The relativity of Malayness

Finally, a well-reasoned and argued piece, appearing in The Jakarta Post, explaining why misunderstandings crop up between Malaysia and Indonesia where culture is concerned.

It is unlikely to calm the shrill voices though.In moments of excitement, reason is sidelined. Alas.

Of different Malays: The problem of boundaries

Merlyna Lim ,  Arizona   |  Fri, 09/04/2009 1:24 PM  |  Opinion

The recent furor caused by the Discovery Channel’s mistaken insertion of the Balinese Pendet dance into a TV spot for Malaysia has reopened an old wound of Indonesians, who believe Malaysian has repeatedly stolen Indonesian cultural heritage, including the song “Rasa Sayange”, the angklung, and the Reog Ponorogo dance, among others.

For most Indonesians, that the Malaysian government can claim these things is bewildering. Regular Indonesians would undoubtedly associate these three intangible cultural items with three different origins: “Rasa Sayange” is Ambonese/Maluku, the angklung is Sundanese, and the Reog Ponorogo is Javanese.

Most Malaysians, including the government of Malaysia, however, fail to see these as being of different cultural lineage. They lump them as belonging to Malay (Melayu) culture.

Malay culture is considered by Indonesians in reference to the dances of Lilin, Randai and Serampang Dua Belas, and has no direct connection to the Javanese gamelan, the Reog or the angklung. It is directly associated with the traditions and customs of the ethnic group within the boundary of the Malay peninsula. Malaysians seem to see a different boundary for Malay culture. Why is this?

Knowledge and narratives of local culture in Indonesia are developed in association with ethnic-based regional boundaries. They are endorsed by the state and they are part of nation building.

From elementary school, Indonesian kids learn about national heritage by memorizing the names of dances, folk songs and visual representations of traditional costumes.

The practice of documenting and selecting material artifacts of local cultures is part of the larger political process of inclusion that stresses nationalism and the national unity of Indonesia. Selective preservation of regional and/or local art forms, in constructing the national culture, is therefore part of the politics of exclusion.

Recognizing this pitfall, however, the ways in which local culture is framed in Indonesia are much less crude than in Malaysia. It is still assigned and identified with a certain cultural context/geographical (of origin). While being partial and reductionist, multifarious contexts and diverse locales still have some space in the narrative of Indonesian national culture.

Malaysia adopts a different route in approaching its national and local cultures. The modern nation-state of Malaysia frames national culture by clustering cultural artifacts into the Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous tribe (orang asli) cultures. The term Malay here differs from that of Indonesia, and refers to and is influenced by several concepts.

First, as enacted in the term “Malay is Muslim, Muslim is Malay”, it is a form of ethno-religion. It is entwined with the concept of ethnic nationalism that has become today’s Malaysia’s dominant state-religion relations in which the state is fused to a particular ethnic group and religion functions as a signifier of ethnic identity.

Any Javanese, Acehnese or other Indonesian who migrated to Malaysia will be classified as Malay and are expected to be Muslim. Chinese-Indonesians, though, can box themselves as Chinese, thus do not have to be Muslim.

Second, it is used in association with the Malay race (bangsa Melayu) instead of the Malay ethnicity (suku Melayu).

This concept originated in Blumenbach’s racial classification system, which divides the world’s races into the Caucasian/white race, the Mongolian/yellow race, the Malayan/brown race, the American/red race and the Negroid/black race. His skull-based concept has been rejected by many anthropologists who recognize the enormous complexity of classifying races.

He considered the inhabitants of Southeast Asia, including the Marianas, the Philippines, the Malukus, Sundas and Pacific Islands as Malayan. Blumenbach wrote, “Malay variety. Tawny-colored; hair black, soft, curly, thick and plentiful; head moderately narrowed; forehead slightly swelling; nose full…”

The concept of the Malay race is also a historical heritage of colonialism. European planters and British officials in Malaysia were keen to obtain laborers from the Dutch East Indies because they were regarded as being better suited to the climate and would assimilate more easily with the local Malays.

Indonesian migrants were viewed as originating from the same racial stock as the Malays, regardless of ethnicity. In early colonial Malaysia, the Straits Settlements censuses of 1871 and 1881 both listed “Malay, Achinese, Andamanese, Boyanese, Bugis and Javanese” separately.

In the 1891 census, however, there were major structural changes in the classification of ethnicities. The 48 different ethnicities were sorted under the major (hierarchical) classifications of “European and American, Eurasian, Chinese, Malays and other Natives of the Archipelago, Tamils and other Natives of India, and Other Races”.

The creation of the category “Malay and other Natives of the Archipelago” and the inclusions of the various ethnicities in it contributed toward formalizing the boundaries of Malay-ness. The modern nation-state Malaysia cultivates this heavily politicized classification by clustering Malaysians into Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous tribes.

Tracing the origin of the term Malay as used in Malaysian context, we thus can understand that the Malaysian version of Malay is more a product of political reconstruction (of colonialism and a modern ethnic nationalism) and is rooted in the politics of race and identity rather than the geographical boundary of origin.

As people move around globally, cultures flow in all directions. Tracing the histories and origins of culture is thus always a complicated task. Lumping together various artifacts into one Malay culture whose boundary is heavily politicized is certainly not the most plausible method to complete the task. It fails to recognize the complexity of the cultures of the archipelago, thus removing them from their multifarious contexts and locales and uprooting these cultures from the people who shape and are reshaped by them.

As for Indonesia, it is time to recognize and appreciate local cultures not by treating them as symbols to justify unity and diversity, but by supporting and caring for the people who work tirelessly in preserving and maintaining these cultures.

The writer is an Indonesian professor at Arizona State University, Tempe, US.

2 thoughts on “The relativity of Malayness

Add yours

  1. The trouble is many of the Indonsians who have migrated to Malaysia and made it in the new land have now become shy of their land of origin. Look at the former MB of Selangor with a RM24 million mansion. He would keep silent about his heritage or be seen as a pendatang! There are many other similar examples, I am sure!


  2. To Anak Melayu:

    I don’t see the relevance in your comment. I can only assume that this former MB of Selangor is not a very honest person, or that it is hard being a pendatang? Which I am sure it is in most countries (immigrants aren’t exactly the sought after people in the US… not in a good way, anyway)

    To Unspun:

    I have often tried to explain this to my Malay and Indonesian friends alike. But your post says it more perfectly! Well done!


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