Taming The Wild: Aborigines And Racial Knowledge In Colonial Malaya

Author: Sandra Khor Manickam
Publisher: Nordic Institute Of Asian Studies Press, nonfiction

Race is a contentious and yet defining term in the modern Malaysian social, cultural, and political landscape.

Social relations between people are dependent on racial identification, but crucially, so are legal definitions and citizenship.

The matter becomes even more abstract and difficult to pin down when it comes to talking about the indigenous people of Malaysia and racial categorisation.

In this respect, Sandra Khor Manickam’s Taming The Wild: Aborigines And Racial Knowledge In Colonial Malaya attempts to provide readers with historical knowledge and context about how race and indigeneity shape not only the cultural discourse but also political rhetoric and its attendant material benefits that accrue for certain racial groups – benefits that are not distributed evenly across the board.

As the author is an assistant professor of South-East Asian history at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, her book is rigorously academic but not at all out of reach of the nonacademic reader.

The purpose of the book is to interrogate anthropological forms of knowledge used by the British colonial administration from the early 19th century to provide a sense of context for the uncertainties of categorisation of race and racial identification in the present day.

This long historical view is a necessary one for many Malay-sians, especially owing to the paucity of discussion on anything remotely important or relevant in the history syllabus of the current public education system.

Malaysians who think colonialism is so yesterday and that we need to “move on” might find fault with this book and my review, but it’s a shortfall common to popular thinking that the only way to make things better is to think of quick fixes.

Academics like Manickam provide a valuable counterpoint by providing us with the mental tools and space to learn about how things have come to be, and how we might make a different sort of future.

As she writes, “The book’s central concern is how dominant forms of knowledge on aborigines came into being from the turn of the 19th century, when Europeans began to write at length about the Malay Archipelago, to the height of British power on the Malay Peninsula in the 1930s.”

str2_subatamingR_ma_1Accordingly, Taming The Wild is structured in six chapters that go from the “making of” aboriginal races to the normalisation of racial categories during the British colonial administration that was done to simplify census-taking and thus make the project of external, imposed governance an easier one for the ruling class.

Manickam minces no words, as part of an academic obligation to the truth is to present history as it occurred – this is why the title of the book alludes to the process of “taming the wild aborigine”, as colonial administrators and early elite Malays would put it, so that the aborigines would be gradually absorbed into “Malayness”.

Interesting facts in the book indicate that early European anthropologists, whose body of work would provide the knowledge required by colonisers to exert control over the local population, had a hard time distinguishing the original inhabitants of the land.

In other words, “Malayness” and “indigeneity” were often indistinguishable and frequently overlapped.

As such, certain anthropologists focused on ways of life and living to determine the “real” aboriginals, while others used so-called scientific methods to determine if a group was aboriginal or not: study of physical characteristics and other determinants like the size and shape of the skull, hair-type, and so on.

There has been much criticism of this form of scientific racism, because to no one’s surprise, “exotic” brown humans on the other side of the world who most resembled Europeans in physical features or characteristics were deemed more civilised than their counterparts with less regular features.

Manickam’s focus on language is intriguing for its exploration on how human difference was conceptualised in the Malay language, and how it was (mis)translated into English to fit prevailing European and English views about the world and the process of colonisation.

In studying Munshi Abdullah’s Hikayat Abdullah in its original Malay and the subsequent versions of English translations, Khor Manickam unearths some interesting discoveries.

While Malays distinguished the Jakun people on the basis of kelakuan (which Manickam defines as “behaviour/manner”) and kedudukan (“place, in society”), for example, to point out differences between how groups of people lived, European anthropological ideas of differentiation were put to use in terms of systemic discrimination via governance and social control.

As such, there was also a concerted effort to create forms of knowledge to produce the Malays as “outsiders” to the Malay Peninsula or as local colonisers of indigenous lands.

This, Manickam points out, was convenient because it was used as a way to justify British colonialism.

The ramifications of these muddled and racist forms of European thinking continue to reverberate in Malaysian race relations today.

Taming The Wild is a rich text that yields much information and many insights not only about historical knowledge, but about knowledge production in general and how it is put to use.

It should be required reading not only for people who are interested in history, anthropology, and colonial knowledge production, but for all Malaysians because it is a valuable lesson in how we have come to know ourselves, and how much British colonialism has not just affected but also produced modern race relations in this nation.