past & present

[crossposted to Cliopatria]

I’ve had the good fortune (in a manner of speaking) to be back in Malaysia at a time of great tumult. Forget soap operas, B-grade movies and amateur fanfic: the past few weeks in Malaysia have outdone fiction. The ongoing trial concerning the gruesome murder of a Mongolian girl and her alleged (sexual) involvement with our Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, his lackeys, and a Russian submarine deal in Paris grows more incredible by the day. Several days ago a private investigator named Balasubramaniam, in capacity as a whistleblower, issued two mutually incompatible Statutory Declarations in rapid succession. The first, issued with his lawyer and the Malaysian opposition party, made explosive and incriminating claims concerning Najib. The second was issued under a new lawyer after he was summoned to the police station, and it entirely reversed the claims of the first statutory declaration, absolving Najib of any involvement. The following day, Balasubramaniam and his family vanished without a trace.

All this comes on the heels of a crazy cavalcade of events. There were the ludicrous allegations against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim by a young man widely suspected to be an UMNO and Najib-sponsored ‘mole’ in the opposition party, who claimed last week that Anwar had forcibly sodomized him. The claims derailed Anwar’s intentions to stand for by-elections this month, and caused him to flee momentarily into the Turkish Embassy for sanctuary. Then there was the Statutory Declaration made by the iconoclastic editor of Malaysia Today claiming he had material evidence that Najib’s wife Rosmah (widely perceived as the Devil Incarnate the womanly hand behind the whole fracas) had been present at the scene of the Mongolian girl’s murder. Food prices are skyrocketing, and last night, 30,000 people amassed in a stadium in Kuala Lumpur to ‘Protes‘ (Protest) the recent withdrawal of an oil subsidy by the government, which had precipitated an overnight 40% increase in the price of petrol.

Watching these tumultuous events as a historian, I can’t help but see that in every angered speech, in every opinion column, TV and news report, photograph, in every government directive and opposition pamphlet, in every statutory declaration and police report, sources are being made. Sources are even being made out of the silences: for example, the events that are not being written about in newspapers testify to the government’s continuing stranglehold on mainstream media. It’s a trivial point to make: that the present is history. Many of today’s historians of Malaysia were themselves participants and observers of the periods that they now write historically about, and it has taken some time for me to really understand and appreciate the profound historicity of the present: that we are really, truly living in history, swathed in the stuff of it. And I think it will take me some time yet to really understand how to understand the present as history.

One starts by seeing everywhere, constantly, the sheer poverty of documentation. Every day is an archive assessment; I see everything as a source. I see the sources that won’t last, the sources that won’t easily be understood out of their contexts, the sources that have already begun the pernicious processes of selection and distillation. I see the vast, spectral penumbra of lived reality outside the sources — what future historians processing today’s historical documentation must somehow get at: the climate of escalation; the palpable frustration of the rakyat (the people); the insistent, whispered gossip that circulates in coffee shops, in social gatherings; the gritty, daily reality of pinched purses and economic hardship; the heartfelt anger that animated the fists that punched the air in protest last night. But equally: the apathy, the cynicism and the fear, all of which paralyze people, or cause them to turn their backs and shrug; the inexorable grind of 28 million lives continuing nonetheless. And this act of comparing lived reality to what is left in textual and primary residue can be — for me at least — deeply dispiriting. But it is what we inherit, and it is what we must make do with. Those who know how to study the past need also, I think, to know how to observe the present: for, as one might say, inevitably the twain shall meet.


One response to “past & present

  • Mike L

    There’s a recent story on Encounter, from Australia’s Radio National, about the resonances that Wayang Kulit (shadow puppetry) has for contemporary Malaysian society and politics. It’s interesting not just for writer Eddin Khoo’s commentary on the wayang and how it “encapsulates the past”, but also how this past has become a common but contested reference point.

    Be quick! Head to the bottom of this page

    to catch a podcast of the show (“Shadowlands”). If the podcast has disappeared you can still find a transcript of the show here

    (Note that the the show was produced before the current ructions around Anwar’s arrest.)

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