Colonial Histories in the Construction of Malaya as a Nation within the British Empire in the Twentieth Century and its Implications

Mr Wei Wen Wong1

1The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Archipelagic Southeast Asia provides a good example of how historical boundaries and the identities of nation states were inherited from the borders that were drawn by colonial powers. Colonial historians played a crucial part in this process by writing the histories of these regions, which served as a base for the national histories of the countries that would emerge out of these colonial territories. I examine how this development occurred in Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) by analysing the historical writings of the prominent British scholar-administrator, Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt (1878– 1966), and how the region’s historical narratives reflect the framework that he established. His narratives were essentially adapted and localised in Malaysia by local historians, partly because they served the mono-cultural vision of the country’s past that the ruling Malay elites wanted to promote. More broadly, Winstedt’s legacy for Malaysian and Singaporean history is an example of how colonial historians helped create national histories within the empires that they served, providing the ideological base for the nation-building projects of post-colonial societies. It raises questions that not only concern Asia’s historiography at the present but also for the future: how far have we gone in decolonising our history curriculum and national narratives on history? How far can we go?


(Wilbert) Wong Wei Wen is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, School of History, College of Arts and Social Sciences. He has a BA in History with First Class Honours from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Wilbert’s research and publications focus on the history of cross-cultural encounters, particularly on colonialism and its connection to intellectual history.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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