In his ground-breaking study of the interplay of religion and politics within the processes which groups use to define themselves and their place in the world, Clive Kessler (1978) focused on a community of Malay peasants in Kelantan, Malaysia. He was interested especially in the need to understand the articulation of Islam within this community, not in a context of “a mysteriously disembodied presence” but as “an idiom whereby people may shape and express their own experience of themselves both as the products and the producers of their society's history” (Kessler 1978, p. 244). This chapter takes Kessler's insight as a starting point (Kessler 1978, pp. 17–20), much as I did previously in my own community-based study of local politics (Shamsul 1986). The present chapter, however, looks at a different sector as the prism through which to examine a group as both the creator and the object of its identity formation activities. The selected collectivity for this chapter is the élite community in Malaysia (and previously, Malaya) of “knowledge constructors” or the “intelligentsia”, such as colonial administrators, travellers, scholars, politicians, nationalists, and government officials. It is these people who, over time, have been responsible for providing an “idiom” or “ruling idea” that has shaped the way Malaysians express their experience, write history, and present knowledge and truth, as well as sustain mystiques and prolong myths.
As noted above, if Kessler was interested in a community of Malay peasants, I am interested in a loosely-structured community of intelligentsia (of local and foreign membership). Both groups, however, play the same role in society but at different levels, as producers and products of the society's history. If, on the one hand, the peasants survived on an open system of wisdom-making, the intelligentsia, on the other, survives on constructed “ruling ideas”. Both the peasants and the intellectuals have shown themselves as powerful influences and have had lasting impacts upon the surrounding society at large.