The Malay People

Ask any Italians :" Who is Sandokan?" They will enthusiastically tell you he is a popular Malay pirate known as " The Tiger of Malaysia".

Don't worry, this is not any negative publicity. You see, Sandokan is portrayed as a kind of Robin Hood who fights against colonial powers. Apparently the Italian author Emilio Salgari based his most enduring creation on the exploits of Dayak Chieftain Libau, resisting James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak from his hideout at Mount Sandok.

You might regard Salgari's imagination hilarious as I did. But mind you, when Indian actor Kabir Bedi played the role of Sandokan in 1976, it took Europe by storm and this was followed by a series of sequels in the late 90's. So it was a pirate from Malaya who shot to international stardom before the Pirates of Caribbean.

Salgari's Sandokan even though fictitous, is an eye-opener for me : an outsider's notion of the orang Melayu.

The Reality

Once upon a time, a race migrated to a place we call Peninsular Malaysia today. We don't know where exactly were they from, although the favourite theory now is that they are from the south of Malay Archipelago. What we know is they have close ties with the Polynesians. They are seafarers and excellent boat builders. They speak an advanced language that turns the name of a thorny fruit to durian and a hairy fruit to rambutan by adding an affix "an".

Influenced by Indian traders, they were Hinuduized. They built early Hindu kingdoms in the North. There was even a time they embraced Buddhism under the powerful Srivijaya Empire. Then came the Arab influence which converted majority of them to Islam, beginning with the kingdom of Kedah and later the glorious Malacca Sultanate. Today in Malaysia, being a Melayu is synonymous with being a Moslem.

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The Malaysian Definition

It is better to see orang Melayu with your own eyes instead of reading the Sandokan series or all the bewildering definitions in reference books. You can just look at a rally of the United Malays National Organisation, there you see men in full traditional splendour, wearing songkok, baju Melayu and kain samping. Remember how UMNO Youth Chief Hishamuddein Hussein brandished a dagger to defend the privileges of his people...? Behold, a Melayu!

The laws of Malaysia defines a Melayu as a person who practices Islam and Malay cultures, speaks Bahasa Melayu and whose ancestors are Melayu, under article 160 of the Federal Constitution.

This legal definition differentiates a Melayu from other indigenous people. This legal recognition entitles a person to privileges of higher education, civil service, discounts in purchasing houses, government permits and other avenues that help him/her to succeed financially. They constitute more than half of the population of Malaysia.

As I was walking towards a wet market this morning, I observed the Filipinos, Torajas, the petite Kadazans and Ibans...I closed my eyes to listen to their different tongues. Although these people are generically classified as "Melayu", they are actually very different!

Beyond Malaysia

I have to mention the Orang Laut living in Riau Islands of Indonesia because their language - Bahasa Riau is agreed upon by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei as the official standard for Bahasa Melayu.

Apart from Indonesia and Brunei, there are also orang Melayu living at the Pattani region of southern Thailand, Singapore and in Madagascar, they are known as the Merina.

The Cham people who live in Cambodia and Vietnam speak a language which is similar to Bahasa Melayu, they are believed to be related to the Utsuls of Hainan island. Both races are mostly moslems.

Of course there are Malays found in many parts of the world today. This echoes what is written at the top of a bronze sculpture of Hang Tuah exhibited at the National History Museum, Kuala Lumpur : "Ta' Melayu Hilang Di-Dunia"...Orang Melayu will never vanish from the face of the earth.

Origin of Melayu?

There are different theories about the origin of this word. A lot of ancient history contains fancy stories difficult to verify. But I would like to mention just two.

1. Melayu is actually a Sanskrit word "Malaya" which means "hill". It was given as a name to a river at the upper stream of Sungai Batang Hari, Sumatra where 1,500 years ago, the Melayu Kingdom later known as Jambi existed. Please note that "Melayu" and "Jambi" are interchangeable in historical texts. A Chinese Buddhist monk Yi Jing visited Jambi and recorded it as Ma-la-yu.

2. This story about how Parameswara founded Malacca interests me because it is different from the version about a mousedeer kicking Parameswara's hunting dogs. According to Portugese historian Tome Pires, this happened at Parameswara's first arrival at the Bertam River of Malacca after fleeing Singapore. As he was speaking to the Orang Selat, Parameswara referred to himself as a "Malayo" which means a man who runs away in his language and proceeded to name the place "Malaqa" or "Hidden Fugitive".

Impression on the English

Anyone who is familiar with the colonization of Malaya would be amazed by the marvellous loyalty of the orang Melayu to their rulers. The English reference Britannica therefore notes that their society "has traditionally been somewhat feudal; class distinctions are still marked..."

One aspect I find peculiar is the contribution of the word "amok" to the English vocabulary. Amok, also spelled amuck is used to describe a person behaving in a violent and uncontrolled way, grabs a weapon and attacks people indiscriminately, often resulting in multiple fatalities until the perpetrator is killed.

Personally, I think it is a generalization to associate orang Melayu with the amok syndrome in which a classic scenario would be a man running amok with a parang or a keris. Pleaselah...the Filipinos have a concept called juramentado and the Americans, spree killing just to quote some examples. The Malays are humans as the other races are, and therefore subject to the same weaknesses plaguing all mankind.

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