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Exploring Melayu and Other People-Grouping Concepts
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In the modern world, the notion of ‘a people’ carries tremendous significance. In the international order that has emerged from the nineteenth century to the present, the right to sovereignty and self-determination has come to rest in the notion of the nation and nation-state. Living in mass society, identities of self and other around categorical determinations regarding the ‘people’ to which oneself and others belong inform everyday interactions and the distribution of various obligations and privileges. It is no surprise that scholars—from social scientists to historians and literary critics—focus a great deal of attention on trying to understand the processes, products and referents of signifiers of ‘peoples’ such as Melayu (Malay).

The three edited volumes reviewed here represent some of the most important English language contributions to scholarly discourse on the subject of Melayu and related people-grouping concepts over the past decade. While each approaches the subject from a slightly different angle (with considerable overlap at the same time), together the three volumes offer a treasure trove of both historical and contemporary thinking and practices around Melayu. With few exceptions, the contributions are in keeping with our contemporary postmodern or poststructuralist zeitgeist. As ‘postmodern’ is at times used as a dismissive, derogatory epithet in scholarly circles, I will explain what I mean in labelling these works as postmodern—in a positive sense—before turning to their contents in detail.

Modern science, and particularly social science, has had a somewhat obsessive desire for classification. Correct classification has been taken as somehow revealing truths, either about the natural or social world in which we live. In a certain sense, modern science ironically sought to pin down the reality of things— and particularly peoples—at the same time that modernity, in the form of mass urbanization, industrialization and science itself, was rapidly transforming the world. A century or more of classificatory anthropology and other social sciences have brought us to the realization that ‘peoples’ cannot be classified in any ultimately fixed way. Rather, every serious investigation has led scholars to see that revealing the processes through which classifications are instantiated is a more fruitful exercise than attempting to argue for or against a particular classificatory scheme. In this respect, by focusing on the discourse rather than or at least more than the structure of ‘peoples’ and in particular Melayu, all three of these volumes share a contemporary post-structural perspective.

Of the three volumes, the most interestingly innovative is Bangsa and Umma, produced primarily by Japanese scholars, though with significant contributions from America, Australia and Malaysia. Yamamoto and his co-authors focus on the idea of ‘people-grouping concepts’. The purpose of this term is to avoid the associations already deeply embedded and attached to terms such as ethnicity, race or nationality. It also allows for a range of investigations from those that focus on general conceptual terms—such as bangsa (by turns meaning lineage, race, ethnicity and nation) and umma (community; particular Islamic community)—to others that focus on particular signifiers such as Melayu or Moro. The volumes Contesting Malayness and Melayu, while not offering a singular theoretical innovation such as the notion ‘people-grouping concepts’, nevertheless provide a wide range of historical and contemporary insights into people-grouping concepts and practices of the Alam Melayu (Malay world).

Contesting Malayness, the first of the volumes chronologically, has the greatest tendency toward historical analysis. Melayu is the most contemporarily oriented of the volumes, while Bangsa and Umma has the greatest balance of historical and contemporary analysis. Chapters in Contesting Malayness by Leonard Andaya and James Collins address the idea of Melayu in terms of origins. Andaya (Contesting Ch. 3) presents the more common history of Melayu deriving from the Sumatran side of the Strait of Melaka from as early as the seventh century CE and associated with the commercial polity of Srivijaya. Collins (Contesting Ch. 9) presents the argument, based on linguistic evidence, that the Malay language can be traced back earlier to western Borneo. While both are valuable contributions, the arguments and evidence from all three volumes make clear that origins alone neither define nor constitute the meaning of a signifier such as Melayu. In Anthony Reid...

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