Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, CPI
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.