To the general public, Syed Husin Ali is the former Deputy President of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). To me, he will always be Prof. Syed Husin Ali, the respectable bespectacled Professor that I first encountered when I was an undergraduate in Universiti Malaya. I never failed to make time to attend his public forum, seminars and talks while I was in Universiti Malaya. He was not my lecturer, but his ideas have definitely made an impact on my thought process.
Prof. Syed Husin Ali’s book, ‘The Malays – Their Problem and Future’ was first launched in 1978. I can still remember the book which was green in color - and I still have it with me. I found the book very intriguing and very informative to understand the history of the Malays. When they released a revision of the book in 2008, I was perhaps one of the first to go out to buy it and read it again.
It is very important that we understand the history and we agree to the historical foundation of this country. One of the most important historical foundations that we should not argue over is about who are the Malays and about this land that used to be called Tanah Melayu.
I find that there is a handful of Malaysians who seem adamant at insisting that this country was not sired from the Malay polity and that the Malays are not the legitimate natives of the land. Perhaps these people are angry with the UMNO-led government and the wrong use of funds from our affirmative action plans; being channeled to the wrong people. But that is not the issue at hand here.
The point is, this position is not only historically wrong, it is also seditious. By denying that the Malay Sultanates have sovereignty over this land, we are going against the Constitution. A browse through our Federal Constitution will reveal many Articles on the role of Malay royalty as the Head of State. Article 32 for example pronounces the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as the Supreme Head of the Federation. Articles 32 to 45 of the Federal Constitution are largely devoted to defining the roles of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Malay rulers. As such, in 1957 the Malay royalty became not just rulers of the Malay but Malayan rulers, and in 1963, they moved from being rulers of Malaya to the sovereign rulers of Malaysia.
The Malaysian fabric is tearing apart because somehow or another, we have lost two major understanding. One, that this country was sired from a Malay polity; and two, the non-Malays who were accepted in 1957 are not ‘pendatang’ and must be treated impartially according to the constitution.
The constitution is a balanced document. As part of the agreement of co-ownership, Article 153 was established not only to safeguard the special position of the Bumiputras but also to protect the legitimate interests of other communities. It is two pronged - it reserves quotas for Bumiputras in certain areas, at the same time it protects that civil servants must be treated impartially regardless of race.
On the first point of accepting that we are sired from a Malay polity, I realize that each time someone were to suggest that the Malays were the owners of this land prior to 1957, they will either be demonized, attacked or labeled a chauvinist. This is especially so if the person is either a centrist, or worst still, someone from the right. As such I will provide information and historical opinions from Prof. Syed Husin Ali, a respectable professor and former PKR number 2.
This is a summary of the history of the Malays from his book ‘The Malays – Their Problems and Future’.
Who are the Malays?
There are some who contest that the Malays have no history.
Prof. Syed writes that this view is taken from those who speak of local history with a ‘colonial bias’. These are the same people who believe that history only began with the arrival of the colonizers or that we as a society only began at 1957. Prof. Syed writes, however:
“It is now well established that long before the arrival of western colonialism, the indigenous peoples had their own history which, more often than not, was older and more illustrious than that of the foreign colonialists. “
Prof. Syed attests that the society which had existed for thousands of years in the Peninsula is the ancestors of the present-day Malays. Based on archaeological evidence of human and animal skeletons and stone adzes, this society existed since about 5000 to 3000 years ago as the early settlers of the Peninsula during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The most widely accepted theory is that these early settlers came from the Hoabinh area of Indochina. They had ‘small but tough physique, dark skin and woolly hair’.
There are two theories as for their origins. The first theory is they came from Indochina, flowed southward to Peninsula and crossed over to Sumatra, Borneo and the Philippines. The second theory is they originated from South China and migrated to Borneo and the Philippines.
In a larger sense then, the term ‘Malay’ does not only refer to those living in the Peninsula, but includes all those in the Malay Archipelago, including Indonesia and the Philippines. Despite the boundaries we perceive between each other now, linguistic and cultural experts consider us to be from the same Malay entity, known as Malays or Malayo-Indonesians. It was colonialism which later separated us into different groups based on the new state boundaries.
The descendents of the Malays in the Philippines are now known as Filipinos while those in former Dutch colonies are known as Indonesians. But we have the same ancestry of the early Neolithic groups, which are often described as Proto-Malays. Prof. Syed writes that this society was ‘undoubtedly the true ancestors of the present day Malays’.
The Proto-Malay communities settled in big groups, tilled rice fields, domesticated animals, fished in the rivers and the sea and carried out barter exchanges. Indian traders began to arrive with Hindu beliefs, and Hindu influence is dominant in Java till this day. In the Peninsula, however, the influence was more limited to creative arts, government and certain aspects of social rituals. We find that names of Hindu gods are still invoked in prayers related to traditional rites carried out by peasants or fishermen and in the installation of rulers. These Hindu influences have enriched Malay culture.
It was after Melaka was established that the Malay feudal system reached its apex. Melaka became the centre for trade and culture in the region; traders from the East and the West came here. The Malay language spread as the lingua franca for trade and government – Prof. Syed writes that ‘it became as important for the region as Latin did in Europe’.
Melaka, along with Bantam in Java and Aceh in Sumatra, became the centre for the spread of Islam, and as such Islam became strongly established in the Archipelago. It took root in the hearts and minds of the Malays and Islamic values infused the whole life of the Malays. It was an important modernization process for the Malay community. At this time, they produced works of literature, especially on Sufism, and the vocabulary of philosophy and administrative terms.
The Legal Definition of Malays
In 1957 when the Malaysian Constitution was set up, it gave a legal definition of the Malays. The Malaysian Constitution defines a Malay as ‘a person who professes the Muslim religion, habitually speaks Malay, conforms to Malay custom and: (a) was born before Merdeka Day, in the Federation or Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or Singapore, or was on Merdeka Day domiciled in the Federation or Singapore; or (b) is the issue of such a person” (Article 160).
Prof. Syed writes that this definition gives rise to complications. Based on this legal definition, if those from the various parts of the Archipelago, such as the Javanese, Minangkabau, Acehnese, Bugis and Banjarese, speak their own dialects and not the Malay language, then by law they are not defined as Malays. I believe it is this incongruity between the legal and socio-cultural definition of who are the Malays that has given rise to many of our issues with the Malay position in our society today.
Taking an added aspect into consideration, the formation of Malaysia 1963 called for the need to include the term Bumiputera in the Constitution. Bumiputera is defined as: ‘(a) in relation to Sarawak, a person who is a citizen and either belongs to one of the indigeous groups listed in Article 7 or is of mixed blood deriving exclusively from these groups; and (b) in relation to Sabah, a person who is a citizen, is a child or grandchild of a person of a race indigenous to Sabah (whether on or after Malaysia Day or not) either in Sabah or to a father domiciled in Sabah at the time of birth.” (Article 161A ).
The Jakun, Senoi, Temiar and Semang have been here for centuries and socio-culturally, they belong to the same Malay stock. However, as a large number of them are not Muslims but animists and Christians, the earlier legal definition of the Malay in the constitution would not allow that they too be legally defined as Malay. Thus the term Bumiputera was extended to them to provide them the same special position.
Because the socio-cultural and legal definition of what is Malay differs from each other, Prof. Syed concludes that we cannot depend entirely on either one of these definitions, but consider both of them together. Taken this way, Prof. Syed writes that the Malays form an identifiable ethnic group which made up half of the total population in this country.
According to Prof Syed, there is an interesting case that at one point after World War II, leaders like Dr. Burhanuddin Helmi and Tan Cheng Lock along with the coalition called PUTERA-AMCJA which drew up the People’s Manifesto, advocated that our national identity should be ‘Melayu’. Imagine if history turned out differently and their idea was accepted as the general idea for our nation. How would we see ourselves today?
As Prof. Syed Husin Ali writes on the idea that this country was sired from a Malay polity, is he then a chauvinist?