In Memoriam of HM Dahlan (1940 – 1997)

During his fairly long academic career which spanned over more than two-and-half decades, H.M. Dahlan had trained many students and had left an indelible mark in the field of development studies in Malaysia. Together with a number of other young scholars back in the early 1970’s, he was involved in the big debate calling for a new orientation in social science in Malaysia, in particular in the fields of anthropology, sociology and psychology, which culminated in the holding of the conference entitled ‘The role and Orientation of Social Science and Social Scientists in Malaysia’ organised by Department of Anthropology and Sociology, UKM in August 1974.

His paper ‘The role and Orientation of Anthropology and Anthropologists in Malaysia’ read at the conference set the tone for a rethinking on anthropology, which till then still carried the stigma as ‘a child of colonialism’. In 1976, Dahlan edited The Nascent Malaysian Society, an early collection which attempted to capture analytically the evolving new society in Malaysia.

He then published a number of other works, namely Urbanisation in Sabah – Probing into the Urban Social Mind (1989). All of them carried the critical tone, advocating the need for a more balanced perspective in development studies and a balanced development strategy for Malaysia.

Dahlan was also a scholar-administrator, who saw the importance of a milti-disciplinary approach in social science, in particular in development studies. Thanks to his convincing scholarly arguments, UKM agreed to set up to set up the Faculty of Development Science in 1984, with Dahlan as the founding dean. He remained dean of the faculty throughout (except for a year) until his untimely death on May 30, 1997. Under his leadership, the Faculty set up four units, each responsible for a major programme, viz: Unit of Urban and Rural Studies, Unit of Economics and Management Studies, Unit of Spatial Studies, and Unit of Philosophy and Civilisation Studies.

Crisis in Anthropology

With the decline of colonialism, the social sciences in the west underwent an upheaval. New questions were posed while established conventions were challenged. Some strands in anthropology have been a springboard for radical criticism. In the 1960s and 1970s anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism have made Marxist social science a major vehicle of the criticism.

The social and political crises were attributed to the crisis of modern capitalism. Various academic disciplines were under scrutiny and found to be flawed to explain the various social dilemmas of the time. This had ramifications in Malaysia too, as few students at home and abroad were following the theoretical and paradigmatic changes. A number of these student activists later joined academia in Malaysia. They were mainly of the ‘May 1968’ generation.

 A significant event of the 1960s and 1970s period was the continual upheaval of the social sciences, including social anthropology in the west which also brought with it division within the critics of the old orthodoxies. A series of criticism against anthropology by the greats such as Raymond Firth and Kathleen Gough have not been able to bring the unity of the academic discipline. Instead, it resulted in fragmentation. A paradigm ‘war’ broke out as a consequence. It was a disfiguring episode of sort for anthropology.

 British anthropologist, Raymond Firth in 1972 posited that anthropology was not a bastard of colonialism. It was the legitimate child of the European Enlightenment. Earlier on, American anthropologist, Kathleen Gough, famous for her pronouncement that anthropology is a child of imperialism, in 1968 admitted that western anthropologists tended to accept the imperialist framework as given, perhaps because they, too were greatly influenced by the dominant ideas of their time.

 Yet, in 1967 another anthropologist, Memmi was sufficiently honest to admit that it was not easy to escape mentally from a concrete situation. Harder still to resist its ideology while one continues to live with its actual social relationship.

In 1973, a more damning observation came from another American anthropologist, Diane Lewis that the western anthropologist like the other European in a colony occupied a position of economic, political and psychological superiority vis-a-vis the subject people. Here was the irony – anthropologists who once decried colonialism developed theoretical models that supported it. It is in this sense that colonialism has structured the relationship between anthropologist and non-western people in the past.

Not long after, the era of intellectual imperialism was beginning to be challenged by new modes of thinking following national liberation struggle of the colonised peoples. The new emerging situation called for committed anthropology and along with it an alternative set of methodologies and concepts. A new orientation, therefore, became all the more necessary as the efforts were tipping forward in favour of a new anthropology.

New Horizon

In the meanwhile, an intellectual storm was brewing over the state of social science in Malaysia. In response to the general intellectual disquiet, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in August 1974 organised the first national social science conference on ‘The Role and Orientation of Social Science in Malaysia’. A call was made for a committed and socially relevant social science. A re-orientation of paradigm became necessary. It was also in a way a destigmatisation of ‘anthropology as a child of imperialism’ and also a hard critique levelled at the unacceptable hypocritical doctrine of ‘value-free’ sociology. The 1974 conference is considered by some as a watershed in the development of social science in Malaysia.

The recognition of H.M. Dahlan’s contribution to development studies can be seen from the fact that as early as 1980, he was appointed the co-ordinator of the Sabah Ethnographic Studies, which was a joint project between the Sabah Foundation and UKM. He was aware that despite attempts by Gough and Asad in the 1960s and 1970s respectively at intellectual and academic reforms in anthropological studies, particularly in certain parts of Borneo still remains an academic and ideological project that is still entrenched in western relations of power. Consequently, he recognised that ethnography had to be redefined if it is to be committed to applying knowledge to action. Proposals for more socially responsible agenda in ethnography were therefore, vital. An intended consequence of his mission is an increasing awareness that knowledge-production and praxis cannot be separated. Under his leadership, the research project had since published 11 monographs covering various aspects of the theme.

Categories: Abdul Halim Ali

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