Raising the Keris

Photo by Farish Noor.


DO non-Malays really need to fear the keris and what it symbolises? At a 3pm public lecture at the Annexe Gallery at Central Market in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, March 1, historian and political scientist Dr Farish Noor will attempt to relocate the keris in its proper cultural-historical context. The “Revisiting the Keris: How We Betrayed Our Ancestors” lecture is a first in a series by research site OtherMalaysia.org. As campaigning for Malaysia’s 12th general election begins to heat up, Farish tells Jacqueline Ann Surin the talk will call for the de-racialisation of the keris, and remind Malaysians of our shared cultural heritage.

MalaysiaVotes.com: What’s the purpose of Saturday’s public lecture which you are giving?
Farish: There are in fact several things that I am trying to do, but perhaps the primary reason to have this theme raised now is in order to remind us – Malaysians – that our national and communal symbols can and have been politicised in our recent past and that we need to constantly remind ourselves of the multiple meanings these symbols do actually have, if we rediscover their history.

For me, the keris is perhaps the most recognisable and potent symbol in Malaysian politics today, and certainly in our time the keris has come to be associated with a particular political and ideological meaning, as a sign of Malay political identity, and even of the doctrine of Malay supremacy. What I wish to do is to remind all of us that the keris has a history that dates back thousands of years, and that it pre-dates the coming of Islam.

The keris was really the product of a global age when the people of Southeast Asia were globally connected to the cultures of India and China, and when we were the product of a shared Hindu-Buddhist-Muslim heritage, and therefore it is a hybrid object with many meanings. While the keris today is seen primarily as a marker for a certain type of conservative sectarian Malay politics, we need to remember that the simplified category of “Malay” did not even exist at that time. The people who created the keris were our pre-Islamic ancestors who were Hindus and Buddhists, and they lived at a time when racial identities overlapped and criss-crossed each other.

So it is ironic that the keris today is seen as something essentially and almost exclusively Malay-Muslim, when in fact it was something far more global and heterogeneous in its origins, and it emerged at a time when our society was far less compartmentalised and segregated than it is today.

This is perhaps the first step in reclaiming our national markers from the clutches of those who wish to keep our society divided along racial-communitarian lines; and to remind all of us that we are all the children of Asia, and this soil which we call Malaysia today is in fact the birthplace of all our collective cultures. But the first step to be taken is to rescue our national symbols from the exclusive sectarian and communitarian leaders who wish to divide us.

Is there a reason why you are revisiting this issue during the campaigning period of the 12th general election?
Well, the issue is a timeless one, but under the present circumstances it has become contentious due to the fact that the current socio-political climate is a rather heated one. We all know and we can see that the issues for the 12th general election are communal in nature, following the rise of Hindraf (the Hindu Rights Action Force) and the reaction to Hindraf by the vernacular Malay press in particular.

There is a need to diffuse this tension so that we face these challenges in a cool rational manner, and not allow things to be taken out of context. What I am trying to do by lecturing about the keris right now is to place the keris back in its proper context, and to prevent its further manipulation as an ethnic marker by the ethno-nationalists in our country.

Dr Farish Noor will be giving a public lecture “Revisiting the Keris: How We Betrayed Our Ancestors” on March 1 at the Annexe at Central Market. Photo by Danny Lim.This issue might be seen by some quarters as being unnecessarily provocative. Your comment?
Let me be blunt, as I am an academic and not a diplomat. For me the provocation happened when certain Malay ethno-nationalist politicians began using the keris as a political symbol to whip up Malay communitarian support for their political campaigns.

I was not the one who took out the keris on stage and started yelling about special rights, etc. It is those who behaved in such a calculated and irresponsible manner who should be asked to explain themselves, if they are able to do so.

Will your lecture take to task Umno politicians, namely Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein Onn who has, over the past two party general assemblies, publicly brandished the keris despite the disquiet from other ethnic communities and even other Barisan Nasional component parties?
I am not going to use the lecture to admonish particular individuals, but I also think that we need to remind our politicians – all politicians, and from all parties – that if they really want to become politicians, then one of the first things they lose is the right to a private life. Politicians are public figures, and they will be judged by their Malaysian electorate as well as by history.

So, if and when they behave badly and do irresponsible things, then we and the historians among us will be there to remind them of their mistakes. Remember, Hishammuddin was not the only Umno politician who brandished the keris in public. In fact, since the early 1970s, Umno has been engaged in this task of re-defining the keris as a weapon and a symbol of the Malays on an exclusive basis. The keris has lost its cultural and historical roots since then, and has been manipulated and instrumentalised ever since.

Let us not forget that other Umno politicians like the current (caretaker) Deputy Prime Minister (Datuk Seri) Najib Razak also took part in the Kampung Baru demonstration in 1987 when slogans like “This keris will drink blood” were shouted about by their supporters. Should they be allowed to forget these incidents? Do we let them get away with it?

Reminding politicians of their irresponsible behaviour is in fact the duty of citizens, especially academics like me who are political-historians. It is by constantly keeping the politicians in check that we make sure they remain accountable to us, and behave properly.

This is also the way we ensure that they keep their promises and abide by their word: The leaders of Malaysia want us to be a first-world country with a first-world mentality. But have you seen first-world politicians going around their party rallies carrying guns? Do we think that Tony Blair could have become the leader of the Labour Party and the Prime Minister of Britain if he had whipped out an automatic pistol at the Labour Party conference? If we don’t accept that sort of childish and provocative behaviour from foreign politicians, why should we accept it from ours?

What do you hope to achieve from raising this issue again in a public forum? And aren’t you concerned that you will be seen as an academic who is partisan?
All I want to do is to re-inject history into the context of our politics so that the Malaysian public will understand our society better historically, and will not allow our common national symbols to be monopolised and hijacked by political parties or ambitious politicians.

As I said, this is an attempt to kickstart a deconstructive and critical reading and re-reading of our history, seen from the perspective of the plural and multicultural Malaysian public themselves.

As for being partisan, my only partisanship is towards the recovery, writing and dissemination of a Malaysian history that truly reflects the diversity and pluralism of Malaysian society in the past as well as the present. The keris is therefore a good topic to start with, because of its mixed cultural legacy and heritage and how it evolved from the inter-mixing and collaboration of all the cultures of Malaysia.

This makes it a truly Malaysian and global icon or totem, and it should be appreciated as such. If some narrow-minded communitarian and sectarian nationalists don’t like that, it is not me they should object to. The keris is by definition an object that resists racial stereotyping, and cannot be used to define only one community exclusively.

But I am also trying to show that we academics cannot simply sit in our research offices and ivory towers when history is being distorted before our very eyes. One can, and must, be objectively academic and publicly so at a time when history is being politicised. To sit quietly and do nothing: that is being passively partisan and even more dangerous.

Dr Farish Ahmad Noor is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.