LET us begin with this statement: European history invariably serves as a template for all history, even when we are least aware of it, or writing history in opposition to Eurocentric history. Malaysian history, and what is true of the nation’s history, is true of nearly every national history where the categories such as ancient, medieval and modern, for example, that have informed the study of the European past are assumed to be the “natural” categories through which one might interpret any history.
The problem in post-colonial states such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan and India, for example, is the national project for a post-independence history. These nations were made to partake in things “national”, hence the phrase “national history”, in part for the reason that history occupies a distinct place in the evolution and framework of the modern nation-state. Writing on “History ‘outside’ the ‘West” (2012), historian Vinay Lal begins with James Mill’s early 19th century “History of British India”, a voluminous work that until the end of the last century, remained the standard narrative of the Indian past.
The periodisation between ancient, medieval and modern, is not unproblematic, but quite commonplace. Vinay focused his arguments on Indian history, saying that Mills characterised ancient India as “Hindu” and rendered medieval India as “Mahomedan”. Along the way, the word “medieval” has come to represent not merely a chronological stage of history. It is a state of mind — a state characterised by the lack of reason, disregard for progress, and primitivism in thought, belief and conduct. It is like periodising the time of the Melaka Malay Sultanate as the medieval period in the history of Malaysia.
“Medieval” equates that period in the Malay Peninsular with that of Europe. But conditions were different. Melaka was the epitome of an enlightened and civilised world when Venice existed against the hinterland of uncivility. Europe was primitive then. With reference to India, Mill’s history demonstrated he was fully aware that north India, in second millennium CE, had come firmly under Muslim rule, commencing at least with the Delhi Sultanate, and he may have some knowledge of some Muslim sultanate in the Deccan, though like most colonial, and many contemporary historians and commentators of India, he had fallen into the habit of supposing that the history of north India could effortlessly be passed off as the history of the entirety of India.
Vinay’s argument was to establish a number of fundamental principles in the writing and interpretation of history. Apart from European history serving as a template for all history, he described European history as assuming a temporal linearity. This perspective sees the movement from the ancient age to the modern age, also the gravitation from slavery to liberty, from religious life to secularism, and from a life embedded in community to individualism. According to Vinay, the narrative from the most bitter conflicts readily becomes relics of the medieval age. The “fanaticism” of the Serbian nationalist, the Hindu fundamentalist and the (Islamic) terrorist are examples of an existentially troubled journey towards freedom.
People outside of Europe, those in Southeast Asia, and India for example, are condemned to live in someone else’s history, with consequences that have been seen across all domains of life. Europe’s past is “our present”. When at long last, “the native arrives at the destination, it is only to discover that the European has moved to another station, leaving only his baggage to be collected by natives”.
As a corollary to the above, it becomes imperative to understand that much of history is not merely Eurocentric, but in fact European history. Other histories are thus ancillary histories, the limbs to the body of European history, illustrating strands of European culture, thought and consciousness. To ourselves, the visible and invisible non-European self is distorted by Eurocentrism. The final fundamental principle was that most British histories of Britain are still oblivious to the history of colonialism — that itself alters the history of Europe and that of the entire West. There is no bridging discourse and assumes the absence of any influence by Asian and African histories upon British history, culture and politics.
The colonised had no place in world history, according to the dominant narrative. Being out of place does not necessarily originate from the metropolitan West. Many non-Western countries, including Malaysia, have their share of problems with regards to decolonise received narratives. We are oblivious to the process of taking possession of the past. Both in history, the arts and the social sciences, colonial frameworks of knowledge still linger. The desired “national” narrative is deeply contested amongst scholars, intellectuals and the laity. The activism of civil society and politicians has only exacerbated the problem.
As in Vinay’s India, the history of Malaysia and the region of the Malay Archipelago, still lies outside the West. European cosmopolitanism and American exceptionalism do not engage in our worldview. Now that China’s presence is globalised, will China re-orientate world history? Or will the West remain a singular focus of our intellectual and cultural energies for many years to come?
The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at email@example.com