Monthly Archives: June 2008

what can historians do to matter?

I’m back in Malaysia, and have been much too caught up in the whirlwind of KL life to blog much — many apologies. But last night I attended a book launch by three academic specialists on Malaysia and wanted to jot down some thoughts —

The book, Sharing the Nation, comes at a timely moment in Malaysia’s history: in the wake of an electoral maelstrom. The dominant coalition, headed by the conservative Malay party UMNO, has only just suffered its worst defeat in fifty years at the hands of a ragbag leftist opposition coalition that broadly calls itself the ‘People’s Front’. The book tries to understand how the various racial and religious communities that comprise Malaysia can ‘share the nation’. In particular, it seeks to address the conceptual foundations of the Malaysian constitution, particularly the exact nature of the so-called ‘social contract’ between the major races. Crudely speaking, this ‘contract’ negotiated Chinese citizenship in the new Malaya in exchange for perpetual Malay dominance over that new Malaya, resulting in the constitution of 1957 and independence. (It should be understood that this act of bestowing citizenship took place in terms of an unquestioned premise that it was bestowed upon alien, sojourning communities by a native, indigenous community. The act is to be seen as concessionary, even gracious).

The question for me here, and the one to which the book addresses itself, is to what extent that contract is still valid, or perhaps more fundamentally, to what extent it has been altered and reinterpreted to shore up conservative elite claims to permanent dominance of the political arena. I don’t wish to say ‘Malay claims’, because I don’t believe that the claims are in fact purely racial ones, although they are certainly couched in such terms. Other factors come into play: the class divide, the rural-urban divide, and most of all, the isolation of the intellectual elite. That’s what came out most in the discussion: how great the divide between the academic and non-academic community is. The authors of the book write:

We have written and now publish … not only for our scholarly colleagues but for a far wider public of interested, curious and concerned citizens. For it is citizens, not courts and politicians, and the understandings that animate their thinking on matters of public importance that set the terms within which all the various specialists … must ultimately think. It is these citizens who constitute and sustain the societies within which the various specialists, including scholars and practitioners alike, find themselves and in which they must seek their roles and pursue their callings.

Alas, not all citizens are made equal, and throughout the whole talk I found myself wondering: which citizens are these, who constitute and sustain society? The phrase ‘we must get the message to the masses‘ arose too frequently for my comfort. What impact can independent academia have on the farmer, the schoolchild in the government education system, the illiterate and the starving? A question laden with terms of discourse analysis from an academic in the audience provoked a heated debate. What meaning can the word ‘hegemony’ have to a hawker stall owner? And even this good book, written by three prominent academics with the explicit intention of reaching out to a non-academic audience with its clear, plain and informative writing, fell short. The senator who launched the book began his speech with a self-depreciating admission that while he had read the book, he would refrain from discussing any of its points in detail, as he felt himself unqualified to comment on the work of academics.

What can historians do to matter? — It seems to be more than simply paring away academic jargon like ‘discourse’ and ‘deconstruction’ from one’s speech and writing, although as one of the authors was determined to hammer home, this was a good and necessary start. And how much can historians actually do? Where is the point where it ceases to be a matter of the historian’s sense of civic obligation and becomes a matter of the citizen’s apathy? or the point where the historian’s ability to write clearly ends and the citizen’s lack of education begins? Between these things there is a chasm that surely the historian can only do so much to bridge …