Farish Noor's book of lectures reimagines Nusantaran history

A lot of people will find a lot of things wrong with this book. Malay ultras will not appreciate their much-loved Hang Tuah reframed as the universal man, Islamic types would have much to say about the celebration of hindu-buddhist pasts, and the people of the region would not like the thought that they continually feed the neo-feudal foundations that form the governments of the day.

'What your teacher didnt tell you' is a series of lectures given by dashing scholar Farish Noor that revisits potent topics in Malayan history. Drawing from an incredibly wide pool of sources spanning centuries, the lectures explore the undiscussed intricacies of the peninsula over the ages, which includes but are not limited to transexuals, billboards of leaders, and kerises.

It is a gripping read, if you can call a compilation of lectures that. Owing perhaps to their deconstructing and certainly confronting nature. There are few sacred cows here, if any. Farish Noor seems to delight in rattling our cages of comfort and force us to relook at our histories and understandings of our culture. There are few other readable books out there that can turn 'takkan melayu di dunia' into a slogan of confident tolerance.

Is it historical revisionism? Has thing been taken out of context? Do we even need to discuss these issues?

These are only some of the questions that arise after reading the book, and as with many good books, it raises more questions that it answers.

In this respect, 'What your teacher didnt tell you' is a book for interested students because you'd want to find out more after reading the book. Mr Noor may not tells us everything (thankfully so,the book is thick enough as it is) but he does make you want to learn more, just like all good teachers do.


  1. I understand that it is hardly fair for me to pass judgment on a book of which I've read only excerpts of each chapter, and I should state here that I enjoy reading his speeches - he has a way with words and the 'rattling of cages' that perhaps all real academicians should have.

    But I read his piece on feudalism and its legacy in the politics of the region, and I am struck by what he calls the 'objective narratives' of colonial observers. The excerpts he included sounded to me more like orientalist narrative than anything else (as Said explains it, the need to classify the Other in a seemingly-objective light, all the while highlighting the exoticism of the Other). It suprised me that Farish neglects the orientalist overtures in the 'observations', and continues his analysis from there without even acknowledging the disputable credibility of the writings of that era. I think it a little incredulous, that in attempting to define the context of the Nusantara, he neglects to acknowledge the overwhelming colonial and post-colonial narratives that have continued to shape it since. Perhaps it is symptomatic of what he constantly alludes to in his work, of his feelings of alienation from the rest of society, partly due to his upbringing, and mostly to do with the controversiality of his work, that he has to bring in foreign voices to help explain the Nusantara.

    And finally, I would like to express my disappointment that this review, like most other of Farish's writings, did not fail to comment on his 'dashing' looks. I admit that the man is handsome, but must every single review of his work mention that?

  2. Not being much of an expert on historical sources myself, I would venture objective in relation to the hagiographical nature of indigeneous sources. You can find nothing wrong with the rulers written down in the Tuhfats of the period.

    It pays to remember that, Dutch and English records of the period were recorded also as matter of trade. Orientalist thought is ever present of course, and is clear in the language and style of such reports but the intent to provide useful information for trade activities exist, so it has to be more or less reliable.

    We see orientalism in that chapter. The stage-managed Perak coronation made for a very good example.

    Besides, doesn't the whole book already sound like a response to post-colonial writings on history? All the way through he quotes and calls for a reexploration of medieval texts, away from the current lines of discourses it runs through.

    Of course, having said all that I'll have to add that I'm at best speculating here. We make no claims of a comprehensive scholastic review of the book here and from the looks of the book, I don't think it does either.

  3. while the two of you squabble over the CONTENT of the book,my issue is with its delivery.

    1. The way he writes is beyond frustrating.He tends to stretch the most simple (though,no doubt:insightful) points into unnecessarily long and verbose sentences.All the footnotes,piling references sure reflects the amount of work he's invested-but really on some level,its just plain insecurity.He'd open a sentences like this: "According to A(2005),B(2006) and C(2007)" as if to show how extensively well-read he is,but really its equivalent to intellectual name-dropping,with no real substance to the amount.

    As for the content,my deep-set indifference towards (certain parts of) history have been reaffirmed,I think the book and I were at a mismatch from the start.

    And Syazwina,they had a huge feature on him in STAR few weeks ago,his apparent good-looks did not go unmentioned.

  4. I actually wish for the opposite,that the book actually included an easy appendix and index to refer to so that you could check on the claims made.

    Different strokes for different people it seems!