‘Modern’ Malays not so pure: M’sian study

“In response to an Article by Michael Chick in 2008, about the “Malays not being a race”,  Professor Zilfalil Alwi, of USM has conducted DNA research on Malays in Malaysia. The following article provides more information.

By Diyana Ibrahim, The Brunei Times

A MODERN Malay cannot be easily identified based on physical characteristics alone, said a medical geneticist from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), who presented a paper at the 2nd Borneo History Seminar held at the International Convention Centre last week.

“‘Modern Malays’ are an admixture of races,” said Professor Zilfalil Alwi, whose paper “Asal Usul Melayu Berdasarkan Fakta Genetik” (Tracing the Origins of the Malays by Analysing Genetic Data) discusses a three-year study involving around 50,000 volunteers.

“Nowadays you can’t tell the difference whether someone is Chinese or Malay by appearance alone,” he added. 

A recently completed study conducted by USM researchers yielded genetic evidence to support this theory, he continued. Subjects included those from five Malay sub-ethnic groups (the Malay Bugis, Malay Jawa, Malay Minang, Malay Kedah and Malay Kelantan) found in the Malay Peninsula. 

These subjects were first interviewed to ascertain that they are Muslims, speak local Malay dialect and come from at least three generations of Malay, with both parents as Malays. They must also give consent to the use of their blood samples as research material.

Professor Zilfalil explained that the genome of each subject were extracted from each of these blood samples one genome is one complete set of genetic information of a particular individual. Genetic markers called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were then identified for each genome. 

The distance between two particular genetic markers determined the genetic composition of each Malay subjects.

The research discovered that the Malays in these sub-ethnic groups were genetically composed of some Proto-Malay (orang asli Melayu), Semang and Indian DNA, with at least 20 per cent Malay and and 52 per cent Chinese DNA.

“This finding corresponds with a theory that these Malays originated from Austronesia in Yunnan, China,” Professor Zilfalil said, ” with the first wave of migration from Austronesia to Southeast Asia occurring in 25, 000 BC and the second one in 1, 500 BC”.

The professor added that “the Malay language used in the Malay Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak also belongs to the Austronesian stock”.

Another theory presented by Professor Zilfalil was that early Malays could also be Indian priests who came to the Malay peninsula to spread Hinduism.

From the research results, the professor explained that the Kelantan Malays, Kedah (Lembah Bujang) Malays and Pattani Malays were clustered together based on their DNA composition. This is how he genetically concluded that Kelantan is the “cradle of Malay culture”.

Meanwhile, the Malay-Hindu Langkasuka kingdom, which was founded in Pattani (today’s Southern Thailand) in around 200 AD, was believed to be one of the oldest kingdoms on the Malay Peninsula.

From his presentation, the ‘Indianisation’ of the Malay peninsula was described in early Chinese accounts, where there was a Hindu kingdom in the lower Mekong Basin called Funan during the third century. The ‘Indianisation’ process then culminated in the seventh century with the development of the Srivijaya kingdom.

Kedah was previously the headquarters for the Srivijaya empire and an important entreport for Arab traders. It was in Lembah Bujang, Kedah that the first Malay settlement was found.

Professor Zilfalil presented his research paper on October 18.