By student correspondent Dot Mason
Former Basham Professor of Asian History (1994-2013) and Dean of Asian Studies (1996-2005) at ANU, Anthony Milner, has again been recognised for his contributions to Malaysian studies. Last month he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Malaysia’s leading university, the University of Malaya. The Honorary Degree was conferred by the Chancellor of the University of Malaya, Sultan Nazrin Muizuddin Shah.
This newest accolade comes barely two months after Professor Milner was presented with the prestigious Merdeka Award in September.
Professor Milner’s interest in Malaysia began in the 1960s, when he was a student. He has published widely on Malaysian history and political culture. His works include, Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule (1982, 2016); The Invention of Politics in Malaysia (1994, 2002), and The Malays (2011). His jointly authored book, Transforming Malaysia (2014), is soon to be published in a Chinese translation. His current research focus is on Malaysian foreign policy – particularly with an eye to expanding the literature on non-Western approaches to international relations.
Professor Milner has been External Examiner at a number of Malaysian universities and held Visiting Professorships at the University of Malaya and the National University of Malaysia. In 2014-2015 he was Tun Hussein Onn Chair at the Malaysian Institute of International and Strategic Studies. He spent two terms on the Board of the Australian Government’s Australia Malaysia Institute, and helped to forge closer links between the two countries through his work for the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and the various regional engagement programs of Asialink at the University of Melbourne.
Speaking about Professor Milner at the Convocation ceremony, Professor Azirah Hashim (Executive Director of the Asia Europe Institute and former Dean of the Humanities Research Cluster) highlighted his interest in the history of ideas – the contest of ideas - in Malay society, and also the assistance he gave in setting up the University of Malaya’s Centre for ASEAN Regionalism. “In all his research and writings”, she said, “he has been concerned to move between disciplines”. He “enjoys the spirit of theoretical debate in academic life”, and encourages “younger academics to engage with their profession in this way”
In his acceptance speech, Professor Milner stressed the value of the Humanities – stressing they are no luxury. He cited the observation from Bilahari Kausikan, former head of the Singapore Foreign Ministry, that he found history, literature and philosophy the best preparation for his work in international affairs.
The study of history, Professor Milner argued, is certainly vital if we are to explain what is distinctive about Malaysia.
When Professor Milner first began his work on Malaysia in the 1960s he found “most writing on Southeast Asian countries was preoccupied with ‘development’”. The “arrogant question seemed to be: how quickly were they becoming ‘like us’”. He wanted to know about “perspectives – about what things meant to Malaysians and other Southeast Asians - and then how their views might challenge (or even add to) the dominant perspectives in my own country.”
Seeking an understanding of local contexts has been at the heart of Professor Milner’s studies on Malaysia and other parts of the Asian region. He agrees with the late anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, that it is not enough to talk about power and domination, and “elevated banalities” such as “common humanity”. To get at what is distinctive about a society – about what makes one society different from another – Humanities knowledge is critical.
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.
Photo credit: University of Malaysia