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!