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Questioning Modernity in Indonesia and Malaysia
Wendy Mee and Joel S. Kahn (eds)
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2012. vi, 257 pp. Kyoto CDEAS series on Asian studies, 5.
ISBN 978-9971-69-563-7 (paperback)

The contemporary world faces many challenges, both conceptual and empirical. Modernity has been disputed or seriously questioned. Postmodernist rhetoric claims modernity to be rather outdated despite the fact that to be modern simply means to be contemporary, to be here-and-now; therefore postmodern is modern, too. The book edited by Wendy Mee and Joel S. Kahn offers a good overview of current trends in treating questions and/or controversies of modernity in Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the Introduction, Mee and Kahn offer to release modernity from its Western conceptual framework and to treat it as culturally grounded discursive stories of ‘self-designated moderns … about themselves and their societies’ (p. 7). Mee and Kahn also criticize a conceptual link between modernity and cultural traits of Western origin, capitalism, secularization, instrumental rationality, individualization, and monetarization of values among them. The anthropologists argue that modernity in no way means Westernization, and accept Bruno Latour’s famous idea (We Have Never Been Modern, 1993) that even the West has ‘never been modern’ (p. 7), preserving ‘pre-modern’ traditions and practices in its cultural, social, political and even economic spheres.

The book comprises three main parts: ‘Transnational and Border-zone Modernities’, ‘Nation-states and Citizenships’, and ‘Cultural and Moral Orientations’. The last part completely focuses on Malaysia, whereas the two earlier parts balance between Indonesian and Malaysian studies. (For criticism of the [End Page 157] predominance of Malaysian case-studies in the book see the review by Jennifer Yang Hui; taking a contrary stance, Kewin W. Fogg praises such a structure because ‘Malaysia especially is a paragon for a state project promoting ‘Islamic modernity’.

The first part opens with Kahn’s chapter ‘Islam and Capitalism in the Frontiers and Borderlands of the Modern Malay World’, where he develops his theory of Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World (Singapore University Press, 2006). Kahn shows a significant role played by Muslim entrepreneurs in modernizing economic developments on the fringes of the centre-oriented states at least since the 1870s. He reformulates Max Weber’s idea of the strong psychological connection between the growth of capitalism and religion in the way that, despite Weber’s thesis of inextricable ties between capitalism and Protestant ideology, the capitalist developments may be shaped and strengthened by Islamic imaginaries whereas Islam has played ‘an important role in shaping patterns of economic practice’ (p. 43). But Kahn also stresses that ‘it would … be a mistake to speak of a Southeast Asian version of Islamic capitalism’ because the ‘Islamic institutional framework is absent’ there (p. 43).

In the chapter ‘Malay Social Imaginaries: Nation-state and Other Collective Identities in Indonesia’, Kenneth Young has shown that in the late nineteenth–early twentieth century there were several ‘imagined communities’ among the Malays and in the Malay World, namely rising secular nationalisms and the notion of an all-Muslim community, or ummah (watan java in Indonesian). These imagined communities, which Young follows Taylor in calling ‘social imaginaries’, were essentially modern. They shared anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist ideas but differed in their orientations and world-views. Secular nationalism in British Malaya focused on, and struggled for, the rights and privileges of the Malays as true native inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. Secular nationalism in insular Southeast Asia, in the Netherland Indies, aimed to find and/or establish the unity of extremely diverse island populations. The unifying foundation lay in the common Malay language which had long been a lingua franca for merchants, sailors and pilgrims throughout the Indonesian/Malay archipelago; Malay became the basis of the official Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia). Sukarno’s five principles (Pancasila) also contributed to unifying nation building. The Indonesian secular nationalist discourse was also influenced by the perception of the local Chinese as ‘outsiders/outlanders’ despite the fact that these people spoke only a Malay/Indonesian language and had been born in the region.

Young also emphasizes the connection between commercial activity...


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