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Who is Malay?

A month or two ago, a reader of Yawning Bread sent me an email which mentioned a blog that she shared with her husband. I took a quick look at the blog and saw an interesting diary note about the husband going to Singapore’s Immigration department, demanding to change his race as recorded in his official registration documents.
He had been recorded as Malay, but being born in Java, he didn’t see himself as Malay, and eventually, after some difficulty, managed to get the records changed to ‘Javanese’.

To the average Joe, Ahmad or Tan Ah Lian in Singapore, this would be quite a strange episode. Most people here have bought into the political construction of ‘Malay’ as espoused by Malaysian politics, which is to use the term very broadly encompassing all native peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia, perhaps as far east as the Maluku islands.

How odd that someone born in Java does not consider himself Malay! Doesn’t he look Malay? Doesn’t he have the skin complexion of a Malay? Doesn’t he speak Malay-Indonesian?

It now compels us to step out from the political construction of ‘Malay’ into asking what, anthropologically, ‘Malay’ means.

The early migration

According to a paper, The search for the origins of ‘Melayu’, by Leonard Y Andaya, published by the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2001, the first groups of humans, some of whom eventually became Malays, began migrating out of Taiwan in 4000 – 3000 BCE. Others have suggested eastern China as the springboard.

They first went over to Luzon and other Philippine islands and then by about 2000 BCE, reached northern Borneo. Other groups drifted southwards to Mindanao, Sulawesi, the Malukus, and eventually eastern and central Java.

Who is Malay?

It is the group that reached Borneo that interests us. By around 1500 BCE, they had reached the western side of that island, and it is believed by researchers studying the languages of the native tribes still there, this was where an early form of the Malay language, proto-Malay, first emerged.
From the western coast of Borneo, a new wave of migration, from 1500 – 500 BCE, took them across the Karimata Straits and the Java Sea to Sumatra and the Western tip of Java. With time, they moved on up the Straits of Malacca, settling the Malayan Peninsula, as indicated by the paprika arrows in map above.

One can guess from the routes taken, that these groups of people, starting off from Taiwan or eastern China, were seafaring folk, and for centuries, their settlements were never far from the coast or riverine routes.

However, the archipelago that they came into was not entirely uninhabited. In places, they met pre-existing populations of two kinds: a much darker race related to the Australian Aborigines, and another group which researchers call the Southern Mongoloid, as their facial features look Asian rather than Aboriginal. No doubt some interbreeding took place, but by and large, the pre-existing populations were pushed into the interiors.

The beginning of Malay culture

Language is one thing, genetic ethnicity is another, but culture is a separate thing again. There is a general consensus that Malay culture began with the Sri Vijaya kingdom, the first significant polity to use Malay. This kingdom was situated in southeast Sumatra.

A number of stone inscriptions dating form the 7th century found near Palembang – believed to be the capital of Sri Vijaya – used Old Malay, though written in the Pallava script. The Pallava script was then current for Southern India and Sri Lanka.

Indian traders had been arriving in both mainland and archipelagic Southeast Asia since the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, bringing with them Hinduism and Buddhism (the Mahayana version of which would prevail over Hinayana). While most kingdoms in Java and the Khmer lands were at that time Hindu, Sri Vijaya was a Buddhist kingdom.

The terminology used here

For the benefit of those not familiar with the region, let me explain the terms used.

Malay – an ethnic and linguistic group, the history and boundaries of which are discussed here.

Malaya – a geographic term indicating the peninsula stretching south from Thailand (the dark green in the map below)

Malaysia – a 20th century political state that includes Malaya and parts of northern Borneo. (the dark green + light green in the map)

Note: not all Malaysians are Malays, and not all Malays are Malaysians.

A Chinese monk, Yijing, passing through Sri Vijaya a few times on his way to India to study Buddhism between 671 and 695 CE, noted that Sri Vijaya was a major centre of Buddhist learning in its own right.
Having said that, there was also a lot of syncretism between these two religions (and cultural practices), pre-existing local cultural practices and animism.

Other historians add that Jambi was equally a centre of Malay civilisation in those early days. At times, Jambi might have been a part of Sri Vijaya, at other times independent. The historical record is not clear on this. Interestingly, a Chola-Tanjore inscription of 1030 CE clearly distinguishes between ‘Sri Vijaya’ and a land called ‘Malaiyur’, which is believed to be Jambi.

At that period, Chola was the chief power ruling over much of Southeastern India and Sri Lanka. It had extensive trade links with Southeast Asia and even invaded Sri Vijaya in 1017, 1025 and 1068 CE, contributing to the latter’s decline.

Regardless of how much Jambi or Sri Vijaya contributed to the development of Malay culture, the fact remains that it first flourished on the Sumatran side of the Straits of Malacca. These kingdoms’ wealth was based on trade flowing through the Straits. They didn’t just tax the trade passing through, it was their ships which carried much of the cargo. It is also believed that they planted settlements on the Malayan side of the Straits, e.g. in Kedah, and in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago, to collect valuable local produce that could be traded with China, India and the Angkor empire.

Interesting research has shown that at that time, the local populations in the northern part of Malaya were related to the Mon-Khmers. This would be consistent with the fact that at that time, the Mon-Khmers were the dominant race over mainland Southeast Asia, prior to the southward migration of the Burmans, Thais and the Vietnamese.

The decline of Sri Vijaya and the privileging of the Malacca story

After the 10th century, the Javanese kingdoms began to eclipse Sri Vijaya and Jambi, and by the 14th century, the new kingdom of Majapahit based in eastern Java conquered most of Sumatra. While Majapahit was not Malay, but Javanese (and Hindu), by then the tradition of seafaring trade developed by the Sumatrans had been well established. So it continued that Malay would be the language of trade and diplomatic contact in the region, even if, outside of southeastern Sumatra and coastal bits of Borneo and Malaya, it wasn’t anyone’s mother tongue.

This is akin to the role played by English in Asia today.

In the late 14th century, with the collapse of Sri Vijaya, a prince from Palembang, probably under pressure from the more powerful Javanese, fled across to the Malayan peninsula, and established a new base at Malacca.

From this point on, the political construction of ‘Malay’ began. To give legitimacy to his new kingdom, an exercise in historical revisionism was required.

… the Melaka court asserted its centrality in the Melayu world through a court document entitled Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy/Descent of Kings). Better known as the Sejarah Melayu, it is a document that makes Melaka the measure of all things Melayu.

— Leonard Y Andaya

Malacca had a brief flowering of about 100 years before the Portuguese came and conquered it. However, to this day, the Malaysian national story uses the Malacca state as the launching pad of Malay and Malaysian identity.

By doing so, it displaces the origins of the Malay people and culture from the Sumatran side of the Straits of Malacca to the Malayan side, and downgrades the contribution of Sri Vijaya (which lasted some 6 or 7 centuries) in favour of the later and shorter-lived Malacca. The fact that the peninsula was perhaps more Mon-Khmer than Malay prior to the 14th century has largely been erased. The fact that the pensinsula was marginal to the Malay cultural world (though part of the trading network) prior to the founding of Malacca has also been wished away.

Instead, the revised history paints the Malay rulers and Malay society on the Peninsula as indigenous, when in truth, they were gradual transplants from the other side of the straits, over an existing, but pre-historic population whose origins are uncertain.

Another possible motivation for using Malacca as the starting point for the Malay story is that Malacca was the first Malay kingdom to be Muslim. Although Aceh had become Muslim before, the Acehnese were distinct from the Malays. Perhaps the need to essentialise the Islamic facet to Malay identity makes it problematic to give Buddhist Sri Vijaya and other preceding Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms their due as the first flowering of Malay civilisation.

Sumatra never ceased being Malay and memories of the glory of Sri Vijaya never faded. Polities on that island continued to flower, claiming descent from that golden age. The Malay Siak kingdom on the Sumatran coast had a rival text to Malacca’s, called Hikayat Siak. The Minangkabau in central Sumatra also had theirs, also called the Sejarah Melayu, while Aceh in the north became as vigorous a trading state as Malacca. It too wrote its own national story to buttress its claim to political, economic, religious and literary leadership of the region — the Hikayat Aceh.

All these texts contest the Malaccan claim as inheritor of the Sri Vijayan lineage.

Indonesian scholars place more emphasis on these rival texts than Malaysians, but it is hard to say the contest is still going on the same way as before.

The chief difference is that modern Indonesia is much more than Sumatra. In fact, Java dominates the Indonesian landscape, politically, economically and culturally. The Indonesians are more concerned with what it means to be Indonesian, while the Malaysians are still concerned with what it means to be Malay.

The way they frame their national languages tells you a lot.

Contemporaneous with early Sri Vijaya were the Buddhist Sailendra kingdom and the Hindu Matarm kingdom in central Java. The world’s largest temple complex, Borodudur, was built by the Sailendras. At the same time, the Angkor kingdom was contending with the Cham kingdom for dominance over the lower Mekong. Both were Hindu-Buddhist too.

Malay centres and their neighbours


In Malaysia, the national language is Malay; in Indonesia, it is Indonesian. The Malaysians tend to assert that Malay and Indonesian are merely different varieties of the same language, while the Indonesians tend to treat them as separate, albeit related, languages. The result of this attitude is that the Indonesians feel little need to synchronise their language with Malaysia and Brunei, whereas the Malaysians are keener to coordinate the evolution of the language with the Indonesians. Why this difference? Where does the truth lie?

In my conversations with Indonesians, I get the feeling that their national pride comes from wanting to be a modern country, free from colonialism to be sure, but also free from a feudal past. Except for their pride in Majapahit as a golden age of a Javanese empire whose power touched most other archipelagic islands, they don’t need references to historical grandeur to know who they are. Their modern romantic references are firstly to the heroic resistance to the Dutch colonisers and secondly a common vision that united different ethnic groups from thousands of islands into a modern secular republic.

Malaysia’s emotional needs are different. First of all, the Malays form only a slight majority (if one excludes the native peoples of Borneo) in their own country. There is a need for reaffirmation of their identity against the older civilisational legacies that the Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia can boast of. Thus, there is a tendency to over-romanticise Malacca for their origins and a tendency to create a picture of a bigger Malay world, encompassing all of Indonesia as well.

This rubs off onto Singaporeans, giving rise to the way we see all people of the archipelago, Javanese included, as Malays.

Where does the truth lie?

A researcher [1] took some texts from 2 Indonesian newspapers (each text being about 300 words) and showed them to 81 Malaysians fluent in Malay.

According to his report,

For each text, the respondents were asked to mark the items that appeared to them as odd, unintelligible or unusual in terms of spelling, meaning, word-form, and style. The result showed that the odd, unintelligible and unusual items made up 30% of the totality of the two texts.

The difficulties encountered were various. They included differences in spelling, and the use of unfamiliar acronyms and abbreviations and loan words from other languages used to mean something quite different.

Excluding these, which the researcher said were not internal to the language, there still remained an uncrackable hard core (some 10% of the texts) of words that the Malaysians had never seen before, or words and phrases which, while appearance-wise looked familiar, were used in ways they found strange and even unintelligible.

For the sake of comparison, the researcher repeated the exercise using texts from Brunei. The figure for the uncrackable hard core in this case was just 0.7%. Thus Brunei Malay and Malaysian Malay could be said to be the same language, while the claim that differences with Indonesian are no more than differences between British and American English, is shown up to be more wishful thinking than fact.

Spoken Indonesian is even more difficult to bridge, because pronunciation is substantially affected by the sound sets and intonation prevailing in the speaker’s local language such as Javanese, Madurese and Amboinese.

But what is Indonesian? And where did it come from?

The Indonesian language

The Indonesian independence movement began in the first decades of the 20th century. Many dissident groups formed, but in 1928, they got together and issued a pledge, among whose items included a goal-statement about language.

It said, “We, the young men and women of Indonesia, revere one language of unity, and that is the Indonesian language.”

It was the first time the term “Bahasa Indonesia” was used officially, and it seemed to have referred to the variation of the Malay language these groups were using among themselves for inter-group communication. This was probably a descendent of the trading language dating from the Sri Vijaya days.

There is nothing in the historical record to show how they arrived at this decision to adopt the Malay trading language as the official Indonesian language. There is no evidence that they debated the merits or demerits of other high languages extant in the archipelago, particularly Javanese, which had an even larger number of speakers than Malay and a considerable literary opus.

After independence, Indonesian was made the official language of the new republic and taught widely in schools. Naturally, it evolved over time and no doubt is still influenced provincially, by other local languages.

Does speaking Indonesian make Indonesians Malay?

So this is where we get to the nub of the matter. Does speaking Indonesian make Indonesians Malay – ethnically and culturally? This is assuming that Indonesian and Malay is the same language, a point that has been discussed above, and a debatable one at that.

The political construction coming out of Malaysia tends towards a ‘yes’. They speak of a Malay world and the Malay-Indonesian language in the singular.

Having said that, the Malaysians do recognise finer distinctions between between Malay and other indigenous peoples, such as the Kadazan, the Penan and the Murut of Sarawak and Sabah (the Borneo part of Malaysia). But one detects a tendency to treat the notion of ‘Malay’ as both the core and reference group, as well as a general term encompassing all the indigenous people stretching from Southern Thailand to the Malukus. From this dual usage is created a claim to a larger cultural canvas and history (to match the Chinese and Indian), as well as a positioning of the Malacca-Malay experience (which conveniently is geographically within modern Malaysia) as the fulcrum of that history.

Ethno-linguistic map of Indonesia and Timor Leste

Who is Malay?

From the Indonesian side, it is probably a ‘no’ or a ‘who cares?’ While Malaysia needs the Indonesians to buttress their sense of Malay, the Indonesians are quite comfortable being Indonesian at one level, and Javanese, Dayak, Balinese, Acehnese, etc, at another level. In fact, the underlying political agenda is the need to keep the concept of Indonesia inclusive of a multitude of ethnic and linguistic communities spread across 17,000 islands. To overemphasise Malayness would be alienating and divisive, just as to overemphasise Javanese identity and culture would be too, their greater numbers and richer history notwithstanding. Thus, understandably, the Indonesian construction of ethnic and linguistic identity/identities would be to distance themselves from Malaysian Malay.
Singapore is neither Malaysia nor Indonesia. We don’t have to take sides in this debate. But being in between the two, we need to understand the history and perspectives.

Our particular problem is that since this group, whatever we call them, form a smallish minority in Singapore, we hardly even bother to educate ourselves about them and their histories. Not only do we, as a consequence of a common British and Malayan experience, tend to adopt the broader Malaysian construction of ‘Malay’, we even fail to adopt the Malaysian consciousness of sub-groups, as they have, with reference to the Ibans, etc. In Singapore, we just use one term — ‘Malay’ — for everyone whose origins are archipelagic Southeast Asian, except those from the Philippines. Ours is an even more offhand, sweeping usage than the Malaysians.

In a way, we speak like the uncritical colonialists of the 19th century, examples of whose writing can be seen in the bigger of the two yellow boxes on the right.


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