Saturday, September 7, 2019


‘The Malays: Their Problems and Future’ by Syed Husin Ali. ISBN: 978-983-9541-61-8

This book was first published over thirty years ago in 1978 when Prof. Syed Husin Ali was in detention under the ISA; and it was updated in 2008. Prof. Syed Husin Ali was then the deputy PKR president.
‘The Malays’ is a really good book, because it goes way back to the origin of the Malays, their history, religion, socio-economy and politics. It discusses the issue of Malay poverty, providing facts and data, not just specifically on the Malay community but also in comparison with other communities. The book also addresses the impacts of modernity and past policies on the development of the average Malay and emerging challenges that face them. It gives a good overview of the situation of the Malay community.
Can you share with us some parts of the book?
One should read the book in entirety to get the full picture, because just by reading this book would be a good start to help in understanding the Malays. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the book on who the Malays are:
“Taking a wide social and cultural definition, the term refers not only to those who are settled in the Peninsular, but also includes those in the larger area of the Malay Archipelago, embracing the Malay Peninsular and thousands of islands which today form the Republic of Indonesia and the Philippines. Although they are divided into many sub-groups, and perhaps as many dialects, linguistic and cultural experts always consider them as belonging to the same stock, known as the Malays or Malayo-Indonesians.” (pg. 1)
“Quite often when we refer to the term Malay, we think only of those who are living in the Peninsular. Descendants of the Malays in the Philippines are now known as Filipinos, while those in the former Dutch territories are called Indonesians. Our eyes have been shaded by three separate political boundaries to such an extent that we lose sight of the similarities in ancestry, of culture and history which are the common heritage of all the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago.” (pg. 2)
We have particularly seen a lot of this in recent years – people make comments, for example, to say someone is not really ‘Malay’ because his ancestry is Bugis. But based on this larger definition described by Prof. Syed, the Bugis are also Malay. We tend to think that the Malay only refers to those in Peninsular Malaysia, but this is a very myopic view point.
The book lays the foundation for understanding the definition of who is a Malay. As an ethnic group, the Malays are defined historically but have also been defined legally in our Constitution. Prof. Syed discusses the historical context for this as well as its implications. These basic definitions and the understanding of who a Malay is, are very important concepts all Malaysians need to learn and understand (more on this is discussed in Chapter 28).
The book also discusses the situation of the Malays in the time of Merdeka and post-Independence. It sheds light on the rise of Malay political organisations, especially the Unity that was found among the Malays when opposing the Malayan Union. Opposing the Malayan Union was described as ‘a life and death matter’ to the Malays, and the question about the survival of the Malays as a race was what caused the Malays to come together. (pg. 45)
Understanding this historical pattern may help us to understand why the call for ‘Malay Unity’ has been carried on even until today. After Independence, language and education became the rallying call. After that, and now we see, it is religion. Prof. Syed writes – “Whatever the issues – religion, race or culture – all are open to political manipulation and exploitation. But this does not deny the fact that there are some individuals and groups who are sincere in their intentions over these same issues.” (pg. 47)
The book also discusses whether our development policies have been a success or failure, providing a study of data and statistics. The May 13 incident was described as a reflection of socioeconomic problems. Prof. Syed writes “although the incident appeared to be a racial conflict, it was recognised that the root causes were some basic economic problems” (pg. 125).
According to Prof. Syed, the analysis of the root causes of poverty was not correctly done in order to lead to the right strategies to properly eradicate poverty. He suggests that the NEP needs to be “reviewed and replaced by a new economic plan that would ensure the wealth and resources of the country are not monopolised by only a small coterie of people who have already enjoyed power. Instead they should be distributed fairly and evenly to the majority of people comprising different ethnic groups.” (pg. 151)
He adds - “Although absolute poverty has been reduced, relative poverty widening of the socioeconomic gap has increased. NEP helps to sponsor Malay rich and has resulted in nepotism and cronyism.” (pg. 182)
With discussions like this, the book presents a good balance of information and opinions. In discussing multi-ethnic relations between Malays and other races in Malaysia, it addresses some of the historical issues that hinder the journey to Unity and integration. Prof. Syed stresses the importance of shared values –
“it is … necessary to disseminate universal values and attitudes, which can help people so that they do not succumb easily to racial or ethnic appeals. There is also a need to overcome ‘false consciousness’ caused by ethnicity. At the same time, the state should not be allowed to legitimise ethnic violence to perpetrate itself. Until racial and ethnic harmony comes naturally, it must be strived for.” (pg. 180)
I urge readers to go out and get these three books as a start to understand our Indian, Chinese and Malay brothers and sisters. Knowledge of the history, background and current situation of these three Malaysian communities will go a long way in helping us to really understand each other and nurture harmony amongst us.
Anas Zubedy
Malaysian Movement for Moderates
Note : This article is the final entry for the topic is taken from my book The Middle Path, chapter 4.

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