etc).

The interplay of the two concepts can be briefly put as follows: the kerajaan is an ecosystem populated by the rakyat whose focal point is the raja; the social driving force for the ecosystem is nama: everybody including the raja chased after it; the raja could increase his nama by having more rakyat and having more foreigners trade at his port (think of a cult of personality) whereas the rakyat can increase his or her nama by being conferred titles of honour; the nama dynamic is due to the fact that there is very little valuation on individuality, individual values, personal opinions and so on: everything is judged based on its compliance to the adat, and so the only way for a person to improve in life is to increase his or her nama, so that “Titles and ceremonies were not subsidiary aspects of his ‘government’. They were precisely the commodities a Malay subject sought from his raja.”

Of course, important and fresh as the framework is, that is merely the tip of the iceberg. In plumbing the depths of time and history to salvage some general principles which form the basis of his book, the author serves the reader with copious amounts of delectable anecdotes and observations which generated the largest portion of my thoughts around the subject of the book. In the interest of nipping the further lengthening of this note in its proverbial bud, I will just list here some well-known facts and observations (or phenomena, depending on how strict we choose to use the latter word) about the Malay community that might be explained by the kerajaan and nama system: the ‘indolence’ of Malays; sifat malu; the aptness of the pohon and akar parable of a kerajaan by Tun Sri Lanang; the formulaic, and sometimes anodyne and vapid, character of some classical Malay writings; the Sultan as the head of Islam of its rakyat; the triteness of the Malay entertainment world. Slightly unrelated facts/observations but still very interesting are the possible explanations for the definition of being a Malay in our constitution as well as the prevalence of money politics.

Hopefully, if you have made it to this point, the odds are favourable that you’d make time to read this book. As a fellow Malaysian who has been beleaguered by a superficial syllabus of sejarah, I found this book to be a wellspring of motivation to understand more, as opposed to knowing more, of our history. So much of what’s happening today can be explained by some intelligent retrospection; and even more can be gained in the shaping of our future by minds informed by the past. A great civilisation cannot be born out of nothing: a superhero movie is great only with a great origin story.