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1 Article Title Colonialism, violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia: The Maria
Hertogh controversy and its aftermath
2 Article Sub- Title
3 Article Copyright -
Year
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
(This will be the copyright line in the final PDF)
4 Journal Name Contemporary Islam
5
Corresponding
Author
Family Name
Kersten
6 Particle
7 Given Name
Carool
8 Suffix
9 Organization
King’s College London
10 Division
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
11 Address Strand Campus, Chesham Building, London WC2R
2LS, UK
12
e-mail carool.kersten@kcl.ac.uk
13
Schedule
Received

14 Revised

15
Accepted
16 Abstract
17 Keywords
separated by ' - '
18 Foot note
information
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4 Colonialism, violence and Muslims in Southeast
5 Asia: The Maria Hertogh controversy and its aftermath
6 Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied. London and New York,
7 Routledge, 2009, xix, 185 pp, ISBN 978-0-415-48594-4
8 Carool Kersten
9
10
#
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
11
12 Writing about episodes dealing with minority issues and violence in the recent
13 history of Singapore can be a contentious issue, as is shown by the way the latest
14 publication of Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied on the Maria Hertogh controversy
15 (1950–53) came about. This concerns the sad case of a girl separated from her
16 Dutch-Eurasian parents during the war years in the Dutch East Indies. She was then
17 raised as a Muslim by a Malay acquaintance in Kelantan and subsequently married
18 at age thirteen to a scion of a wealthy land-owning family. When British and Dutch
19 government officials arranged for her to be returned to her natural parents in 1950,
20 these interventions caused wide uproar in Muslim circles throughout Southeast Asia,
21 leading to unprecedented violent riots in Singapore where her case went to court.
22 Even more than 50 years after the event, the issue was still deemed too sensitive
23 to open the local archives to Syed Aljunied. Consequently this prolific young
24 Singaporean historian decided to pursue his project in London instead. Colonialism,
25 Violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia is a revised version of his Ph.D. thesis
26 submitted at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2008. In this study the
27 incident and its aftermath are used as ‘a prism through which Southeast Asian pasts
28 may be better understood’ (p. 7), alleging that the ways in which British colonial
29 authorities implemented the law and managed religions in the post-war period were
30 governed by ‘European assumptions and attitudes towards gender, childhood and
31 native legal systems’ (p. 5). Singapore’s Muslim community, on their part, perceived
32 British behaviour as an infringement of their legal rights, resulting in immediate
33 violence and years of lingering discontent.
34 Aljunied’s refractions attempt to do more than giving a mere recount of the events
35 and their causes. His assessment of their effects is used to offer a fresh interpretation
36 of British colonial strategies emerging from a ‘confluence of global forces and local
37 dynamics’ (p. 3). By raising questions on how to conceive of British imperialism
Cont Islam
DOI 10.1007/s11562-009-0110-2
C. Kersten (*)
Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London, Strand Campus,
Chesham Building, London WC2R 2LS, UK
e-mail: carool.kersten@kcl.ac.uk
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38 amidst Southeast Asian decolonisation, he seeks to develop a more ‘nuanced and
39 sophisticated understanding of colonial management of riots and mass violence’
40 (p. 4), providing a refinement of ‘the corpus of literature pertaining to minorities in
41 Southeast Asia, particularly Muslim minorities under colonial rule’ by presenting a
42 multi-layered narrative that is ‘polyphonic’ and ‘heteroglossic’ in the Bakhtinian
43 sense and accommodates ‘the political and the personal, the local and the global,
44 the lived experiences and discourses of men and women, the oppressors and the
45 oppressed, the victors and the vanquished’ (p. 7). For this purpose various forms of
46 resistance, ranging from active administrative participation, petitioning and other
47 discursive engagements, passivity and silence, ‘strategic desertion’ (p. 5) and
48 outright violence, are examined as responses to the five strategies employed by the
49 British and which also provide the headings for the book’s five analytical chapters:
50 proscription, surveillance, self-criticism, reconciliation and reform.
51 Following a brief sketch of the situation of Britain’s possessions in Southeast Asia
52 and the composition of the Muslim community in Singapore (which was far from
53 homogeneous whether considered in terms of ethnicity, political affiliation or
54 ideology, class and geographical location), Aljunied also lays out the legal
55 ramifications of the Maria Hertogh court case and the girl’s subsequent transfer to
56 The Netherlands even before the case had gone up for appeal. It was this course of
57 events, involving the British colonial administration and judiciary, Dutch diplomats,
58 and Catholic interest groups, which triggered outrage not only among Muslims in
59 Singapore, neighbouring Malaya and Indonesia, but as far afield as Pakistan and
60 Saudi Arabia. What interests the author in the mass violence that broke out in
61 Singapore is how this exposed the ‘structural vulnerabilities of the colonial system’
62 (p. 22).
63 The primary strategy of the British to stem the assault on their political authority
64 in their key Southeast Asian dominion was ‘proscription’ or the use of fear as a
65 political tool. Through a combination of forceful repression of outbreaks of violence
66 leaving people dead on both sides, the arrest of both perpetrators and a number of
67 high-profile members of the Muslim community suspected of anti-British agitation,
68 and clamping down on the press, the administration tried to bring the situation back
69 under its control. But the precarious position of British officialdom became evident
70 during the subsequent trials where it became clear that white collar workers,
71 including employees of the colonial administration, were implicated in the violence.
72 At the same time, negative reactions from government circles in the London
73 Metropole to perceived heavy-handedness in quelling the unrest, the use of
74 preventive detention, and curtailment of press freedom only added to the
75 predicament of senior British functionaries in Singapore.
76 The unexpectedly widespread and high levels of violence made the British
77 security apparatus realise that Islamic-inspired threats to colonial rule were not just
78 the work of foreign agencies but also emanated from the inside. In response
79 intelligence services intensified their surveillance and began infiltrating ‘Muslim
80 gatherings of all kinds’ (p. 46). The resulting rich body of intelligence reports
81 evinces ‘that a considerable number of spies and informers consisted of Muslims of
82 all classes and backgrounds’. Reading these sources ‘against the grain’ and searching
83 for both the said and unsaid, the author attempts to ‘reconstruct the context within
84 which the surveillance of the local populace had been conducted’ (p. 47). This more
Cont Islam
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85 hands-off strategy was also used to gain insight in the machinations of Malay
86 organisations such as UMNO, to manage the delicate diplomatic situation with
87 neighbouring Indonesia, and to monitor Panislamist tendencies among Muslim
88 students returning from studies abroad.
89 In the fifth chapter entitled ‘Self-criticism’, Aljunied explores both structured and
90 formalised fact-finding missions and inquests and more contingent forms of soul-
91 searching by the British in regards to the handling of the Maria Hertogh riots. To my
92 mind the emerging picture, which reveals how colleagues turned on each other, can
93 be more aptly described as a search for a scapegoat, whereby ranking police officers
94 were made to bear the brunt in order to shield those holding ultimate political
95 responsibility from the consequences of their mismanagement.
96 The intricate relationships between Singapore’s various ethnic and religious
97 communities and the government are the subject of the sixth chapter, which seeks to
98 ‘appreciate the interplay and manipulation of strategies that sought not only to
99 discipline the colonised subjects, but also to reconcile them to continued colonial
100 rule’ (p. 87). It shows that repression was set off by reconciliatory overtures intended
101 to demonstrate that the British were not insensitive to Islam and eager not to appear
102 too pro-Dutch to their Muslim subjects, while simultaneously regaining the
103 confidence of the European, Eurasian and other communities in Singapore.
104 Pacifying the Muslims turned out to be the most difficult part, as the Muslim press
105 remained very suspicious and critical of the British and their select Muslim
106 collaborators. Efforts to establish an interfaith dialogue, meanwhile, were frustrated
107 by the failure to obtain the crucial participation of the Catholics. Aljunied’s depiction
108 is further enriched by examinations of the British policy on financial compensation
109 for losses incurred during the riots and their handling of the screening of a
110 controversial film on the Biblical story of David and Batsheba.
111 The more long-term consequences of the Maria Hertogh incident are assessed
112 in the final chapter on the British reforms of the police force, education for
113 Singapore’s Muslim community, in particular the Malay contingent, and—perhaps
114 most important—the legal framework regulating marriage and adoption. These
115 structural measures were triggered by an event in which, as Aljunied argues in his
116 conclusion:
117 ‘For the first time since the re-establishment of British colonial rule in post-war
118 Southeast Asia, Malay-Muslims who were previously regarded as peaceful and loyal
119 subjects of the Crown had taken it upon themselves to commit serious acts of
120 aggression and murder against Europeans and Eurasians. The seeds of such rage had
121 been germinated by the British failure to address the influence of radical ideas, the
122 effects of socio-economic marginalisation, press sensationalisation of the legal
123 controversy and the ineffectiveness of the police force’ (p. 127).
124 With its careful examination and assessment of these various factors, Colonialism,
125 Violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia forms an valuable contribution to a growing
126 body of scholarship on the recent history of Singapore and the role of religion in
127 Southeast Asia in which regional scholars are actively participating. Holding
128 important lessons for the understanding of contemporary Islam in other urbanised
129 pluralist settings beyond the Southeast Asia city-state of Singapore, this book will
130 therefore not only appeal to historians but also to Islamicists, legal anthropologists
131 and other social scientists with an interest in Southeast Asian Islam.
132
Cont Islam
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