Skip to main content

Common ground: Race and the colonial universe in British Malaya

  • Sandra Khor Manickam

This article explores the common bases of knowledge on race among Malay intellectuals and British scholar-officials in British Malaya. It focuses on genealogies of knowledge that not only lead back to Europe, but to contexts in the Malay Archipelago, encompassing both coloniser and colonised as agents of production of colonial knowledge on race. Race was a strategy adopted by Malay intellectuals in a colonial milieu, in line with histories and conditions before and during the period of British control over Malaya. The notion of complicities is explored in studying the interaction between British and Malay intellectuals which produced colonial knowledge on race.

Hide All

1 Cohn, Bernard S., Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Stoler, Ann Laura and Cooper, Frederick, ‘Between metropole and colony: Rethinking a research agenda’, in Tensions of empire: Colonial cultures in a bourgeois world, ed. Cooper, Frederick and Stoler, Ann Laura (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 156.

2 Ghee, Lim Teck, ‘British colonial administration and the “ethnic division of labour” in Malaya’, Kajian Malaysia, 2, 2 (1984): 2866; Abraham, Colin E.R., ‘Racial and ethnic manipulation in colonial Malaya’, Ethnic and racial studies, 6, 1 (1983): 1832.

3 Milner, Anthony C., The invention of politics in colonial Malaya: Contesting nationalism and the expansion of the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

4 Milner, Invention of politics in colonial Malaya, p. 52; Hooker, Virginia Matheson, Writing a new society: Social change through the novel in Malay (Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2000), p. x; Crawfurd, John, A descriptive dictionary of the Indian islands & adjacent countries, with an introduction by Ricklefs, M.C. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 314; Andaya, Barbara Watson and Andaya, Leonard Y., A history of Malaysia (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 334.

5 This discussion is based on my reading of the works of Barth, Fredrik, ‘Introduction’, in Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of cultural difference, ed. Barth, Fredrik (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970), pp. 938; and Cohen, Anthony P., ‘Introduction: Discriminating relations – identity, boundary and authenticity’, in Signifying identities: Anthropological perspectives on boundaries and contested values, ed. Cohen, Anthony (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 114.

6 My use of the phrase ‘Malay-identified’ is deliberately ambiguous. Some intellectuals may not be thought of as Malay by their peers or even present-day scholars, depending on the definitions of what constitute someone as Malay, or what the concept of ‘Malay-ness’ stands for. The term ‘Malay-ness’ captures the shifting boundaries of what is supposedly a well-defined group. It refers to the criteria and characteristics of being Malay, howsoever those are determined, either by those who identify themselves as Malay and as belonging to this group or by those who are not of this group and pose an outsiders' identification. See Contesting Malayness: Malay identity across boundaries, ed. Timothy P. Barnard (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004).

7 Matheson, Virginia, ‘Concepts of Malay ethos in indigenous Malay writings’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 10, 2 (1979): 351–71.

8 Milner, Invention of politics in colonial Malaya, pp. 16–7. Patrick Sullivan, however, contends that though the text would have the reader believe that the raja constituted the focal point of a person's identity, this could be far from actual experience; see Sullivan, Patrick, ‘A critical appraisal of historians of Malaya: The theory of society implicit in their work’, in Southeast Asia: Essays in the political economy of structural change, ed. Higott, R. and Robison, R. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 67.

9 Some of the usages of ‘Melayu’ and ‘bangsa’ in court texts do approximate the meanings in the press. For instance, Matheson notes that in Misa Melayu, ‘bangsa’ in some places in the text distinguished different groups of people from different parts of the archipelago, while in other places it strictly denoted status. The latter meaning, however, was more common in the court texts (Matheson, ‘Concepts of Malay ethos’, p. 366).

10 Ali, A. Wahab, The emergence of the novel in modern Indonesia and Malaysian literature: A comparative study (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1991), pp. 49, 60.

11 Proudfoot, Ian, ‘New technologies and new perspectives’, in Early modern history, ed. Reid, Anthony (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 1999), p. 129.

12 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origins and the spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

13 Jawi Peranakan referred to those who had Indian and Malay ancestry and who were Muslims, mostly the product of Indian-Muslim and Malay marriages in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chinese Peranakan (sometimes also referred to as Baba or Straits Chinese) were those who retained their Chinese identity and who had taken on aspects of Malay culture such as language and dress. This absorption of Malay culture was due to intermarriage between Malays and Chinese or merely long-standing ties to Malaya; Hirschman, Charles, ‘The making of race in colonial Malaya: Political economy and racial ideology’, Sociological Forum, 1, 2 (1986): 338.

14 Adam, Ahmat, Sejarah dan bibliografi akhbar dan majalah Melayu abad kesembilan belas (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1994), pp. 45, 61–72; Proudfoot, ‘New technologies and new perspectives’, pp. 10–44; A. Wahab Ali, Emergence of the novel, p. 63.

15 Ahmat Adam, Sejarah dan bibliografi akhbar dan majalah Melayu, pp. 71–4.

16 Roff, William R., The origins of Malay nationalism (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1967), pp. 54–5.

17 Ahmat Adam, Sejarah dan bibliografi akhbar dan majalah Melayu, pp. 61–3; Roff, Origins of Malay nationalism, pp. 48–9; Hassan, Nik Ahmad, The Malay vernacular press (University of Malaya: Department of History, 1958), p. 3.

18 Harper, T.N., The end of empire and the making of Malaya (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 1718.

19 Maier, Hendrik M.J., In the centre of authority: The Malay Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (New York: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1988), pp. 38–9, 43.

20 There is a wealth of information available on the subject of the history of anthropology. See, for example, Staum, Martin S., Labeling people: French scholars on society, race, and empire 1815–1848 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2003); Stepan, Nancy Leys, Picturing tropical nature (London: Reaktion Books, 2001); and Stocking, George W. Jr, Victorian anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987).

21 Anthony Reid, ‘Understanding Melayu (Malay) as a source of diverse modern identities’, in Contesting Malayness, ed. Barnard, pp. 1–24; Raffles, Lady Sophia, Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 15; John Leyden's Malay annals, with an introductory essay by Virginia Matheson Hooker and M.B. Hooker, MBRAS Reprint 20 (Selangor: MBRAS, 2001), p. 46; Swettenham, Frank, British Malaya: An account of the origin and progress of British influence in Malaya (London: J. Lane, Bodley Head, 1920), pp. 158–9.

22 Harper, End of empire and the making of Malaya, p. 18.

23 Wilkinson, R.J., Papers on Malay subjects, selected and introduced by Burns, P.L. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 2.

24 Swettenham, British Malaya, pp. 133, 136, 147, 174; Alatas, Syed Hussein, The myth of the lazy native: A study of the image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th century and its function in the ideology of colonial capitalism (London: Frank Cass, 1977), pp. 44, 70; Kratoska, Paul H., ‘Proconsuls, yeoman and rice farmers: Cultural categories in British Malaya’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, 1975), p. 56; Vlieland, C.A., British Malaya (the colony of the Straits Settlements and the Malay States under British protection, namely the federated states of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang and the states of Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, Perlis and Brunei): A report on the 1931 census and on certain problems of vital statistics (London: Crown Agent for the Colonies, 1932), pp. 48, 71, 77–8.

25 Hoofd, Ingrid Maria, ‘Feminist activism in the high-tech west: The complicities of transversal and networked politics in speed’, in Gender and citizenship in a multicultural context, ed. Oleksy, Elzbieta, Peto, Andrea and Waaldijk, Berteke (Berlin/Oxford: Peter Lang Verlag, 2008), pp. 1935.

26 See chs. 6 and 7 in Milner's Invention of politics in colonial Malaya.

27 Hasan, Abdul-Hadi bin Haji, Sejarah alam Melayu: Penggal I (Singapore: MPH Publications Sdn. Bhd., 1967); Hasan, Abdul-Hadi bin Haji, Sejarah alam Melayu: Penggal II (Singapore: MPH Publications Sdn. Bhd., 1968); Anonymous, The Malays in Malaya, by one of them (Singapore: Printed at the Malaya Publishing House, Ltd., 1928); Sejarah ringkas Tanah Melayu, dikutip dan diterjemah dari bahagian2 yang menasabah dalam buku ‘Malaya’ karangan Dr R.O. Winstedt (yang telah terbit pada tahun 1922) oleh Za'ba dalam tahun 1925–26 (Singapore: Pustaka Melayu, 1961).

28 Abdul-Hadi, Sejarah alam Melayu: Penggal I, iii; Ahmad, Abdullah Sanusi bin, Peranan pejabat karang mengarang dalam bidang2 pelajaran sekolah2 Melayu dan kesusasteraan di-kalangan orang ramai (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia, 1966), p. 99. Abdul-Hadi also taught Harun Aminurashid, who became a well-known author and proponent of Malay pride (Milner, Invention of politics in colonial Malaya, p. 273).

29 Wheeler, L. Richmond, The modern Malay (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1928); Zainuddin, Abdul Majid, ‘A peculiar custom in Kuala Kangsar’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (hereafter JMBRAS), 3, 1 (1925): 85–6; Zainuddin, Abdul Majid, ‘A Malay's pilgrimage to Mecca’, JMBRAS, 4, 2 (1926): 269–87. For more information on Zainuddin, Abdul Majid's life, refer to his autobiography, The wandering thoughts of a dying man: The life and times of Haji Abdul Majid bin Zainuddin, ed. Roff, William R. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1978).

30 Abdullah Sanusi, Peranan pejabat karang mengarang, pp. 20–1; Hooker, Writing a new society, pp. 42, 101; Antologi esei Melayu dalam tahun2 1924–1941, ed. Zabedah Awang Ngah (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kementerian Pelajaran, 1964), p. 209.

31 Wahab Ali, Emergence of the novel, pp. 65–8, 104–5; Abdullah Sanusi, Peranan pejabat karang mengarang dalam bidang2 pelajaran sekolah2, pp. 20–1; Roff, Origins of Malay nationalism, pp. 51 fn. 66, 142, 155–7.

32 Roff, Origins of Malay nationalism, pp. 144–8; Hooker, Writing a new society, p. 76.

33 My translation of Za'ba's title is, ‘A short history of Malaya, selected and translated from relevant sections of “Malaya” written by Dr R.O. Winstedt (which was published in 1922)’.

34 Racial ideologies enabled the newspaper Utusan Melayu to extend its rhetoric as far as Ceylon (Milner, Invention of politics in colonial Malaya, p. 100).

35 Omar Mustaffa, ‘Angan-angan dengan Gurindam’, Utusan Melayu, 18 Jan. 1913, in Puisi-puisi kebangsaan 1913–1957, compiled by Abdul Latiff Abu Bakar (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1987), p. 3; Mir Hamzah, ‘Semenanjung…’, Warta Ahad, 25 June 1939, in the same volume, p. 118; Roff, Origins of Malay nationalism, p. 151.

36 Stocking, Victorian anthropology, pp. 57–8.

37 Wilkinson, Papers on Malay subjects; Wilkinson, R.J., Papers on Malay subjects, supplement: The aboriginal tribes (Kuala Lumpur: Printed by J.E. Wallace at the F.M.S. Government Press, 1926).

38 Malaya, the Straits Settlements and the Federated and Unfederated Malay States, ed. Richard Winstedt (London: Constable, 1923).

39 Keith, Arthur Berriedale, The governments of the British empire (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1935); Austin, O.P., Colonial administration 1800–1900: Methods of government and development adopted by the principal colonizing nations in their control of tropical and other colonies and dependencies (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901); Wright, Arnold and Reid, Thomas H., The Malay Peninsula: A record of the British progress in the Middle East (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912); Harrison, Cuthbert Woodville, An illustrated guide to the Federated Malay States (1923), with an introduction by Kratoska, Paul (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1985); and Handbook to British Malaya 1929, compiled by R.L. German (London: Malayan Information Agency, 1929).

40 Sejarah ringkas Tanah Melayu, pp. 1, 9, 16–17, 28.

41 Ibid., p. 117.

42 Wilkinson, Papers on Malay subjects, supplement: The aboriginal tribes, pp. 1–3; Skeat, W.W. and Blagden, C.O., The pagan races of the Malay Peninsula (London: Macmillan, 1906), pp. xii, 16, 19; Annandale, Nelson and Robinson, Herbert C., Fasciculi Malayenses: Anthropological and zoological results of an expedition to Perak and the Siamese Malay states, 1901–1902 (London: University Press of Liverpool, 1903), pp. 2930; Allen, James de V., ‘Two imperialists: A study of Sir Frank Swettenham and Sir Hugh Clifford’, JMBRAS, 36 (1964): 46–7.

43 Abdul-Hadi, Sejarah alam Melayu: Penggal I, pp. 2–3; Za'ba, pp. 2–3.

44 Malays in Malaya, p. 1.

45 Ibid.; Sejarah ringkas Tanah Melayu, pp. 2–3.

46 Endicott, Kirk, ‘The effects of slave raiding on the aborigines of the Malay Peninsula’, in Slavery, bondage, and dependency in Southeast Asia, ed. Reid, Anthony with the assistance of Brewster, Jennifer (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), pp. 221–2.

47 Annandale and Robinson, Fasciculi Malayenses, pp. 8, 20, 23, 28.

48 Nalla, Nor, A yellow sleuth (London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 1931), pp. 12, 13, 48; Hubback, T.R., Three months in Pahang in search of big game: A reminiscence of Malaya (Singapore: Kelly and Walsh, 1907), p. 38; Cerruti, G.B., My friends the savages (Como, Italy: Cooperativa Comense, 1908), p. 102.

49 Annandale and Robinson, for instance, note that Malays characterise some indigenous tribes as ‘beasts’. Though they do not use such a term to describe these groups throughout their work, they take for granted that the latter are savage and uncivilised (Annandale and Robinson, Fasciculi Malayenses, p. 6).

50 Raffles, Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles, p. 15.

51 Morris, Margaretta, ‘Race and custom in the Malay archipelago’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 27 (1906): 196, 204.

52 Clifford, Hugh, ‘A lesson from the Malay states’, The Atlantic Monthly, 84, 505 (Nov. 1899): 587–9.

53 Swettenham, British Malaya, pp. 9, 150.

54 Hirschman, Charles, ‘The meaning and measurement of ethnicity in Malaysia: An analysis of census classifications’, Journal of Asian Studies, 46, 3 (Aug. 1987): 561.

55 Raffles, Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles, p. 15; Maxwell, W.E., ‘The Malay Peninsula: Its resources and prospects’, in Honourable intentions: Talks on the British empire in South-east Asia delivered at the Royal Colonial Institute 1874–1928, ed. Kratoska, Paul H. (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 128; Leonard Wray, ‘Settlements on the straits of Malacca’, in the same volume, p. 22.

56 Emerson, Rupert, ‘Introduction’, in Institute of Pacific Relations Inquiry Series, Government and nationalism in Southeast Asia (New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1942), pp. 391; Wheeler, The modern Malaya.

57 Quoted in Hooker, Writing a new society, p. 70.

58 The Malays in Malaya, preface, pp. 29, 44.

59 Ibid., pp. 29, 31, 35.

60 Ibid., pp. 34–8, 103–4.

61 Ibid., pp. 90–4.

62Teguran dan jawaban-nya’ in Al-Ikhwan, 16 Nov. 1926, in The real cry of Syed Shaykh al-Hady, with selections of his writings by his son Syed Alwi Al-Hady, ed. Alijah Gordon (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1999), pp. 189–94.

63 See, for example, the tone of Wilson, Woodrow's speech given in 1918 on self-determination in The human rights reader: Major political writings, essays, speeches, and documents from the bible to the present, ed. Ishay, Micheline R. (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 299304.

64 Roff, Origins of Malay nationalism, p. 150; Miller, Harry, The story of Malaysia (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), p. 167.

Sandra Khor Manickam is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Pacific and Asian History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the Australian National University. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: . She is currently researching the history of British anthropological scholarship on Malaya. The author wishes to thank Ingrid Maria Hoofd and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 6
Total number of PDF views: 99 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 243 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.