Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Origins of the Malays - Revisited

As some readers might recall my earlier article “A Very Brief History of the Malays and Malaysia”, I have tried to explain about the subject in my own “naive” and “uneducated ways”. It was written out of my general knowledge and observations, as I have been traveling around the region extensively and I have always been a keen observer of the peoples that I came into encounter with. The fact that the “Malays” as I saw represents quite a large group of maybe around three hundred million people or more, it intrigues me to search and understand who the Malays are and their origins. Since the last writing, I have been reading and researching on the subject and slowly it becomes clearer to me. And thus, I would like to revisit the subject and put in proper perspectives some of the factual issues and hypothesis to correct some of the matters that I have raised earlier.

Fact 1: The first occupiers of Malaysia are undoubtedly the Semang Negritos which came to the region somewhere around 500,000 years ago. They are part of the first wave of human migration to South East Asia from the East African plains and gradually move throughout the “Islands” until finally they reached further south as far as Tasmania. They shared in a large degree many similarities to the Papuan natives as well as the aborigines in the Australian continent. They are in no way can be categorized as Malays.

Fact 2: The Malays are a branch of the so called “Austronesians” family which originates from the southern mainland China, cross the straits into the Taiwan Islands (3500 B.C.) then spread into the Philippines Islands, Borneo and the rest of the Malay archipelago (from 3500 B.C. to 1600 B.C.). Some of the Austronesians never crossed the Taiwan straits and instead move southwards and occupy what is South Vietnam and Cambodia today and became the so called Champa people. While some of the Island and seafaring Austronesians end up taking sea voyages and occupy the Pacific Islands (the Polynesians – Fiji, Tonga, Samoa etc) as far as the Hawaii Islands (from 1600 B.C. to 600 A.D.). This branch is called today as the “Polynesians”, while another smaller branch migrated to the Madagascar Island near the coast of East Africa. This probably answers the puzzle to my mind why these peoples outlook are so much similar to the Malays in South East Asia.

[The terminologies used, “Austronesians”, “Polynesians”, “Malayo Polynesians” etc., are labelled that has become the acceptable names among the academic circles of which are “wrong” because it identifies the final destinations rather than the origins. Probably someday, after more research and findings are made, these terminologies got to be changed. But for now we just take it as given].

Fact 3: The Malays in the early days (500 B.C. to 500 A.D.) never developed any Kingdoms or civilization except for three locations namely in Cambodia (Fu Nan in Angkor Wat), Sri Vijaya in today’s Palembang, Sumatra and in East Java (where Borobodur lies). These are the first three “agro” kingdom and civilization that sprung up. The other Malays are spread out among the Islands which at the time were too small and too far spread out to necessitate establishments of organized governments. The forms of government in most Islands are more along the lines of Chieftains (or small Rajas) as is evident from places like the Moluccas and the chieftains of the Pacific Islands. Most of the Malays remains hunter gatherers among these Islands, until gradually as the population grow; they were transformed into organized agrarian societies (around 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.).

Fact 4: After the fall of the two Kingdoms (Fu Nan, Sri Vijaya and the Javanese), then only the Malay Kingdoms started sprung up (in coincidence with population growth and conversion from hunter gatherers to agrarian society, as well as the starting of the inter Island trading activities) in various locations throughout the Malay archipelagos. This is when the Malay Kingdom of Malacca was established (1300 A.D.) in the Peninsular Malaysia (as an off shoot from the Sri Vijaya Kingdom). The other Malays in the Borneo island remains as hunter gatherers and organized under chieftains and small Rajas – until the establishment of the Sulu sultanate (the origins of the Brunei royalty and Kingdom). [Note that I will skip discussing about other branch of the Malays such as the Polynesians and other part of the “Indonesian Islands” as my focus is about Malaysia].

Fact 5: There were no large governments prior to the Malacca Sultanate in Malaysia because the Peninsular was among the least “fertile” in terms of lands for agriculture compared to the volcanic islands of Indonesia. There were pockets of agrarian society along the various river banks of Malaysia (the Perak River, Pahang River, Muda River, Muar River, Terengganu River, Kelantan River and so on). They were too small in numbers to require major forms of government. However, given the trading activities that rose to prominence at the time, Malacca became one of the major “trading posts” for the region – and hence gave the power and prestige to the Sultanate. Which eventually subdue all other chieftains along those river banks and amalgamate them as the Malacca Sultanate (and hence many of our Sultans originate to the Malacca Sultanate – around 1400 A.D.). I believe that if we want to identify when the Malays and Malaysia originate (as a country), this event would be the best candidate as the starting point.

Fact 6: The prosperity of Malay Peninsular and the Malacca Sultanate brought along many other waves of migration of other Malays from the region. Later on during the British dominance, many other races such as the Arabs (of Yemeni descent), the Indian traders (except for the Tamils), as well as the Chinese (Cheng Ho etc) joins the fray. At the same time, Singapore and Penang gradually took over Malacca as the trading centres and eventually attracts all sorts of races and nationalities. The prosperity of Malaya rest largely on these amalgamations of other races into it (Arabs, Indians, and Chinese, Europeans), as well as migrations of many other Malays into Malaya (the Champas, the Bugis, the Javanese and so on). The fall of Malacca and the rule of the British set the beginning of the formation of Malaysia – which became a nation after the Independence.

[I skip the historical development of Sabah and Sarawak intentionally as their history literally took a different path than Peninsular Malaysia].

In summary, the establishment of Malaysia does not rise out of “great historical civilizations”, but rather a “hodgepodge” kind of events and activities that eventually gave rise to the Nationhood. Malaysia is a late comer into these nationhood and civilisation business – and claims no real former glory save for the short period of the height of the Malacca Sultanate.

Therefore, where does the “Ketuanan Melayu” arise from? The Indonesians, for example, consists of the largest Malay origin population never understood this term, and neither other branch of Malays (in Madagascar, Hawaii or the Pacific Islands) understood this subject. It comes from the British. It is part of the bargaining between the Malay Sultans and the Malay elites against the British for Independence. There is no historical claim to it except for the so called social contract that was agreed upon and became the mantra of some Malay people. The term was never well defined and understood, and in fact the social contract itself remains only a vague term that no one can really define what it means and implied. In my view, as in any contracts, it can be rewritten and redefined.

Let me now delve into another related matter: the Malay language, where does it originate? Again, evidences point out that the origins of the language is where Southern China is today (In the Provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong). The likely candidate is the so-called “Miao-Yao” language which are spoken today only among small ethnic minorities in these provinces. The reason why this language (and many other languages inside today’s China) has been eliminated and extinct was due to the thousands of years of efforts by the Chinese emperor to impose Chinese language (with Mandarin base) as the official language of China.

The Malay language, while may originate from Miao-Yao, eventually transformed itself into a more “Austroasiatic” based language, which then permeates throughout Southern Vietnam and Cambodia, the Philippines and the rest of the Malay archipelago. The lack of organized societies among the Malays (as they are scattered throughout the Islands) probably hamper the development of the language as an advanced language, each area took it own strand of development, and remains a simple language (since there was no requirements for complexities in primitive societies).

For this reason, I am of the opinion that Malay language should be kept only as communication and cultural language but we should never try or attempt to make it a scientific language. It does not have the built up for it.

Understanding the origins is important as it will clear your perspective on many things that one’s may assume or take for granted. For example, some people may feel the Chinese “immigrants” are not welcomed to Malaysia, without realizing that the Malays also migrate from the same location – except that they precedes the latter immigrants by a few thousand years and the blood in their veins shared a lot more common DNA than compared to an Indian (or Mamak). On the other hand, culturally speaking the Malays are much more closer to the Indian than a Chinese, as the Indian religion and culture were the ones that has more influence over the Malays than the Chinese.

So my conclusion is again – we are just a hodgepodge nation, a mix of everything. So do race matters anymore? Or is it that the necessity of it comes out of politics more than the reality and history? Are we going to continue race based division’s say 50 or 100 years from now? If my reading of history of mankind is correct – then give the racial divide not more than 50 years span; and race based politics not more than 10 to 20 years span, the earlier the better.

[The above article was written by Dr Wan Hasni. He did his undergraduate and Masters degree in Statistics and Actuarial Science at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, U.S.A (1982 till 1988); then completed his PhD in Finance at Iowa Business School in 1993. The title of his dissertation was: “Can Risk Be Priced?”. He is also the founder of the Abrar Group International, a group of companies involving in the areas of Islamic finance, project development and technology.]

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