Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World sought to challenge the prevalent nationalist and racially exclusive diatribes in contemporary Malaysia and Singapore, against the backdrop of debates on the Malay identity. The author’s main argument rests on the assumption that there existed what he termed as ‘Other Malays’ which consisted of persons who originated from Arab, Chinese, Indonesian and other sub-ethnic groupings within the overarching ‘Malay’ category. These ‘Other Malays’ were cosmopolitan in outlook, peripatetic, unbounded by belongingness to a given place, interlinked via regional and international Muslim networks and were, for several decades, economically potent.
In demonstrating the declining influence of the ‘Other Malays’, Kahn excavates the intertwining histories of various ethnic communities in various parts of Malaya and Singapore of the 1920s till the 1950s, particularly at the kampongs (villages). These were the crucial years that saw the development of a hegemonic nationalist and racialized discourse which was imbibed by the masses, and in consequence, had ruled out other possible interpretations of Malay identity. One medium responsible for the embedding of such hegemonic conception was the films of the renowned actor and director, P. Ramlee. This was followed by policies devised by the post-colonial polity which had resulted in spatial segregation and sharp rural—urban divide.
Kahn criticizes the works of several Southeast Asian academics—Syed Hussein Alatas, Shamsul A. B., Karl J. Pezler, and Ann L. Stoler—whose theses pertaining to the constructions of Malayness within British colonial discourse have, by far, been regarded as authoritative. In this, Kahn argues against the notion that in British discourses on the Malays racist and essentialist motifs predominated. Rather, the ‘argument that colonial discourse was racist in our sense of the term is quite clearly anachronistic’ and that ‘many colonial officials were often concerned to puncture the myth of Malay indolence’. To Kahn, the suggestion that a proto-nationalist such as Eunos Abdullah was ‘merely reproducing colonial racial ideologies and racialized practices’ was no more than a distortion of post-colonial scholars. On the contrary, there was some degree of agency on the part of the nationalists in defining the Malay identity which, in effect, had brought about a racialised context during the years that followed.