Historian Highlight is a new series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the sixth post in this series, Muhammad Suhail Bin Mohamed Yazid talks about his PhD research on nationalism, decolonisation and reformism in post-war Singapore and Malaysia.
What are you currently researching?
My PhD research looks into nationalist politics in modern Singapore and Malaysia. It covers the age of decolonisation, stretching from the aftermath of the Second World War up to the mid-1970s. My work responds to a theoretical movement which sees anti-colonial nationalism not only as a project to establish independent nation-states, but also as an effort to achieve a fairer global distribution of wealth and power.
I examine the ways in which Singaporean and Malaysian nationalists collaborated with other Afro-Asian leaders to reform international institutions and keep the dominance of former imperial powers in check. In doing so, I hope to also ponder at how their efforts interacted with class and racial relations within national borders.
What led you to research this topic?
I did earlier research on historical episodes involving transitions of power in modern Singapore and Malaysia. I am fascinated with the creative abilities of ruling elites when they are jealously guarding their power, particularly in situations when they felt undermined. These elites protected their social privileges by using more than just brute force. They invoked elements of political culture such as symbols, ceremonies, and even literary tropes to legitimise their authority.
Over time, I became more convinced by the Nietzschean idea of “plastic power” as I became more intimate with desperate politicians creatively adapting to new challenges, reinventing themselves to maintain their dominance. Likewise, I am now studying another episode of transition, but projecting my work onto a global scale.
If you could turn your research into a work of popular culture, what might it look like?
Perhaps a comedy or satire along the lines of Yes Minister or The Windsors. Better still if it is presented in an epic part-animation and part real-life fantastical drama! I handle a lot of official documents and letters which are loaded with euphemisms and excessive courtesy. The extent to which their authors maintained ‘officialspeak’ can be hilarious at times. There is a serious point here: some still take powerful historical figures a little too seriously. Humour can be a strategy to inspire others to transcend the historical baggage that a society may carry.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
A friend gifted me a framed copy of David Marshall’s resignation letter addressed to the British governor in Singapore. Marshall was the first person to be elected as the colonial city’s chief minister. Hoping to leverage on British desire for political stability, he threatened to resign should he fail to secure complete self-government for Singapore—Marshall failed to achieve this, but nevertheless kept to his word. I find the unresolved tension in this document captivating. On one hand, it is a brilliant symbol of empowerment in the face of colonial power, but on the other, it could simply be an outcome of a miscalculated political gambit.
Have you had to adapt your work to suit recent travel restrictions? If so, has this changed how you approach your topic, or the kinds of sources you use?
Travel restrictions are a damper. Even after the vaccine rollout, I still find it impossible to visit certain archives overseas. Still, one can find ways to make do. I have narrowed my research scope and prioritised digitised sources. I have also asked favours from friends who are able to access materials which I am unable to reach. Furthermore, this situation offers a precious opportunity to take on a more in-depth, fine-grain approach when scrutinising the sources that are available.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
I once attended a conference on a historical subject where a professor of literature presented a paper. He stated that he admired historians because they adhered to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ because the discipline is built on scepticism and relentless interrogation of sources. It is also often believed (whether in derision or admiration) that historians would be the last to jump on the bandwagons of the latest scholarly trends. But one of my former supervisors pressed me to take this point earnestly. After all, the human condition is inherently intertwined with power and class relations. In short: question everything!
And the worst?
That there is no point taking on further research into a topic or subject if it has been extensively explored or written about. I disagree. Historians engage with their sources based on their subjective positions. They ask questions which arise from particular circumstances. History is not a limited resource frontier that can be mined until complete exhaustion. Although I usually refrain from using absolutes, please allow me to indulge here: there will always be new ways at looking at things and new ways of writing history. With imaginative questions, one can make a worthwhile contribution to historical knowledge.
Finally – what’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
A long walk from the City Centre to Grantchester Meadows—there and back again! The experience is even more meaningful when I take the walk with a friend.