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Intellectuals and Independent Thought In Malaysia

Dr Greg Lopez
Murdoch University

Dr Lindy Ledohowski
EssayJack Inc

Dr Lindy Ledohowski
EssayJack Inc


The question ‘Who is an intellectual?’ and ‘What is independent thought?’ remains a subject of contention. The challenge becomes even more daunting when these questions are addressed to societies living in authoritarian settings. This panel addresses these important contentions and interrogates the two key questions (on who is an intellectual and what is independent thought), by applying it to Malaysia in general, and specifically to the spheres of culture, economics, law and religion. These analyses are of particular importance in understanding and explaining the role of intellectuals and independent thought in countries that have upended democratisation theories.


Paper 1: Within and Without the Bureaucracy: Za’ba as Intellectual before World War Two

Dr Kelvin Lawrence
National University of Singapore

Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad’s (Za’ba) earliest social commentary appeared in the mid-1910s and reached a strong vibrant crescendo in the early 1920s. Za’ba offered critical commentary on political, social, economic and cultural matters in colonial Malaya with no apparent fear or favour. For such contributions, Za’ba can easily be thought of as an intellectual in Julien Benda’s and Edward Said’s sense of the term. However, from the mid-1920s onwards, Za’ba’s flurry of insightful commentary was followed by about three years of silence before the appearance of social commentary that was distinctly no longer critical of colonial power. This sharp turn of events stemmed from a direct threat to Za’ba’s livelihood by his paymasters. This significant change is largely neglected by commentators seemingly bent on recognising Za’ba as an important Malay intellectual, notwithstanding what appears to be a significant loss of independence. During this period of change, Za’ba also assumed work responsibilities at the Malay Translation Bureau (MTB). Intriguingly, for his efforts at the MTB, Za’ba’s intellectual exertions may be viewed as a manifestation of a modified approximation of Gramsci’s notion of an organic intellectual. Applying oneself fastidiously within the growing educational bureaucratic system towards a larger end set by the state is central to the notion of an organic intellectual. Thus, while there is scope to think of Za’ba as an intellectual for before the war, it needs to be clarified that this can only be done by deploying two very different understandings of the notion of an intellectual.


Paper 2: The Belated Fruit of Malaysian Legal Positivism: The Inadequacy of Juridical Responses to Ethno-authoritarian rule in Malaysia

Dr Rueban Balasubramaniam
Carleton University

Rule by law — the use of the legal form as a cloak for arbitrary power — is a serious problem in Malaysia. The government adheres to a doctrine of “Malay Dominance,” where the principal role of government is to define and defend the ethical identity and interests of the Malay-Muslim majority thus enacting an ethnocratic state. Those ineligible for membership within the dominant ethnos are deemed politically unequal while challengers to the ethnocratic state are subject to authoritarian controls. Throughout, the government asserts that its actions comply with Malaysia’s “supreme” written Constitution and are therefore lawful. In response, leading jurists argue that the Malaysian Constitution embodies a liberal-secular political paradigm such that the government is misinterpreting the Constitution. Drawing resources from legal and political philosophy, I argue that this response is inadequate. Critics of ethno-authoritarian rule have not identified the juridical basis to such rule in an inherently authoritarian conception of legal authority as a mere instrument for transmitting political judgments from ruler to ruled, not as a limit upon such judgments. Indeed, they risk reproducing this conception of legal authority within their criticisms because they are trapped by the same assumptions about the character of legal authority that underlie ethno-authoritarianism. This difficulty marks a serious failure of intellectual engagement by jurists and indicates a formidable intellectual obstacle to any response to rule by law in Malaysia.


Paper 3: Ungku Aziz and Syed Hussein Alatas – Different Type of Intellectuals

Dr Greg Lopez
Murdoch University

Ungku Aziz and Syed Hussein Alatas were distinguished Malaysian academics. They are considered to also be among Malaysia’s greatest intellectuals. However, their social trajectories are distinct. Ungku Aziz was a favoured son of the administration, earning the title of Royal Professor while Alatas’ tenure as Vice Chancellor of University Malaya came to an abrupt end under a cloud of mystery. Were the different trajectories linked to their ideas they put forward? This paper explores the ideas in the sphere of development, specifically economic development put forward by Ungku Aziz and Alatas. It then analyses these ideas through the framework put forward by Benda, Said and Gramsci to identify what “type of intellectual” both Ungku Aziz and Alatas were. It also compares and contrasts the impact their ideas on policy making in Malaysia. The paper concludes with an explanation on why Ungku Aziz and Alatas had very different ends to their intellectual life.


Paper 4: Malays in Malaysia – No space for independent thought?

Mr Bob Olivier
University of Western Australia

Commentators such as Julien Benda, Edward Said and Alain Finkielkraut conclude that a necessary prerequisite for healthy intellectual activity in any society is an environment that allows the public airing of contentious views and open debate about them. This is certainly not the case in Malaysia as there is little space for independent thought, especially for Malaysia’s Malay Muslim majority population. The paper draws extensively from the feedback obtained from a PhD research programme of in-depth interviews with 100 members of Malaysia’s bourgeoisie and middle classes to investigate their reactions to an increasingly strident Islamic movement, which has been harnessed for political purposes by the Malay-dominated federal government, in power since Independence in 1957. These include observations on how the environment has affected this particular group of people, in terms of their willingness to engage in open debate about contentious issues. It concludes that they are rarely willing to speak openly about any matter that is inherently sensitive, in particular issues to do with politics, race and religion. This is due to a combination of: the legacy of colonialism, and a consequent massive demographic change that resulted in inter-racial tensions, culminating in the race riots of 1969, and continuing today; the politicization of race and religion by a government that is increasingly determined to remain in power; the use by that government of draconian laws to suppress opposition; and, in addition to these factors, self-censorship by the predominantly Malay Muslim community to avoid charges of “not being a good Muslim”, and/or “being a traitor to the Malay race”. Such an environment stifles the development of an intellectual culture, and healthy intellectual debate.


Paper 5: From British Black Power to Malaysian Human Rights: The Transnational Formation of Cecil Rajendra

Dr Ambikaipaker Mohan
Tulane University

This paper explores the career of Cecil Rajendra, a noted intellectual, poet and legal activist in Malaysia. The life and career of Rajendra exemplifies the transnational circults of independent intellectual formation which I argue has been a hallmark of Malaysia anticolonial and postcolonial politics.Utilizing new archival research this paper examines Rajendra’s seminal contributions to the Black Power movements in Britain in the 1970s as way to understand the subsequent evolution of his human rights activism in his later career in Malaysia. Rajendra was an important ally of the Caribbean revolutionary Walter Rodney in London and created the Black Voices Forum. He also worked closely with Jessica and Eric Huntley in the activities of Bogle L’ouverture press and the Black and Third World International Book Fair. Upon his return to Malaysia Rajendra developed a legal career and was headed the Bar Council in the state of Penang, Malaysia. He continued his writings in politically conscious poetry and became widely known for his human rights oriented work which received international acclaim. In theorizing Malaysian intellectual formation, this paper argues for a departure from the nationalist and nation-state framework and a turn towards the diasporic and transnational as ways to understand the development of independent Malaysian thinking.