A History of an Identity, an Identity of a History: The Idea and Practice of ‘Malayness’ in Malaysia Reconsidered
Shamsul A. B.*
This article is a critique of ethnicity theories based on essentialism – the idea that ethnic traits are
innate (essences) both in the individual and the ‘ethnie’ as a social group – which have been adopted,
wittingly or unwittingly, by historians in mainstream Malaysian historiography in their effort to
explain the formation of ‘Malay-Malayness’ as a social identity. It proposes instead that Malay
ethnicity is not innate but rather learned or constructed, and Malay-Malayness has been created as
a result of intersecting historical, cultural and social factors at a particular moment in a culture’s life
and history. Indeed, Malay-Malayness has been constructed by a colonial historiography and
subsequently adopted uncritically by most historians in postcolonial Malaysia, both Malays and
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 32 (3), pp 355-366 October 2001. Printed in the United Kingdom.
© 2001 The National University of Singapore

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