Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ruling the people, not the land

By Huzir Sulaiman

Has anything changed in 500 years?

THE May 23, 2008 judgment of the International Court of Justice was interesting, but for reasons I didn’t expect. Never mind the little white rock; it made me see Malaysian society in a whole new way.

In declaring who had sovereignty over the contested granite island of Pulau Batu Puteh, the Court summarised and evaluated the arguments that had been presented to them in the five years it took the case to be heard. One of the minor lines of argument advanced by Singapore had an unusual anthropological twist.

To quote paragraph 76 of the ICJ judgment: “Singapore, in support of its assertion that the Sultan of Johor did not have sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, advances another argument based on what it describes as ‘the traditional Malay concept of sovereignty.’”

“Thus it contends: ‘Malaysia has glossed over . . . the traditional Malay concept of sovereignty. This concept undermines Malaysia’s claim to an original title. It is based mainly on control over people, and not control over territory. Traditional Malay sovereignty is people-centric and not territory-centric.’”

Now, the Court swiftly rejected this argument, saying that Malaysia had indeed shown that Johor owned Pulau Batu Puteh in the distant past.

Of course, the Court ultimately held that sovereignty had passed to Singapore, essentially because from 1953 onwards the Republic had acted as though it owned Pulau Batu Puteh, and had not been challenged by Malaysia.

But while politicians have been fixated on Malaysia’s failure to respond to Singapore’s acts of sovereignty, I find it intriguing to explore the ramifications of the rejected anthropological argument.

What would lead one to believe “traditional Malay sovereignty is people-centric and not territory-centric”? And more importantly, if it is indeed a justifiable notion, what does it then permit us to say about contemporary Malaysian society?

Going back to Singapore’s written submission of 25 Jan 2005 (“The Counter-Memorial of the Republic of Singapore”, to use the Court’s evocative phrase), we find the academic evidence set out in section 3.4, which I shall quote in full:

“The consensus among modern scholars of Malay history is that, unlike modern European States, the concept of 'sovereignty' in traditional Malay polities was based, not on the control of territory, but on the allegiance of inhabitants.

“For example, historian Nicholas Tarling wrote (in Nation and States in Southeast Asia): ‘The idea that the ambit of a state was geographically fixed was rarely accepted. What counted in Southeast Asia, sparse in population, was allegiance. Whom, rather than what, did the state comprise?... What concerned a ruler was the people not the place.’

“Historian Leonard Andaya has also written (in Writing a History of Brunei): ‘Historians have long accepted the truism that in Southeast Asia it is not the control over land but people which is the crucial element in statecraft.’

“The number of historians who have made the same point in one way or another is formidable. Their conclusions are further reinforced by the findings of Malay specialists in other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology.

“A useful summary of their findings is provided by Jane Carsten in her study of boundaries in Malaysia (Borders, Boundaries, Tradition and States in the Malaysian Periphery): ‘The traditional Southeast Asian state, or negeri, was a different kind of entity from the modern nation-state. Its borders were shifting and permeable... Anderson, Tambiah (1976), Wolters (1982), Errington (1989) and others have discussed the nature of the traditional Southeast Asian polity. In Southeast Asia the traditional state was defined by its centre not by its boundaries... control over people was of greater significance to the ruler than control over land....’”

What happens if we mentally divorce these excerpts from their recent use as part of a high-stakes legal argument, and put them back in their original, unemotional academic context?

The traditional Malay notion of sovereignty, these scholars are saying, is characterised by two things: A lack of concern about land, and a great deal of concern about the allegiance of the people.

But has anything changed in 500 years? Contemporary Malaysia still appears to conform to those two characteristics.

Our elected rulers do not have a very good track record in “controlling the land”, in all senses of the term: Malaysia does not adequately protect the environment. Illegal logging has taken a huge toll. Our water supply is not yet clean. We are not agriculturally self-sufficient. Illegal factories and developments abound. Land scams are a frequent occurrence. Landslides are a seemingly constant threat. And we cannot protect our territorial integrity: our borders are notoriously porous. Illegal immigrants are a source of social and economic tension in many parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the Government clearly shows that “control over people is of greater significance”, with the rhetoric of allegiance paramount: Critics are accused of sedition. Non-Malays are subject to accusations of disloyalty. Malays who do not support Umno are accused of betraying the Malay race. Academics must sign the “Aku Janji” loyalty pledge. Media are urged to display enthusiasm for government policies under implicit threat of revocation of licence. Charismatic politicians from Khairy to Anwar are accused of being agents of foreign powers. And our best-loved patriotic song: Setia.

Suddenly, everything that I find frustrating about our country becomes understandable in light of this paradigm. Malaysia simply doesn’t add up if you look at it as a modern nation-state, but it functions beautifully as a traditional 16th century one.

Perhaps it’s time to recalibrate our expectations. Vision 2020? Let’s try Vision 1520.

Huzir Sulaiman writes for theatre, film, television, and newspapers.

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