Knowing the Malays

Ranjit Singh Malhi, Malaysiakini

The Malays are the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, forming about 58 percent of the nation’s population, with the vast majority of them residing in Peninsular Malaysia.

They form about 24 percent of the population in Sarawak and less than 10 percent in Sabah. Outside Malaysia, there are approximately nine million Malays in Indonesia (mainly Riau Archipelago and the coastal areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan), two million in southern Thailand, 600,000 in Singapore, and about 330,000 in Brunei.

The “Malay World”, on the one hand as propagated by some Malay scholars and activists, encompasses currently more than 350 million people inhabiting areas from Easter Island in the East to Madagascar in the West, to Taiwan in the North, and New Zealand in the South.

Such a broad categorisation includes virtually every group of inhabitants in the Malayo-Polynesian-speaking world.

On the other hand, most scholars concur with the more circumscribed and less ambiguous description of the “Malay world” as propounded by Benjamin: Isthmian Thailand; Peninsular Malaysia; Singapore; the central-east coast parts of Sumatra; much of coastal northern, western and southern Borneo; Brunei; parts of Malaysian Sarawak; and parts of Indonesian Kalimantan.

Who then are the Malays? Where did they originate from? Where exactly is the homeland of the Malays? What does it mean to be a Malay (Malayness)?

Who are the Malays?

The term “Malay” can be viewed from various perspectives including ethnicity, language, culture and polity.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Malays are an Austronesian ethnic group of the Malay Peninsula and portions of adjacent islands of Southeast Asia, including the east coast of Sumatra, coastal Borneo and smaller islands that lie between these areas.

These locations are today part of the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Thailand, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam.

According to Mpu Prapanca, a Majapahit court poet, in his poem “Desawarnana” (also known as “Nagarakretagama”) written in 1365 listed the names of the “lands of Melayu” which were spread out along the entire east coast of Sumatra, as well as around the west coast to Barus and the interior areas of Minangkabau.

LY Andaya in his book “Leaves of the Same Tree: Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka” (2008) states that the Malays, as an ethnonym, “referred first to the communities living in southeast Sumatra and later came to include those settled along both coasts and in the central and northern interior areas of the island”.

He added further that from the 15th century onwards, the ethnonym was also applied to those living on the Malay Peninsula who were descendants of Malay immigrants from Sumatra.

Similarly, OW Wolters in his book “The fall of Srivijaya in Malay history” (1970) states that the south-eastern coast of Sumatra “was the heartland of the Malay sea-faring people”.

During British colonial rule in Malaya, the definition of a “Malay” was first officially used in the Malay Reservations Enactment 1913, initially enforced in the Federated Malay States and later extended to the Unfederated Malay States.

For purposes of this enactment, a “Malay” was a “person belonging to any Malayan race who habitually speaks the Malay language or any Malayan language and professes the Moslem religion”.

Based upon this definition, immigrants from the then Dutch East Indies (presently Indonesia) were eligible to hold Malay Reservation lands.

Interestingly, in British Malaya’s 1921 census, the term “Malay” included all Peninsular Malays and all Sumatran Malays – except Achehnese, Kerinci and Mandailing. For the record, the Javanese, Banjarese, Boyanese, Bugis, Acehnese and Kerinci were then regarded as “Other Malaysians” and not “Malays proper”.

Again, the British colonial demographic count primarily referred to the Sumatran origin of the Malays.

Subsequently, our nation’s Federal Constitution has defined a “Malay” much more broadly: A “Malay” (besides fulfilling certain residential requirements) is one who habitually speaks Malay, conforms to Malay customs, and is a follower of Islam.

This constitutional definition, which makes no mention of ethnic origins, has paved the way for the inclusion of individuals from other ethnic groups, including children of mixed parentage.

As observed by Anthony Milner in his book “The Malays” (2008), the category “Malay” is a very fluid one as “certain people claim ‘Malay’ identity in one situation and Javanese, Indian or Arab identity in another.”

Origin of the ethnonym ‘Melayu’

The origin of the ethnonym “Melayu” (Malay) is uncertain. According to “Sejarah Melayu” or the “Malay Annals”, it can be traced to Sumatra’s Sungai Melayu. Another explanation is that it originated from the Tamil words “malai” (hill) and “ur” (town), meaning a hill town.

One popular meaning, as expressed by LY Andaya, is that the ethnonym “Melayu” derives from “melaju” meaning “to flee” as the Malays had supposedly fled to their new homes on the Malay Peninsula.

Indeed, Parameswara – the founder of the glorious Malacca sultanate – was a refugee Malay prince who fled from Palembang, Sumatra in the early 1390s with his band of followers.

Interestingly, the first mention of the word “Melayu” apparently appears in Chinese records i.e., the ruler of “Mo-lo-yu” or “Malayu”, a Sumatran kingdom based in the Jambi region sent a mission to the royal court of China in 644 CE. This word survives until today as the name of a river in the Jambi area in East Sumatra.

Origins of the Malays

Regarding the origins of the Malays, most scholars accept the “Out-of-Taiwan” hypothesis, attributed to archaeologist Peter Bellwood and linguist Robert Blust.

Indeed, BW Andaya and LY Andaya in their book “A History of Malaysia” (2017), too, concur that the origins of modern Malay can be traced to the Austronesian migrants who came to Southeast Asia from Taiwan.

According to this theory, Austronesians migrated from southern China to Taiwan – the home of the ancestors of the Austronesians – around 6,000 years ago.

From about 4,000 years ago, some groups of Austronesians moved out of Taiwan to the Philippines, and about 3,500 years ago to northern Borneo, Sulawesi and Central Java.

Subsequently, there was a further movement of Austronesians to Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula about 2,000 years ago.

A competing hypothesis to the “Out-of-Taiwan” hypothesis is the “Out-of-Sundaland” hypothesis, favoured by a few researchers, including Stephen Oppenheimer, an Oxford geneticist. According to them, the homeland of the Austronesians was the Sundaland landmass – which was drowned during the end of the last glacial period by rising sea levels.

Proponents of this hypothesis point to the ancient origins of mtDNA in Southeast Asian populations, pre-dating the Austronesian expansion, as proof that the Austronesians originated from within Island Southeast Asia (ISEA).

However, this “Out-of-Sundaland” hypothesis has been repudiated by studies using whole genome sequencing, which has found that all ISEA populations had genes originating from the aboriginal Taiwanese.

Furthermore, as reiterated by ME Phipps, an authority on the genetic history of Asians, it would be erroneous to draw conclusions about human ancestry, evolution and migration based on mtDNA alone, without taking into account nuclear genomes and the bigger picture.

Malay migration to Peninsular Malaysia

According to NN Dodge in his article, “Population Estimates for the Malay Peninsula in the Nineteenth Century, with Special Reference to the East Coast States” (1980), the estimated population of Malays in the Malay Peninsula (including Patani) during the 1830s was about 630,000. The Malays then were mainly concentrated in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Pahang, Perak and Johor.

Subsequently, the number of Malays in Peninsular Malaysia increased from about 1.2 million in 1911 to about 2.2 million in 1947. In 1947, Indonesian immigrants belonging to other ethnic groups (including Javanese, Banjarese, Mandailing, Bugis, Acehnese and Kerinci) were categorised as “Other Malaysians” totalling 265,803.

These ethnic groups settled mainly in the west coast states of central and southern Peninsular Malaysia.

Development of Malay language and culture

Linguistically, “Malay” belongs to a linguistic subgroup called “Malayic” which developed from a common ancestral language, “Proto Malay”. As stated by KA Adelaar, a renowned specialist in Austronesian comparative linguistics, the original homeland of the Malay language is most probably West Borneo.

According to Blust, the Malay language started emerging at the beginning of the first century CE. Subsequently, a group of Malayic speakers moved to South Sumatra, built their own maritime empire, became Indianised, gave the Malay language its literary form, and developed a new identity.

According to Blust and Adelaar, the Malay cultural homeland is southeast Sumatra. The Malay culture developed in the early Sumatran polities of Srivijaya and Melayu (Malayu) between the seventh and 14th centuries CE.

Subsequently, in the 15th century, the Malacca sultanate became, in the words of LY Andaya, “the standard-bearer” of Malay culture, including royal court traditions, traditional dress, literature, culinary traditions and martial arts.

Furthermore, it was during the Malacca sultanate era that the common definitive markers of “Malayness” as we know it today – Islam, the Malay language and cultural traditions – were promulgated.

It should be noted that the early Malays were animists, believing in spirits that dwell in objects and nature. Subsequently, they became Hindu Buddhists from about the fifth to the 14th century.

From the 15th century onwards, the Malays in Malacca embraced Islam – which gradually became the most professed religion of the Malay Peninsula.

After the capture of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511, Aceh became the main polity in the Malay world during the 16th and most of the 17th century. In the late 17th century, Johor replaced Aceh as the centre of the “Malay world”.

Summing up, the term “Malay” in Malaysia, which was initially restricted ethnically to people originating from Sumatra, has been extended to encompass other ethnic groups within the “Malay world” due to assimilation.

Additionally, a large proportion of Malays have a mixed ethnic background with Indian, Chinese, Arab and Siamese blood. What binds them together basically is their core Islamic faith and the Malay language.