Malaysia and the Myth of ‘Tanah Melayu’

By Farish A. Noor

We are sustained by myths only as long as they are empowering, inspiring, instrumental and serve our interests; yet when those very same myths provide us with little else than the false comfort of an unreconstructed nostalgia for a past that never existed, then they turn into cages that imprison us for life. The myth of a unique European ‘civilisational genius’ has only helped to parochialise Europe even more; the staid discourse of ‘Asian values’ merely denies the fact that Asian civilisations would not have
developed as they did without contact with the outside world; and the myth of a pure and uninterrupted development of Indo-Aryan culture has only opened the way for the rise of right-wing Hindutva Fascists in the Indian subcontinent. Notwithstanding their claims to standing proud and tall, the demagogues who utter such pedestrian nonsense remain stunted, as their logic, on the stage of global history: testimony to the claim that those whose confidence is founded in stilts can only remain handicapped for life…

A nation that is grown up is one that is mature enough to realise that it can dispense with such myths, particularly when the honeyed nectar of mythology reveals itself as nothing more than poison. Yet poison has become our draught, and this nation of ours is ailing to the core by now.

The symptoms of the malady are all around us these days and we see them readily enough: As the asinine debate over a rap rendition of the national anthem turns bilious and takes on an increasingly racialised mien, forcing all sides to retreat to the hallowed sanctuary of communal and racial identity, the nation’s attention has been diverted from truly pressing issues concerning the economy and the spate of potentially explosive legal cases currently being fought out in the courts of the land.

The vernacular press assumes the role of champions of each respective community, and racial overtones are clearly seen and felt in the language of national politics. Yet nobody points to the real issue at stake, even if we need to discuss the rap video rendered by the young Wee Meng Chee, which surely should be this: If a young Malaysian has seen fit to deliver his
tirade against all that he sees wrong in the country in terms that are racially-determined, is this not a reflection of the racialised and divisive politics that already reigns in Malaysia, courtesy of the ruling National Front coalition led by UMNO in the first place? The racialised logic that rests in Meng Chee’s rap is only a mirror reflection of the racialised politics already at work in Malaysia already. So are we Malaysians so ashamed of ourselves that we can no longer look at ourselves squarely in the face and accept the monstrosity that stands before us today?

Yet the editorials in the vernacular press are baying for blood and Meng Chee, they insist, must be brought to book. Amidst this furore of chest-thumping theatrics and protestations of communal insult and outrage, we hear the communitarians among us blare out again and again: ‘Jangan tunduk’, ‘Defend our pride’, ‘kurang ajar’ and so forth. No, reason and rational debate are no longer welcomed in Malaysia that is ‘truly Asia’, and this homeland for some will demand its pound of flesh from others. Meng Chee is not the first and certainly will not be the last to suffer from the slighted sensitivities of those whose comfort zones and essentialised identities are sacrosanct and inviolable. Previously others have also been brought to the village tribunal of the mob for allegedly insulting race and religion as well. (Here I write from bitter experience myself.)

Yet the irony of ironies behind this tableau of flaring tempers and heated emotions is the skewered (and now silenced) appeal for us, as one nation, to remain united and to respect the diversity among us. The sonorous voice of the state trembles and falters as it mouths this language of double-speak that fails to convince: On the one hand we maintain the lie — and it is a lie, let us admit that at least — that this is a happy land of multiculturalism and diversity where every shade of colour in the pluralist rainbow is represented and has its place. On the other hand the very same mouth that utters these sweet platitudes tells us that not far beneath the diversity and pluralism that rests on the scratched surface of Malaysia is the understated understanding that some communities — or rather one in particular — deserves a better place in the sun; namely, the Bumiputeras. Why?

Have we become a schitzophrenic nation blissfully unaware of the contradictions that have become so heartbreakingly apparent to others? Meng Chee’s unpardonable ‘offence’ was to have slighted the pride and identity of one community which claims to be part of Malaysia and yet remains strangely aloof from the rest of us. The great act of treason he is accused of committing — offending the dignity of a specific community and its creed — rings hollow when we consider the bile and vitriol that has emanated from the leaders of that community itself, ranging from the drawing of daggers in public to the language of blood and belonging that has been repeated, time and again, by its leaders. The soap box orators of UMNO and its Youth Wing in particular have demanded that others respect the special rights and privileges of the Malays, while forgetting the fact that for the past five decades we — Malaysians — have had to put up with their own brand of small town politics incessantly.

Yet this discourse of communal pride and identity is sustained by one crucial myth: that this land of ours is a competed and contested territory where two nations are in constant competition: The nation-state called ‘Malaysia’ and the mythical land called ‘Tanah Melayu’.

Tanah Melayu Revisited

The skin of the demagogue is ever so sensitive, so fragile, in the face of the sound argument. As soon as the mention of a contrary idea is made, it bristles and reacts; the hand reaches for the keris; the foot steps on the soap-box; the mouth opens to utter the word ‘May’ to be followed by the cryptic number thirteen…

Perhaps the sensitivity we see can be accounted for by the fact that the corpus of postcolonial ethno-nationalist politics in this country is sustained by the singular myth that this patch of God’s earth was and is a land that ‘belongs’ to one community in particular. From that myth issues forth the other related claims to special privileges, special rights, special allocations and entitlements.

The myth is sustained by the idea put forth that prior to the coming-into-being of this nation called ‘Malaysia’ there was once this
mythical land called ‘Tanah Melayu’. Yet the historian would be hard pressed indeed to find a source to back this claim, for the embarrassing thing about our epic histories and hikayats of old is that there is scarcely a mention of the word. For years — if not more than a decade by now — I have been looking for this mythical land so loved and cherished by the young bloods and hotspurs of UMNO, yet I have never discovered it. The Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (written in stages between the late 17th to 18th centuries) does not mention it; nor does the Hikayat Patani, the Taj-us-Salatin (Mahkota Segala Raja-Raja), the Hikayat Shah Mardan, Hikayat Inderaputera, Silsilah Bugis, Hikayat Pasai, Hikayat Siak, etc.

And finally one day while trawling through the flea markets and antique bazaars of Europe I came across a dull and worn-out copper coin with the word ‘Tanah Melayu’ stamped on it, dating to the late 19th century.

Having taken it home, I looked it up in the reference books I had only to discover that it was one of those hybrid coins of dubious worth that were used in the trade between European colonial companies then stationed in Singapore and Malacca with Malay traders from the (then weakened) Malay sultanates on the Peninsula. Used as loose coinage in commercial transactions that were at best unequal and at worst exploitative to the Malay traders then, the coins had a decidedly counterfeit feel to them, and
while registering the lightness of its weight in the palm of my hand, the thought came to me: That this coin, with the word ‘Tanah Melayu’ stamped on it in Jawi alphabet, sums up the irony of the past and the painful realities of colonialism then. The Malay kingdoms had been colonised, sidelined and diminished, and all that was given back to the Malays was a dull copper coin with the myth of ‘Tanah Melayu’ stamped on it in so casual a manner.

Colonialism had robbed the natives of Asia of their lands, their history and culture; introduced the divisive politics of race and ethnicity as part of the ideology of divide and rule, and had created a plural economy where the colonial masters reigned supreme. In the decades and centuries to come the colonised subjects would be doubly colonised again as they internalised the
logic and epistemology of Empire, thereby completing the work of the colonial masters who had colonised their lands, stolen their resources, but not altered their minds.

Today, as race-based ethno-nationalist politics prevails in Malaysia and while our communities remain divided along sectarian race and religion-based lines, we lament the loss of the Malaysian ideal that was perhaps never there in the first place. The hounding of bloggers, activists and students like Meng Chee is a reminder that the frontiers of race, religion and ethnicity remain as permanent scars that have disfigured the landscape of our nation, apparently permanently.

And as the virulent voices in the vernacular editorials of the local press call for vengeance against Meng Chee, perhaps they should ask themselves this simple and honest question: For half a century now the so-called ‘non-Malays’ of Malaysia have been asked to attest their loyalty and commitment to the Malaysian idea and ideal; to relegate their cultural history to the background; to adopt the national language, culture and even dress in an attempt to assimilate to the reality of life in Malaysia.

But tell me, dear reader, how many Malays in Malaysia are truly Malaysian; and how many Malays think of themselves as Malaysian and are committed to that very same ideal of a Malaysian Malaysia? Are the Malays Malaysians who live in Malaysia? Or are the Malays still living in the mythological land of ‘Tanah Melayu’, an idea dreamt of by Orientalist scholars and administrators during the colonial era, as a worthless compensation to a people who had been colonised and whose pride was reduced to the worth of a copper coin?

End of Part 1.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 11:16 am

    Does it matter if what they believe is a myth? How important is the truth is our origin matters?

    Dr. Noor ask for ideals that are nice and he is guilty of imagining that somehow he belong to one with great ideals. That is a greater myth…

  2. #2 by Godfather on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 11:21 am

    Ask Mahathir where his father came from. Ask Badawi where his grandfather came from. Ask Shahrizat. Ask Zainuddeen Maideen. Ask Nor Mohamed Yakcop. Ask the Selangor MB. Ask Azeem of Putera UMNO.

    Somehow these UMNOputras think that they are more deserving of a place than the other pendatangs. Somehow the system elevates them to be the guardians of who gets what.

  3. #3 by k1980 on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 11:53 am

    MCA- the poison that is killing off the Chinese community for the past 50 years
    The attitude of MCA and its president can only be called at best the height of short-sightedness, and at worst cowardice that will perpetuate racial discrimination forever….Malay politicians have urged the government not to heed MCA’s call for open tenders in granting government projects as this is against the New Economic Policy.

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 12:07 pm

    Does “Tanah Melayu” extend to the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak? Unless you are using the term very, very widely to include many other races and peoples, East Malaysians would feel offended as they are “sensitive” people too, aren’t they, and don’t want to be dominated, colonised or bossed-around by West Malaysians.

    Further, will all land owned by the non-Melayus, even freehold, ultimately Malay land (“Tanah Melayu”)?

    So its time to drop this “Tanah Melayu” thing; its myopic, outdated, irrelevant, sensitive and insulting. Follow “Bahasa Malaysia” and say “Tanah Malaysia”.

  5. #5 by APKINGS on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 12:11 pm

    They just wanna to find a way to start up the FIRE.

  6. #6 by sotong on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 12:36 pm

    Whatever name she is called… one should deny the ordinary bumi, including orang Asli, the protection of their unique culture and traditions and their way of life for the benefit of generations to come.

  7. #7 by sotong on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 12:51 pm

    It’s not just MCA that betrayed the Chinese……..all component parties under UMNO leadership, betrayed their respective race for their self interests with permanent, long term and far reaching consequences on the country and her ordinary people.

    They abused their power and the trust placed on them to continue to mislead and divide the ordinary people to enrich themselves…..these are the real and most dangerous traitors of the country!!!!

  8. #8 by Jan on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 1:07 pm

    Some UMNOputras do not want open tenders because they haven’t finished screwing this country. These people do not suscribe to meritocracy and just want their cut to every contract dished out by the govt. At this rate the country will be flushed down the drain due to the selfishness of these people.
    After 50 years of independence we still find such dinosaurs living among us.

  9. #9 by ethnicmalaysian on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 2:08 pm

    The only Hikayat that really matters is Hikayat UMNO. All other Hikayats are superflous and redundant.

  10. #10 by ployd on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 2:27 pm

    Well said Sotong.

  11. #11 by ethnicmalaysian on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 3:18 pm

    When UMNO says that you have insulted race and religion and that you are a traitor, then wear it as a badge of honour. If fascists and supremacists say that you are a traitor to the cause, then you must have done something right and that you are on the right path. You should be really worried if UMNO starts praising you and putting you on a lofty pedestal, because it means you have turned your back on everything that is positive, rational and just.

  12. #12 by anakbaram on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 3:19 pm

    Thank You Sheriff Singh for your remark “Does “Tanah Melayu” extend to the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak?” I can’t agree more.

    As a matter of fact with this type of statement and the attitude of these partisans I have no doubt that the Sarawakians and the Sabahan are not even considered. This would surely marginalize especially the natives of the two eastern states, by this type of remarks they would be made to look as not Malaysians at all. What more when those from the Peninsular Malaysia often refer to the Peninsular as “back in Malaysia” when they refer to Peninsular Malaysia. For me I often answer “You mean back in Malaya?”

  13. #13 by michgyver on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 3:27 pm

    the country are now governed not by the melayu but melayu celup. if the grandfather of the abdullah is from pakistan, have roots from hainan, china and yet can become a bumiputera, y not us where our great-great grandparents settle here much more earlier than him.

  14. #14 by Jan on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 6:35 pm

    I read that Tian Chua’s nenek moyang came to Malacca 500 years ago. If that’s true how come he’s not a bumiputra?
    I also read that some Indonesians who came less than 50-60 years ago can become bumis and even have their children becoming mentri besars. There’s some kind of discrimination going on behind our back.

  15. #15 by UFOne on Thursday, 23 August 2007 - 10:07 pm

    Our forefathers did not detect the hidden agenda of the Melayu and Islam then but may be a lot of the Melayu then did not know what is in the long term plan of their fellow leaders. The day somebody came up with the word Malay for this country, that’s the day they laid the foundation for Melayu and Islam supremacy. Our forefathers failed to strongly insist on another name; a more neutral one for this country. Now they leave us with a legacy; a legacy to fight for equality. 50 years ago, the Melayu made the loudest cry for independence. They were supported by the non Melayu. In a way, it is only fair for them to have their way. But if they have a true sense of honesty, they would know that the people inhabiting this land were the orang asli and all the natives in Sarawak and Sabah. So our history is already laced with lies. Now the orang asli are persuaded to convert to Muslims. The natives in East Malaysia convert when they marry Melayu Islam. Some say Melayu originally came from Southern China. Some say they came from Indonesia. Whatever it is, they too were immigrants.

  16. #16 by buntal on Monday, 27 August 2007 - 11:06 am

    Malaysia is not as “prosperous” as it is now without Sabah and Sarawak. That’s where the most valuable assets come from-the oil and gas. Generally, the people in East Malaysia have better lives than in the West. Feel betrayed by the Malaysian Governement where a big portion of the country’s revenue is generated from the East Malaysia but we, here ,are sometimes ‘isolated’. Anyway we, in Sarawak are not so fond of the 5oth Celebration of Independence. We’re only going towards our 39 years of our so-called independence this September. Life was much better during the British colonial especially in the education system that was implemented to us. Tell me how many of our Primary 6 students can speak good English today? It was much better for those who made it through to Primary 6 45 years ago. Their English is far better off than our Form 5 students now. What a BIG difference! The 1st PM is responsible for this.

  17. #17 by Michael Chick on Tuesday, 28 August 2007 - 6:14 pm

    Coming from the pure historical point of view, there was never mention of “Tanah Melayu” per se. However, if you delve into actually reading historical content, you would be quite surprised with what you will find. “Sejarah Melayu” would have been a good starting point. Hikayat Abdullah would be another. Interestingly, Hikayat Siak contains material which does not really agree with Sejarah Melayu, although the authoring is roughly the same. Check it out. Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka is selling it in KL. Where is Prof Khoo Khay Khim when we really need him to verify this? BTW he also knows that the Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir, Hang Lekiu are related to Hang Li Poh. Have you seen their graves in Malacca? They look suspiciously Indian. Hmmmm…..

    Research, my friends, research……..

    Please see:

    for a more indepth understanding of this subject matter.

    Also, if you ask any Javanese, they will tell you that “melayu” simply means “fugitive” and that “tanah melayu” would mean “the land which the fugitive went to”.

    The only other explaination would be from the Tamil word “malai” from the days of Lembah Bujang 2,000yrs ago, which literally transalates into “hill people”

    I believe in educating people through my films. You mentioned Orang Asli and Bumiputera somewhere above. Download and watch the full trailer at Then comment on what you saw…. Cheers

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