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By Student Correspondent, Dot Mason
Professor Anthony Milner, Basham Professor of Asian History at ANU (1994-2013) and Dean of Asian Studies (1996-2005), was awarded the prestigious Merdeka Award in Malaysia last week.
Merdeka Award, a national initiative which aims “to promote thought leadership and innovation”, are presented annually and were initiated in 2007. So far 34 people have received the reward – in some years a non-Malaysian is chosen for an ‘Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia’, and Professor Milner’s award was in this category. The Board of Trustees includes representatives from PETRONAS, ExxonMobil and Shell.
The prize was presented by the Sultan of Perak, Nazrin Muizzuddin Syah, Chair of the Board of Trustees and Chancellor of the University of Malaya.
Meaning “freedom” in Malay, the Merdeka Award celebrates the outstanding achievements of individuals or organisations in science, technology, education, environment, and community.
Professor Milner’s writings on Malaysia include Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule (1982, 2016), Perceptions of the Haj (1984, with Virginia Hooker), The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya (1995, 2002), The Malays (2008, 2011) and Transforming Malaysia (2014, with Abdul Rahman Embong and Tham Siew Yean). Professor Shamsul A.B. of Universiti Kebangsaan, has described Milner’s Kerajaan (in a Foreword to the 2016 edition) as “a classic in Malaysian studies”, partly because Milner “found that the Western analytical lenses and data-collecting techniques were simply insufficient”.
Professor Milner spent two terms as a member of the Australian Government’s Australia Malaysia Institute and has worked closely with Malaysians through the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific and a number of regional programs of Asialink (University of Melbourne). He has been External Examiner at a number of Malaysian universities, and his visiting appointments in Malaysia have included the Tun Hussein Onn Chair at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies of Malaysia and the Pok Rafeah Chair at Universiti Kebangsaan. Also, in 2002 he held the Raffles Visiting Chair of History at the National University of Singapore.
“I am amazed as well as honoured to receive this Award,” said Professor Milner in his acceptance speech.
“I think Malaysia has done much more for me than I have contributed to Malaysia.”
Professor Milner’s interest in Malaysia began when he was a young student in the 1960s. Arriving for the first time on a small cargo vessel from Bangkok, he saw towns on the East Coast that appeared to have changed little since the days of the old Sultanates. He became committed to the view that historical knowledge was essential if Australians were to gain an understanding of the new states emerging in the region – and any appreciation of Malaysian perspectives had to commence with a study of that society in pre-British times.
As a PhD student at Cornell University (supervised by O.W.Wolters) Professor Milner wrote a thesis on the political culture of the old sultanates, and his later research focused on developments in the colonial and post-colonial periods – particularly the divisions and debate taking place in the Malay community. His Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya was written in large part at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he was working with Clifford Geertz. Professor Milner points out that ANU itself has been a great centre for the study of Malaysia – “look at the vast range of high-quality books on Malaysia written here” - and he has been grateful to work closely with other researchers at ANU, both senior academics and graduate students.
“I would like to think that my research and writing has helped to show that Malay and Malaysian history is not only about power struggle and commerce. There has also been a contest of ideas and a genuine degree of intellectual creativity,” says Professor Milner.
In his acceptance speech, Professor Milner emphasised the value of a strong Malaysian-Australian dialogue. He says important lessons can be learnt from studying both Malaysia’s historical experience and its current political dynamics.
“Today Malaysia continues to struggle with problems - some very serious - but the way they have been discussed deserves careful attention. Malaysia's multi-cultural challenge, for instance, is far larger than that facing Australia at present - and Australians may eventually benefit from learning about the Malaysian experience,” he says.
Professor Milner is currently Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne and a Visiting Professor at the University of Malaya, as well as Emeritus Professor at ANU.
Image: supplied by Merdeka Award.
This story was originally published on the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific website.