Malay: a concept, not race

The definition of who is a Malay in the Malaysian constitution makes no sense. ( Article 160)

I’ve always convinced myself that to be engaged in realpolitik at some point it would. But it does not.

And I fear in time, the dissenting voices are going to drowned by the force of repetition.

This is not to say the Malay person does not exist, nor am I trying to employ semantics to personal end, however how do you define an ethnicity by religion and cultural inclinations?

A trace of the problem would come to one thing, were all the various ethnic groups in the Malay isles just slight variations of the same root race? You are going to get a lot of people in Indonesia and Philippines disagreeing with you.

Agreement and disagreement

There are huge commonalities, and there are wide separations. The archipelago is unique in that it has more than 20000 islands and very little else, other than the sliver which is Malaya.

Which produces the second complication, vast common and irregular migration. For many, either side of the Straits of Malacca would not have been demonstrably different, and of comparable worth.

People just moved about, and most of the Kingdoms had indefinite zones of control, as would be characterised by those connected by land mass. The archipelago extends to an area as large as China, but the Chinese benefit from better cultural cohesion because of the land connectivity.

The British grouped the natives, those who were originating from the archipelago and showed their loyalty to their respective sultans. They were kingdoms and you are a member of the kingdom if you are accepted as a loyal subject to the ruler. It would seem your membership was borne out of loyalty.

Finality in geography

The definitive line cut by the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, forced a need to separate the zone to Dutch and British. The incisive hold of the Spanish on the Philippines rendered most of those parts culturally disconnected and different.

In the early parts of the 20th century the Peninsula was had more ex-South East Asian migrants (Chinese and Indians) than those under the natives category.

Power comes from numbers and whether there was a concerted effort by the rulers and nobility, the number of migrants were clamped and wave of those coming from the Dutch zones into the Peninsula was increased.

But still, you don’t see a definition, do you? Javanese, Achenese, Minang, Bajars, Bugis, Rawas and many other ethnic groups filled in the demographics. That is not to discount those of the same ethnicities who have been in Malaya for much longer.

Which makes the whole thing all whacked.

Negative definition

In 1957 as a constitution had to be drawn up on what is a Malay, since being Malay made a difference – they were stumped. They settled for a negative definition.

In a highly pluralised Malaya they looked what the Chinese and Indians were not, and therefore made that the definition of Malay. Which is not that reliable, but served the purpose then.

A conceptual definition not an ethnic one.

So where do you go with that? A definition that is filled with inconsistencies.

That a Bangladeshi picking up enough local language skills and a passport, can possibly have better access to a ownership of public listed companies built over the years by all Malaysians.

Then I sound xenophobic for picking on Bangladeshis. Which is true in many senses. However, neither can I reduce the sense of shrinking self-worth. The insecurity is built on membership and non-membership. And like most country club membership, it ticks you off when you are playing with moving goalposts.

In the American census, people in the same families had different identities. Eh?

Some Mexicans like to call themselves Latinos, and others would be happy being Hispanic. The oddball may find more affinity with particular zones in the republic and call himself Tijuana-ian. Any way you like, they still take you as you want to be.

I love it when one of good friends, is the Malay nationalist one day, and then a Achehnese the next day. Or another friend of mine when I asked what she was, she meekly said Bajar. Nothing wrong there.

Celebrate diversity

My family is Tamil and my tamil speaking friend is Telugu, which is different. There are about 256 languages in India which would mean just as many races of people. The diversity does not ruin people, it enriches them.

Culture has to be like that, as you can see how after half a century of communist single culture policy, China still keeps its regional cultures.

And here in Malaysia, unlike the happier people in Indonesia – millions of Malaysians have supplanted their own ethnicities in order to gain from the demographic benefits of being constitutionally Malay. At least in the public face.

Strange country, and I still don’t get the definition.

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4 thoughts on “Malay: a concept, not race

  1. And because of all these.. it will take another May 13 to turn everyone to MALAYsian before we all can move on.

    Oh, how i wish MALAYsia can move on being MALAYsian as how everyone in Singapore or Indonesia, be who they wanna be but yet a Singaporean or INdonesian….

  2. hi kunilkuda,

    I was referring to Indonesians in terms of ethnic heritage. That they embrace their ethnic make-up much better than over here.

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