A defensive psyche is colonialism’s legacy

It has become more and more palpable to scholars that the geography of a place, with the attendant peculiarities of terrain, climate, water supply, transport, flora and fauna, as well as the nature of adjacent regions, goes a long way towards explaining human history. South East Asia – and Penang – is no different.

Continental conditions create polities and mindsets that vary remarkably from those found in maritime and riverine areas. Despite the nation-state straitjacket that territories that make up the Federation of Malaysia are today forced into by historical contingencies, the underlying socio-economic structure and primary acculturating forces instigated by our archipelagic geography shine through quite clearly.

Renowned South-East Asianist Anthony Reid, when studying what he termed the “Age of Commerce” in the region, that is from 1450 to 1680, found that cities of that period had a distinctive character:
1. They were culturally extremely diverse, and comprised distinct quarters for many different groups;
2. Their population density allowed for thousands to gather for festivals and other celebrations;
3. The benign and generous environment produced leisure classes that put substantial resources into the performing arts.

In short, urbanised cultural diversity proclaimed through yearly festivals and rituals was the given state of affairs.

Such urban diversity is sometimes attributed to the “archipelagic-ness” of the region concerned. Most notable are the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. This tendency for urban centres to be culturally diverse in places like the Baltic Sea or the Yellow Sea is probably mellowed out by the long and cold winters.

During the “Age of Colonialism”, which for the English started with their settling in Penang in 1786, trade routes were secured and cultural walls constructed to serve and protect the interests of each colonial power.

The adjacent civilisations of India and China, which framed and influenced the region inbetween them, were slowly overshadowed during this period, especially where economics and philosophy were concerned.

As colonialism matured, cultural diversity began to be considered anomalous. The modernist habit of perceiving nations, races, religions and other human categorisations as essential entities began to spread in the region, often because of colonial and administrative expediencies. This configured what is certainly the strongest legacy that colonialism has left behind among its victims – a strong sense of passiveness and defensiveness (the latter expressed as nationalism).

But now, in what must be called the “Age of Pacific Asia”, a mindset change is taking place. In cities created during the colonial era, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, the ability to embrace present geo-economic dynamics has been astounding. Penang certainly has the same potential, if it can think regionally, and not only nationally.

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