Defining and redefining ‘Malay’
WHO or what is a Malay?
Every now and then, and especially now when Arabisation is creeping in, the answer to that question could vary and provocatively stir up debate. Just like last week, when it was said at a forum in Petaling Jaya, which discussed Melayu dan makna-maknanya (Malay and its meanings), that there was a worrying tendency to dump a person out of the “club” for thoughts deemed too liberal and even for political reasons.
That may be ridiculous, but at the same time, it underlines a common trait of Malays today of having a siege mentality, which happens to be one of the swift answers I got when I threw a “What is a Melayu?” question to a group of people through social media recently. It is quite strange, come to think of it, that many people place importance in the description and definition of a Malay, since there is none of the sort for, say, an Englishman or a Javanese or a Bugis, other than for the broad purpose connected to nationality.
I suppose the whole Malay thing revolves around the Federal Constitution, which, in establishing provisions for special privileges of Bumiputeras under Article 153, spells out the definition of a Malay under Article 160: A person born in the Federation, or of a parent who is a Malaysian citizen, who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, adheres to Malay customs and is domiciled in Malaysia. Therefore, controversial lecturer Professor Dr Mohd Ridhuan Tee Abdullah is, by definition, a Malay, though he was born Chinese.
I was not at last week’s forum organised by Projek Dialog, but reports on the event came out with interesting thoughts by some of those who took part on not only who, but what, is a Malay. For instance, lawyer Syahredzan Johan said he was told in the past that because of his liberal views, he had betrayed Islam and Malays, and was, therefore, no longer Malay. He said there was a general feeling that all Malays should conform to an official set of characteristics to be called Malay.
But, who has the right to decide whether a person is more Malay or less Malay?
“We do not have that right,” Syahredzan said, “because to define what is Malay is something that is very difficult.” How right.
According to DAP’s Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, a Malay with liberal thinking or who is secular does not make him less of a Malay. Similarly, those influenced by Arabic and Western culture.
But, I still remember what was said at the Umno general assembly 10 years ago, when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who had just become prime minister, gave a sobering reflection on the subject in his adjournment speech, saying Malays were religious, but tended to resign themselves too much to fate and could be very superstitious.
“They believe in Islam,” he said, “but they also believe in ghosts and other nonsensical things, helped by some Malay newspapers that play up stories about five-legged cats and three-legged chickens, which they believe bring good luck.
“They believe in ghosts and seek the help of spirits to achieve something. This even happened in the Umno elections. I have been told that some Umno members went up north looking for something. Don’t do that, it’s not wise.”
Abdullah then referred to Frank Swettenham, the British colonial governor at the end of the 19th century, who had given a penetrating rundown of what is a Malay in his book, The Real Malay. Among the many amusing things in the book is the observation that a Malay “is fond of borrowing money and very slow in repaying it. He takes an interest in the affairs of his neighbours and is consequently a gossip”.
Yes, that still holds some truth till today, as study loans remain unpaid and even athletes’ attire becomes a talking point.
Of course, Swettenham’s views could be dismissed as a mere evaluation applicable to that time by a foreigner. But, the British official was known to be very perceptive, apart from having very close relations with the locals when he was in the Malay states for more than 30 years.
However, the passing of time certainly has had an effect on many aspects of Malay-ness. For instance, some families nowadays are so Anglophile, they speak with a stiff upper lip, spend a lot of time in England, have tea with scones and exchange presents on Christmas.
Arabic influence plays its part as well, and this has led to the death of some common features of Malay practices. The bersanding at weddings is slowly being phased out and so is the joget dance. The kebaya is being replaced by the jubah. And the greetings? As the fasting month begins, it is no longer selamat berpuasa, but Ramadan al-Mubarak, and not buka puasa, but iftar Ramadan.
Even the good old selamat pagi is being slowly taken over by assalamualaikum.