What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’, Part 2 b

By Clive Kessler | February 26, 2012
The Malaysian Insider

Note: Part 2 of Clive Kessler’s series on race was not published in full. It comes in three parts and only Part 2a was published previously. All three parts of Part 2 should be read before Part 3 which was published yesterday. We apologise for the publishing glitch.

FEB 26 — Part 2b — The many faces of “bangsa”: “Stocks” and “common descent” My step-by-step, or idea by idea, disaggregation or “deconstruction” of the Malay word bangsa continues.

iii. The idea of a “stock”

Sometimes people do not wish or intend to speak — in the ways discussed in Part 2a — about total “racial” groups or “blocs” confronting one another globally in inescapable and unremitting life-and-death struggle.

They want to talk about people, or groups of people, who nevertheless display, are linked by, and have some significant social awareness of “common descent”.

If not a common descent from one and the same “ancestral pair” — a common ultimate “mother and father” — then at least from people of “similar”, meaning culturally and historically related or “cognate”, background.

In English it is usual to speak of people and things that derive from such a common historical background and origins not as a “race” or “nation” (of which more soon), but as a “stock”.

Ideas such as this one, this kind of thinking, are frequently encountered in many places. It is, among other places, both characteristic of and appropriate within the Malay world or Alam Melayu.

Often Minangkabau, Acehnese and Mandailing people, Bugis and Bawean folk, Sulu people and Kelantan people and Kedah people think and talk of themselves in exactly this way. Sometimes, too, Malays in general throughout the peninsula — and at times even people of Malay cultural background throughout the Southeast Asian region and beyond — think and talk of themselves in precisely this way.

They see and understand themselves, and recognize one another, as people broadly “of the same kind”, of the same historical tradition and overall “cultural formation” — and hence also as distinct and different from all the other kinds of people whom they encounter and habitually deal with in their everyday lives.

This kind of thinking comes easily and very naturally to many, perhaps most, peninsular Malays. They have their own very Malay way of expressing that idea: of affirming that kind of mutual recognition of similarity and common basic identity throughout the entire Malay world, across the entire region and even beyond.

They speak (and I suppose also at times think) of themselves as one people. When they do, they have in mind what makes them “at heart” one people: namely, the common basic cultural “template” of their lives and the varying localized “Malay ways of life” giving expression to it.

They express this idea by means of an eloquent natural metaphor: that of the rumpun.

A rumpun is basically a “clump”. (A Malay synonym is perdu, a plant cluster of common roots or stock.) What you see is apparently separate and different local growths or plants. Yet, unseen at a deeper subterranean level, they are not separate but one, all parts of a common, intricately connected network of mutually entwined and even mutually supporting and sustaining growth.

The prime example of this kind of growth — the basic “natural metaphor” or symbol that Malays who speak in this way have in mind at the time — is that which is so common throughout the region, and so closely identified via arts and craftwork with Malay life, namely bamboo.

Buluh serumpun. It pops up everywhere. It takes hold, adapts to and thrives widely, within varying localities and environments.

And it is tenacious. You may try to uproot it but can never really succeed. You tear it out here, eradicate it there, but it reappears, sprouting from and supported by life in other parts of the same rumpun to which it is invisibly connected.

The Alam Melayu, people often observe, and rightly, has the same character. It is an interconnected and interdependent matrix of origin, growth, mutual involvement and fate. TheAlam Melayu is a Rumpun Melayu.

Malay life and society, and Malay “historical personality”, are, for the Malay loyalists and cultural survivalists, just like that.

They are entitled to think so, to act upon that idea, and to employ the notion of the rumpun to convey their meaning.

This way of understanding things, especially their own historic situation and character, is eloquent, poetic, and also very apt. Poetic though it clearly is, the Malay idea of a common rumpun is also analytically useful and informative. It may well be world anthropology’s best analytical metaphor.

By all means its use should be encouraged and supported, not suppressed.

Here, in the present context, one needs to note only one more thing about it.

Whatever it is, this notion of the Rumpun Melayu has nothing to do, as the term is commonly understood, with “race”.

The people of the Alam and Rumpun Melayu may be just that: a “people”. But this does not make them — and they therefore should not be seen as collectively constituting on those grounds — a single political “nation” or a biological “race”.

Yet these three different ideas — of people, nation and race — all lurk and shelter together within that same Malay word bangsa.

So using the term bangsa to think about the Rumpun Melayuand its peoples is inherently ambiguous and confusing, misleading and dangerous.

Yet one of my Dewan Bahasa dictionaries gives, as one meaning of the word rumpun, “segolongan besar bangsa … yang sama”; and for serumpun, “segolongan bangsa .. .. yang sama jenisnya”.

What the idea of a “Malay rumpun” suggests is not a matter of a common biological origin or inheritance or character, of a biologically-driven history and destiny.

It is a metaphor of connectedness, of entwined lives and “life-ways”.

It is about culture, not biology. The Malay “life-worlds” that together constitute that Rumpun or Alam Melayu are “social constructs”, products of human history and cultural creativity.

They are not the residues or expression of underlying and deeply determining biological “realities”. The yinvolve something quite different and other than “race”.

“Bangsa-thinkers”, beware!

iv. Type Related to this idea is that of bangsa as a “type”.

I may ask somebody about a certain banana, “Pisang ini, pisang bangsa apa dia? Pisang raja, kah? Pisang rastali?”

When I ask what variety this is, pisang raja or pisang rastali, what is involved here is simply the same idea of a “stock”: of individual items emanating from a common “breeding pool”, by descent from and creation within a given field of common ancestral origins.

But, in response to somebody claiming that they are being, say, patient or sincere — when arguably they are displaying no such forbearance — a person may irritatedly retort, “sabar (or ikhlas) bangsa apa ‘ni?!”

What sort of patience or sincerity is that! When they respond in that way, no idea of any “stock” or common descent is involved.

There is no notion here of any similarity, affinity or closeness by reason of common ancrestry and descent. What are involved here are not actual families of any sort, merely “families of ideas”, or metaphorical similarities.

It is simply a matter of typological identification and classification.

Yet this sense too may be conventionally covered by that same multivocal but much overworked Malay word bangsa.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales, Sydney.

In this series:-
Part 1 – Words and the world, or ‘bangsa’ in question
Part 2 – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2b – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2c – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 3 – Distorted reasoning — or thinking ‘bamboozled’ by language
Part 4 – Race and history

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