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Notes on K. S. Maniam’s “The New Diaspora”

Updated January 3, 2013.

K. S. Maniam’s essay, The New Diaspora, first took the form of a keynote address for a conference at the University of Southern Queensland in 1996. It was published the following year in a book, called Globalisation and Regional Communities: Geoeconomic, Sociocultural and Security Implications for Australia, from the same university.

These notes take the form of a Q&A, in the sense that I posed questions to the text and sought an answer within the text as well. Something like playing chess against yourself. 


What is K. S. Maniam trying to say? He says, “This essay is primarily concerned with exploring the problems of internationalising community literatures, using the multicultural situation in Malaysia as a sort of model.”

What are community literatures? I think he means ethnic literature: Malay literature, Chinese literature, Indian literature. But his discussion includes “a work originally written in English by a Malaysian,” which does not fall comfortably into these categories.

So he’s exploring the problems of internationalizing community literatures? Yes, but he goes on: “Some Malaysian literary works have, of course, already gained international access through translations and through the languages the writers themselves have used.” So when he talks about “internationalizing community literature,” he’s talking about bringing ethnic literature to an international audience, which inevitably means translating the work into English.

How does literature find an international audience? Maniam recognizes the role that individuals and institutions play in this process, but considers international cultural exchange programs as “more reliable,” citing one such exchange between Malaysia and Australia (perhaps the one that Salleh Ben Joned participated in). The cultural exchange program entailed the translation of Australian works into Malay and vice versa.

What are the shortcomings of this process? Maniam decries one aspect of this process: it makes literary works available “in a physical, touristy way.” A reader’s engagement with a particular body of work can only go so deep. Because of their limitations, all cultural exchanges fall short.

What is so physical or touristy about that? The touristy aspect may refer to the fact that a reader is only permitted a superficial engagement with community literatures.

And physical? Perhaps he’s using it in the sense of a “physical” relationship. Just sex, no emotional attachment.

So what? For Maniam, the greater concern is the message that community literatures are sending of their particular cultures. He notes that the questions are “endless,” but he singles out three:

  • What images of the individuals or the cultures within a multicultural society are offered to readers in any part of the world? 
  • What relationships are to be found between these cultures? 
  • What boundary-breaking experiences are dramatised in the fiction?

He seems to be privileging inter-cultural connections with these questions. Do international audiences get a sense that these cultures are silos, separate and distinct from their own cultures? Or do they get a sense that their culture is intimately linked to culture of the community literatures?

It all depends on the perceptions that cultures have of themselves and of other cultures. Maniam attempts to examine these perceptions, specifically our perceptions. This will give us info about how communities might behave in the future, thus making the internationalizing of their literary works more valuable.

How does he make this point? His examination takes the following shape:

  1. The Role of Histories
  2. The Contextualising Philosophy
  3. The Foundations of a New Diaspora
  4. Concluding Comments

The Role of Histories

What’s so important about the role of histories? Maniam is saying that we have to understand the formative periods of a country and the impact of these periods on communities and individuals. If we can do so, then the realities of history

can often be intercepted in such a way as to accommodate the many fears, anxieties, ambitions and visions of cultures and societies.

What are “the realities of history”? Perhaps these are moments of trauma experienced by one or more ethnic community. For instance, the New Village program affected a disproportionate number of Chinese, over 80 percent of the almost 600,000 persons, but rural Malays were also targeted. 

So what? It sounds like he’s saying that “fears, anxieties, ambitions and visions of cultures” are assailed by the “realities of history.” We can accomodate these “fears, anxieties, ambitions and visions” by understanding history, giving a “deeper and more complex nature” to man. 

So what? This accomodation constitutes a form of interference, which Maniam questions. (That is, Maniam questions the ability of a persons to influence cultural movements.) But he considers it, along with the “historical and literary perceptions in the communities” such interference is likely to create.

So what? Maniam focus on three periods:

  • The immediate post-World War II years 
  • The immediate post-Independence years
  • The period extending from the 1970s to the present

What’s so special about “the immediate post-World War II years”? The Japanese occupation rubbed Malaysians’ faces in the Other’s face. Although the Japanese were saying, “Asia for the Asians,” the occupation gave Malaysians a very clear idea of what they were not. Perhaps the occupation introduced Malaysians to a parody of identity, since their own identity had to be suppressed, in the interests of survival. This “enforced obeisance” resulted in the motions of patriotism and none of the feeling. 

The occupation also shook Malaysians’ faith in the British and that faith eroded further as time went on. Back in the day, the British were a nexus between the many ethnic communities. As their influence waned, communities had to forge relationships among each other. The so-called social contract arose from this arrangement.

What’s so special about “the immediate post-Independence years”? As Maniam puts it, “There had to come into play a sense of mutual respect and regard for each other.” The social contract, or this sense that the Chinese and Indian communities owed the Malay community a debt of gratitude for letting them stay in the country, was the birth of nationalism. The search for national identity began, led by the “government and the relevant bodies,” and the Malay language was instrumental in this search. In addition to linguistic policies, economic and educational policies were also introduced 

Maniam believes that these policies were largely successful. Bahasa Malay was successfully rebranded as Bahasa Malaysia and its use is pervasive: “from its use in official letters, radio and television broadcasts, through to commercial areas, and the courts.” Non-Malay students are excelling in Malay studies, outperforming even “the immediate post-Independence generation.” The shift from a colonial syllabus to a “postcolonial and nationalist” one is also seen as a sign of success. And “more than a measure of success has been achieved” with economic policies designed to “correct the imbalance in the economic standing of the various communities.”

After the May 13 incident, the goal became to “create a common Malaysian race.” Maniam implies that we failed to reach it, and wants to explore the reasons for the failure and the “socio-cultural boundaries and territories” defined by its policies.

The Contextualising Philosophy

What is Maniam saying? Maniam believes that the Malaysians believe in the saying, “live and let live,” praising it as a “constructive attitude.” Indeed, “the need for greater tolerance and a sense of togetherness” are seen as the remedy for racial unrest, referring to the May 13 riots again, which is calls “a social ill.” Tolerance and togetherness are the “twin elements” that “have been gradually woven into a pragmatic philosophy for living within a multicultural society.”

Maniam coins the term “accomodative space” for a space where Malaysians can peacefully co-exist. “Accomodative space” contains “the sense that the three communities have experienced history in different ways, and that this would fashion different attitudes among them.” And Maniam hazards a guess what these attitudes are: “migrant communities” are “materialistic in their approach to the country,” the “indigenous community” is “more cultural” in its approach. Can these attitudes be reconciled?

What is a “sense of togetherness”? It is the feeling that the people of the country are living and working for a common objective; that they are seen to be living side-by-side, achieving goals side-by-side.”

So what? This sense of togetherness is the basis of one of these socio-cultural barriers. The idea that this sense has to be protected at all costs, or else another May 13 might occur. Maniam calls this “a necessary barrier.”

Why does he refer to this sense of togetherness as a “side-by-side divide”?

What’s so important about this “necessary barrier”? Paradoxically, Malaysians feel excluded from this “sense of togetherness.” Maniam cites a letter in The Sunday Star that says all this talk about “national integration and racial unity” is just talk, and “hardly any effort” is made in “creating a Bangsa Malaysia.”

Maniam says the letter “identifies” the writer’s “desire… to be assimilated into a much more seamless Malaysian society.” Maniam also says that the letter implies that ethnic communities “have become cultural enclaves.”

What does a “more seamless Malaysian society” mean? Perhaps he means a Malaysian society that is more free from conflict.

What is a “cultural enclave”? An enclave is “a portion of territory within or surrounded by a larger territory whose inhabitants are culturally or ethnically distinct.” Maniam is saying that ethnic communities have become islands. Perhaps going so far as to imply that the Chinese and Indian communities are stranded in a Malay sea.

To illustrate his point, Maniam quotes a fragment of a poem by Usman Awang, dedicated to his friend, the leftist politician Dr. M. K. Rajakumar. Usman feels that he is driven further apart from his friend by bumiputra status and “The one, free / nation we imagined, / Remains a distant truth.”

Malaysians share common goals. They wish for “economic and materialistic security and success, the desire for relatively high educational achievements, but there isn’t a common reality accessible to its citizens, who come from different cultural backgrounds.”

What is he saying? Maniam is saying that the realities of its citizens depends on the ethnic community they come from.

What is the excerpt from Maniam’s short story, “Haunting of the Tiger,” about? In the passage an Indian guy and a Malay guy are trying to catch a tiger. The two are trying to lure it out of hiding, but the tiger won’t come out. The Malay guy postulates that there is are “foreign” smells that the tiger doesn’t like, and the tiger won’t come out until they are gone. It turns out that the smells are coming from the Indian guy, from “the clothes you wear, the thoughts you think,” says the Malay. The Indian counters that there is no reason that clothes and ideas have to fit in with his surroundings, he says, “I only want to break out from my father’s hold on me.” The Malay understands this as something foreign, as if the Indian brought a purpose and a way of thinking with him. There’s no way the Indian can catch the tiger. But as a chameleon can adapt to his environment, the Indian says, “I can make the leap.” Perhaps suggesting that the Indian can adapt his purpose and way of thinking to his new surroundings.

What’s the significance of the “Haunting the Tiger” excerpt? Maniam says there are two ways to identity with the land. One is the way of the tiger, “the continual and ritualistic immersion into the spirit of the land.” The other is the way of the chameleon, “the blending into whatever economic, intellectual and social landscapes that are available.” This echoes the attitudes ascribed to migrant and indigenous communities.

So what? Maniam is trying to say something about how Indians assimilate into Malaysian culture. No Malaysian culture has evolved yet, and rather than adopt Malay culture, a culture unquestionably un-foreign, as his own “he has to cling to an inherited sense of culture, that is, Indian culture.” He yearns to make the leap to a common culture, a Malaysian culture, and “he dies unfulfilled.”

What does this mean? The foundation of a common culture may be “pragmatic tolerance.” “The citizen and the communities” benefit from pragmatic tolerance in the form of a sense of respect and “it has brought the stability needed for a sustained economic growth.” The trade-off is that cultural boundaries become fixed. This leads to territorial disputes between ethnic communities (X is Malay, not Indian) as well as “cultural entrapment,” a “reluctance” to sympathize with other cultures.

Foundations of a new diaspora

What is the “new diaspora”? See below.

What is a diaspora? It originally refers to Jews living outside of Israel, but has come to mean any ethnic community that lives outside of its country of origin.

When Maniam uses the word “periphery,” is he using the centre/periphery distinction of post-colonial studies? He does. “The changing periphery causes alterations at the centre, if there is still a centre.”

What is the centre and what is the periphery in his analogy? The centre is Malay, the periphery is Chinese/Indian.

Maniam says, “We now talk of diasporas, and the double or triple spaces temporal, cultural, spatial they occupy.” Who is “we”?

When Maniam says, “It is no longer possible to retain the view that you come from a single-strand dominant culture,” what does he mean by “retaining the view”? When he says, “it is no longer possible to retain the view,” he means, “you can’t hold on any longer to the view….”

When Maniam says, “a country that supports cultural purity and loyalty, directly or indirectly, may invite certain risks,” is he saying that a country that supports these things are taking risks? More importantly, these cultural policies lead to isolation.

What’s so bad about isolation? Isolation leads to a country “closing off… its borders of awareness,” when the global trend, we live in an “age of information technology and cybersurfing,” is the opposite. It is better to use technology to inform and educate than to control and perpetuate “unrealistic images of ourselves.”

One risk invited by countries that support “cultural purity and loyalty” is the “isolation that a celebratory sense can bring to that culture and society,” what is the “celebratory sense”? Perhaps Maniam views these countries as celebrating these cultures, but not others.

When Maniam says, “It can be seen from the foregoing that Malaysia does contain the potential to be a model for internationalising communities,” what is the previous part he is referring to? If he is referring to the previous paragraph, it is hard to see this potential. In the previous section, he made the case for “pragmatic tolerance.” It is easier to see the potential here.

What is Maniam talking about when he says “Malaysia does contain the potential to be a model for internationalising communities”? Recall that this essay is about “exploring the problems of internationalising community literatures,” which I take to mean exploring the problems of finding an international audience for ethnic literature. Here Maniam is talking about a model for making communities international. It isn’t clear to me what’s the link between finding an international audience for ethnic literature and making Malaysian society more cosmopolitan.

What does it mean to make communities international? Maniam says we have already been internationalized through trade and tourism. But we must go further towards cosmopolitanism. The tool that helps ordinary citizens in that journey is literature.

So how do we, as a society, become international? Maniam suggests two ways to do it. This might give us a clue to what he means. One way is by “satisfying the ever-present curiosity about how individual communities have remained uninfluenced or retained their purity within a multicultural situation.” For instance,

You read and experience Malay literature, either in the original language or through translations, to enter the Malay sense of the world; you do the same with the Tionghua (Chinese) and Tamil literatures produced in the country.

For a new reader, “the experience of reading such texts would be somewhat like Columbus taking his first step into a foreign land; the exhilarating sighting and entry into a whole new world.” However, this approach requires the reader to suppress her critical judgment.

The other way is by investigating “how the various communities relate to one another within that multicultural structure.” An important part of this way is “a coincidence of impulse in both the reader and the writer,” coincidence of impulse seeming to refer to how reader and writer begin to ask the same questions about a literary work. (When he talks about writers, I don’t know if he’s talking about the author of the literary work, or writers-as-readers (a writer who reads a literary work in the hopes of producing more literary work).)

But to fully understand the coincidence of impulse, Maniam explores “minority perceptions.” Maniam says that Malaysians are growing more dissatisfied with “literary activity that is concerned only with a single community or monocultural focus or outlook.” And he quotes A. Samad Said to make his point: “Malay literature has not come of age. It seems to be operating within its own community, it is too sheltered and there is no free development.” Maniam agrees with this statement, adding that the statement holds true for Chinese and Tamil literature in Malaysia. Maniam decries this attitude as “exclusivist.” The “writer and socialist” Kassim Ahmad, Maniam says, attributes this kind of thinking to “cultural imperialism,” which lies at the heart of this attitude.

In opposition to this “cultural exclusivist” attitude, Maniam outlines the concept of “cultural patriotism,” with the help of Kassim Ahmad, which implies ”a faithful representation of the realities found in the multicultural country.” If we could get rid of this cultural exclusivism somehow, then we would have “a more realistic and accommodative literature.”

Why are minority perceptions important to the process of society becoming more international? Perhaps Maniam sees these perceptions as a barrier to becoming international.

When Maniam says, “The literary situation in Malaysia suggests two ways through which communities came become internationalised,” what is the “literary situation”? I assume he is referring to the part of Malaysian society that deals with the production of literature.

In his discussion of Kassim Ahmad, Maniam says that Ahmad is in agreement with the “non-ethnic minority group.” What is a “non-ethnic minority group”? In the following paragraph, Maniam talks about

a community, comprising literary and non-literary people, that is concerned with not only the way literature is defined and written, but also with the quality of thought and life that can be made available to the populace. While it is difficult to find a term that describes community adequately, it is not so difficult to identify its hopes and ambitions.

He adds, “The members of this new minority community come from the various racial groups in this country.” This group doesn’t believe in “pragmatic tolerance.” They believe that “the society of the future is already here,” a society “seen as comprising individual cultural bases developed from several responses to the country’s history.” This group believes in a “more pragmatic and constructive approach” to history, seeing it in “a context that would include all the communities’ contributions to the development of the nation.”

Since this is “a minority without power,” it cannot hope to influence anyone. Yet, “it chooses to negotiate through the more persuasive imaging of a vision in the present, both through its lifestyles and literature.” In other words, the power of their vision carries rhetorical force. It goes further than cosmopolitanism, members of this group are “partially defined by their culture,” but “they inhabit different, more objective intellectual, cultural and imaginative spaces.” For instance, they are “exiles in their own homelands.”

Maniam draws a parallel between the distance that a member of the new diaspora, a so-called exile-at-home, holds their own cultures and “the distance that migrants put between themselves and their own cultures when they live in another country.” He argues that this distance is constructive because

it compels the migrant to live out, in memory, the culture he has been forced to leave behind. And often the culture that comes filtered through that distance is a remembered and strengthened one because the sense of uprootedness that accompanies the migrant allows him to choose only those aspects that can be effectively merged into the lifestyle he adopts in the new land.

Migrants have to adapt to life in a new country. An exile-at-home “is not only aware of his own culture but also of the cultures around him, and of those inherited through his education and reading.” As a result, he occupies several cultural and imaginative spaces. Finally, unlike a migrant, an exile-at-home has a “tendency to expose himself to and assimilate various forms of philosophical and literary discourses.”

What does it mean that an exile-at-home occupies several “cultural spaces”?

Concluding comments

How does the new diaspora internationalise Malaysian society? The “new diasporic man” lives in a mental and imaginative space, which evolved “from the recognition that man has been artificially categorised into a monocultural, ethnic and political being when multiplicity is his true nature.” Maniam says, “The writing intended to reveal the true nature of any society must… come from this diaspora.” And in revealing the true nature of society, we succeed in internationalising Malaysian society and in turn we succeed in internationalizing Malaysian community literatures.

What is a “cultural patriot”? Also called a “cultural loyalist,” Maniam uses the term pejoratively. They practice the “culture of fear.”

Earlier on, he puts Kassiam Ahmad’s use of the term into context,

The “cultural patriotism” referred to here has to be taken in a broader sense: it implies, I like to believe, a faithful representation of the realities found in the multicultural country. It would embrace the depiction of all the available cultural realities, major and minor, and even a review of these two terms.

When Maniam talks about the “broader sense” of the term, he means Kassim Ahmad is using the term in an unconventional way. This should be apparent, because of the fact that Ahmad uses the term in relation to promoting “international-humanist culture.”

In his conclusion, Maniam says that “The cultural patriot may want to insist upon the tiger approach to living within a multicultural situation.” This is in opposition to the new diasporic man, who adopts a “chameleon outlook”

What are the tiger and chameleon approaches again? The tiger way is full immersion into the “spirit of the land.” The chameleon way is to blend in with the landscape.

An example of new diasporic man is the Australian writer David Malouf. Who is he? He’s a novelist and poet who won the IMPAC Dublin Literary award in 1996, which is “open to any single work of fiction, regardless of the author’s nationality,” according to this news article. He won for his novel Remembering Babylon, which made the Booker shortlist in 1993. He has also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Prix Femina Étranger and other literary prizes.

Unsurprisingly, Malouf is preoccupied by the problem of Australian identity. From the article:

What interests me” - about Australian “identity”, and the settlers’ early history - “is what it has to tell us about what Australians have always been like, how adaptable and quick to learn and clever at finding new ways to live in a new place.”

He warms to his theme. “Did you know that within three years, in a place where no European had ever been, where they knew nothing about the climate or the season, where the locals could tell them nothing, and could give them no food brought in from outside, they were supporting the population? And I think we’re still like that - experimental and adaptable. But we don’t tell one another that often enough.