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BOOK REVIEW: Critics of AB Sulaimans resonant book, Sensitive Truths in

Malaysia: A Critical Appraisal of the Malay Problem will find much to disagree
with. They will lay bare the partisan nature of his writing and hone in on the
fact that he disputes the notion of Ketuanan Melayu as anything other than
an ideological creation meant to unify a disparate community at odds with a
changing world and country.Admirers of this book will find much to agree with.
No doubt, they will find comfort in his simpatico thinking normally exhibited
by reasonable Malays.
The term soul searching is often described in connection with writings such
as these. However, I find another phrase more useful. What AB Sulaiman has
done with this book is lay bare his Malay soul.To be clear, the writer takes
great pains to frame his ideas in a universal context, mindful of the fact that
ethnicity and culture, is what divides us as Malaysians, so his Malay soul is a
reference of mine.At the heart of this book rests the examination of Malay
thinking. Sulaiman approaches this subject as a rationalist.
To quibble over the provocative nature of the term would be pedantic. Suffice
to say what he attempts to do is examine the two main foundational elements
of Malay identity, which are Islam and ethnicity.Unlike many other writers who
start dissecting this issue from an outsider perspective, the writer resolutely
deals with the problem, and delves into the numerous problematic issues as
an insider.Approaching any issue from an insider perspective throws up
various intellectual problems. For instance, one could be too sympathetic to
the subject and objectivity could be constrained.
Alternatively, the observer could mitigate or worse dismiss issues that an
outsider perspective would consider germane to the subject in
discussion.Readers can be assured that Sulaimans examination suffers from
none of this. The writer may approach the intellectual and philosophical
foundations in which he bases his discourse on as a layman but he is
meticulous in defining the terms of his arguments and the thinking behind
them.Best lottery drawBeginning in the preface where Sulaiman writes, the
Malay also claim that his society is unique, the only one where all its members
are also Muslims. Apparently, not even Arabs who founded Islam can claim
this singularity based on an understanding that many Arabs are
Christians.Being Malay and Muslim (thereby a Malay-Muslim) is therefore the
best lottery draw any member of the human race could ever wish for the
writer begins his and our journey deep into the meaning of what it means to
be Malay from a personal and constitutional viewpoint.
And in examining the consequence of winning the best lottery draw, the writer
turns his curious mind on the arduous task of defining philosophical (Western)
and spiritual (Islamic) components in the cultural dissonance within the Malay
community.Sulaiman uses history as a context to explore the evolving cultural
mindset of his majority community. Readers are cautioned that those
expecting knee-jerk liberal platitudes would be sorely disappointed.
In a nuanced tone, Sulaiman explores the issue of identity and culture, which
shaped the Malay community throughout the decades.
His conclusion that the reactionary forces within the Malay community hold
sway for political and social reasons is arrived at with painstaking research
and a empathic understanding of the variables at play.A fascinating aspect of
this book and perhaps unusual in a book concerning itself with religion
specifically Islam, is that the author references popular culture as a means to

humanise and transmit his rather philosophical questions.An example of this

would be when in the chapter on religion, in which the writer attempts to
define the commonality of various religions as a means of transmitting the
idea of universality, Sulaiman references the noted atheist polemist Richard
Dawkins.This example underscored two points. The first, is that the author is
curious enough not to discard arguments which would seem anathema to his
own religious viewpoint but more importantly, the second point, that the
author is an example of how a Muslim is not so easily swayed from their
professed religion.Depending on your partisan bent, certain readers would be
appalled by the progressive leanings of this author. However by no means is
this book a definite tome on the inner workings of the Malay mind and should
not be read as such.Reigniting a dormant discourseThis book is one in a long
line of subaltern narratives that seeks to transmit the idea of a polychromatic
Malay discourse that has been deliberately hidden by establishment forces
seeking conformity at any cost.What we need to understand is that the real
aim of this book is to reignite a long dormant discourse that if allowed to
flourish will only enrich the Malay community. There are many ideas contained
in this book that could, nay, should be challenged.What this book should
evoke is not hostility but the same curiosity that the author has and
willingness to articulate ideas that could lead many other Malays to join in the
discourse offering different perspectives of their own.This book is a personal
journey into what it means to be Malay in the changing face of Malaysia. It is a
courageous exploration of a community at odds with itself and Islam but
ultimately a hopeful sensitive narrative of coming to terms with the quixotic
dream of a Malaysian identity.The profound beauty of this book is that the
author stares into the mirror as a Malay and discovers a multiracial face
looking back at him. In the end, what non-Malay readers should take away
from this book is the idea that sensitive truths do not reside in the other but
in each of our own communities. AB Sulaiman has taken the first tentative
step in reminding us of this fact.