Oh, We Moderns

Farish A Noor

By the time I write this, news has emerged of the destruction of one of the temples that is part of the wider temple complex at Lembah Bujang, Kedah. As the actual facts around the case remain unclear and elusive, I am not about to point any fingers at any particular party.

What is clear, however, is that one of the temples – among the oldest in the Malaysian Peninsula – has now been reduced to rubble. Understandably many Malaysians are upset about this, this writer included. But then again, are we, or should we, be surprised by this latest turn of events?

Other historically important sites and buildings have likewise been ruined or demolished in our living memory; and no doubt more will be on the chopping block in the future.

I have three observations to make at this stage:

The first is that the tragedy of what has happened at Lembah Bujang has been compounded even more by the divided and fractious character of Malaysia’s contemporary public domain.

When I first heard of what had happened, I awaited the inevitable round of blaming and labelling that was soon to follow; and sure enough I did not have to tarry for long. Inevitably everything in Malaysia is seen and cast through the lens of ethnic communitarianism these days, and soon enough I read statements suggesting that this was an affront to the Indian community in the country.

Let us be clear about one thing before proceeding any further: the loss of a site like that at Lembah Bujang is a loss for Malaysia and Malaysians in general, and not any particular ethnic group. Secondly historians have never suggested that these temples in Kedah – or their counterparts in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Cambodia, Siam, Myanmar/Burma – were built by South Asians who today are called ‘Indians’.

If anything, it points to the opposite: that these were Southeast Asian temples built according to local styles and norms by Southeast Asian native Hindus-Buddhists; and that happens to be part of the common, fluid history of Southeast Asia too. Nobody has ever suggested that Prambanan, Borobudur, Gedung Songo, Angkor Wat or Preah Vihear were built by people from India, so why should that be the case for Lembah Bujang that dates back to the same period? The loss of our national heritage is a loss for all of us – if only Malaysians could begin to think as Malaysians, for heavens sake.

Secondly, what has happened tells us something about how we – modern postcolonial Malaysians – appreciate (or rather, fail to appreciate) our own history, which we have discarded in our mad collective rush towards a market-driven and market-defined Modernity.

Like many a postcolonial state, we too have our share of hang-ups and our bag of neuroses. Some of these include the hang-ups that we have never managed to discard since the end of colonial rule, for we are wont to blame everything that goes wrong in our country on our former colonial masters.

This historical myopia is, of course, a convenient vehicle for the ethno-nationalists among us who see in the colonial bugbear an incarnation of every injustice perpetrated upon humankind since the antediluvian age: We blame British, Dutch and Portuguese imperialism for our skewered Eurocentric epistemology, our economic backwardness, our inability to cope with globalisation, our technological parochialism, even our garbled and mangled ‘pasar English’ – which could be remedied by talking less and reading more instead.

But consider this: Had the temple at Lembah Bujang been destroyed by the dastardly British – someone suitably pompous like Stamford Raffles with his 80s Duran Duran hairstyle and ruffled collar to match – would we not be agitated beyond the repair of an iced tea by now?

Would we not rant and rave, holler and moan about the ‘evil deeds of the evil Westerners’ who erased our past, defiled our history, denied our cultural heritage? But my dear fellow Malaysians, this was not done by some nefarious foreign power with a gunboat docked within firing range.

This was done by us, our generation of Malaysians – and for the most banal of reasons possible: development and ‘progress’.

Which brings me to my third observation: Do we actually understand what ‘progress’ means? Have we not understood – still – that to progress into the future one needs a past to progress from?

That to get to the end of the race we need to know where the starting-line is in the first place? That to appreciate the length that we have travelled we need those historical cornerstones to look back to, so that we may say with hindsight: “look how far we have come, and how great our effort has been”.

But one of those historical cornerstones has been demolished, and all that is left is – well, stones.

We Malaysians – that’s you and me, dear reader – have to come to realise that living as we do in this postcolonial age of hyper-modernity and crass consumerism there has to be still some recognition and regard given to the sacred and invaluable: Those precious unintelligibles that still carry weight as the ballast to our national identity.

Three years ago I was at the Gedung Songo complex in central Java on a public holiday, walking around the nine-temple complex that is the oldest in Java. I overheard a conversation between a little boy and his mother that went like this:
Boy: “Mother, what is this place?”
Mother: “Its an old temple, son”
Boy: “Who built it mom?”
Mother: “Our ancestors of course! That’s why we must be proud of it, because this is our heritage (pusaka) too.”

Just a couple of weeks ago I was at the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia that had been at the centre of a dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, just a few days after the International Court of Justice declared that the temple was indeed Cambodia’s.

I spoke to a 75-year old woman who visited the temple for the first time, and who was elated, saying “we are so proud that our ancestors could build this masterpiece of Khmer architecture, and we must keep it for the future generations.”

There is nothing un-Modern or anti-Modern in the sentiments of the Javanese or Khmers I met, and these would be nothing un-Modern or anti-Modern if we shared the same attitude towards our own past and heritage, which makes us richer, not poorer as a result. Indeed, it is precisely such an appreciation and knowledge of the past that locates us – temporally and epistemically – in the immediate present, and which would confirm our identity as Modern Malaysians.

But one of those anchors to our history has been demolished for the sake of commercial development, and our temporal compass has gone awry as a result. We float, endlessly and listlessly, like a ship without charts or navigational instruments, because we have fallen prey to the charms of the shopping mall, golf course and Cineplex instead.

Instead of visiting a temple to see a real, objective, material fact of wonderment that we can touch, we have opted for a vicarious existence saturated with digitalised images of fantasy lands and monsters instead.

Our ancestors live on in the things they have bequeathed to us. We, in our turn, have smashed them to ruins and thus killed our ancestors twice.

How poor, how so pathetically poor, we have become. – December 3, 2013.

* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian academic who works abroad.