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The meaning of “Malay”

Anthony Milner
“BIAR mati anak, jangan mati adat.” Quoting the Malay proverb that places culture above one’s child, Prof Anthony Milner argued on 21 Oct 2009 during a lecture in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) that Malay-ness was defined by civilisation, and not descent or bloodlines.

The lecture by Milner, who is Basham Professor of Asian History at the Australian University, argued that the Malays of this region might have seen themselves differently from how they do now, certainly in contemporary Malaysia. After all, the concept of race was a colonial import from Europeans who were trying to categorise people from different parts of the world in a successful attempt at divide and rule.

But did the Malays here self-identify using the same racial framework? Could Malay-ness have possibly been defined differently in a pre-colonial, pre-racial Malaya? If the answer is yes, was there a moment when the Malays of Malaya stopped seeing Malay-ness in civilisational terms and exclusively in racial terms?

It is important to analyse this more closely, since so many now accept “race” as an inheritable and indeed inherent category of identity.

Civilisational Malayness

Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Abdul Rahman Embong tells The Nut Graph, “I agree with Milner that historically Malay identity was much more fluid and complex, enabling one to talk of a civilisational Malay-ness.” Rahman, a principal fellow at UKM’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas), does not discount the fact that the importance of descent and blood ties in determining Malay identity did prevail through history. However, he says the civilisational aspect remained pronounced.

“Even the Federal Constitution adopted a civilisational definition of Malayness, defining [in Article 160] a Malay as someone who habitually speaks the Malay language, practises Malay culture, and embraces Islam,” he continues in an e-mail interview. Of course, he says this definition is limited only to Malay Malaysians because there are Malays in other parts of Southeast Asia who may not be Muslim.

Pic of dictionary open to Melayu - a- to follow the malay way of life, or b -to become a muslim
Only applicable in Malaysia: The Concise Student Dictionary / Kamus Siswa Lengkap
defines a Malay as one who follows the Malay way of life, or becomes a Muslim

The issue of Islam certainly adds complexity to the construction of the Malay Malaysian identity, says Dr Helen Ting, a research fellow at Ikmas. She tells The Nut Graph the phenomenon of political Islam was practically unheard of two to three decades ago in terms of the state’s powers to determine who was a Muslim, and how a Muslim should or should not behave.

Helen Ting
Helen Ting (pic courtesy of
Helen Ting)

Ting does not use terms like “ethnicity” and “race” interchangeably. Ethnicity, unlike race, does not attempt to explain all behavioural, intellectual and cultural differences as “inherent” in any way. Rather, ethnicity denotes a distinct cultural group with a shared heritage such as a cultural system, language or even religion. This may or may not include a shared ancestry or blood ties.

As such, ethnicity in itself is value neutral. “There is nothing right or wrong about this identity unless this identity leads [an individual] to disrespect or reject other identities as inferior or inadequate,” Ting explains.

Which then brings us full circle to the question of “Malay-ness” in contemporary Malaysia. Does the definition of “Malay” in Malaysia entail rejection or disrespect towards other identities? The opposite question also needs to be asked could there also be a rejection or disrespect towards those identifying as Malay in Malaysia?

Confronting myths

saya pun melayu — young boy on cover

This is where Parti Keadilan Rakyat supreme council member and ex-Umno maverick Datuk Zaid Ibrahim says it is counterproductive to dwell on definitions. He tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview, “There is no need, I feel, to dwell on the true definition of a Malay [Malaysian] since it has been so defined in the [federal] constitution.

“What is important is for the government not to continue perpetuating the myth that there is one set of special rights for Malay [Malaysians] and another for the rest of our people.”

Although Zaid shuns making any overt definitions of his own, his reasons for writing his book I, Too, Am Malay seems to lean towards cultivating a civilisational understanding of Malay-ness. “I want them to accept the realities where only those with the right education, right values, good work ethic and willingness to accept personal responsibility will do well,” he says.

“No amount of Malay political power can protect them since in a corrupt political system those who wield power are merely pawns of the capricious and the greedy, irrespective of race,” he continues.

Rahman Embong
Rahman Embong

A paradigm shift is what Zaid, Ting and Rahman are looking for. According to Ting, ethnic diversity is not the problem in Malaysia. “It is more a bigoted view of those outside [certain ethnic, racial or religious] boundaries that makes problems,” she says. And so, she says a shift in how Malaysians think about diversity and differences is in order.

And according to Rahman, that shift is probably already happening. He points towards the growing popularity of Najib’s 1Malaysia slogan.

“Many of the young people see their future in non-ethnic terms. They want to see 1Malaysia — shorn of its political rhetoric — become a reality,” he says.

But mindsets are not the only things that need to change. Systems and processes need to evolve also. Ting says there must be a way to penalise political leaders when they become exclusionary and reward them when they are inclusive. Rahman says the growth of a two-party system is also an effective way to keep racial politics in check.

Zaid Ibrahim
Zaid Ibrahim
Zaid, however, has a caution. “No peaceful changes or transformation can take place in Malaysia unless Malay [Malaysians] are willing participants in that process,” he says.

The good news is that history shows us that Malay identity, and indeed any ethnic or racial identity, can evolve and be redefined. It’s good news, because it means that things can always evolve for the better. All it takes is a bit of honesty and self-awareness in looking at the past. favicon

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