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Society and Environment in Siak and Eastern Sumatra, 1674-1827
Offering access to an extensive and resource-rich hinterland, eastern Sumatra was an important trading region between the Melaka Straits and the Minangkabau highlands of Sumatra prior to colonial rule. Traditionally under the control of Johor, the various communities in eastern Sumatra were united under the leadership of an adventurer named Raja Kecik in the early eighteenth century and formed an independent community along the Siak River. Over the next century Raja Kecik and his descendents attempted to gain control over the trade that flowed through the Straits, while keeping the numerous communities within their territories united by means of marriage alliances, warfare, raiding, trade, and myth. By the end of the eighteenth century the ‘multiple centres of authority’ that constituted Siak represented the dominant Malay community in the Straits of Melaka, only to fall into decline due to the rise of British trading communities in Singapore and Penang.
This book, based on VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) archives and traditional Malay texts, examines the rise of a Malay state in the early modern era. It focuses on the ecological frontier of eastern Sumatra, with its multi-ethnic communities, and how they were able to transform themselves, in the words of an English visitor, into a summit of prosperity by the end of the eighteenth century. Particular emphasis is placed on the methods used by Siak leaders used unite the disparate communities in the region, and how this was viewed in other Malay communities.

In the 1950s and 1960s Malaya/Malaysia was undergoing a tremendous amount of social change. One method of examining how this period was understood is through Malay film. A number of Malay writers and activists found work in the vibrant film industry of the Peninsula, which was centred on Singapore at the time, and proceeded to infuse many of the films with their ideas, hopes, and understandings of the society they saw around them. As part of these developments, and perhaps due to the phenomenon of repetition, blindness became a metaphor in a number of films to address the issue of modernity and tradition, and the tension between rural and urban. In films produced in the early 1950s blindness occurs among kampung-based characters, or among supporting players within the larger drama. Their blindness is usually caused or compounded by a sadness in their lives. In these films, an urban-based character attempts to arrange for an operation that will remedy the condition, but only after a character has had to deal with the underside of modernity. The use of blindness as a trope for moral/ethical failure is alien to traditional Malay culture. Thus, its use and repetition represent the external influences and ideas of modernity in Malay filmmaking of the period. While the city was frightening, it held the possibility of change for the better. Characters in these films had to deal first with the negative sides of such a life, but if they retained the positive traditional values of Malay culture, all would be well. By the early 1960s, however, after the promise of independence had transitioned to debates over merger, identity, and economic and social disruption, the metaphor of blindness had also shifted. Although technologycould cure the condition, the world that accompanied this technology was one that was unbearable. Unlike the earlier supporting characters facing a sightless life, it was now the main character who becomes blind in a manner that is violent and irreversible. It was a world that promoted selfishness and materialism. Blindness now became an act of mutilation, not a symbol of sadness but one of alienation.

In: Modern Times in Southeast Asia, 1920s-1970s

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