Tribute to extraordinary teacher and scholar Wang Gungwu

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Wang Gungwu and Malaysia

Publishers: Danny Wong Tze Ken and Lee Kam Hing

Editor: University of Malaysia Press, 2021


When Anthony Reid, the famous Australian scholar and author of Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680 (1990), recalls his first job in the history department of Universiti Malaya (UM) under its dynamic young Malaysian director, Professor Wang Gungwu, he recalls how “we young professors, dreamed of how Gungwu… should soon be at least… Minister of Foreign Affairs, if not more”.

It was not to be. Professor Wang left the university in 1968 and left an indelible mark on three other great universities in the region: the Australian National University in Canberra, the University of Hong Kong, where he served as Vice-Chancellor, and the National University of Singapore, where he is still based.

Malaysia has lost the best foreign minister we have ever had; the world has won a historian of exceptional distinction.

His masterful work is based on a deep personal and historical knowledge of the multiple and interconnected worlds of China, Southeast Asia and the West, embellished with intellectual sensitivity and self-reflective empathy, and a fluent command of the English language that makes his work easy to devour, even for the non-historian.

In the era of YouTube, Professor Wang is, if not widely read, widely listened to, by a large audience in Malaysia who recognize in him what one of the best could become.

His lasting legacy in Malaysian studies is explored in this Festschrift (a collection of writings published in honor of a scholar), Wang Gungwu and Malaysiaedited by Danny Wong Tze Ken, the current Dean of UM’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Lee Kam Hing, a former UM history professor and one of Professor Wang’s first students.

The 16 chapters written here in commemoration of his 90th birthday by colleagues and friends (all his colleagues seem, almost without exception, to have become friends) range from the very personal to the academically serious and are, without exception, worth reading. read, testimony of the honored man but also of the two editors who created this Festschrift in what was obviously a labor of love.

Khasnor Johan, Lim Teck Ghee, Stephen Leong and Reid provide gripping accounts of what UM’s history department was like for undergraduates, postgraduates and staff in those exhilarating days of promise , when the nation was as young as the professor himself.

At just 32 years old in 1963, when he was appointed professor of history and the first Malaysian head of the history department, Professor Wang created an intellectual environment where “history was a prestigious subject to study” (Khasnor). Perhaps because of the teaching and research standards he set, the caliber of the men and women he recruited, the commitment to the national project demonstrated by his own fellowship, the relaxed camaraderie that the professor and his wife’s generous hospitality fostered – these personal memories provide an important record of the institutional history of the nation’s first and oldest university and what it was meant to accomplish.

Professor Wang – who was born in Surabaya, Indonesia, and grew up in Ipoh – is a professional historian of China, but his writings on Malaysian politics and the Chinese of Nanyang have been seminal in the field. Several of the articles in this Festschrift review the issues he raised.

Lee Kam Hing provides an excellent overview of Wang’s analysis of three main themes in Malaysian politics: Malaysian nationalism, the Chinese community, and elite relations. It shows the broader political context of Professor Wang’s thinking on these issues and the relevance of the models he proposed for understanding Malaysian politics today.

Mavis Puthucheary and Tan Chee Beng extend this debate on nationalism, nation-building dilemmas and Malaysian Chinese identity in their respective contributions.

Puthucheary, who herself has had an overview of a long half-century of Malaysian political life, identifies and assesses three key moments in Malaysian history when organizations formed by individuals of different ethnic backgrounds attempted to ‘institute a non-sectarian politics of nationalism that would run counter to the ethnic politics that underpins both outspoken Malay nationalism and muted Malay nationalism (“Malaysian nationalism locked in the ideal of Malay-Chinese- Indian”) put forward by Professor Wang. These were the UM Socialist Club in the 1950s, the political party Gerakan in the 1960s and the PKR, formed in 1999. His analysis, born of intimate knowledge and deep academic reflection, is well worth reading carefully, his somewhat pessimistic conclusion tempered by some concrete recommendations for moderating the ethnicized majority politics that has come to dominate the regime. .

Continuing the theme of nationalism and nation-building, Tan Chee Beng, a renowned anthropologist who spent the last two decades of his academic career as a professor at one of China’s leading universities, compares the different policies of national unity adopted in Malaysia and China, particularly with regard to the position of minorities and the role of elites. He argues that China’s success in uniting the country to a large extent lies in the non-sectarian approach it has adopted in its development and modernization policies and reaffirms, with Professor Wang, the key role that plays political leadership in both countries. in achieving the goal of nation building and development.

The remaining articles, which reflect the implications of Professor Wang’s work on Malaysia and its nation-building policy, raise another important theme: contestations over history in the name of the nation, an issue to which Professor Wang Wang alluded in 1965 when he wrote, “The past has much to teach us if we choose to learn from it, but we cannot hope to learn from falsehood and self-deception” (Khasnor) .

Lim makes a strong condemnation of forgery and self-deception in teaching a state-authored history curriculum in the national education system; Barbara Watson Andaya presents a delightful exhibit of how Perak schoolchildren from Professor Wang’s childhood could have learned about local history and identity most vividly and meaningfully through a walk through the mines pewter scattered throughout the state, drawing attention to, and taking advantage of the country’s rich physical and cultural resources; and Phillip Koh reflects on the criteria for judgment when the story comes to court, as in the case of MP Mohamad Sabu’s account of the attack on Bukit Kepong in Johor.

There remains the question of the Chinese presence in Malaysia, on which Professor Wang has written pioneering articles. Loh Wei Leng takes up the literature on Chinese migration to Nanyang, focusing on the Peranakan Chinese in Penang. The ensuing Sino-Malayan encounter is examined in fascinating depth and detail from an environmental perspective by Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells. Danny Wong Tze Ken shows how, during the long stay and settlement in the country, Chinese dialect identity evolved in response to changing national and international political, economic and cultural forces.

Rounding out Wang Gungwu and Malaya’s overview are two articles on the non-Chinese world: Abu Talib Ahmad’s laudable attempt to reconstruct a social history of Malay Muslims in Pahang during the Japanese occupation of World War II, based on the records of the Bureau of Tengku Besar Pahang; and Leonard Y. Andaya’s similar attempt to reconfigure a history of the Orang Laut and the Malays through a perspective of the sea, namely the “negara selat”, that unified body of water throughout Southeast Asia which was the maritime home and resource base of the Orang Laut.

The last two chapters testify to Professor Wang’s stature as a scholar of China and the role he played as a bridge builder in explaining China to the West and vice versa (Peter TC Chang), and to challenge theoretical models of state behavior in areas such as international relations that postulate universal assumptions of rationality and power relations independent of the specifics of history and culture (Anthony Milner).

This Festschrift in honor of arguably the most eminent scholar that Malaysia can almost claim as its own, offers a rich and varied feast of reflections on issues that remain central to the country’s concerns today. Wang Gungwu and Malaysia is a book not only for professional historians but for anyone with an interest in the ongoing contestations of Malaysian history.


Diana Wong is a sociologist currently researching the history of Kepong, Kuala Lumpur.

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