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Thread: History: What is a Malay?

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Oct 2008

    History: What is a Malay?

    Short answer: Whatever UMNO wants it to be. It's a label cooked up by UMNO to control a group of Malayans under the Islamic umbrella. Studying history, it is obvious how long-term were there plans to hang on to power.

    When did awareness of being Melayu begin?

    Written by Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian Friday, 13 July 2012 11:22


    The pre-Independence period

    It is most telling that fairly recently, two books written by two renowned scholars Syed Husin Ali and Anthony Milner on Malay society and history and bearing even the same title, namely The Malays, should begin their scholarly pursuit with the same query, namely “Who are the Malays”. 1

    Both works find it challenging to define exactly who the Malays were within the context of the pre-colonial period. Both more or less accept that the term ‘Malay’ has many meanings. Syed Husin Ali in particular states that in a wide social and cultural definition, “the term refers not only to those who are settled in the Peninsula, but also includes those of the larger area of the Malay Archipelago... which today form the Republic of Indonesia and the Philippines.”2

    Yet another outstanding scholar on Malay studies, Leonard Y. Andaya puts forward his historical analysis of the Malays and suggests that a “Melayu ethnicity was being developed along the Straits of Melaka... as early as the seventh century...”.3 He further observes that the concept of Malay became so strong that by the fifteenth century Melaka emerged as “the new centre of the Melayu.”4

    However, at least one Malay scholar on this very topic cautions us that the term ‘Malay’ was seldom used during the pre-colonial era, and ‘Malay awareness’ probably never existed during such period.5

    Apparently, scholars in the field are still out on their final academic consensus/agreement concerning the time span when the emergence of the term ‘Malays’, or an awareness of being Melayu among inhabitants of the traditional Malay Archipelago, or even the identity of the Malays in the pre-colonial era, came into being.

    The references to some works above-mentioned suffice to strengthen our understanding and awareness of the complexity and socio-cultural entanglements extant in the “Malay world” of old. Such understanding leads us surely to an awareness that the concept of the “Malay “ as a community based squarely on ethnicity of its inhabitants was not a well-defined anthropological heirloom passed down to us through the pre-colonial age.

    Such awareness renders support to the paper’s thesis that a defined Malay identity did not exist, nor did it appear necessary, in the pre-colonial era. It was not necessary because of the fact that the most essential institution of a Malay state was a raja, and not the subjects who were, to rudely put it, nothing but the royal “clay” and “slaves”.

    Only with an emergence of the concept of citizenship as the fundamental and most important element of a modern state that an identity of the state citizenship replaced the royalty’s socio-political pre-eminence. In the case of Tanah Melayu, the identity of citizens – a main part of this definition concerned who the Malays should be – was clearly defined at the birth of the independent Federation of Malaya.

    To emphasise, it is the stand of this paper that Malay identity is a modern creation, a result of the birth of a nation – a nation-state named the Federation of Malaya, later Malaysia to be precise – that required a well-defined socio-political identity of its citizens in order to assure its chance of survival as a sovereign, united and independent nation in the international community of nations, as well as to determine the socio-economic survival of the indigenous community vis-a-vis its sizeable non-indigenous compatriots.

    To return to our discussion on Malay identity: if a well-defined Malay identity did not exist among the inhabitants of the ‘Malay world’ of old nor in the pre-colonial time, when then such term became so self-evident?

    Both Anthony Reid and Heather Sutherland appear to be in agreement that the term Malay was widely employed by the White men, i.e. as opposed to the indigenous inhabitants of the Malay world themselves, particularly after the sixteenth century which led to a later acceptance among scholars that such ethnicity-laden term was how the people in the region employed to identify themselves.6

    However, long before these two modern works referred to above came into existence, Frank Swettenham, a leading colonial authority on anything Malay of his time, wrote about the “ Real Malay” drawing heavily on his personal observation and experiences,
    A real Malay is a short, thick-set, well-built man, with straight black hair, a dark brown complexion, thick nose and lips, and bright intelligent eyes. His disposition is generally kindly, his manners are polite and easy... He is courageous and trustworthy in the discharge of an undertaking; but he is extravagant, fond of borrowing money, and very slow in repaying it. He is a good talker.... a gossip... a Muhammadan [sic] and a fatalist, but he is also very superstitious... Above all things, he is conservative to a degree, is proud and fond of his country and his people, venerates his ancient customs and traditions, fear his Rajas, and a proper respect for constituted authority...7

    It is apparent that Frank Swettenham was describing the ‘real Malay’ through the latter’s appearance, socio-cultural habits and general inclinations. There was no reference to the ‘Malay’ ethnicity here. The Malay was Malay because of his socio-cultural practices, daily habits and way of life. Such description could easily be applied to most of the inhabitants of Southeast Asia, with exceptions being the Sinicised Vietnamese and, if religious affiliations were emphasised, the Southeast Asian non-Islamic communities.

    A point of interest, if the term ‘Malay’ was a term initiated and preferred by the Westerners when referring collectively to the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago, how then the indigenous inhabitants identified themselves?

    From contemporary written historical records of Melaka, it is evident that the term ‘Malay’ was glaringly absent; the best example is I-Ching’s record of his visit to Melaka in the 1450s. 8 Instead of the term ‘Melayu’, it appears that the inhabitants of the traditional Malay world were wont to refer to themselves using the term ‘orang’ plus the name of their birthplace/negeri, or, within their negeri, the word ‘orang’ followed by the name/title of their immediate chiefs.9

    How then was the term ‘Malay’ localised to specify only for the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula? Syed Husin Ali writing in the first decade of the twenty-first century, gives weight not only to the appearance of the ‘Malays’ but also to the geographical spread where the Malays could be found i.e. the Malay world of the pre-colonial time.

    The arrival of Western colonialists, points out Syed Husin, resulted in the breaking-up of this Malay world into new political boundaries and eventually to the term ‘Malay’ being predominantly applied only to those ‘Malays’ who lived in the Malay Peninsula. Eventually, the independence obtained in 1957 confirmed this practice with its constitutional/legal definition for the Malays and thus provides a legal and socio-cultural answer to the question: Who are the Malays?

    It is here concluded that the definitive term ‘Malays’/orang Melayu and their identity held no dominant place in the traditional period of Malay history. They are modern in concept. They are socio-politically essential elements in the birth of a new nation on the Malay Peninsula.

    Independence and Malay identity

    In August 1957 British Malaya became a sovereign and independent nation with its predominant Malay symbols: the Yang Di-Pertuan Agung as Head of State, Islam as its official religion and Malay as the national language.

    The 1957 Constitution of the Federation of Malaya specifically identifies who the Malays are. According to Article 160 of the Constitution, Malays are persons who (i) profess the Muslim religion, (ii) speak Malay in his daily life, (iii) practise Malay custom as a way of life and (iv) must have roots in Tanah Melayu or Singapore by way of birth or descent.10

    This legal definition of the Malay clearly did away with the complexity and vagueness of identifying Malays through ethnicity and squarely posited Malay identity on the socio-cultural affinity namely religion, language, custom, and the links with the motherland through birth or descent. The last-but-one mentioned, in itself, is also fairly flexible and negotiable.

    It is the stand of this paper that, in the context of the Malaysia nation-building of the early post-Independence decades, such an inclusive definition surely and strongly reflected the socio-political aims of the founding fathers to leave an assimilation door widely open for all non-Muslim, non-indigenous citizens of the newly-born sovereign Malaya to become ‘Malays’ and, as result, to partake in all the constitutional privileges and special position enjoyed by the indigenous Malays.

    Theoretically speaking at least, all citizens of Malaya/Malaysia regardless of their ethnicity or origins can legally become Malays if/when they decide to embrace the terms set by Article 160 of the Constitution. It was, still is, an ingenious socio-political revolving-door towards national consolidation, harmony and diminution of socio-ethnic tensions and conflicts.

    As indigenous community of Tanah Melayu, the Malay community is endowed by the Constitution with certain privileges and special position.11 It is also the constitutional responsibility of the King/Yang di-Pertuan Agung, and by inference the rulers of the Malay states, to protect these privileges and position of the Malays. Nonetheless, it must be emphasised that the King as well as the Malay Rulers of the Malay States are constitutional rulers and protectors of all citizens regardless of their socio-cultural and political affinities/origins.

    In sum, Malay identity is a new concept introduced at the time Malaya became independent to serve the socio-political peculiarities and requirements of an independent, sovereign and multiracial Malaya. This identity is clearly defined by the 1957 Constitution.

    This definition was and is still interestingly inclusive in nature since it is not based on ethnic origins but rather on certain socio-cultural requirements. Clearly, the Malaya founding fathers had ingeniously introduced a means to embrace Malaya’s multiracial, multicultural and multilingual citizens into one – an inclusive community of citizenship whereby privileges and special position would be enjoyed by all who accepted certain conditions set by the Constitution.

    "This post is an extract from her paper "Kingship, Symbol of Malay Identity: A Traditional or Modern Concept" presented at the Malaysian Historical Society seminar, 20 June 2012, Kuala Lumpur."

    * The writer is professor of history and senior fellow at the Faculty of Humanities/ Fakulti Sains Kemanusian, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI). She is an acknowledged authority on Thai-Malaysian relations and contemporary Thai socio-politics.


    1 Syed Husin Ali, The Malays, Their Problems and Future, Kuala Lumpur, The Other Press, 2008; and Anthony Milner, The Malays, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Such similarity should serve as a warning light to us all as to the difficulty and socio-cultural complexity involved in identifying the “Malays” at the very least during the traditional period.

    2 Syed Husin Ali, 2008, p. 1. Milner does not seem to agree with this. He counter-proposes that people in such area should be known as the “Austronesian-speaking peoples”, of which “the Malay language is only one of some 1,000 languages in the entire Austronesian language family”, Anthony Milner, 2008, p. 1-2

    3 Leonard Y. Andaya, “The Search for the ‘Origins’ of Melayu”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 32, 3, 2001, pp. 315-330. Andaya’s academic observation appears to be in tune with an earlier conclusion made by a renowned Malay scholar, Prof. Ismail Hussein, who stated that the period between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries was “the golden age of Malay consciousness”. Ismail Hussein, “Between Malay and National Culture” in Malay Literature, 3, 2, 1990, pp.54-74

    4 It seems relevant here to take a glance at the word ‘Melayu’ or ‘Malayu’. The word seemed well-known by at least the second half of the seventh century. A Chinese monk I-Ching records his visit to “Moloyu [Malayu]” i.e. Jambi and not the mainland of the Malay Peninsula. So the term “Malayu/Melayu” was used during this period as a name of a well-known centre within the Malay Archipelago; it was not employed as a collective term for the people who lived within the said archipelago. It is interesting to note that some contemporary Chinese records of the fifteenth century Melaka by Chinese visitors did not once name the inhabitants of Melaka nor its rulers ‘Malay’. See Paul Wheatley, The Golden Khersonese, Kuala Lumpur, University of Malaya Press, 1961, pp.42-43; pp.321-325.

    According to another well-known Malaya administrator-scholar, Richard Winstedt, the Malays began to called themselves Malay in the thirteenth century when “Jambi or Melayu succeeded Sri Vijaya”, see R.O. Winstedt, Malaya and Its History, London, Hutchinson’s University Library, n.d., p.16. However, Winstedt did not inform us of the sources that led him to form such conclusion.

    5 See Ismail Hussein, 1990; and Anthony Milner, 2001, quoting Ismail Hussein’s work, p. 58; Barbara Watson Andaya confirms this finding, 2009, vol. I, pp. 257-276.

    6 Anthony Reid, “Understanding Melayu (Malay) as a Source of Diverse Modern Identities”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies/JSEAS, 32, 3, 2001, pp.295-313; Heather Sutherland, “The Makassar Malays: Adaptation and Identity, c.1660-1790”, JSEAS, 32, 3, 2001, pp.397-421. Yet Barbara Andaya states with such confidence in her paper that the term “orang Melayu” appears “relatively rarely in court chronicles” but “ the customary coupling ‘orang’ with a place, a negeri, be it Siak, Pahang, Kedah, Johor, or Patani, testifies to the self-conscious relationship between locality and community”, B.W. Andaya, 2009, p.258-9

    7 Frank Swettenham, 1984, “The Real Malay”, pp.2-3;
    8 Paul Wheatley, 1961, reprints I-Ching’s report on Melaka, pp.321-325
    9 Andaya, 2009, op.cit.

    10 Article 160 (2) of the 1957 Constitution. See also a good study on the Constitution by Shad Saleem Faruqi, Document of Destiny, the Constitution of the Federation of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Star Publications, 2008, especially chap.44.

    11 See Articles 152 and 153 of the 1957 Constitution; see details and some arguments on common citizenship in Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, 2011, pp. 283-289; 323-325. It should be pointed out that these privileges and special position were nothing new. As Shad Saleem Faruqi pointedly reminds his readers, both the various British – Malay Rulers treaties and the Federation of Malaya Agreements 1948 recognized the special position of the Malays and “the legitimate interests of other communities”, Shad Saleem Faruqi, 2008, pp.691-2.

    The Malay privileges and special position include Malay political supremacy (by sheer number), recognition of the special position of the Malays as indigenous community, Islam as the official religion of the nation, and Malay as the national and official language of the new nation.

    The Constitution also specifies the responsibilities of the King, the constitutional guardian of the Malay privileges and special position, for example, to monitor and determine appropriate quota to be reserved for the Malays in the recruitment into the civil service, awards of scholarships, opportunities for education and training esp. in higher learning institutions and issues of licenses and permits. Shad Saleem Faruqi, 2008, pp. 720-721.

    These privileges and position are automatic as far as the bumiputera communities in the Malay Peninsula (and later the pribumi communities of Sabah and Sarawak after the two states joined the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963) are concerned.

    There have been queries raised as to the application of the constitutional Malay privileges and special position to those non-Malay Muslim converts who have fulfilled the requirements of the constitutional Malays. For example Syed Husin Ali, 2008, p.p. 3-4.

    It is the stand of this paper that they are legally Malays and therefore are legally entitled to all privileges and special position endowed to the legally Malay citizens of Malaysia, as this must have been intended by the founding fathers when they constitutionally defined who the Malays are.


  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2013
    Malays are an ethnic group of Austronesian people predominantly inhabiting the Malay Peninsula, eastern Sumatra, southernmost parts of Thailand.

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