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 …


7 responses to “what can historians do to matter?

  • Malaysia Matters Podcast » News from Malaysia

    […] an interesting post by Rachel, who is back in Malaysia, after she attended a “a book launch by three academic specialists […]

  • Tim

    My default answer is the answer Malcolm X gave when a young white woman asked him what white people could do to help black people: “Nothing.”

    The caveat, however, is that this only answers the question “What can historians do to matter as historians?” And luckily for you, the vocation “historian” does not exhaust your identity, your usefulness, or your possibilities.

    Intellectuals are easily trapped by the competence fallacy. We invest so much in becoming competent in and qualified to speak for our corner of academic scholarship that we presume that speaking (or writing or acting) in any other context is governed by the same norms of competence. Since we are not qualified to speak to (or especially for) the farmer, the schoolchild, or the illiterate in the same sense that we are qualified to speak to our for our specialized discipline, we assume that such speech is impossible.

    In fact, we have to speak and act, but for the most part not as historians: as critics, certainly, as journalists, possibly, and when a political claim rests on some fraught, mistaken, or mendacious claim to history, those roles can be invested with the weight of scholarly training. But above all, we can speak and act as citizens.

    This is why I would (here and for this audience) deconstruct the authors’ goal to bypass the specialist and speak to the citizen, since it appears to preserve the very distinction that the authors wish (or should wish) to break. When one writes as one citizen to another, speaks and listens as one member of the polis with another, that is the very nature of the political. Politics cannot exist as a dialogue between the knowing and the ignorant, or between the authentic and the fake. That may be an untenable form of liberal democratic idealism, but that is where we are and where we must begin. The abandonment of the security one seeks in competence, and the fiction (if it is a fiction) that all citizens are made equal is the condition of possibility (or impossibility) of politics.

  • zenpundit

    “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).”

    True – but fairness requires mention that this “contract” was in the context of the ‘Malayan Emergency” of Communist rebellion centered overwhelmingly in the ethnic Chinese community and encouraged by a foreign power, namely Communist China.

    Ethnic Chinese integration into a new, independent, Malaya was a good ending to a civil war. Far, far better than in most countries in the region in that time period where expulsion or mass-murder was the rule.

  • Jeremy Young

    Actually, I just wrote a post on this subject. The short version: stop talking to ourselves, start writing for the general public, and frame our words by what ordinary people, not professional scholars, want to read.

  • Rachel

    @Tim: thank you for the valuable advice — I have always nursed a very thin line between my historian-self and my other-things-self, and you’re right that my capacity as a historian need not exhaust all the ways I might be useful. I wish to write and think more on this in the near future, so thank you very much for your insights.

    @zenpundit: yes, regional comparisons make Malaysia look like a successful case, though I am leery of making moral comparisons such as “at least we are not Zimbabwe” or “at least we did not have Pol Pot” — I think bloodshed is not necessarily the only marker of profound national tribulations, but I do take your point on the social contract as taking place in a context where it was important that the Chinese did not have one foot in the new Malaya, and the other in Beijing. I think Malaysia is quite unique in that it emerged as an independent state whilst under British-declared Emergency — it certainly says something about the nature of the power transfer, if you ask me.

  • Wei Urn

    It was interesting to stumble upon your blog as I read TOM and surprisingly, Sharing the Nation.
    I would say Historians in the Malaysian context has been sideline for too long till we, the young Malaysians do not understand/appreciate our heritage nor embracing it with faith and true spirit.

    Malaysia is very special in terms of how we achieve independence and I must say that many citizens of this country do not know the ‘true’ story as we’re being fed by many different centric historical writings.

    Without knowing our true self, how can we embrace the difference, race,culture and religion that consist in this melting pot (as politicians say). I sincerely hope Malaysian historians would help create this awareness and forge understanding and acceptance of who we were, how we came about and most importantly, how to move forward in this trying times of political unstability.


  • anon

    Answer: Nothing!

    Can’t believe you took the time to go to *such* a book launch.

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