Even a person as learned as the director-general of Ikim, Dr Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas, fell into the trap of erroneously claiming that “the Malay language is derived from the Arabic language,” which he characterised as “the language of identity for the Malays.”
Syed Ali also said that “the Malays are Malays because of Islam.” He is unaware that the earliest issue of contention in the modern definition of Bangsa Melayu was the issue of descent (keturunan) versus Islam. Abdul Rahim Kajai, a prominent Malay journalist and writer, argued that bangsa Melayu should only consist of those of paternal Malay descent and stressed that “Islam does not designate a bangsa.”
The term Malayu was initially associated with the Palembang-based, Buddhist Srivijayan Kingdom, which existed between the 7th to 13th centuries. Malayu was then neither the name of a people nor a language. Most foreigners referred to the inhabitants of the archipelago as Jawa or Yava.
In parts of eastern Indonesia, “masuk Melayu” actually meant becoming Christian. Christianity was associated with the development of an earlier literary Malay style there, due to the proselytisation activities conducted in Malay by Portuguese missionaries, and its subsequent adoption as the language of the Dutch colonial administration. Christian Ambonese villagers abandoned their indigenous languages in favour of Malay due to the Malay-language Christian schooling and bible literacy acquired in the Malay language.
James Collins, a professor of Malayo-Polynesian Linguistics, also suggests that the establishment of anti-Islamic Portuguese power in Melaka had led to the “strengthening, or at least the affirmation, of Muslim-Malay identity” and had “perceptible effect on the spread of Malay-speaking Islam.”
The term Melayu in the Melaka kingdom initially designated solely the royal descent of its ruling elites. The notion of Melayu then was associated with the mystic pedigree of kingship descending from Srivijaya and Melaka or Pagarruyung (Minangkabau). Its cosmopolitan population related hierarchically to the ruling elite as orang Melaka or hamba/anak Melayu.
The prosperity and authority of the Melaka Kingdom had endowed the name Melayu with great prestige associated with maritime trade.
The death of the last Johor Sultan who claimed direct lineage to the Melakan royalty in 1699 unleashed political struggle by competing groups for the right to assume the Melayu identity associated with power in the region. A historian, Timorthy Barnard, contends that the Malayness as understood during this period “was not associated with Islam, although religion did play a part; it was based instead on a common trading culture along the Melaka Straits and South China Sea.”
Meantime, a parallel dynamic was developing in places further away from the Straits of Melaka. After the fall of the Melaka port city in 1511, Portuguese hostility towards its Muslim inhabitants resulted in their exile throughout the archipelago, in search of new bases of operation.
This Malay-speaking Muslim trading diaspora dispersed by the Portuguese conquest composed of widely differing genetic stock: Javanese, ‘Luzons’, Chinese, Gujerati, South Indian, Ryukyuan.
Unlike the stereotypical association of the Malays as peasants and fishermen during the colonial era, early Melayu diaspora were primarily traders. The 17th century Melayu community on the island of Sumbawa asked to be exempted from port duties instead of being rewarded with rice fields, because “we are sailors and traders, not peasants.” An exiled prince from Siak in the 18th century who was a claimant to the Melayu identity, described himself and his followers as “children of the sea”, “comfortable with riding the waves.”
Subsequently, becoming a Melayu appeared to be increasingly based on the allegiance as a subject to a particular Malay ruler. Anthony Milner, the proponent of this thesis, suggests that Hikayat Deli and other Malay hikayat had served as teaching manuals for the acculturation of new adherents to such Melayu identity.
Notably, Milner did not regard the whole nusantara as “the Malay world”, but only clusters of Malay polities, each under the rule of a Malay Raja. In fact, the name Nusantara was first used by the early Javanese Kingdoms to denote the area outside the political influence of Javanese culture, but still under their suzerainty.
The current concept of race and nation was clearly an epistemological heritage of the European civilisation. It was Stamford Raffles who first described the Malayu as a ‘nation.’ Raffles also renamed the Malay chronicle, Sulalat Us-Salatin (in Arabic) or Peraturan segala raja-raja (in Malay) as Sejarah Melayu, as if it was the story of a people.
Then again, Stamford was merely referring to the population under coastal maritime sultanates and not the entire population of the archipelago. British colonialism was instrumental in introducing the categorisation of the Malay people as a race, and Malaya as Tanah Melayu.
As late as the 1930s, leaders of the Malay State Associations admitted only anak negeri as their members. Recent migrants from the surrounding islands, the anak dagang, were barred from joining the associations.
In fact, Ibrahim Yaacob who attempted to propagate a Malay nation covering the whole archipelago complained that most of those who migrated from the surrounding islands did not identify themselves as Malays. Even local Malays tended to be more attached to their respective state identity, calling themselves orang Kelantan, orang Perak, etc. rather than as Malays.
It is indeed a point to ponder how the historical fluidity of the Melayu identity as well as its vitality has been rendered so rigid and peculiarly “Malaysian.”