FASS Staff Profile


AS8- 06- 06
6516 4199

Brief Introduction

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. My advanced Masters was from Leiden University, Netherlands. I did my Ph.D at Queen Mary, University of London. My thesis was entitled, "Rule Behind the Silk Curtain: The Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699".  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

MS4880(b) - Malays Encountering Globalization: Culture and Identity 
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.

MS 4880A Orientations in Muslim Resurgence Movements 
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.


MS 4201: Social Change in the Malay World 1900-1965

This module examines the nature and significance of various social changes in Malay society from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th centuryIt explores the issues of change and continuity, tradition and modernity in Malay society within the colonial context.  Some major spheres of change explored are commerce, migration, settlement, education, gender relations, ideology/worldview and everyday life.  Roles of individuals, ideas and institutions as agents of change and their impact would be analyzed.  Students would be required to undertake a small investigative project of their choice (after consultation with lecturer) to identify an area of social change, the agents involved, the processes and challenges involved and their impact. Students would investigate a facet of their family history (micro-history) to examine how macro-historical forces impact everyday life of the community. This is meant to generate original insights and hypotheses which may be pursued by students more productively through further research.


MS3211: Political Culture of the Malays

This module explores the nature of politics of the Malay community as it is perceived, understood, practiced and studied. It examines Malay political experiences from the early modern period to the post-colonial era to trace Malay political traditions, customs, symbols and relations and to investigate whether there is such a thing as the “Malay” way of doing politics. How was politics constructed, contested, sustained, transformed and by whom?  Are there any discernible trends or continuities and how are these narrated and represented? To what extent is there an idealized political culture and how does one discern between myth and reality and the subjective experiences between the elite and the common man? The politics of kerajaan – its ideology, legitimacy, symbols, structures of control and relations with rakyat will be studied in greater detail since Malay monarchy has been one of the more long lasting institutions of Malay political culture. How this institution was challenged by new ideologies and new elites during the colonial period and by the independent modern nation state and the impact on the development of Malay politics will be critically examined. The role of religion, especially Islam and gender in the construction and practice of Malay political culture will add new perspectives to the study of Malay political culture.



Graduate Supervision

Fadiah Nadwa binte Fikri (PhD) - Anti-colonial Resistance and Constructions of Freedom

Abdul Mu’Izz bin Abdul Khalid (PhD) - “Brunei: The Zikir State”

Muhammad Suhail Bin Mohamed Yazid (MA) - 'He who id Made Lord':The Yang Di-Pertuan Negara in Singapore's History'

Sharifah Afra Syed Farid Alatas (MA) - 'The Management of Religious Harmony in Malaysia 1982-2018'

Current Research

Malay World Manuscripts: Medium and Method in Decentering Dominant Narratives

AcRF Tier 1 Fund Project. Start date - July 2020, End date June 2023

The source and object of study - the Malay manuscripts – have been quite considerably studied before this, within the fields of literature, history, linguistics, philology and cultural studies. What we are bringing into this body of works would be something different. Instead of considering the manuscript as the repository of authentic ‘indigeneity’, we interrogate the manuscript as a medium and method for ‘decolonizing knowledge’. The decoloniality of inquiry can be understood as a project for the decentering of epistemic narratives which have centred the epochal sway of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism (primarily European-driven) as the ‘singular dominant’  point in the historicization of ‘Asia’ versus the rest, or of the Malay world, in comparison to other ‘worlds’.

 As a starting point for exploring narratives that fall outside of the ‘singular dominant’ narrative, this research proposes to study texts which predate the modern era of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism. Manuscripts of the Malay world are one such textual material, defined as being handwritten and hand-decorated. They could be works of original compositions, translated from other languages or copied from other sources. The handwritten feature of manuscripts meant that they were produced before the coming of printing technology into the region around the seventeenth century. Malay manuscripts thus form an important corpus of pre-imperial, pre-colonial and pre-national repository of knowledge production and representation. We propose to utilize Malay manuscripts as a valuable archival resource in the search for medium and method in the project of decentering dominant narratives in knowledge production within the social sciences. Through a re-visit and re-reading of manuscripts the research aims to deconstruct the idea and concept of the Malay world, in relation to notions of power, gender, religion and aesthetics, and in the process, uncover an ‘other’, or alternative episteme

Writing “Pakistanis” into Singapore’s History: Heritage and Identity of a Community

Heritage Research Grant Project. Start date - December 2020, End date November 2022

Curiously, despite their contributions to Singapore’s history and development, very little is known about this community and there is no published study on them to date. Therefore, this research is pioneering to fill a gap in our understanding of Singapore’s rich and cosmopolitan ethnic heritage and how each community has contributed to Singapore’s development.  The term “Pakistani” itself needs to be problematized and deconstructed. The term “Pakistani” tends to refer to these migrants who came to Singapore from the region which is known as Pakistan after 1947. However, initial research by this project investigators indicates that the “Pakistanis” have migrated to Singapore long before Pakistan even existed. There were about five waves of “Pakistani” migration to Singapore: (1) Before World War I, (2) Between World War I and World War II, (3) Soon after the end of World War II, (4) After Singapore’s independence and the withdrawal of British military forces in 1971, (5) Present day.  Furthermore, the “Pakistani” are a heterogeneous group consisting of Pathans, Hazaris and Punjabis, each with their own language and customary practices. There are Pathans who speak only Pashto, others speak Pashto and Urdhu and there are Malayized-Pathans who speak only Malay.  This research seeks to examine how these different sub-ethnic groups understand and construct their identity at the personal, community and national level. What does it mean to be a “Pathan”, a “Pakistani” and a “Singaporean-Pakistani”? Sections of the “Pakistani” population in Singapore have inter-married with other Muslim ethnic groups, such as the Malays, Javanese and Indian Muslims, giving rise to an interesting hybrid community of “Pakistani-Peranakans” with a culturally rich heritage. These “Pakistani-Peranakans” form a complex mix of ethnicities that defy the traditional ‘racial’ categories inherited from colonial Britain and recognised in independent Singapore. As such, many “Pakistanis” in Singapore see themselves check-boxed under the ubiquitous ‘Others’ category. The predominance of inter-marriages between “Pakistanis” and other Muslim groups in Singapore for the past hundred years constitutes an important subject of study to further our understanding about social integration and cohesion. This research intends to interrogate the community’s strategies of exclusion and inclusion, the politics of integration and differentiation to discover how they attempt to maintain their own sub-ethnic identity within the “Pakistani” community and within the larger “Pakistani-Peranakans” community in the context of a globalised Singapore.  The findings of this research will not just benefit Singaporean “Pakistanis” and heritage enthusiasts. We believe that the findings of this research will provide useful insights into issues of community building and integration among new citizens and can be used by respective stakeholders and policy-makers in the future.

Indian Ocean Studies: Connectivity, Hybridity and Cross-cultural Encounters

This reserach explores Early Modern conections between South Asia and the Malay World. Whilst there are many studies on "Indianization" of Southeast Asia and the impact of Indian influences in this region, there is a dearth of study on how the Malay world perceived the region "above the winds". Where would be the sites of convergence and divergence between South Asia and the Malay world?

Women on Top: Sultanahs, Presidents, Ulamas, Resistance Fighters and Celebrities of the Malay World

This research project explores issues concerning Malay women’s 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 shari’a 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 Aceh’s 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 women’s 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

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 syari’a. 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 Aceh’s independence.
My research does not focus on only women’s 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 women’s 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.



  • Sher Banu A. L. Khan, "Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom: The Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699", (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017; USA: Cornell Press, 2017)


  • Sher Banu A.L. Khan (2019, Jan). Reframing the Malay Past in Singapore’s History. In Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Wan Hussin Zoohri & Norsharil Saat, "Beyond Bicentennial:Perspective on Malays" Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company.

    SHER, B A K, “In search of 'Empire' in insular Southeast Asia” in Brian Farrell & Jack Fairey (ed), The History of Empire in Asia - Volume 1. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) 0621820

    SHER, B A K, "“Aceh-India Commercial and Literary Relations in the 17th Century”". In The Indian Ocean in the making of Early Modern India, 9789350981214 ed., ed. Pius Malekandathel. Delhi: Manohar Press, 2016. 36 pp.  Publication no. 0533532

    SHER, B A K, "Re-visiting 'kingship' in seventeenth century Aceh: from ira et malevolentia to pax et custodia". In 'Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1350-1800', ed. Ooi Keat Gin & Hoang Anh Tuan. New York: Routledge, 2016. 17 pp.  Publication no. 0621823

    SHER, B A K, "Some thoughts on Globalization and the Malays: Lessons from the Past". In Majulah! 50 Years of Malay/Muslim Community in Singapore, Singapore: World Scientific, 2016. 10 pp. (Singapore).  Publication no. 0663545

    SHER, B A K, "I am chosen by God,” - Rule of Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah of Aceh 1641-1675". In Religious Activism and Women’s Development in Southeast Asia, ed., ed. Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman, 78-91. Singapore: AMP, 2011. 13 pp. Publication no. 0533457

    SHER, B A K, "The Jewel Affair: The Sultanah, her Orangkaya and the Dutch Foreign Envoys". In Feener, Reid & Daly (eds), Mapping the Acehnese Past. Leiden: KITLV, 2010. 22 pp. Publication no. 0474012

    This book has been translated in Bahasa Indonesia – Memetakan Masa Lalu Aceh, Denpasar, Bali: Pustaka Larasan, 2011. 

    SHER, B A K, "The Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699". In Aceh: History, Politics and Culture, Arndt Graf, Susanne Schroter & Edwin Wieringa (eds). Singapore: ISEAS, 2010. 23 pp. Publication no. 0474011



  • International Refereed

    1. SHER, B A K, "Response and Resilience: Aceh's Trade in the Seventeenth Century".  Indonesia, 100 (2015). (United States).  Publication no. 0663198

    2. CHAN*, M F, J E BARRY and B A K SHER, "Reducing depression among community-dwelling older adults using life-story review: A pilot study". Geriatric Nursing, 20, no. 1-6 (2013). (United States). Publication no. 0606696

    3. SHER, B A K, "Men of prowess and women of piety: A case-study of Aceh Dar al-Salam in the seventeenth century". Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 44, no. 2 (2013): 204-226.(United Kingdom). Publication no. 0581057

    4. SHER, B A K, "“What happened to Syaf al- Rijal,”". Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 168, no. 1 (2012): 100-111. (Netherlands). Publication no. 0533406

    5. SHER, B A K, "Ties that Unbind: the Botched Aceh-VOC Alliance for the conquest of Melaka 1640-1641”". Indonesia and the Malay World, 38, no. 111 (2010). (United Kingdom). Publication no. 0474009

    Local/Regional Refereed

    6. Sher Banu A.L. Khan (2018, Jun). Of Silk and Steel: A Case-Study on Islamic Conflict Resolution Strategies in Aceh Dar al-Salam in the 17th Century. The Journal of Islamic Governance, 4 (1), 56-78. 

    7. SHER, B A K, "Role-Play and Character-Building in the Teaching of History". Teaching & Learning, 22, no. 1 (2001). (Singapore). Publication no. 0474010


  • 1. SHER, B A K, "The Sultanate of Aceh Dar al-Salam". The Encyclopedia of Empire, 1-10. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.  Publication no. 0606698

    2. SHER, B A K, "Memorandum of the chiefs of the civilian yacht Den Arent (The Eagle) about the city of Aceh in 1689". Harta Karun, 1. Indonesia: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia: Treasures from the 17th and 18th VOC Archive, 2013.  Publication no. 0607795

Other Information

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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