European Intrusions Into The Malay World

M. Bakri Musa
Sept. 7, 2015

[After last weekend’s mass protest against the nation’s entrenched corrupt and incompetent leadership, I reflect on a moment in our colonial history. If Merdeka has any meaning it is this – our freedom to express our views. We have to remind ourselves and our leaders of this, and often, lest it be forgotten. As we celebrate the nation’s 58th anniversary of independence, I salute those brave Malaysians of Bersih 4. May you succeed! Your courage humbles and inspires me.]

The Europeans entered the Malay world a few centuries after the arrival of Islam. First were the Portuguese in 1509, followed by the Dutch and finally the British.

Unlike those early Muslims, the Europeans came not to trade, at least initially, but as explorers during their Age of Discovery. Only when they saw the abundance of the rich natural resources of the land did they go beyond mere exploring.

With their primordial form of capitalism of the heartless and exploitative variety so well captured in Dickens’ many novels, it did not take long for their greed to manifest itself and be all-consuming. Like all capitalists, they were obsessed with domination, and that quickly expanded beyond mere trading. Colonial aspirations soon followed.

Preoccupied with commerce, those ancient Portuguese were not interested in converting the natives though that was the penchant with old-world Catholics. Yes, there were priests hauled along to bless their mission, if nothing else. Consumed as they were with profits they could not be bothered with the salvation of the heathens. Either that or those Europeans were aware of the fate of the crusaders and knew better than to try and convert the already Muslim natives.

The Portuguese did try, and suffered the consequences. Their brief stay in Malacca was characterized by frequent warfare with the natives there and elsewhere in the region. It spilled over even to faraway China where the Portuguese also received a far-from-warm welcome. The Spaniards had better luck in the Philippines.

Capitalism was a far more powerful cause and master than spreading their Catholic faith, the crude and bumbling initial attempts by the Portuguese excepted. Those Europeans were not at all interested in the natives except when they interfered with trading. Then they were removed in the most brutal and efficacious way.

Thus began European colonial rule, initially more as a scheme to increase trade and less at empire building. Colonization was an extension of their capitalistic and exploitative culture.

It is in the nature of humans to carry things to extremes, to test the outer limits. So it was with the capitalistic exploitation by the early Europeans. Slavery was very much an integral part of that, limited only much later when it shamed their Christian sensitivity. That dampened their activities somewhat, only to be resurrected under a new guise, the banner of the “White Man’s burden.” In their fervent belief, Almighty God had imposed upon them the divine mission to salvage the lot of “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child!” to quote Kipling’ s poetry.

With their ethnocentric worldview and confident of their own sense of God-given superiority and entitlement, those early Europeans were not in the least interested in learning the ways and cultures of the natives or in any way interacting with them.

As a consequence, the impact on and reaction from the Malay society to the arrival of the European traders could not be more different than with the earlier Muslim ones. While Malays readily welcomed the Muslim traders and embraced their faith, treating them more as enlighteners, in striking contrast our ancestors had nothing but contempt for the European colonizers. No doubt the feeling was mutual.

A measure of contempt for those European traders-turned-colonizers, especially the Dutch, can be gauged by such expressions as a “Dutch deal.” Legend has it that an early Dutch trader was bargaining to buy a piece of land from a native. “Only the area covered by this piece of buffalo hide!” the foreigner pleaded.

The trusting native readily agreed; after all he could do without such a small plot of land. Imagine his horror when the trader began slicing the hide into a long thin strip and then began laying it over the property and claiming everything within it! Not even the most crooked lawyer could have thought of such a sly scheme. In Malay culture such a deed was considered duplicitous if not outright fraudulent and a breach of faith. To the Dutch and perhaps also in a few other cultures, it was a shrewd if not brilliant move.

If you visit Malacca today you can still see the distinctively red-colored museum and other buildings, remnants of the earlier Dutch settlement. It is said that the red color is due to the permanent stain of the betel nut juice those ancient natives contemptuously spitted on those buildings, a measure of their scorn for the Dutch.

While those early Dutch traders obviously thought they had the better end of the deal – they did, at least in the short term – in the long-term, well, those red buildings are perpetual reminders of the natives’ contempt for them.

There are others. The best is reflected in the expression, Bini Belanda (Dutch wife), referring to the long white fluffy bolster found in the bedrooms of Malays, only good to rest your legs on and the occasional cuddle when you are lonely, but not much else! Then there is Orang Belanda (Dutch people), the proboscis monkey with its distinctive large white nose.

Both Islam and Christianity are known for their proselytizing zeal. The ancient Muslim traders by not focusing on converting Malays but only on being good Muslims in their trading activities and other dealings with the natives ended up being effective propagators of their faith. Meanwhile the Catholic Portuguese and Protestant Dutch, otherwise and elsewhere famed for their equally fanatical zeal at conversions, forceful if necessary, ended up merely being the butt of cruel Malay jokes.

The credit should not all go to the Muslim traders or the blame entirely on those early European colonizers. The large and as yet unexamined question is why did Malays react warmly to and be so welcoming of the Muslim traders but became downright hostile to the later European traders? Here I attribute the differences in attitudes and behaviors between the Muslim and European traders to account for the varying receptions of the natives.

Viewed from another perspective, what is it about Malay society which before the coming of Islam was so welcoming of foreign people and ideas while after adopting Islam became so hostile to the Portuguese, Dutch, and other foreigners.

There is a price – and not a small one – to be paid later for that general hostility to foreigners and foreign ideas when Malaysia fell under a less malevolent colonial power. I will explore that in my analysis of our responses to British intervention in our affairs.

This antipathy towards foreigners and foreign ideas still persists to this day. This insularity is a major handicap for us in facing up to the challenges of and seizing the opportunities afforded by this era of increasing globalization.

Next: Soft Spot For The British

This essay is based on the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

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