The Multicultural Archipelago in History and Story

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By Dr J. Casey Hammond and Dr Nazry Bahrawi

JCH: The idea for this course sprung from a series of conversations between Nazry and myself.  We are both interested in understanding how groups of people in Singapore and elsewhere in this region identify themselves and relate to each other.

NB: The course can also be seen as an epistemological experiment that is designed to create, in the spirit of SUTD’s motto, ‘a better world’. I refer to ‘epistemology’ in order to indicate how our knowledge of the world is constructed. Specifically, this module is an invitation for our students to think of maritime Southeast Asia not as the Malay Archipelago, but as a Multicultural Archipelago. In the real world, a literal interpretation of the adjective ‘Malay’ has led to the creation of some pressing issues in terms of race relations in these parts. The anti-Chinese sentiments punctuating the recent Ahok case in Indonesia come to mind. Even the C-M-I-O (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) social policy in Singapore can be said to be influenced by the prominence of ethnicity in the idea of the Malay Archipelago. Our focus is not to deny the Malay character of the region, but in fact to outline that even this Malayness has been negotiated throughout the history of the region. We start with the premise that ‘Malay’ is a permeable ethnicity, whose borders are constantly changing according to the times.

JCH: Returning to Singapore in 2012 after a fourteen-year absence, I was struck by the changes that marked that intervening period.  Although the Singaporean state’s engagement with Malaysia and Indonesia has grown broader and deeper, the typical Singaporean citizen’s familiarity with the two larger countries that surround their city-state has not kept pace.  One might even say that it has declined. This observation pertains especially to the post-independence generations, of which there are now two. How time flies!


 Multicultural Archipelago – Mother and daughter (c.1910)

NB: I can concur with Casey’s observation. Having lived most of my life here, I have noticed that members of my generation, the first post-independence generation so to speak, are a lot more familiar with the social, cultural and political developments in America and to a lesser extent, Britain than they are with developments within Singapore’s neighboring countries. In fact, I am reminded of a survey commissioned by the ASEAN Commission back when I was a journalist in 2008 indicating that Singaporean youths were the least enthusiastic about being part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This is a shame because we could do a lot better if we were to be plugged into our wider community – our fate, identity, and rice bowls cannot be divorced from what is happening in our immediate vicinity. Yet it is also important to us that our students do not just see our neighbors as charity cases, or as economic opportunities. We want them not to look down on others, but rather to understand and internalize the interdependence of peoples living in the region.  

JCH: The course is a sort of ethnographic history of the local Archipelago, including the Malaysian Peninsula.  Each group that has sojourned or settled here has called the region by a different name.  Hence, we look at the Archipelago as Nusantara (for the various Malay groups), as Nanyang (for the various Chinese groups), and as The Indies (for the various European groups).  My favorite name for this region is Tanah Air (land and water) because it captures the geographic essence of this region through which people from near and far have sailed and landed for millennia – certainly much longer than Indonesia, Malaysia, or Singapore have existed as sovereign nation-states.

NB: History is important, as is the ‘story’ aspect of the course too. The fact that we have asked our students to read literary narratives such as Hikayat Abdullah or The Rose of Cikembang outlines the contestability of how we view history. I believe this helps our students to consider carefully the ways in which the past is constructed, to see beyond the idea that that history is defined by cause and effect, a thing to be studied factually, to be studied as a science. Our use of literary narratives postulates another view of history, namely, that it can also be analyzed as a narrative that taps into our imagination, that it need not just look backward but can also look forward, that it can be speculative and consider the ‘what ifs’. What if the region had not been colonized? What if the Buginese did not want to be considered Malays? What if Chinese traders had decided not to settle in the region? In doing so, I think we encourage our students to think critically and creatively about how they come to know what they know.

JCH: Students become quite animated when we discuss what it means to be ethnic Chinese in the archipelago.  Most students enrolled in the course identify as Chinese from Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They realize that “Chinese” is an extremely fluid category that changes from generation to generation, from place to place, from gender to gender, even from person to person.  Everyone who is Chinese seems to have his or her own experience of being so.  The identity of every other ethnicity in the archipelago is similarly complex. Each of us carries his or her own bundle of history and meaning, both inherited and self-made.  Ethnic labels and racial categories are unable to explain that. Yet we remain dependent upon categories for certain types of thinking.


Multicultural Archipelago – Father and son (1907)


NB: It is invaluable that reductive ethnic labels are challenged so that our students are able to understand the difference between racism and racialism. Racism is borne out of sentiments of cultural supremacy, and is informed largely by malice. Racialism is the assumption that ethnic difference is the natural state of affairs in the world, that people act a certain way because they belong to a certain ethnic group. This is done without malice. Our course teaches them two things. The first is that racialism matters more than racism in the region. The second is that racialism works on the assumption that race is a socio-cutural construct. Here, the module is replete with examples of how different groups of people negotiate their identities, hybridizing them on many occasions, so as to lead viable, productive lives.

In terms of cross-cultural understanding, we have got our students reading texts they would not normally read. It is fascinating that “Chinese” students read an old text about Islam in Java in the form of Serat Centhini, and even more intriguing to hear that they actually drew some parallels between it and their modern, contemporary lives.

JCH: Everyone is aware that Muslims form a majority population in the archipelago, but fewer are aware of the degree to which Hindu culture permeated local kingdoms long before their conversion to Islam, or the degree to which vestiges of this ancient permeation still persist.  Our course raises questions related to this history.  Why were the regions where Hindu culture had greatest impact the same regions that later converted most thoroughly to Islam? Why is the pre-Islamic history of Java preserved and promoted by the Indonesian state, yet ignored nearly to the point of denial by the Malaysian state?  What accounts for the cultural rivalry between Malaysia and Indonesia?  And why should Singaporeans be interested in this?

NB: Cross-national spats have occurred because of the archipelago’s Indic past. Both Malaysia and Indonesia claim ownership over the pendet dance, a dance that is Hindu in origin. So there is urgency in getting our students to understand the early influence of Indianized cultures in this region. In truth, the region’s Hindu past suggests that the nations are more similar than they would like to admit, rendering these culture wars moot. It is also notable that Malay kings claim their legitimacy through the lineage of Alexander the Great. We know that Alexander, a Greek, went as far as India to conquer lands. He did not however travel further to Southeast Asia. Yet Malay kings know about him, and have in fact used him. This, to me, suggests the centrality of Indic mythology in shaping Malay identity.

JCH: Another thing that struck me about the “new” Singapore to which I returned in 2012 was how much the locals have become loosened from older cultural ties that used to connect people on this island with the rest of the archipelago.  One example is the loss of competency in basic Bahasa Melayu.  In the meantime, the location Singapore has not moved one inch.  It sits in the middle of a region populated by nearly 300 million people who speak a common Malay-based language.


Multicultural Archipelago – Petty bourgeosie (c.1920)

NB: The worsening proficiency of the Malay language (Bahasa) in Singapore is symptomatic of the alienation that Singaporeans feel about the region – as I have mentioned, more and more look to the ‘West’ for new knowledge, which is transmitted primarily in English. On the one hand, it is the gatekeepers of the Malay language who are at fault for not  translating texts and thoughts, especially taboo ones, into Malay. This has rendered Bahasa somewhat lacking as a language that can participate in global intellectual discourses. On the other hand, it is also the result of the perception that there is no worthy knowledge that can be garnered from Malay texts, which is of course not true. Historical documents in the Malay language can help us understand the context of the region, and can also inform modern disciplines. Take Undang-Undang Melaka (or Laws of Malacca), which is a good text for understanding the legal system of the region prior to colonization. In our module, we try to show some of the useful knowledge one can garner from engaging with texts that were originally written in Bahasa, though we admittedly read these texts in translation.

JCH: Nazry and I connect our SUTD classroom to the Archipelago world. We visit the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam to view artefacts related to the founding of Singapore, an event recorded by the eyewitness author of Hikayat Abdullah.  The English translation of this classic work of Malay literature is on our syllabus.  The IAP trip to Indonesia each year in January is an offshoot of our course.  Having planned each trip with a different itinerary in the past, I find that SUTD students seek deeper experiences.  When they attend an intensive introductory course in Bahasa Indonesia at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta and find themselves soon able to converse in the local language, they become more than just tourists. They value this kind of immersion.

NB: The engagement with the real world is a strong feature of the course. Casey has pointed out examples of how we bring our students out into the world. The process happens in the reverse too. We bring the world to our students in the way we engage with current affairs within the classroom – connecting old texts to contemporary concerns. For instance, we considered Islamic fundamentalism and Islamophobia while reading Serat Centhini, a premodern Indonesian text outlining a syncretic form of Indonesian Islam.


Multicultural Archipelago – University lecturers (2017)
Dr Nazry Bahrawi (L) and Dr J. Casey Hammond (R)

JCH: Is there anything I would like students to take away from this course?  Not so much a body of history and literature, as much as a mind that is shaped by thinking ciritcally about the texts.  If our students gain greater appreciation for ways in which Archipelagic people are shaped by stories rooted in the past, if our students become more aware of these stories as continuing into the present with yet unknown endings, then I would judge the course successful. Many things that we tend to take for granted around here will evolve into something different, perhaps even unexpectedly so, within our own lifetimes.

NB: Other than a deeper appreciation of the cultural negotiations that transpired to make maritime Southeast Asia what it is today, I hope that students would also walk away with a keener awareness of how the humanities can help them mature not just as an architect or an engineer, but also as a human being. If they think about it hard enough, they might come to the conclusion that this module has taught them to be more empathic of others and more critical of received knowledge.