Farewell to the Homogenous Malay

(Note: This is the English version of the same article that will published soon as part of the compilation of articles by Dr. Farish A. Noor, entitled “Di Balik Malaysia: Dari Majapahit Ke Putrajaya”)

By Farish A. Noor

‘Takkan Melayu Hilang di Dunia’ (Never Shall the Malays Cease to Be): Hang Tuah’s legendary call to arms rings a note of defiance laced with anxiety and speaks volumes about the perennial angst of a people whose place and standing in the world was never a thing to be taken for granted. Read in its proper context the full meaning of the statement becomes clear: here was the call for unity by a fabled hero that came at a time of flux and change, when the shifting fortunes of Malacca was tilting on the side of impending defeat at the hands of the Portuguese.

Yet sadly, as is always the case, the story of Tuah has been misread and mis-appropriated for other ends that have more to do with politics and less to do with history. Beloved by the right-wing conservatives among us, the dissected figure of Tuah has been robbed of his pacifist, mystical and philosophical leanings, leaving us with only the static figure of a cardboard two-dimensional ethno-nationalist who surprisingly resembles many of the Mat Rempit-wannabe types who make up the rank and file of UMNO Youth today. We forget that at the end of the Hikayat Hang Tuah epic Tuah himself abandons his keris and turns his back on his king, renouncing the world and turning his attention to the salvation of his soul instead. Yet this sorrowful figure has been cut-and-pasted today to suit the ethno-nationalist agenda of the race-warriors and demagogues.

Today that fear of permanent loss and historical erasure has gripped the hearts and minds of many a right-wing Malay communalist in the wake of the 12th General Elections and the dismal (and deserved) failure of UMNO in particular. That Kelantan could have fallen to PAS was a somewhat different matter, for the conventional wisdom that takes the place of reason in this country of ours assumes that even if Kelantan was to fall under the heels of the Mullahs, they would still be Malay Mullahs, and that the sacred soil of Tanah Melayu would still be in Malay hands.

Rather the fear we see today has been directed towards the loss of the more plural and cosmopolitan states of the West coast, where the DAP has made great (and deserved) strides in Penang, Perak and Selangor. Already the pathetic spectacle of ethno-communal fear and loathing has been played out in the public domain: Demonstrations in Penang were organised with the calculated intention of scaring the Malays into thinking that their land was up for grabs and that the vainglorious notion of Ketuanan Melayu was being eclipsed. The vernacular Malay press in particular has gone into overdrive, harping on and on incessantly about every perceived slight and injury to Malay pride, their editorials littered with the recognised markers of discontent: ‘Biadab, kurang sopan’ are the accusations that have been levelled in no uncertain terms.

The latest attempt to shore up the fictional notion of Malay unity has come in the form of the creation of the Barisan Bertindak Perpaduan Melayu (Malay Unity Action Front, BBPM), cobbled together by five-and-twenty Malay-Muslim NGOs and lobby groups to call for the unity of the Malay-Muslims and the defence of the status and place of Islam in the country. Already feelers have been sent out to court the doubtful hearts in PAS, on the basis that Malay-Muslim unity has to come first and foremost. All the buttons on the register have been pressed hard: Malay Unity, Islamic Unity, Communal interest, et al.

Communalism, still.

That such an organisation could have been formed so soon after the election results of March 2008 speaks volumes about the extent to which racial anxieties still prevail in the midst of our plural social landscape. But honestly, are we surprised by this, and should we be surprised at all?

After all, in the run-up to the 12th General Elections it was plain to see that ethnic and communal mobilisation was still a major factor in the campaign. The disastrous showing of the MIC in particular was a direct result of the actions of Hindraf, an organisation that rightfully pointed out the MIC’s failings to defend their community and to stand up to the right-wing ethno-supremacists of UMNO. The MCA and Gerakan’s poor performance was likewise a result of the widespread perception among Malaysians of Chinese background that neither party would ever be able to put a stop to the repugnant racist histrionics of the keris-waving hotheads in UMNO. The overwhelming shift in votes then was as much a vote for real, substantial (and we hope permanent) change as it was a vote of disgust against the emasculated and voiceless leaders of the MIC, MCA and Gerakan. But if this was the case, then we are also sadly back to where we started and have not really transcended the economy of race and ethnic-based politics.

And let us not forget that at the height of the election campaign another coalition of eighty-eight Malay-Muslim NGOs also put forth their demands to all the parties, calling upon them to recognise their own set of equally exclusive needs which happened to include the rejection of secularism and pluralism, an end to the process of inter-religious dialogue, persecution of those labelled as ‘liberal, secular’ Muslim intellectuals and the recognition of Malaysia as an Islamic state.

The Malay-Muslim Unitarians of the BBMP are likewise driven by the same exclusive, parochial and short-sighted interest to protect, promote and elevate their own communal interests solely. This is an organisation that foregrounds only the needs and aspirations of their own community, and by virtue of taking such an exclusive posture can only be labelled as being Malay, and not Malaysian. Indeed, one could argue that the BBMP in its form and intent is no different from any other right-wing racially exclusive group, and that it cares more for its own community than it does for the wider community of Malaysia, which is made up by the rest of us.

The flawed premise upon which the BBMP rests, and which will ultimately lead to its own internal contradiction, however, is this: Like so many right-wing communitarian organisations its politics is one that is narrow, simplistic and historically inaccurate.

Not Malay, but rather Malays

The flaw of race-based politics in Malaysia goes all the way back to the era of the colonial census, where the fictional notion of homogenous racial groups was first concocted to serve the interests of a skewered, unjust and oppressive colonial plural economy. The segmentation and separation of Malaysia’s plural society along racialised lines was a direct consequence of racialised colonial capitalism at work, but this grand enterprise of divide-and-rule was aided and abetted by both the bayonet and the census.

It was the colonial census that began to narrow down the scope of the native communities of Asia to the point where ultimately all that remained of this multi-hued landscape of hundreds of colours was a tripartite division of Malays, Chinese and Indians. Gone were the lost tribes of Malaya: the myriad of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious sub-groupings that resisted such casual and arbitrary compartmentalisation. But when were these communities – the Malays, Chinese and Indians – ever homogenous and uniform? If the ‘loss of Malay-ness’ is the thing that spooks so many today, we need to ask: Was there ever such a thing as a unitary Malay?

Here we need to revisit our history and look at the etymological root-meanings of the words we use in politics today. Hang Tuah’s call ‘Takkan Melayu hilang di Dunia’ was made at a time when the very notion of what was ‘Melayu’ was problematic and constantly being problematised by the Malays themselves, who realised and accepted that there was not a singular Malay race but rather a plethora of diverse Malay communities. At that time even the notion of ‘Tanah Melayu’ was an alien concept for the kingdom of Malayur (or Malaiyur) was not even on the Malay Peninsula but rather on the southern tip of Sumatra, next to Pelembang. Why, even the sentence ‘Takkan Melayu hilang di Dunia’ reads as a curious amalgam of Malay, Sanskrit and Persian words that betrays the globally-connected and cosmopolitan character of the community that gave birth to this hybrid lingua franca we now call the Malay language. (Which by the way, should really be referred to as the Malaysian language.)

The calls for Malay unity today should therefore be deconstructed and critically analysed with this grand historical landscape in close view, and with us reminding ourselves again and again that the notion of a unitary Malay race (like the notion of a unitary Chinese or Indian race) were fundamentally colonial fictions that date back to the age of Empire and imperialism’s mode of race politics.

Some of the right-wing ethno-nationalists among us may not be too comfortable with the idea that the cherished comfort zones they have grown accustomed to are on the verge of shrinking; but it is crucial for us – Malaysians one and all – to remind ourselves that this is our common homeland and the home to all our cultures that have mixed and mingled for so long. Indeed it is precisely that long process of historical overlapping, inter-penetration and cultural osmosis that accounts for us being that ever-so-varied community that can make the boast “Malaysia, truly Asia”. Having witnessed the long-awaited rupture where ethnic and racial loyalties were finally by-passed on that fateful election night, let us at least keep the euphoria for a while longer. We owe this to ourselves as well as our hybrid ancestors who made the leap beyond racial loyalties, and we can do it again.

The Malays will never cease to be, as long as we understand that the Malays are in fact a community of communities, and that one can be both Malay and the Other, as long as we all remain – first and foremost – Malaysians to whom this country belongs.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Sunday, 23 March 2008 - 11:11 am

  2. #2 by pulau_sibu on Sunday, 23 March 2008 - 11:47 am

    People in Taiwan were full of hope, hopping that Chen will transform Taiwan. Instead he did not accomplish much in the first 4-year term. The people gave him another 4-year term to demonstrate, but he still could not deliver. Added to that, his people became similar to KMT people, especially his family (son-in-law) involved in corruption. The people, with the votes in their hands, decided to throw out his party. Now it is gone for the next four years. Shall it return? No body knows.

    I am writing about this hopping that DAP and PKR will be different and will not end up with the same fate as Chen, being punished severely by the people.

  3. #3 by k1980 on Sunday, 23 March 2008 - 11:52 am

    Chen’s 2nd term was won by a self-inflicted wound during a fake ‘assassination’ attempt. Would Badawi follow his example in the next GE?

  4. #4 by controlnation1 on Sunday, 23 March 2008 - 12:32 pm

    UMNO’s bunch of hypocrites.Protesting Lim Kit Siangs initial boycotting of the Perak MB swear in.Now they’re doing the same in Terengganu.Who’s disrespecting the sultan(basicly The Yang Di Pertuan Agong in this case) now huh?

    Although I object Sultan’s interfering in the MB and Exco line up and should remain as a symbol only,this goes to show that UMNO are not really respecting the Sultan but rather using him as they sees fit.


  5. #5 by pulau_sibu on Sunday, 23 March 2008 - 12:40 pm

    >self-inflicted wound during a fake ‘assassination’ attempt

    i would try not to make any accusation like that. if i were able to say so with evidence, i am sure i will get tons of money from KMT!

  6. #6 by ahluck on Sunday, 23 March 2008 - 12:47 pm

    [deleted – lets be mindful of Sedition Act. – Admin)

  7. #7 by digard on Sunday, 23 March 2008 - 6:14 pm

    The whole idea, sorry, is flawed. I am neither qualified nor inclined to offer a full scientific piece of explanation here, there are plenty of resources available everywhere.
    Still, I feel like adding some arguments:

    1. Even the concept of ‘race’ is impermanent. Humans have been walking this planet for a historically short time only, and it is proven fact, that what we perceive as ‘races’ today have not been there from the very first day. Our concept of ‘race’ is therefore erroneous in its assumption of being a static parameter. On the contrary, the development of the races on this planet has been, and still is, a dynamic one.

    2. Anthropologists usually accept the existence of a Malay Race (‘Malayan’), as one of generic races of mankind, like Mongolian, Caucasian, Dravidian, American, etc.
    In this respect, however, Malayans live habitually in the area somewhere between the South Pacific and Madagascar, with the Malayan Archipelago as centre. (If one wanted to be precise, the people of Suriname, of Javanese origin, living in an independent country in South America, would have to be included.)
    Any notion of the Peninsula or Borneo as home to the Malayan race is unaccounted for; neither are the people between Singapore and Thailand distinguishable as distinct race. Except, if one so desires, for political reasons.
    Anthropologically speaking, there are close to 500 million Malayans alive today. If not for political reasons, there is no need to fear any eradication of the Malayans!

    3. Chances are, that a new ethnic group develops in the area of Malaysia, due to the influences and confluences of the last 800 years in the area of the peninsula, with contributors like the Arab traders, Indian businessmen, Bugis, Javanese, Acehnese, Javanese and Sundanese, last not least colonialists from Holland, Portugal and England. With some courage, one might generate the hypotheses, that there is a higher chance for a new ethic group ‘Malaysian’ to result from these influences, than for a ‘pure Malay race’ to evolve.

    4. Looking left and right, actually, and for some minutes working hard to overcome my sick feeling on guessing ethnic backgrounds, the larger part of people, at least around me, who are perceived to be ‘Malay’, have rather recent ancestry in places anywhere between Melanesian Islands and Lebanon. To call them ‘Malay’ simply for their nationality, ID and religion can only be politically motivated. Thinking about it, neither has anything to do with race.

  8. #8 by aerolancer on Monday, 24 March 2008 - 1:41 am

    Racism in Malaysia, I believe, should not happen at all, yet Racism is a continuing issue raised from a group of narrow minded minority with an ulterior motive and secret agenda. Those leaders that band into a political group “defending the Malays” are not only right-wing minded but extremist and fundamentalist to the core. It frustrates me to see them manipulating the mass for their own benefits. Who stand to lose the most from NEP/NDP but the one who make the most gain in the first place huh? If these leaders chant about their rights and their lands, then perhaps they should take note that the earliest settlement in Malaysia is of Indian origin with Hinduism. (i.e. the evidence excavated from the ruins from Kota Tinggi but this discovery has to be covered up due to national security) The Malay immigrated to the South East Asia just like the Chinese and Indian. Additionally, this source of the immigration of Malay was actually originating from East Asia. The original “Malay”, homo floresiensis, was possibly exterminated by this wave of migration (Nature & National Geographic, 2004). So, from these historical facts, any bright lads may even conclude that the Orang Asli has been marginalized and it is them, not Malay, that has to be given more rights and lands. Yet, 80% of them remain in the poorest of the poor, and the supposed governmental aide disappear…

  9. #9 by sotong on Monday, 24 March 2008 - 6:02 am

    The greatest threat to the country since independent is the faceless racial and religious extremists, thugs and crooks in the position of trust, power and influence.

  10. #10 by DAPPKR on Monday, 24 March 2008 - 9:21 pm

    try to live with the freaking MALAYSIAN PRIDE!







  11. #11 by Warrior of Cookies on Tuesday, 25 March 2008 - 12:47 am

    Disgusted reading Star @ 24th Mar, pertaining a bunch of self-interest group submitting memorandum to our intelligent Sultan of Perak in the pretext of fighting for Malay rights. What they did was basically with ill intent to stir up the racial harmony and with sinful mind in the head. SHAME on them for calling themselves educated professional to join this blinded and extreme movement as this simply because of non-forward thinking at all. I know one of the members of this “SESAT & BUTA” group where one’s has a fantastic and high life style so to speak.

    The election is over since 25 days ago. It is about time to move on and to rebuild the country and let’s don’t create something out of nothing but constantly lingering on racial sentiment. To me, irregardless of who the MB or what the composition formula or who the EXCO line-up are, the most important matter after all is DELIVERY & RESULT with fairest and equitable manner instead of self-enriching little Napoleon.

    I have been traveling to many countries and we are in fact losing ground to many emerging countries since we still have this confusion of Malaysian Identity after 50 years of independence and constant living in the state of denial. Our forefathers may have liberated Malaya from British but I don’t see we are liberated as true Malaysians.

    As a human with dignity and with self-respect, ask your conscience and inner-self, for how many years, we, Malaysians have suffered and have been struggling with this identity crisis??? For how many years more this division has to go on??? Don’t we wanted to be treated as a respectable nation in the eyes of the world (ie. Japanese nation) or simply wanted to be perceived as nations who are so intolerable to each other and self-stabbing for championing the so called super rights or Champion of under the Coconut Shell..???

    Irregardless of our skin color, a Malaysian is a Malaysian. If we have had to fight to defend this country, we all shall die as ghosts of Malaysia.

    It is time to overhaul what is not right and bring good to the Rakyat at large. For God and Malaysians’ sake, let’s don’t tear each other down again and again..!!!

    Think of this…


  12. #12 by lopez on Saturday, 29 March 2008 - 10:01 am

    Dont try to create a new race, it is dangerous

    A bat is a bat, it is not a bird
    But bats has their communities, both varied and unique
    Birds of a particular type also has communities, both varied and unique
    A turtle is a turtle, it is not a fish
    A tortoise is a tortoise, it does not swim in oceans

    A human being is a human being, also has their share of having varied and unique communities

    Who the hell are you to say do this and that.

    If you say we should have a communally , start by respecting other people’s culture, customs, value system, traditions and langauge and stop reinventing the wheel.

    Dont make life difficult for others, it work both ways, it the very basic of doing good.

    Water finds it own level, there is no short cut, 200 year old nations still have the same type of problems in bodohland. Who the hell gave you right to be race scientist.
    Fraternity, Liberty,Equality
    Just change

  13. #13 by lakilompat on Monday, 21 April 2008 - 4:03 pm

    Malaysian are blessed becos there’s no Adolf Hitler.

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