|Written by Dr Helen Ting|
|The other day, as I brought a group of Indonesian friends to visit Kuala Lumpur by train, I explained to them that KTM stood for Keretapi Tanah Melayu. They were quite amused by the term Tanah Melayu, hearing it for the first time in their life. |
Tanah Melayu was the term Umno leaders insisted as the name of the alternative Federation which replaced the short-lived Malayan Union. At symbolic level, it summarised aptly their nationalist sentiment, that this is a Malay land. Just when and how the name came about?
It is actually a considerable challenge for historians to find evidence of local consciousness of the territory as a peninsula in the Asian sources before the entrenchment of the European influence.
In the 14th century Javanese Desawarnana, the southern part of the peninsula was referred to as “the territory of Pahang”, while the term Malayu referred to Sumatra. The earliest verifiable sources generally designate Malayu to a location in Sumatra, the island of Sumatra itself, or a specific kingdom there.
European cartographers of the 15th and early 16th century generally labelled the Peninsula as the Golden Khersonese, probably after Ptolemy’s appellation.
The 17th century Portuguese writer, de Eredia, called it Ujontana. He explained that throughout the “continental territory of Ujontana (defined as covering the Malay Peninsula beneath Junk Ceylon)” the Malay language was used by the natives who called themselves ‘Malayos’. Until around 1800, English, French and Dutch maps generally called the Peninsula ‘Melaka’.
From Deli to Tanah Melayu
In early indigenous written sources, the term Tanah Melayu is not frequently found, and is not a specific name for the Peninsula. Among the early Malay texts, the term Tanah Melayu designating Malaya is used almost exclusively in Hikayat Hang Tuah. It appears to be a general term denoting places under the reign or suzerainty of Melaka Kingdom, or where the Melayu lived. In Hikayat Hang Tuah, the term was used just as Tanah Terengganu, Tanah Brunai, Tanah Melaka; Inderapura was regarded as Tanah Melayu while Brunai was described as negeri asing. At one point, merchants from Melaka were said to have changed the name of Deli to Tanah Melayu.
It was only around early 19th century that current usage of the term began to take hold. The first book which explicitly referred to the peninsula as “Malay peninsula” was in a map of a book by J Begbie in 1834 entitled The Malayan Peninsula.
The idea that the Peninsula was ‘Malay’ appears to be an exclusively English conception. A British administrator turned academician, Sir Richard Winstedt, acknowledged that the word “Malaya” for the peninsula was a European invention.
The first English usage of the term “Malaya” appeared in the writings of Alexander Hamilton in the 1720s in the form of the phrase “Coast of Malaya” in his reference to the ports of Kedah and Perak.
It is notable that, contrary to the current tendency to regard racial purity as one indication of ethnic authenticity, the term Malayu was in all aspects associated with hybridity and cosmopolitanism. Sejarah Melayu claim genealogical linkage of the Malayu origins to Indian ancestry and Alexander the Great. The practice of tracing royal genealogy to illustrious or even divine origins was probably inspired by the ancient Indic kingship tradition.
Hang Tuah as a Melakan Malay admitted famously in Hikayat Hang Tuah that he was also a kacukan and not ‘pure’ Malay. Several historical indicators point to the possible Chinese ancestry of some of the Malayu class, the maritime elites of the Archipelago then.
The Malay language was initially referred to more as Jawi, understood as anything mixed or crossed (just as “anah jahui”), or Bahasa Jawi.
An authoritative historian of the region, Anthony Reid, pointed out that “foreignness” was in fact considered an asset for entrepreneurs in the region between the 15th to 18th centuries.
A contemporary Portuguese observer, Tomé Pires, wrote that at least 61 different races and communities could be found in 15th century Melaka, with 84 different tongues being spoken.
The inhabitants of the region exhibited their receptivity and capacity for adaptation and innovation in the face of stimulation from outside, as well described by Anthony Reid:
“Chinese technology, weights and coins, Indian financial methods, Islamic commercial laws, and European technology and capital, all played a major part in creating the character of Southeast Asian urban and commercial life in this period (AD1400-1800).”
In a keynote lecture he gave at the Fourth Malaysian Studies Conference in 2004, Prof Reid commented that the current label ‘Malay’ carried by the peninsula poses an “identity problem”. He thought “Plural Peninsula” would be a more appropriate name for it.
Reid noted that when the English appellation ‘Malay Peninsula’ was initially applied to the territory, the term Malay had a much wider meaning. Yet the meaning of the term ‘Malay’ and ‘Melayu’ had been narrowed down in the “nationalist century” of the 20th “to become an ethnic adjective, increasingly used in an ethno-nationalist spirit to exclude the other long-term inhabitants of the Plural Peninsula, now labelled Thai, Chinese, Mon-Khmer, Indian or smaller groups”.
He lamented the tendency of the 20th century nationalism “to impose the nation backwards onto a cosmopolitan past, claiming a great trading city such as Melaka, Brunei, Ayutthaya, Srivijaya or Majapahit as an ‘empire’, ancestral to the modern nation-state. In this construct, cosmopolis is embarrassing, and where it cannot be avoided has to be put down to aberrant colonial schemes to divide and rule”.
Despite 50 years of political independence from the British, we are yet to undo this epistemological colonisation.
Population growth was deterred by frequent warfare and raiding, resulting in movement and decimation of the population. The population of Melaka at its peak was estimated at between 100,000 and 190,000. After the takeover of Melaka by the Portuguese, its population never exceeded 30,000 inhabitants.
Between 1618-24, major Acehnese military expeditions took captive 11,000 men from Pahang alone, and around 7,000 from Kedah. A European observer estimated that some 22,000 slaves were brought back to Aceh. Among them, only about 1,500 survived. The disruptive after-effects of the war on agricultural and domestic activities also took a toll on the escapees confronted with hunger and epidemics.
Inhabitants in Malaya at around 1700 were estimated at 250,000. This was after a couple of decades of substantial immigration of inhabitants from the neighbouring islands, particularly by the Minangkabaus and the Bugis, as well as the Chinese.
Migration of the Minangkabau people to the peninsula intensified during the last few decades of 17th century, thanks to the attenuated Acehnese political hegemony and renewed economic opportunities. Subsequently, the Minangkabau state of Negri Sembilan was established with its first common ruler in 1785. Throughout the 19th century, waves of Minangkabaus from Sumatra continued to ‘merantau’ eastwards and populate the states of Perak, Selangor and Pahang. They resided along the river banks and carried out riverine trade.
At about the same time, streams of Bugis and other South Sulawesi groups fleeing prolonged civil wars began to settle in relatively unpopulated and lightly governed areas in Sumatra and along the west coast of the peninsula. In 1766, the Selangor state headed by a Bugis leader was established througha unilateral declaration of their independence from the Riau-Johor kingdom.
Even though we may now think that they all belong to the ‘same Malay cultural world’, the political assertion of the Minangkabaus and Bugis was challenged violently by contemporary local Malay political elites, who saw them as ‘outsiders’. The Bugis managed to install a puppet Malay ruler to govern the Riau-Johor kingdom. They nevertheless felt compelled to justify their political position as Bugis, which was at the origins of the writing of the ‘Tuhfat al-Nafis’.
During the same period, a new pattern of Chinese migration emerged. A large number of Chinese labourers were recruited to work in the tin mines and cash crop plantations in the Southeast Asian region. Before this, Chinese settlers were mostly involved in Chinese junk trade. Locally- based Chinese merchants seem to have acted as intermediaries between labour-seeking indigenous rulers and individual labour recruiters in China.
In Terengganu, under the encouragement of the ruler, pepper cultivation, a largely Chinese domain, acquired international fame by the end of the 17th century. Some of the Chinese also owned vessels for local or regional trading purposes, with the Sultan claiming a share of the profit. In Kelantan, the Chinese in town were engaged in business or pepper cultivation, while those in the rural areas were gold-miners. Chinese migrants by then also worked in the in mines in Selangor and Perak.
After the port of Penang was opened by the British in 1786, the earliest Chinese population came more for commerce. However, they soon began to take up cultivation of cash crops such as spices, ‘gambier’, sugarcane and indigo.
The peninsula population at the turn of the 19th century is estimated to have been around 300,000. Even around the mid-19th century, its inhabitants concentrated largely in the Straits Settlements, the Klang estuary, the port town of Kuala Terengganu and the rice plain of the Kelantan delta. The rest of the Malay states were dotted with river settlements.
Internal migration within the peninsula was not uncommon and was of some magnitude even during the 19th century.
William Roff, a well-known professor of history, wrote that, ‘Selangor was virtually depopulated during the period of the civil wars, to be filled up later with peasant settlers from Sumatra and Java. Villagers in Pahang fled from the constant internal strife in the nineteenth century across the borders to the west and north. Kelantan peasants, faced with famine during the crop and livestock disasters of 1887, came in droves to the west coast states. More casual and smaller- scale migration was constant’.
Kedah was de-populated due to the Siamese invasion and occupation between 1821-42. A historian recorded that 20,000 Malays escaped to Penang and Province Wellesley which were under British jurisdiction.
From the 1820s onwards, a substantial inflow of Chinese migrants undertook large scale tin- mining in the states of Selangor and Perak. The local Malay chiefs welcomed the collaboration of the Chinese both in capital and the deployment of superior techniques for the exploitation of the substantial tin deposits discovered in the 1840s.
In 1844, Johor’s ruler also followed suit with similar model of economic development by immigration. He gave authorisation to individual ‘kang chus’ (river headmen) to recruit and oversee labourers to open up ‘gambier’ and pepper plantations and to conduct revenue from opium and gambling. Singapore traders provided the investment capital, amounting to about one million Spanish dollars.
From a population of not more than 1,000 during the early decades of the century, the inhabitants of Johor increased by leaps and bounds to an estimated 200,000 in 1890. Some 70% of them were Chinese. It was also estimated that four out of every five of Johor Malays then were immigrants from Java.
Hence, we certainly cannot blame the British as the sole culprit for the trend of massive immigration of the Chinese population into the territory. The former merely continued with the existing practices initiated by the Malay rulers.
Despite the ongoing massive immigration, the demographic density remained low even during the late 1860s. Economic initiatives such as the opening up of jungle land for cash crop cultivation or the carrying out of large scale commercial mining activities, all required a huge supply of manpower. The situation outside the Straits Settlements was described by a British administrator turned academician, John Gullick, as ‘the sheer emptiness of much of Malaya’.
He said: ‘The first essential in these states is population, the second population and the third population' (from ‘Annual Report of British Resident’, Negri Sembilan, 1899). Note that this was over a quarter of a century later during which there had already been large-scale immigration. The reports from this period teem with references to the problem.
The scale of demographic change from the 1830s to 1880s could be gauged from the following table:
‘Nationalities’ to ‘Race’
Only after the turn of the 20th century did the population begin to stabilise and become more settled. Henceforth, birth gradually replaced immigration as the more significant contributor to the peninsular’s demographic growth.
British colonialism based on racial ideology nevertheless engendered dynamics of contradiction. As a matter of fact, all local-born inhabitants regardless of race were legally recognised as ‘de facto’ natural-born subjects of the Malay ruler, a generalised international practice. Nonetheless, whenever their interests were served, the British administrators did not hesitate to distinguish ‘foreigner natives’ from ‘indigenous natives’ in their administration of the population.
Charles Hirschman, a sociologist, analysed changes in the social categories applied in successive censuses carried out by the British administration. He noted how in the 1891 census, the category ‘Nationalities’ was discarded in favour of the term ‘Race’.
As a consequence, the earlier dispersed classification of the different ethnic groups from the archipelago was regrouped under the category ‘Malays & other Natives of the Archipelago’ alongside the broad racial categories of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Tamils & other Natives of India’ (with their sub-ethnic divisions).
This was despite the fact that, even in 1931, the census official explained in his report that the term ‘Race’ made no sense to the majority of the population enumerated. The new classification also erased the earlier separate enumeration of ‘Straits-born’ and ‘China-born’ Chinese which were, in fact, sociologically two distinct social groups.
It can be argued that historical internalisation of the European notions of racial ideology and colonial politics of governance have turned the cosmopolitan historical personality of the peninsula into a burden and a problem.
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