Malaysia’s 3Rs Originate on the Siam-Malaya Frontier

The Muslim World

The Muslim World Special Issue on Muslim Modernities: Interdisciplinary Insights Across Time and Space

Today, I had an article come out in The Muslim World, in a special issue edited by Daren E. Ray and Joshua Gedacht called “Muslim Modernities: Interdisciplinary Insights across Time and Space”.

My article is a history of the politically potent conflation between race, religion and royalty – the well-known 3Rs that have become emblems of Malay Muslim nationalism – in Malaysian public life. These are precisely the 3Rs that groups like the new Malaysian redshirts refer to in their rhetoric. This rhetoric reflects the present and historical influence of a form of statist Islamism that views nations like Malaysia as racial-religious constructions.

In the article, I argue that this conflation (at least partly) originates in negotiations between Britain and Siam as they carved up the Malay Peninsula between them, sealing off Siamese and Malayan geo-bodies on either side of the boundary they first produced in 1902. I show how arguments made by Malay Muslim rulers who wanted to be included on the “Malaya” side of the border were early examples of this conflation. These arguments were so powerful that they contributed to establishing Malaya/Malaysia as a state that remains seemingly permanently-structured by these 3Rs.

My abstract is here:

Since 1957, Malaysian public life has been organized around a historic conflation of three important political themes: “race, religion and royalty”, or “3R”, all of which are purportedly championed and defended by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). This article explores how this conflation of themes became so important to this postcolonial nation-state, specifically by investigating its influence in shaping Malaya’s territorial limits. The 3R conflation has deep historical roots which stretch much further back than the moment of decolonization, as shown by a series of approaches to Britain made by Malay Muslim rulers between 1895 and 1902—the period in which a boundary between Malaya and Siam was first negotiated. During these years, these rulers—all of whom ruled over Siamese tributaries—appealed to Britain to colonize their polities to prevent their incorporation into Siam. Their appeals were framed in terms of 3R, giving momentum to the idea of a “Malay Muslim” geo-body in Malaya, in which a transformed monarchy should preside over a modernized sacral sphere of racial and religious identity.

  • If you can access it, the full text of the article is available from Taylor & Francis.

The Nation and its National Front

Today, I had an article published in Berita, the Newsletter of the Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei Studies Group in the US Association for Asian Studies. I’m not a current affairs reporter, nor do I focus on seat counts and swings. What I am interested in is the contest of narratives that has developed since 2008, and that takes a longer-term perspective.

Malaysia’s 2013 Election: The Nation and the National Front

Winning an election may still be one of life’s great thrills, but the afterglow is diminishing. (Naim 2013)

If ever an election victory could be interpreted as a humiliation by the winning side, then the Malaysian federal election, held in May this year, was profoundly humiliating for the National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN).

BN won government for the thirteenth time, and extended its uninterrupted hold on federal government in Malaysia. It also continues to hold a majority of states in the federation. In this sense, BN’s political primacy—as the sole government Malaysia has ever known—remains in place, in the nation it argues its predecessors brought in to being in 1957 (Cheah Boon Kheng 2002; Hooker 2003). Read more

Resources, Conflict and Religious Identity in Malaya

A poster issued by the Journal of Peasant Studies.

In my article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, I look at how struggles related to land control fed in to an Islamist uprising in Malaya in 1928. I examine how the colonial enclosure of territory was related to projects for producing colonial subjects, and how these projects were opposed in the language of jihad, caliphate and holy war. The article is in a special issue of the journal titled New Frontiers of Land Control, edited by Nancy Lee Peluso and Christian Lund.

My abstract is here:

Land control struggles were central to multiple projects of enclosure in colonial Malaya. Indeed, enclosures created Malaya, a discrete geo-body constructed by bounding the Malay polities of the Malay Peninsula. It also underpinned technocratic regimes for managing land, forest and property, including in Terengganu, the last peninsular state to be colonised. Enclosure, however, was directed not only at territorialising landscapes; it was also a biopolitical project for bounding subjects and subjectivities, producing both Malayans and racially-constructed Malay peasants. One response by Terengganu cultivators, a holy war,was grounded in an audacious globalism, through which they rejected the enclosures which bound them in ever-tightening webs of discipline and control.

If you can access it, the full text is available from Taylor and Francis.

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