HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
SULTAN NAZRIN MUIZZUDDIN SHAH
AT THE LAUNCH OF
“Contesting Malaysia’s Integration into the
RAJAH RASIAH, AZIRAH HASHIM AND JATSWAN SINGH SIDHU
DATE: THURSDAY, 29 SEPTEMBER 2022; TIME: 11.00AM
VENUE: AUDITORIUM, ASIA-EUROPE INSTITUTE,
UNIVERSITY OF MALAYA.
Ladies and gentlemen
1. Professor Dato’ Shaharil Talib was a highly respected and eminent Malaysian historian—a legend and luminary of the University of Malaya—deeply respected by his peers and students alike. His teachings and writings contributed enormously to our understanding of life in colonial Malaya, and of the Southeast Asian region more generally. As the founding Executive Director of the Asia–Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Professor Shaharil started new postgraduate social science courses, inspired a generation of students, and launched a very successful international student exchange programme.
2. More than two decades ago, on my return from Harvard, Shaharil graciously encouraged me to establish my own research project that became known as the Economic History of Malaya at the Institute. He was always ready to share his ideas and wisdom, and to offer inspiring guidance to me in my efforts to construct Malaya’s national accounts for the first four decades of the 20th century which is documented in my book Charting the Economy.
3. I also greatly benefited from his research in my second book: Striving for Inclusive Development: From Pangkor to a Modern Malaysian State. Shaharil’s empathy and ability to “connect” with the person on the street profoundly influenced my own thinking and historical writings.
4. Shaharil wrote from a radical and socialist perspective, and in 1984 published his seminal work: After Its Own Image, the Trengganu Experience, 1881–1941. The book gives a vivid and unparalleled account of the prevailing class structure of Malay society and its resilience, and describes how the power relations of the ruling elite were gradually influenced by British administrators. A decade or so later he applied the same intellectual rigour in his second classic: History of Kelantan 1890–1940.
5. Shaharil’s approach to meeting the challenge of writing a progressive, inclusive, and open-ended history, through well-crafted historiography, was partly inspired by the multidisciplinary work of the well-known academician Marc Bloch. As a French resistance hero, Bloch fought the total control and manipulation of public discourse. Shaharil’s historical research, like that of Bloch, focused less on big events and important people, and more on the circumstances of a cross-section of society.
6. Histories tend to include what the writer chooses to remember. They often exclude topics and events that the writer feels might cause contemporary and local historical unease. Shaharil well understood this and contended that history should be representative of disparate human perspectives—from different communities and all walks of life. And it must ensure that the view from below is not neglected, by investigating fully the experiences of those often excluded from the dominant narrative.
7. Crucially, he argued that historians, as well as others interpreting the past, must defend against the manipulation of data and information by those who seek to gain from distorted historical narratives. In a world where perception of truth is often more important to individuals than the truth itself, we see an apparent upsurge in disinformation, as well as the systematic distortion and manipulation of facts, especially on social media. Questioning existing perspectives, as well as robustly using all sources of evidence, is essential, as is querying dominant narratives. The important role of historians, as Shaharil saw it, is to ensure that the “truth” is told.
8. Understanding history is always important, but it becomes even more important at times of significant change and global shifts, as we are currently experiencing. Just when we thought we had put behind us the worst impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic—which started in 2020 and led to countries sealing their borders and focusing on self-interest, as well as global trade tumbling—came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war has once again seriously disrupted trade and global supply chains, causing setbacks for the world’s economy. People everywhere are now facing higher commodity prices, especially for energy and food, and this has caused inflation to rise sharply, nearly all non-US-dollar currencies to depreciate steeply, and savings and incomes to erode. Human deprivation, suffering, and inequality are rising.
9. Amid the shifting geopolitical order and global tensions, different narratives of these two events, arising from different perspectives, confront us in trying to understand and navigate through them. Populist voices aided by social media are helping to fuel uncertainty and insecurity in societies virtually everywhere.
10. I am reminded of Shaharil’s metaphor of history being like a ship charting a course through the dangerous waters of ideology and interests. The objective, as he put it, is ‘to arrive at some unified and holistic understanding of our past and present.’ He thus conceptualised history as something we must actively engage with. We must do this in order to challenge the biases and omissions that could otherwise creep into our understanding of the past and the present.
11. I am delighted to launch this commemorative multi-disciplinary book: Contesting Malaysia’s Integration into the World Economy, dedicated to the memory and works of Professor Shaharil. The collection of essays is enriching, challenging, and a thought-provoking interrogation of Malaysian history and social relations before, during, and after the colonial era. It addresses the role of economic factors, and the participation of local actors in shaping a wide range of socioeconomic and political processes. In all of the chapters we find accepted versions of the truth being questioned. We find carefully considered new evidence being applied to existing orthodoxies, or to hitherto unexplored aspects of our past and present. There is even a questioning and extension of Shaharil’s own work on the Malay aristocracy—which he no doubt would have welcomed.
12. I would like to warmly congratulate all the chapter authors and the three editors Rajah Rasiah, Azira Hashim, Jatswan Singh Sidhu. The book helps to fulfil the historian’s goal of better understanding from where we have come, so that we can navigate better the choppy waters of our own times. Professor Shaharil’s intellectual legacy will continue, and this book is a wonderful tribute to his life and work.