Singapore in the Malay world by Lily Zubaidah Rahim
LILY ZUBAIDAH RAHIM
Singapore in the Malay world: building and breaching regional bridges
Abingdon: Routledge, 2009
230 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-48410-7, hb £72
Reviewed by P.J. Thum, University of Oxford
In her first book The Singapore dilemma: the political and educational marginality of the Malay community, Prof Lily Zubaidah Rahim explained the continuing economic, educational, and political marginalisation of the Singapore Malay community. In this book, she takes her work to the next logical step, by turning her view outwards towards Nusantara, the Malay world. She asks how Singapore’s internal relationship between the Chinese-dominated political elite and the Malay community affects its external position in the Malay world.
Rahim takes a flexible approach to her analysis, not getting tied down in any particular theoretical framework. She sets the table by looking at the role of Malays and Malay culture in Singapore’s dominant historical and political narratives. On this basis, she compares the competing nation-building paradigms of Singapore and Malaysia, detailing how the two paradigms are, in fact, mirror images of each other. This is followed by studies of the security and economic aspects of Singapore’s regional position (mainly with Malaysia). The last part of her analysis focuses on the Singapore-Indonesia relationship. Her writing throughout is well reasoned, convincing, and extremely readable. It makes clear the complex, multidimensional aspects of Singapore’s relationships with its two biggest neighbours.
Yet one is left with the feeling that the title is somewhat of a misnomer. The majority of Rahim’s work deals almost solely with Singapore’s bilateral relationship with Malaysia. In many ways, this is necessary – Singapore’s historical, economic, and cultural links with Malaysia mean that the state looms largest in Singapore’s foreign policy. Yet a work entitled ‘Singapore in the Malay world’ promises a multilateral, regional approach and this book fails to deliver on that promise. Three chapters dominated by Kuala Lumpur and one exclusively devoted to Jakarta sell the Malay world short. Rahim, in an endnote, explains Nusantara as ‘a trans-archipelagic term that corresponds historically to the Indonesian and Malay sphere of influence’. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, southern Philippines, and southern Thailand all fall in this sphere. However, south Thailand, Brunei, Borneo, eastern Indonesia, Timor-Leste, and the Philippines are absent or referred to only in passing in Rahim’s work. With few exceptions, Rahim’s work is focused on bilateral relations, leaving open the interesting question of how exactly Singapore has affected Kuala Lumpur-Jakarta relations. Exploring Singapore’s position using a multilateral approach would have produced a much more fruitful and exciting study.
Correspondingly, the chapters themselves lack any narrative unity, feeling too much like a collection of separate essays rather than a comprehensive work. In particular, the Indonesia chapter bears little link to the rest of the book, and it is left to the conclusion to draw out tentative threads in an attempt to tie the book together.
This compartmentalisation is further underlined by the difference in her approaches to Singapore-Malaysia and Singapore-Indonesia relations. Singapore-Malaysia is dealt with on cultural, political, and economic grounds, but the Singapore-Indonesia analysis is largely driven by the personal relationship between the two governments, and in particular between Lee Kuan Yew and Suharto. The lack of a strong cultural dimension to Singapore’s relations with Indonesia poses a challenge to assumptions about the Malay world and how it is perceived by its members. However, the chapter on Indonesia is the best chapter precisely because it is much more narrowly focused on more conventional politics and in particular the relationship between Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew.
The politicisation and contestation of culture is one of the central themes of this book. Rahim’s depth of knowledge and familiarity with Malay culture, its complicated relationship with politics on both sides of the causeway, and the marginalisation and discrimination faced by the Malay community in Singapore, shine through. She marshals her facts on Malay culture and perspective well and writes confidently and convincingly. The same cannot be said about her attempts to break down the PAP’s attempt at the sinicisation of Singapore. It fails to capture the diversity of Singapore’s Chinese community, or its schizophrenic attitude towards Chinese culture and language: simultaneously proud of its heritage, frustrated by the alien tongue of mandarin, and fearful of dominance from China, an alien land to second and third generation Chinese Singaporeans. She occasionally repeats unsubstantiated stereotypes about Chinese attitudes and beliefs. She also perhaps overstates the extent to which the rest of the PAP leadership buy into Lee Kuan Yew’s beliefs on sinicisation when she predicts a new Chinese cultural elite poised to takeover leadership of the country. English educated, western oriented leaders continue to dominant the PAP’s upper echelons and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The problem is, of course, that she is unable to access the Chinese community’s worldview. Her sources, bar three interviews with Malaysian politicians, are entirely secondary, and generally in English. This no doubt reflects the paucity of work from Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese-speaking academics available in English, but it also suggests the limitations of Rahim’s skillset.
In her introduction, she sets to explore Singapore’s external relations from a historical, multidisciplinary, regional perspective. What she has achieved is an excellent study of Singapore’s bilateral relations with its two closest neighbours using a variety of political approaches, with a specific focus on the mindset of a few select leaders, and from a top-down perspective. This book will be extremely valuable to anyone seeking to better understand Singapore’s foreign policy, but we will have to wait for a work which truly embeds Singapore in Nusantara.