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Escaping the Captive Mind: Rethinking Colonial Narratives, Preserving Heritage, and Curating the Malay World
By Siti Marina Mohd Maidin

«Some were saved from the wreck of the Sultan’s library at the storm of the Kraton of Yogyakarta, by permission of the prize agents and the concurrence indeed of all the military present… others were purchased and collected on the tour through that island; some were presented by Dutch colonists and regents, and others are transcripts by Javanese writers employed by Colonial Mackenzie to copy them from the original in the hands of regents, and with their permission»
(Weatherbee, 1978).


Colonial Knowledge and Memorials of Voiceless Natives

In the year 1812, the Geger Sepahi raid took place at Yogyakarta Kraton (Java, Indonesia) under the order of Stamford Raffles to overthrow Sultan Hamengkubuwana II.  A thousand British soldiers took part in the raid, about half of whom were Sepoy troops from India. The troops seized manuscripts from the palace library, where nearly seventy-five manuscripts associated with the event are housed in the British Library (Gallop, 2020).  

Serat Jayalengkara Wulang, the tale of a wandering prince, Yogyakarta, 1803 (MSS Jav 24). The manuscript was composed during the rule of Sultan Hamengkubuwana II. Credit: British Library.

Almost two centuries after the raids, some of the artefacts were displayed in the Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) in Singapore loaned from the British Museum and British Library where Raffles’ Javanese artefacts  safely arrived in England. Majority of Raffles’ Sumatran and Borneo collections became a funeral pile when the ship “Fame” burned and sank off the coast of Bengkulu in 1824.

The Raffles exhibition sparked some debate and discussion among academics and the general public. For Kwa Chong Guan, the controversies that arose were a public history exercise among the different generations of Singaporeans [1]. Meanwhile, Farish Noor saw Raffles, a coloniser, reinventing himself as a curator by museumising Java (Noor, 2019, p.14). The museum is indeed one of the institutions that shaped the way the colonial state imagined its dominion (Anderson, 2006, p. 163). With the encouragement of the Enlightenment movement that began in the 17th century, the collections were studied, the natives were consulted, and colonial knowledge was produced. 

Colonial knowledge frequently silenced the voices of the natives who greatly contributed to the process. Although a few named their contributors, their names were forgotten after several years and were overshadowed by the colonial administrators. Navigators of the forest and skilled hunters originating from the Malay world that came into light in recent years including Ali from Sarawak and Baderoon from Makassar were mentioned in Alfred Russel Wallace’s Malay Archipelago. Statues of Ali and Wallace were unveiled outside the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore in 2019.

Statues of Ali and Wallace at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore. Credit : Twihandle@ReynolTsang.

 The statues showed Wallace pointing at a sculpture of Wallace’s Standardwing, a bird-of-paradise species that led Wallace to the archipelago on a nearby pillar and Ali was holding a rifle. While the statues and the name of the bird may give an impression that Wallace was the one who made the discovery and Ali was doing his duty as a servant to shoot the bird, however, in the book, Wallace wrote that Ali brought the bird home and gladly showed it to him, who rejoiced at such discovery (Wallace, 1877, p. 329). Since, it was a standard in colonial days that the discoverer is always the one who leads, not the servant, hence the name, Wallace’s Standardwing. 

In order to reclaim the European-dominated narratives of the age of ‘discovery’, a Malaysian contemporary artist, Ahmad Fuad Osman, launched the “Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project,” which aimed to present alternative stories of Enrique, a historical figure shared by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia [2].  In the 16th century, Enrique, who was believed to be a Sumatran and lived in Malacca, joined Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition as a slave. As written in his will, he was later freed before Magellan’s death in the Battle of Mactan on April 27th, 1521. By tracing Enrique routes during the voyages, Ahmad Fuad Osman re-introduced him to the public via a mocked history  of mixed media installations (Abdullah, 2017). One of the exhibition highlights is a statue of Enrique de Malacca with an engraved text that reads: “In Memory of Enrique de Malacca who contributed greatly in the first circumnavigation of the world 1511 – 1521”.

Ahmad Osman’s Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project exhibited at Singapore Biennale 2016. Credit: Singapore Art Museum.

The statue of Enrique de Malacca, in which the artist has imagined his physical characteristics, is a memorial to a non-fictional individual who is only known from documents. It also challenges Ferdinand Magellan as the first person to circumnavigate the world. The exhibition is a conduit  to revive unfamiliar names who made significant contributions to colonial knowledge. 


Contested Histories in Public Space

In the Malay world, statues and monuments to commemorate historical events or to honour the achievements of a prominent figure are a foreign concept. The majority of monuments and erected statues are those of colonial figures, which reify  a colonial idealism to be remembered. For some, these colonial statues and monuments are seen as works of art, whilst some are simply unbothered by them since these colonial characters have long been forgotten. Since the word “decolonisation” has entered the anti-colonial lexicon, more debates have arisen on whether a colonial statue should be toppled and placed in the museum or just let it be. 

Bust of King Edward VII at the courtyard of National Museum of Malaysia. Credit : Muhammad Azam Adnan.
A bronze statue of Frank Swettenham also standing at the courtyard of the National Museum of Malaysia. Credit: Muhammad Azam Adnan.

Long before the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement in South Africa, in 1963 a group of Indians removed the bust of King Edward VII and the statue of Frank Swettenham, the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States from their original locations (Price, 2021: 33). These statues ended up in the courtyard of Malaysia’s National Museum (Muzium Negara), far from the public eye and devoid of any reminders of their colonial achievements. Nonetheless, history textbooks noted Frank Swettenham’s role as a British resident who was close to members of the royal courts, and he was a well-known author. Hence, he is remembered by most Malaysians. For example, a pier opened in 1904 in Penang was named after him. Meanwhile, in the Penang State Museum (Muzium Negeri Pulau Pinang), a bust of Queen Victoria was on display, along with information panels highlighting the role of Francis Light in the acquisition of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah and its transformation into a trading port [3]. The statue of Francis Light was originally placed in the courtyard of Penang Museum, and it has now been relocated to Fort Cornwallis, where Francis Light arrived in 1786. It was modelled after his son, William Light. No caption is needed for Francis Light’s statue as he is lauded as the founder of Penang, the first British colony of the Malaysian Peninsula.
In the wake of the anti-colonial movement, Francis Light’s statue was splashed with red paint by an anonymous person on 30th June 2020.

Francis Light statue splashed with red paint in late June 2020. Credit: Twihandle @AntifaM3

The incident triggered mixed responses. Conservation work was quickly requested to restore one of the main tourist attractions of Penang and a police report was filed.  While some rejoiced, some found it less amusing, especially the academics, Penang Museum Board and Penang State Tourism committees, which feared Penang’s colonial history would be altered if the statue were destroyed [4]. For the majority of Malaysians, especially the Malays, Light has always been known to have acquired the island and the mainland through shady methods by deceiving the Sultans of Kedah who owned the land. 

On the other hand, Thomas Stamford Raffles did not suffer the same fate. Two monuments, one at the Raffles landing site and the other at the Empress Place which is next to the ACM are still standing.

One of Stamford Raffles statues is located at the Empress Place Building. Credit : Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.

Raffles’s myth as the founder of Singapore has been debunked by post-colonial scholars including Syed Hussein Alatas who pointed out that Raffles needed Singapore to contain Dutch influence in the archipelago. The establishment of Singapore was closely monitored by Raffles’s superiors because he spent more time in Sumatra and Java, as evidenced by his collections displayed in the Raffles in Southeast Asia exhibition (Alatas, 2020, p. 85).

Unearthing Ruins and Collecting Heritage 

In late 1873, the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army’s second military expedition eventually colonised Aceh, a long-standing landmark of resistance to imperial subjugation. Many cultural artefacts were destroyed as a result of the Acehnese’s lengthy rebellion which lasted up to the twentieth century.

Dutch soldiers resting at the royal cemetery at Kuta Krueng, near Lhokseumawe, Aceh. Acehnese tombstones, known as Batu Aceh,have been used in royal graveyards in the Malay Peninsula as well. Credit : Tropenmuseum Collection.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Aceh’s re-development put undiscovered heritage materials at risk. This also happened in Malaysia in 2013, when a construction company recklessly bulldozed a known ancient Hindu candi (temple) in Lembah Bujang. Two cultural heritage materials from Aceh, the tombstones and manuscripts, have strongly influenced the Malay royal court customs and the format of Malay Islamic literature in the archipelago. Thus, independent bodies were constituted  to preserve Aceh’s cultural heritage.
The Masyarakat Peduli Sejarah Aceh (MAPESA; means The Preserver of Aceh History Society) actively organises expeditions to locate and unearth tombstones.

Unfinished mural near the entrance of Kerkhof Peucut, the biggest Dutch soldiers cemetery outside the Netherlands. The mural depicts Acehnese fighters defending their shores against the Dutch army. Taken in April 2019. Credit : Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.
A member of MAPESA cleaning an Acehnese tombstone. Credit : MAPESA ACEH

Private museums such as Pedir Museum and individual collectors in Aceh are also actively collecting manuscripts and other artefacts related to Aceh. When I met Pak Tarmizi Abdul Hamid at his house, which he named the  Rumoh Manuskrip Aceh (House of Aceh Manuscripts), Pak jokingly said “Rumah belum siap lagi, tambah manuskrip lagi (sic) [I have not yet finished building my house, but keep acquiring manuscripts]”. Both Pedir Museum and MAPESA led by Masykur Syafruddin and Mizuar Mahdi also exhibited their collections at the headquarters, expo, and at the Aceh Museum in order to raise awareness of the importance of  Aceh’s history. In 2019-20, there were calls from the Mapesa ,Pedir Museum, and other independent bodies to save Gampong Pande in Aceh from re-development, following the discovery ofseveral tombstones buried in the river that relate to the Islamic history of Aceh and the Malay world as a whole.

Meanwhile, calls for repatriation of looted artefacts are active among the countries of origin in Southeast Asia particularly Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Laos, and Myanmar. Recently, the Sarawak Museum Department in Malaysia received the remains of skeletons found during the excavation of Gua Niah which had been kept by the University of Florida for fifty years since the excavation ended in 1967, allegedly due to climate stability [5]. As for now, there has been no official request to repatriate Malay manuscripts from European institutions although local scholars have manifested such interest at  conferences. 

A few museums have started acquiring artefacts dated from the 20th century to the 21st century. Among the artefacts collected were made by prominent local craftsmen and artists including Malay master carver, the late Nik Rashiddin Nik Hussein (Asian Civilisation Museum, Singapore), Wan Manang Wan Awang, a Malay songket textile weaver and Islamic calligraphy works by contemporary artist and calligrapher, the late Omar Rahmat (Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia). These efforts provide an accurate historical background to the artefact, its production and provenance, which usually leave researchers and curators baffled, especially when the craftsmanship is less known or in the case of manuscripts, neither date nor name are provided by the authors.


Identity and Belonging

In the postcolonial Malay world, Muslims resistance movements have emerged in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines. The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, in which Patani became one of the Siamese provinces in exchange for four Malay states in the Malay Peninsula previously under the Siamese to the British, spurred the resistance movement in Southern Thailand. Now a part of modern Thailand, the three states known as  the “Thai Deep South” consisting of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat are still in a state of recurrent conflict. Hence, other ethnicities living in the upper region of Thailand have stigmatised the region as problematic and refusing to assimilate into Thai society. 

In order to break the negative stigma, Patani Semasa: An Exhibition on Contemporary Art of the Golden Peninsula was held at Ilham Gallery (Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia) in 2018 for Malaysian audiences in collaboration with MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum (Chiang Mai, Thailand). The contemporary art exhibition featured artists of Malay and Thai ethnicities, predominantly from Patani heritage. Most of the artworks displayed in the exhibition spoke of the painful memories of several tragedies including the Tak Bai Massacre and the Krue Se Mosque Incident.

I wish you were here (evidence number 012) by Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, b. 1975, Bangkok. Credit: Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.

The exhibition also addressed the issues of being a Malay Muslim in Southern Thailand and to be accepted as a part of Thailand. The work of Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh, entitled The Way of Life of Malay Locals in the Three Southern Most Provinces of Thailand depicted the Malay community living in Patani, Yala and Narathiwat.
The painting illustrated the Malays in the region going about their daily lives in a peaceful and conflict-free manner. In the background is Narathiwat’s landmark, the 300-year-old Wadi al- Hussein Mosque founded in 1724.
Jehabdulloh’s education in Thai-style painting enabled him to incorporate Thai art into his work, thereby associating his identity as a Thai nationality.

The Way of Life of Malay Locals in the Three Southern Most Provinces of Thailand by Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh (2005). Credit: Ilham Gallery, Malaysia.

 Eurocentric race ideologies have long affected marginalised Malaysians. Pejorative terms such as “primitive” and “savages” were used in many colonial publications when referring to the natives living in the region, especially the various tribes of indigenous Orang Asli (Original People). This despicable reading has impacted the narratives in the museums, especially the National Museum of Malaysia (Muzium Negara), which is an important  nation-building technology. Although there are museums dedicated to the Orang Asli, such as the Orang Asli Museum in Gombak, Selangor and the Orang Asli Craft Museum next to the National Museum, both museums are mainly presented through an ethnographic gaze typical of colonial museums whose collections are built upon  archaeology and ethnographic expeditions. The earliest museum in Malaysia, the Perak Museum displayed the remaining artefacts gathered from the Perak and Siamese Malay States expedition in 1901-1902.

Some of the combs in a variety of designs used by the Senoi were donated by Ivor H.N. Evans collected during his expedition in Perak. Currently, the combs are displayed at the Perak Museum, Malaysia. Credit: Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.

One particular gallery in the National Museum, The Malay Kingdom Gallery or Gallery B, mainly focuses on the ruling of the Melaka Sultanate and trade. The gallery lacked the narratives of the relationship between the Malay rulers with Orang Laut (Sea People) indigenous groups orany indigenous groups in Malaysia who played vital roles in trade and diplomacy. The Orang Laut’s role as the gatekeeper of the Straits in the Malay world has been erased from history gradually since the 19th century due to the economic shift  from sea trade to land-based industry such mining and plantation farming. The introduction of steamships and advanced weaponry caused their role in guarding the sea lanes to decline (Andaya, 2016, p. 173 & p. 178).  Since the National Museum is easily accessible and the main centre to acquire first-hand museum experience about the people of this country, therefore, it is important to highlight the role of Orang Asli in terms of economy and diplomacy and not just mere crafters. 


Local Knowledge and Craftsmanship  

The pattern of British scholarship in the nineteenth century was heavily influenced by William Marsden’s History of Sumatra, which depicted the Malay as more civilised than the hunter-gatherer Negrito and pagan Malayo-Polynesian tribes due to Hindu elements in their culture and language (Caroll, 2019). Meanwhile, Dutch colonial cultural policy saw Islam as a threat due to anti-colonialist rebellions such as the Java War (1825 -1830)  and Aceh War (1873 – 1914), and thus they were only interested in the pre-Islamic history of the archipelago (Shatanawi, 2014,p.216). Hence, curating the Malay World and Islamic art comes with interesting challenges due to several issues including selection of artefacts displayed in the gallery and visitors’ reception of museum displays. 

The Islamic arts in the Malay world are generally defined as any art containing elements of calligraphy, geometric and floral patterns. Elements that originated from Hindu-Buddha traditions are usually not considered as Islamic arts such as the makara, a sea creature of Hindu mythology. This causes some confusion when compared to the Islamic art in other parts of the Islamic world, where the definition of Islamic art refers to any production made in the region. For example, a bracelet with Makara head terminals made in India is categorised as an Islamic art in the Metropolitan Museum [6]. Thus, one might wonder if the Makara statue can be considered Islamic art as well since the production is from Islamic world. 

A large head of a horned makara made in Pattani dated between the 18th-19th century. The head would have been attached to a bamboo palanquin used to carry the son of the nobles or royal court to their circumcision ceremony. This artefact is currently displayed at the Asian Civilisation Museum, Singapore. Credit: Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.

Since there is a blurred line of the definition of Islamic art, there is a need to establish the definition of Islamic art that includes the Malay world.
The perspectives of British orientalists have been deeply ingrained in Malaysian minds and influenced the way visitors think about and respond to the exhibited exhibits, particularly the Malay folk belief system in medicine and divination. British orientalist writings on Malay folk beliefs, particularly Walter William Skeat’s Malay Magic and Richard Winstedt’s The Malay Magician: Being Shaman, Saiva, and Sufi, concluded that the belief is superstitious and highly influenced by Hinduism. Thus, as visitors visit the Malay section during the Al-Tibb: Healing Traditions in Islamic Medical Manuscripts exhibition in 2018, some made a quick assumption that the content of the manuscripts displayed are based on Hinduism practices which are different from Islamic teachings. 

The Malay folk belief system is not as simple as that. The use of charms and incantations in Malay medicine, for instance, is a production of interactions between the Hindu-Buddhist belt countries in Southeast Asia with the neighbouring countries including Malaysia due to trades and migrations.

Kalam Semah, a Buddhist votive tablet discovered in Perlis, Malaysia. It is currently displayed at Kota Kayang Museum, Perlis. Credit: Muhammad Azam Adnan.

Meanwhile, the use of talismanic elements and designs such as the Seal of Solomon and magic square derived from other parts of Islamic world that may have reached to the Malay world through trade, or when the Malays travelled to other parts of Islamic world, especially during pilgrimages where they were introduced to occult science. With the influence of Islamisation, the knowledge of medicine and divination evolved to water down the elements of Hinduism. For example, some of the incantations evolved from using the Batara Guru (Ganesha) to using Islamic terms “Allah” and “Prophet Muhammad” since the healing power comes from Allah and the blessing of the prophet. Nonetheless, not everything in the manuscripts provided by the healer (bomoh) are incantations and charms. Herbs, animals and plant remedies are provided for each illness and depending on the sources of illness, such as from the spirits, then the incantations may be used. Since it is a sensitive topic, curators have to be careful in interpreting when exhibiting related artefacts. 

The political situations in Malaysia have sparked controversies surrounding cultural heritage, causing confusion and misunderstanding among Malaysians regarding the history, meaning, or function of such artefacts. Keris, a Malay traditional weapon, has been overshadowed as an ethno-nationalist symbol and Malaysians are unaware that the keris is actually a shared cultural heritage object, especially among the Hindu and Buddhist Malaysians. The making of keris, especially the hilt, was originally crafted following the Hindu-Buddhist traditions in the royal court of Java, Bali and Southern Sumatra (Noor, 2010, p.31). Although the weapon functions to protect oneself, it also has other important meanings to the Malay sultanates as a sign of sovereignty and being a part of a royal regalia. 

The royal regalia of Johor-Riau-Lingga sultanate consists of the fan-shaped cogan, two keris, a tobacco box and a spitoon. These artefact were displayed at Raffles in Southeast Asia : Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman exhibition 2019. The regalia was seized twice by the Dutch in 1822 and 1911. Currently, the regalia is in the National Museum of Indonesia. Credit: Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.
The book cover of Hikayat Alauddin dengan pelita ajaib = Hikayat Aluddin (in Malay) or The Tale of Alauddin with a Magic Lamp, translated by A.F. von Dewall. Printed in Singapore by Haji Muhammad Siraj bin Haji Muhammad Salih, 1890. ORB.30/5554. The texts written in Jawi mention the title of the book and the name of the translator. Credit: British Library.

Keris is not a symbol of Malay supremacy. Keris is considered a sacred object and various manuscripts describe the art of keris such as the Javanese Kawruh Dhuwung. As Islamisation took place in the Malay world, the keris hilt gradually changed but the residuals of Hindu-Buddhist still exist.
Another recent political controversy involves the Jawi, a writing script evolved from the Arabic alphabet.
The sudden introduction of Jawi calligraphy in the Malay language curriculum in Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools caused outrage, especially to the Chinese-language educationalist (Wui and Wei, 2020). The Jawi script was once the main script used by Malaysians before the introduction of Rumi or Roman script as a result of the modernising agenda.

A company named The General Produce Agency Sendirian (SDN) Berhad (BHD) written in Jawi script followed by Chinese and Roman characters. Credit : Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.
An old cigar shop in Penang. The Jawi script reads: Jaya Kodi Sigar Kompani (Jaya Kodi Cigar Co.). Credit: Siti Marina Mohd Maidin.

The decision for the change was made in the 1954 Kongres Bahasa (Malay Language Congress); since then Jawi has been side-lined for many years. Putting the controversy aside, educational activities related to learning Jawi script in museums received encouraging participation from both Malays and non-Malays community. The use of Jawi script as a tool to disperse knowledge in the Malay world through manuscript production and Jawi calligraphy as a form of art incorporated in various textiles, woodwork and Malay traditional weapons including keris were topics explained to museum visitors. Public engagement between curators and the visitors help to demystify contentious issues. Moreover, cultural heritage is shared among Malaysians and the larger region of Southeast Asia as well.



The Malay world has always been a progressive cosmopolitan world with trade ports and cities established along its coasts. The movements and interactions among the people of the Malay world and outside the archipelagos have enriched local knowledge, developed various forms of crafts and become home to many ethnicities. In a multicultural society, the policy makers and bureaucrats implicated the function of a museum as an instrument in uniting a nation. Museums, especially national museums, need to change the single race-centric narratives by including marginalised ethnicities in museum narratives and acknowledging their role in nation-building. Since each country in the Malay world has gained independence, it is necessary to look back at the colonial narratives that have shaped our views of this region and free ourselves from those narratives.


[1] Asian Civilisation Museum, 2022. “Book Launch: Raffles Revisited: Essays on Collecting and Colonialism in Java, Singapore and Sumatra”, [Facebook], 9 March, Available HERE (Accessed 18 April 2022).
[2] Ahmad Fuad Osman, “Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project”, Available HERE (Accessed 7 April 2022).
[3] The Penang State Museum has been closed since 2017 for restoration.
[4] In the article, the Penang State Museum director, Ms.Haryani Mohamed said: “If you destroy the evidence, how are you going to tell that there was Francis Light here before?”, while the Chairman of State Tourism and Creative Economy, Mr. Yeoh Soon Hin said: “Whether pro-colonialism or not, we’ve to respect history.” and “Actually, we should know the history and let the next generation know that we had been colonised before. So, Asian countries must improve themselves so that they won’t be colonised again. We can learn from history,”. See Admin, 2020. “Francis Light’s bronze statue undergoes conservation”, Buletin Mutiara, 27 October, Available HERE (Accessed 7 April 2022).
[5] BorneoTalk, 2021. “Niah Skeletal Remains returns home after half a century”, Available HERE (Accessed 22 Apr. 2022).
[6] Available HERE (Accessed 29 April 2022).


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Siti Marina Mohd Maidin works as a curator at Malaysia’s Islamic Arts Museum. She graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in pharmacology. In 2018, she was the lead curator for the museum’s Al-Tibb: Healing Traditions in Islamic Medical Manuscripts exhibition. Her research interests include Southeast Asian history, history of science and Islamic art.