The People with Two Kings

A/P Irving Chan Johnson

"…Kelantanese Thai villages have historically been part of complex travel circuits that involve Malay sultans, Buddhist monks, bandits and others. Today, these old flows encompass new actors – the internet, television, and motorcycles."

Looming large over Kelantan's countryside are colorful statues of immense size. The northern Malaysian state, which has for a long time been described by many as a Malay cultural heartland as well as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, boasts some of the largest Buddhist creations in Asia. "The People with Two Kings" focus on the builders of these magnificent religious monuments. It explores how Thai Buddhists living in Kelantan showcase their identity as culturally Thai and yet patriotically Malaysian. They achieve this through everyday practices that often involve complex patterns of travel and cross-cultural interaction. In order to build the statues that have now placed Kelantan on the Malaysian tourist map, Kelantanese Thai minority have been forced to rethink their traditional associations with other ethnic groups in the state such as the Malays and Chinese. It has also meant a retelling of local history. Living so close to the Thai border has brought Kelantan's Thai population under the watchful gaze of the Thai government even though the Kelantanese Thais are Malaysians and proudly swear allegiance to the state's Malay Muslim sultan. Thus, this small community is faced with the complex question of what it means to be Thai living in a contemporary Malaysian state.

Dr Irving C Johnson's ethnographic project "The People with Two Kings" is an account of identity, space and history in the little known Buddhist communities of Kelantan, Malaysia. Long associated with Islam and traditional Malay culture, scholars of Kelantanese society have often overlooked the presence of the state's nearly ten thousand Thais. Erroneously labeled Siamese by some, Kelantan's Thai Buddhist population live in primarily ethnically homogenous villages. Having abandoned wet rice cultivation since the seventies, many Thais now practice intensive vegetable and tobacco cultivation. Kelantan's low levels of socio-economic development have meant that many younger Thais have been forced to move outside the state to seek waged employment. Many have migrated to the urban belts of Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The large economic rewards to be gained from cash cropping and urban employment coupled with a vibrant national economy is clearly displayed in the village landscape. Gated concrete mansions have replaced many older wooden houses, and the internet and wireless broadband have found its way into distant villages. Dirt tracks have been transformed into paved roads and villagers have become part of moving landscapes marked by cars, bicycles, motorcycles, budget airfares and media images. Yet despite the influx of modernity into these villages, vestiges of history remain, in particular through the mobile culture of village life.

Living so close to Thailand (the Thai border towns of Sungai Golok and Tak Bai being only a short drive from some villages) has meant that Kelantan's Thai population has been strongly influenced by people and events that take place across the border. In 1909, British and Siamese officials demarcated Kelantan's northernmost frontier from an independent Siam. Nevertheless, the new divide did little to prevent cross-border movements. Kelantan's Thai villagers have historically traveled between Malaysia and Thailand on a regular basis. Before the British and subsequent Malaysian administration's construction of road and rail networks, Kelantanese Thai traveled shorter distances – often moving between villages. Today, new forms of mobility have forced Kelantanese Thais to rethink the meaning of travel and its impact on their lives. In his project, Dr Johnson addresses the relationship between traditional forms of mobility and contemporary cross border flows and the effect this has had on the way Kelantanese Thai speak about and perform their identity.

The mobilities inherent in travel circuits that define the space of Kelantan's borderland villages often blur the meanings of identity for the people who engage with these movements. One result of this has been the constant attempts by representatives of certain cultural bodies to effectively "standardize" Kelantanese Thai culture (art, architecture, language, bodily stance, etc) so that it mirrors Thailand's self definitions of what Thai culture is. But these practices are often part of larger national processes that emanate from faraway metropolitan centers. Besides the physical movement of people, Kelantanese Thai villages are saturated with media images emanating from both Thailand and Malaysia. Dr Johnson's work documents the impact of these grandiose nationalism projects on the lives of the Malaysian Buddhist villagers. He shows how the stereotypes associated with national projects of cultural and political citizenship are interpreted in a myriad of ways by the people. Through their engagement with these projects of cultural standardization, Kelantanese Thais reaffirm their multilayered identities as Thai, Buddhist, Kelantanese and Malaysian. By living in one Kelantanese Thai village for 16 months and participating in the lives of the people, Dr Johnson displays the creative genius of people often considered marginal and powerless. He achieves this through tracing the trajectory of their lives and in listening to the way they talk about it. Cultural creativity, Dr Johnson argues, is intimately woven in the everyday practices of the people and in the way they speak about the world they live in and of the past they remember. These practices are defined by space and the historical and contemporary movements that crisscross them.


Some publications as a result of this research are:

Johnson, I. C. (2004) The Buddha and the Puritan: Weberian Reflections on Protestant Buddhism IN Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences. 27(1 and 2). Pp.61-105s

Johnson, I. C. (1999) Seductive Mediators: The Nuuraa Performer's Ritual Persona as a Love Magician in Kelantanese Thai Society IN Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 30(2). Pp. 286-309.

Johnson, I. C. (2005) Paradise AT Your Doorstep: International Border Fluidity and Cultural Construction Amongst Kelantan's Thai Community IN Dynamic Diversity in Southern Thailand, Wattana Sugunnasil (ed.). Bangkok: Silkworm.



Dr Irving Chan Johnson is Assistant Professor at the Southeast Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He received his Ph.D in Anthropology from Harvard Unfiversity in 2004.

Dr Johnson's interest fan across a wide ethnographic area, ranging from indigenous American groups in the Southwestern USA, to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Theoretically, he is interested on issues of marginality, personhood, history and mobility. His primary focus has been on the processes of identity production and negotiation in Thai Buddhist communities in Kelantan, Malaysia. He is currently researching on the local histsory of Kelantan's Thai Buddhist temples. At the Southeast Asian Studies Programme, Dr Johnson teaches classes on Anthropology and Southeast Asian Arts. In addition, he also teaches the first year (undergraduate) module on an introduction to Southeast Asia. Besides teaching, Dr Johnson enjoys painting in the classical Thai style and performing Thai shadow puppetry.


Dr Johnson can be contacted by:
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Telephone: (65) 6516 3171

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

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