Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty Profiles

National University of Singapore
10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260

Office: AS7/04/18
Email: mlssbalk@nus.edu.sg
Tel: 6516 4199
Homepage: http://profile.nus.edu.sg/fass/mlssbalk/
| Brief Introduction | Teaching Areas | Current Research | Research Interests | Publications | Other Information

Brief Introduction Top

I am a graduate and an alumni of NUS and I am proud to return to my University as a faculty staff member. I graduated with Honours in History and Masters in Southeast Asian Studies. I now teach at the Malay Studies Department because my main area of research expertise and interests lie in the Malay/Muslim world.  My main philosophy in teaching is to make students learning experiences memorable and significant. Students learning experiences at this level need not and should not be fleeting, impersonal or forgettable.I firmly believe that as a tutor, I must be an authority in my expert area and be authentic.

Teaching Areas Top

MS4880(b) - Topics in Malay Culture and Globalization
What is globalization, when did it take place and what is its impact? Contrary to popular belief that globalization is a recent phenomenon; this module takes on a historical perspective in analyzing the ancestry of present-day globalization when Malay culture encounters different cultural systems. Drawing on cultural encounters from three distinct periods, early modern, modern and postmodern, this module allows students to identify, analyze and reflect on significant globalizing forces and their impact on Malay culture.

MS4880(a) Topics in Muslim Revivalism
What does it mean for a religious tradition to consciously attempt to redefine itself and respond to political and cultural challenge and change? This module includes an introduction to the intellectual movements of the Islamic world during the last two centuries. It will address the contribution of Muslim scholars living in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority states. Where relevant, case-studies of revivalist, resurgent and reformist movements will be examined in greater detail within their own political and cultural contexts.

MS4201- Social Change 1900-1950
In what ways and under what contexts may social transformation be understood through the lenses of individual and national narratives? National and regional histories and experiences are explored to raise questions about the intricate processes of social change and nation-formation.

MS1102E Malays: Culture, Tradition and Conflict

Current Research Top

Women on Top: Sultanahs, Presidents, Ulamas, Resistance Fighters and Celebrities of the Malay World
This research project explores issues concerning Malay womens participation in society at leadership levels from the cultural and religious viewpoints from the pre-colonial period to now. The prominence of women politicians in contemporary Malay and Indonesian society such as President Megawati and Dr.Wan Azizah is neither an aberration nor a recent phenomenon. The contemporary debates in Indonesia centring on whether Megawati could be president in the light of sharia law resonate the ones the ulama of Aceh were engaged in four hundred years ago. My thesis on how the Sultanahs of Aceh pursued and exploited means to power and how others interpreted their actions are also relevant to other Malay women leaders in the colonial and post-colonial periods. Studies on gender and women thus far, have tended to focus on ordinary women and their plight, at the expense of their elite sisters so much so that these movers and shakers of history remained unrecognised. Not only consumers, these women were producers of intellectual, social-cultural capital in their own right. In the pre-colonial period, Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah of Aceh, Raja Hijau of Patani, amongst others, were women rulers in their own right, negotiating power and legitimacy with their own male elites and foreign envoys from the European Companies. Cut Nyak Dinh, was a resistance fighter defending Acehs integrity from the invading Dutch colonial army. Raden Kartini, Rasuna Said, Aisyah Aminy were women who furthered the cause of education and empowerment for their fellow sisters during the colonial period. More recently, President Megawati and Wan Azizah have been active participants in their societies during the period of reformasi. In line with the current global womens movements, feminists, human rights activists such as Gadis Arivia and Amina Rasul have taken on the mantle of leadership to improve their communities despite daunting obstacles.

Research Interests Top

Pre-Colonial Malay World and Globalisation
As a historian specializing in Southeast Asia in the early modern era , my main research agenda is to provide knowledge of the Malay historical past to help illuminate contemporary issues facilitating understanding. Researches on the Malays have disproportionately centred on the past two hundred years during the so-called defining moment of colonialism. This emphasis on colonialism and its negative effects on the Malays, provide a narrow and short-sighted view and understanding of the Malays. A longer historical perspective is needed to better understand the Malay past where colonialism was but a blip albeit significant part of its history. Without these historical insights, there is little prospect of distinguishing short-term deviations from long-term trends. It is important to know and understand the interactions the Malays had with significant other(s), namely Asian traders and powers during the pre-colonial era to help understand the strategies adopted in responding and dealing with earlier challenges from external influences. This will help place the period of colonialism in perspective and could help inform the present Malays in dealing with new challenges in the present age of globalization. In the post-colonial period where states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are establishing their own identities and paths to development, knowledge of the pre-colonial indigenous past can provide important insights if not sources of inspiration. According to Edward Friedman, there is growing Asian consensus that after a short European interregnum, the great civilisations of Asia, as throughout recorded history, once again are to be decisive factors in the world market. Historical insights gleaned from the pre-colonial Malay world inter-connectedness, inter-dependence and as cross-roads between China and India can inform present studies.

Gender, Religion and Politics in Pre-Colonial Malay World
My PhD thesis - Rule Behind the Silk Curtain: Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699, is an original contribution and fills a historical gap on the study of the relationship between gender, religion and politics in pre-colonial Malay world. My research shows that in Aceh, the female monarchs were not figureheads or pageants. They ruled in their own right and established unique ways to negotiate power and legitimacy with their own male elite. Sultanah Safiatuddin (r. 1641-1675) rule was not seen as forbidden in Islam, on the contrary she used Islamic ideas on leadership to legitimise her authority. She also presented herself as a good ruler based on local adat laws on good leadership. In this regard, there was little tension between Islam and adat since some adat laws were based on the syaria. Indeed, one way to re-write the autonomous history of the Malay world is to re-think this tension between adat and Islam in the first place. The Acehnese female monarchs, especially Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah had developed a stable sophisticated, consensual style of leadership based on both adat and Muslim laws. She was also successful in dealing with European foreign envoys who constantly pressured Aceh for concessions and managed to retain Acehs independence.
My research does not focus on only womens and feminist histories. It encompasses a broader study of how gender is understood, how women and men define themselves, are defined by others and by societal and cultural institutions. I also explore how the definitions, meanings and constructs of gender vary in the Malay world across centuries. What are the general facilitating and hindrance factors that affect womens chances and acceptance in leadership positions? How do external global forces such as Islam, Colonialism, Modernity and Media affect political culture and the place of women in society?
The study of Malay/Muslim women leaders placed in the specific socio-political contexts across time may engender a unique picture or model which could serve as a basis of autonomous history and comparison with other women in politics and leadership positions in other cultures and religions.

East-West Encounters in the 17th Century
The early modern era is a period characterized by the encounter between the East and the West, one of expansion and interweaving of maritime connections within and between hemispheres, which is seen as the basic factor in the creation of what Immanuel Wallerstein termed as the modern world-system. East-West encounters were however not limited to trade and markets. They encompassed exchanges across many human experiences ranging from the basic primordial sentiments of fear and curiosity of the strange-other to the social, legal and religious spheres. In my research, I examine the nature and impact of the coming of the westerners to Asian shores to explore the assertion that the seventeenth century saw the beginnings of the ascendance of the west and the decline of local polities.
Placed in this context, my research on Aceh shows that Aceh-VOC relations in the seventeenth century was characterised more by what J.E.Wills called interactive emergence where the long drift to European hegemony in Asia in the early modern era could be seen to be less over-determined, less a forgone conclusion and much more multi-causal contingent to specific contexts.
I believe that research on the history of pre-colonial Southeast Asia has much to contribute to the knowledge of indigenous world-views and structures yet unfettered by colonialism and it is a crucial starting point to write an autonomous history of the Malays.

Publications Top


  • 1. The Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699, in Graf, Schroter & Wieringa (eds), Aceh: History, Politics and Culture (ISEAS: Singapore, 2010)

    2. The Jewel Affair: The Sultanah, her Orangkaya and the Dutch Foreign Envoys, in M. Feener, P. Daly & A. Reid, (eds) Mapping the Acehnese Past, (KITLV: Leiden, 2011)

    3. I am chosen by God, - Rule of Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah of Aceh 1641-1675 in Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman (ed), Religious Activism and Womens Development in Southeast Asia, (AMP: Singapore, 2011)


  • 1. Role-Play and Character-Building in the Teaching of History in Teaching and Learning, Vol.22, No.1, June 2001

    2. Ties that Unbind: the Botched Aceh-VOC Alliance for the conquest of Melaka 1640-1641, Indonesia and the Malay World, vol. 38, no.111, July, 2010

    3. What Happened to Syaiful Rijal? in Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde, April, 2011

Other Information Top

PhD in History
Thesis - Rule Behind the Silk Curtain: The Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699
Queen Mary, University of London
Awarded the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL), QMUL PhD Scholarship & the UK Government Overseas Research Scholarship

Advanced Masters of Arts
Towards A New Age of Partnership (TANAP)
Institute for the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction
Leiden University, Netherlands

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