Modernity, as it stands in the book, refers to a theoretical set of facile tools which improve an individual’s socio-political and rational life by placing importance upon his/her secular and material attributes. Questioning Modernity addresses the concept in the sense of a process and system of the social world speaking for such universalistic claims as rationality, modernization, secularization, capitalism, bureaucratization of the socio-political lifeworld, and the increasing materialism of human values. All these descriptions are in unison, each aspect relates to one another, without which there can be no mechanistic meaning to scientific and technological progress. Modernity features binaries of social differentiation, whether it refers to the secular state or faith-based societies, to free market or command economy, to public or private domains, to individuality or communal spaces, among others. With that said this Western approach to modernity has been highly challenged by postcolonial scholars, generally, because it does not widely account for the diverse modern socio-cultural experiences of communities beyond Europe and the U.S.
In the “Transnational and Boder-zone Modernities” section, three chapters offer a critique of the characterization of Southeast Asian societies as nation-states. Joel Khan argues that primordial frontiers in Asia, where economic life and nation building took place, started way before the colonial age and were significantly developed later by independent national governments. The different look of Asia’s primordial societies is due to the transcending Islamic community called ummah which persists to this day. Ken Young looks at the imaginary of non-territorial ummah as the sole collective identity of Malays in Indonesia and Malaysia against the forefront of the domineering secular modern state. This transcending identity of primordial transnationalism, which is presently prevalent, continues in Yekti Maunati’s chapter. Maunati documents the case of the Ulu Padas, a new ethnic community of pan-Dayak organization situated in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. She indicates that concerns about cultural and environmental preservations precipitated the inception of Ulu Padas via social networking as a process of transnational identification. All three chapters suggest that identities such as frontiers, ummah, and Ulu Padas are not so much pre-modern consequences but a result of the political emergence of nationalism as well as the nation-state system.
Goh Beng Lan and Thung Ju-lan, in the “Nation-States and Citizenships” section, provide critical analyses of nation-building premised on the modern state system where social exclusions of Malaysian human rights and Chinese Indonesians identity are being interrogated. Goh discusses the unchallenged demarcation between political Islamists and advocates of Western secularism by presenting judicial cases of perceived human rights violations and special juristic rights or power accorded to sharia courts. She suggests that these opposing groups can be reconciled by looking back to Malaysia’s history of well-integrated religious and civic life. The establishment of its National Mosque is an iconic example where the traditional position of locality, its civic culture, converges with the Islamic message of religious pluralism. In the case of Thung’s chapter, the Chinese Indonesians are in peril of an estranged self-identification of being ‘political Chinese’ and ‘cultural Chinese.’ These are the untoward results of Dutch colonial mentality. Taking two formidable distinctions of citizenship, the civil and ethnic ones, exacerbate the security threat among the Chinese Indonesians adjudged to be outsiders. However, Thung emphasizes the important role of the intellectuals. Their contribution is to disassemble this despotic self-identification and deconstruct the politics of Othering.
The last three chapters of the third section, “Cultural and Moral Orientations,” by Maila Stivens, Oh Myung-Seok, and Wendy Mee, put forward the significance of cultural subjectivities in the analyses of modernity. One important form of cultural subjectivity is the “youth culture” in Malaysia. Stivens argues that young people as a site of modernity’s cultural contestation are oftentimes demonized as an ostracized social class. Excessive state monitoring and surveillance of the youth reveal the politics of inclusion/exclusion in the social fabric of the country. However, she suggests that the youth today are not altruistic to their own political ethnic identification but part of the global wave of “consumerist youth-oriented culture.” This culture of consumerism is a prime example of the economic force of capitalism, an essential tool to analyze modernity. Myung-Seuk expands capitalist consumerism with the model of small commodity production and exchange as an empirical case. Its strength lies in countering earlier studies on “peasantism” and its limitations when dealing with peasant economic activities. Myung-Seok argues for the essential cultural underpinnings when it comes to land issues that include aspects of gift exchange and not as a type of commodification. In his fieldwork with the Javanese small rubber producers, he finds that land exchange involves gift exchange in the form of inheritance and not something to be commoditized. He suggested that peasantism in small commodity production must be analyzed together with the cultural sociology of the local community.
From global consumerism to capitalistic commodification, the last chapter of this section moves the discussion into the value of technology-based culture, an important factor in modernity. Wendy Mee argues for two helpful approaches: firstly, accept Western theoretical imperatives of technological modernization; and secondly, this acknowledgement is prudent and influential in our comprehension of broader modernistic sensibilities, especially with the progressive view on science and technology. Overall, the book offers a case for multiple debates on theories that encapsulate modernity in the Western context, as well as its institutional, agential and cultural effects in peninsular and insular Southeast Asia. It showed how modernity shaped the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of the region. By presenting local versions of modernity in Malaysia and Indonesia, it supports the theory of “multiple modernities” that project a multiplicity of forms and variants of modernity contingent upon the historical and cultural expressions of different societies globally. The different chapters raise a case for a new critical understanding of modernity by discussing various cases, context-based conceptualization, social landscapes, and value-added norms in their study of the present Malaysian and Indonesian societies. In contrast to the general discourse of the Western trajectory of modernity, these two countries display diversified modern forms of socio-cultural normativity. Their highly exceptional modern processes of social norms account for inter-civilizational links in the plurality and diversity of cultures, languages, religions, practices, among others.
The edited volume is highly recommended for scholars, practitioners, teachers and students in the fields of sociology, politics, international relations, area studies (i.e., Southeast Asian Studies), religious studies (i.e. Islamic Studies), economics, and generally social sciences.