The geography of urban intellectual culture in the Malay archipelago

First published on THE STATE magazine, 10th October 2013

Everyday for six months last year, I took the mikrolet from a major bus stop in South Jakarta to my home. A kind of share taxi, the blue mikrolet—number 36—would take around fifteen passengers at a time, following a looping route that covered one small area of South Jakarta. On the route, there was one stop that would prove to be always intriguing, intimidating, and irresistible: Salihara.

Like an oasis in the dusty and chaotic urban sprawl of the megalopolis, Salihara is a complex of smaller parts: one part cafe, other parts amphitheatre, book and DVD shop, and an inviting lecture room with lush carpeting and flattering lighting. The main building itself is a symbol of democratic renewal, echoing the architecture of modernisation in decolonising countries during the 1960s. Eminent poets, writers of edgy feminist novels, Islamic activists, and film makers are regularly seen here, either as invited speakers or self-invited customers of the cafe.

Just outside of Salihara is Pasar Minggu, literally the Sunday market by name but in actuality a marketplace all week. But Pasar Minggu is light years from the bucolic idyll of the farmer’s market. Traders and street food merchants sell their wares on the ground, just inches from the exhausts of slow moving traffic.

The sights and smells of Pasar Minggu miraculously disappear in the understated but elegant surroundings of Salihara. Built in 2008 primarily as an arts venue, Salihara is the brainchild of members of Indonesia’s most eminent and creative civil society. On most days of the week, poetry readings, dance and theatrical performances, lectures, and panel discussions on Islam, cinema, and feminism take place. They are attended by an engaged public, who have come to this place to challenge the status quo. In one panel discussion consisting of Islamic clerics, a member of the audience asks, “What is God?” to which one of the clerics answers, with radiant confidence, “God is but a mantra that one chants to the heart.” One will never witness such an exchange in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, a small but growing group of Malay men are inspired by the intellectual energy of Salihara and determined to create a small public sphere modelled after it. It is a game of catch-up, as they see their Indonesian cousins moving far ahead, while Malaysia is left in the dust in the intelligentsia stakes. The Malaysian chattering classes gravitate towards the enclave of Bangsar, in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, as the spiritual hub of the burgeoning intellectual scene. Bangsar has all the trappings of such a place; full of high-end watering holes, cheap food offered in 24 hour sit-down restaurants, and located between the hubbub of the capital and the expansive and desirable suburbia of Petaling Jaya. Here, the local rich and sophisticates, the White migrant community, and all manner of aspirational wannabes dine, drink, and are seen. They tend to eat the same things here; Indian Muslim fare of rotis and sweet teas—food of the people.

Salihara and the hip Telawi area of Bangsar are roughly reminiscent of Jurgen Habermas’s imagining of the public sphere. A place where civil society—a motley group of writers, journalists, artists and activists—come together and form a super league of dissenting voices against both the state and the prevailing threat of Islamic extremism to democracy and civil liberties. They are keenly aware of Habermas’s ideas and take advantage of their potential, along with those of the Enlightenment that drive their discussions. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, one can be a magpie, picking up works of key philosophers at random to add intellectual panache to political concepts. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, the misogyny of Rousseau and Spinoza are airbrushed out, the disregard of non-White plight of countless others are wilfully ignored. Ideas become fetishised commodities, whose provenance and context are often obscured.

In Malaysia, they are also inspired by the text of the much-revered Malaysian academic Syed Hussein Alatas, Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977), which outlines the characteristic and function of the public intellectual in Malaysia. One such delineated characteristic that rings true of the Malaysian smart set is their self-imposed distance from the rest of society and preference to mix with their own kind. This distance is further accentuated by the geography of their haunts. They may be eating the food of the people, at the prices of the ‘masses,’ but they socialise and plot for a better Malaysia only within the specific locations of the Telawi area.

Members of the intellectual elite in South Jakarta and Bangsar organise the development of ideas and performance around public book discussions, and the translation of ‘classics’ into Malay and Indonesian. Book publication of Anglo-European thinkers into Indonesian is a serious and long-established business in Indonesia. The country has long lived with a mono-language policy in the media and education throughout Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998). Malaysia, meanwhile, has had a more chequered history of national language policy since political independence in 1957. It has switched capriciously between English and Malay, while competing with Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese.

The rise of this particular kind of public sphere is set against a backdrop of a revived sense of democracy and political potential in the hands of the people. After the end of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in Indonesia and the Reformasi movement in Malaysia, a flurry of organisations filled the vacuum of a once forbidden public space. Members of these organisations and social movements are collaborative. They are often situated within a bus or Light Rail Transit stop from another, and they eat and drink together. But they do not socialise merely to assert their social capital. The ultimate goal of the fledgling intellectual culture in Malaysia is to challenge the status quo, displacing the power of the ruling government and heralding a Malay version of the Enlightenment. The recent publication of Immanuel Kant’s What is the Enlightenment in the Malay language offers clues to such a dream.

As a term much used in developmental and sociological studies, civil society requires further contestation within the context of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is the buffer between the state and society, but its members’ position is often closer to the higher rungs of the nation than ‘the rest.’ In Jakarta, there is an acute awareness of class privilege among the self-professed elites who are the inadvertent beneficiaries of decades of corruption under Suharto’s regime. There is a yawning wealth gap in Indonesia where the small middle class are squeezed between the über affluent and the abject poor. In Malaysia, where the broad middle class enjoy a history of relative economic and political stability, class awareness is less frequently acknowledged. And when they are, they are uttered between sips of expensive lattes.

The Malaysian intellectual community is male-dominated because its membership reflects the dynamics of its founders who are highly educated, heterosexual, Malay, and male. They meet after work and till late when it would be riskier for women to travel alone at night in a country where crime is on the rise. There is the banter and debating style in a company of men that only a few women, who are expected to be demure and accommodating rather than highly opinionated and bold, will feel at home with. Also, the ‘serious’ books the community reads are those mainly by other men. There are, after all, only a few female philosophers. In this constellation consisting of supernova male philosophers whose work are seen as an exciting challenge to an intellectually arid landscape. Philosophy, alongside the humanities and social sciences, learned outside the classroom are currently being recuperated in Malaysia after decades of abandonment in favour of ‘useful’ and ‘job-making’ spheres of knowledge like engineering, law, medicine, and the ‘hard’ sciences.

There is plenty of interest in combining Western philosophy and critical engagement with Islam, personal liberties, and rational reason in Indonesian higher education. Indonesia can attribute its ability to combine Islam and institutionalised intellectual endeavours to the founding of the Indonesian Associations of Muslim intellectuals (ICMI) in 1990. Their legacy can be felt in the country’s progressive civil society. But there are acutely few spaces for such things in Malaysian universities. The repressive University and University Colleges Act restricts socio-political engagement amongst students in ways deemed oppositional to the state. Its impact on student activism and critical expression has had a lasting legacy in Malaysian university life since its imposition in 1971. And thus, the Malaysian university is no place for the intellectual who nurtures some kind of political ambition.

The appeal of the European Enlightenment is a curious one in Malaysia. Although often critical of religion, the Enlightenment poses little threat to the idealism and aspirational radicalism of the Bangsar intellectuals. What matters it that the Malay incarnation of the Enlightenment will release them from the ball and chain of dogma and moral paranoia. They have little interest in postcolonial or feminist critiques of their idols. And this underlines the illusion of their special place in the geopolitics of ideas where gender, class, space, and time are of no consequence.

The above are snapshots from a personal observation that will be soon be part of a social history of a new intellectual and cultural phenomenon deeply rooted in political action in Malaysia, one that is inspired by social and cultural movements in Indonesia. Key members of the Malaysian intellectual culture flit in and out of the sphere of formal politics, and their influence within such realms remains to be seen. However, there is little to doubt that their influence is fast spreading amongst younger people who are newly politicised via the trending climate of democratic possibility that has resurfaced after many decades.

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