Farewell to the homogenous Malay

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Takkan Melayu Hilang di Dunia
(Never Shall the Malays Cease to Be): Hang Tuah’s legendary call to
arms rings a note of defiance laced with anxiety and speaks volumes
about the perennial angst of a people whose place and standing in the
world was never a thing to be taken for granted. But Farish Noor notes that thethe Malays will never cease to be, as
long as we understand that the Malays are in fact a community of
communities, and that one can be both Malay and the Other, as long as
we all remain – first and foremost – Malaysians to whom this
country belongs.

 
Takkan Melayu Hilang di Dunia
(Never Shall the Malays Cease to Be): Hang Tuah’s legendary call to
arms rings a note of defiance laced with anxiety and speaks volumes
about the perennial angst of a people whose place and standing in the
world was never a thing to be taken for granted.

Read in its proper
context the full meaning of the statement becomes clear: here was the
call for unity by a fabled hero that came at a time of flux and
change, when the shifting fortunes of Malacca was tilting on the side
of impending defeat at the hands of the Portuguese. 

Yet sadly, as is always the case, the
story of Tuah has been misread and mis-appropriated for other ends
that have more to do with politics and less to do with history.
Beloved by the right-wing conservatives among us, the dissected
figure of Tuah has been robbed of his pacifist, mystical and
philosophical leanings, leaving us with only the static figure of a
cardboard two-dimensional ethno-nationalist who surprisingly
resembles many of the Mat Rempit-wannabe types who make up the rank
and file of UMNO Youth today. We forget that at the end of the
Hikayat Hang Tuah epic Tuah himself abandons his keris and turns his
back on his king, renouncing the world and turning his attention to
the salvation of his soul instead. Yet this sorrowful figure has been
cut-and-pasted today to suit the ethno-nationalist agenda of the
race-warriors and demagogues. 

Today that fear of permanent loss and
historical erasure has gripped the hearts and minds of many a
right-wing Malay communalist in the wake of the 12th General
Elections and the dismal (and deserved) failure of UMNO in
particular. That Kelantan could have fallen to PAS was a somewhat
different matter, for the conventional wisdom that takes the place of
reason in this country of ours assumes that even if Kelantan was to
fall under the heels of the Mullahs, they would still be Malay
Mullahs, and that the sacred soil of Tanah Melayu would still be in
Malay hands. 

Rather the fear we see today has been
directed towards the loss of the more plural and cosmopolitan states
of the West coast, where the DAP has made great (and deserved)
strides in Penang , Perak and Selangor. Already the pathetic
spectacle of ethno-communal fear and loathing has been played out in
the public domain: Demonstrations in Penang were organised with the
calculated intention of scaring the Malays into thinking that their
land was up for grabs and that the vainglorious notion of Ketuanan
Melayu was being eclipsed. The vernacular Malay press in particular
has gone into overdrive, harping on and on incessantly about every
perceived slight and injury to Malay pride, their editorials littered
with the recognised markers of discontent: ‘Biadab, kurang sopan’
are the accusations that have been levelled in no uncertain terms. 

READ MORE:  Back to PPSMI? One size cannot fit all

The latest attempt to shore up the
fictional notion of Malay unity has come in the form of the creation
of the Barisan Bertindak Perpaduan Melayu (Malay Unity Action Front,
BBPM), cobbled together by five-and-twenty Malay-Muslim NGOs and
lobby groups to call for the unity of the Malay-Muslims and the
defence of the status and place of Islam in the country. Already
feelers have been sent out to court the doubtful hearts in PAS, on
the basis that Malay-Muslim unity has to come first and foremost. All
the buttons on the register have been pressed hard: Malay Unity,
Islamic Unity, Communal interest, et al.

 

Commnalism, still 

That such an organisation could have
been formed so soon after the election results of March 2008 speaks
volumes about the extent to which racial anxieties still prevail in
the midst of our plural social landscape. But honestly, are we
surprised by this, and should we be surprised at all? 

After all, in the run-up to the 12th
General Elections it was plain to see that ethnic and communal
mobilisation was still a major factor in the campaign. The disastrous
showing of the MIC in particular was a direct result of the actions
of Hindraf, an organisation that rightfully pointed out the MIC’s
failings to defend their community and to stand up to the right-wing
ethno-supremacists of UMNO. The MCA and Gerakan’s poor performance
was likewise a result of the widespread perception among Malaysians
of Chinese background that neither party would ever be able to put a
stop to the repugnant racist histrionics of the keris-waving hotheads
in UMNO. The overwhelming shift in votes then was as much a vote for
real, substantial (and we hope permanent) change as it was a vote of
disgust against the emasculated and voiceless leaders of the MIC, MCA
and Gerakan. But if this was the case, then we are also sadly back to
where we started and have not really transcended the economy of race
and ethnic-based politics. 

READ MORE:  Back to PPSMI? One size cannot fit all

And let us not forget that at the
height of the election campaign another coalition of eighty-eight
Malay-Muslim NGOs also put forth their demands to all the parties,
calling upon them to recognise their own set of equally exclusive
needs which happened to include the rejection of secularism and
pluralism, an end to the process of inter-religious dialogue,
persecution of those labelled as ‘liberal, secular’ Muslim
intellectuals and the recognition of Malaysia as an Islamic state. 

The Malay-Muslim Unitarians of the BBMP
are likewise driven by the same exclusive, parochial and
short-sighted interest to protect, promote and elevate their own
communal interests solely. This is an organisation that foregrounds
only the needs and aspirations of their own community, and by virtue
of taking such an exclusive posture can only be labelled as being
Malay, and not Malaysian. Indeed, one could argue that the BBMP in
its form and intent is no different from any other right-wing
racially exclusive group, and that it cares more for its own
community than it does for the wider community of Malaysia, which is
made up by the rest of us. 

The flawed premise upon which the BBMP
rests, and which will ultimately lead to its own internal
contradiction, however, is this: Like so many right-wing
communitarian organisations its politics is one that is narrow,
simplistic and historically inaccurate. 

Not Malay, but rather Malays

The flaw of race-based politics in
Malaysia goes all the way back to the era of the colonial census,
where the fictional notion of homogenous racial groups was first
concocted to serve the interests of a skewered, unjust and oppressive
colonial plural economy. The segmentation and separation of Malaysia
’s plural society along racialised lines was a direct consequence
of racialised colonial capitalism at work, but this grand enterprise
of divide-and-rule was aided and abetted by both the bayonet and the
census. 

It was the colonial census that began
to narrow down the scope of the native communities of Asia to the
point where ultimately all that remained of this multi-hued landscape
of hundreds of colours was a tripartite division of Malays, Chinese
and Indians. Gone were the lost tribes of Malaya : the myriad of
cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious sub-groupings that
resisted such casual and arbitrary compartmentalisation. But when
were these communities – the Malays, Chinese and Indians – ever
homogenous and uniform? If the ‘loss of Malay-ness’ is the thing
that spooks so many today, we need to ask: Was there ever such a
thing as a unitary Malay?

 Here we need to revisit our history and
look at the etymological root-meanings of the words we use in
politics today. Hang Tuah’s call ‘Takkan Melayu hilang di Dunia’
was made at a time when the very notion of what was ‘Melayu’ was
problematic and constantly being problematised by the Malays
themselves, who realised and accepted that there was not a singular
Malay race but rather a plethora of diverse Malay communities. At
that time even the notion of ‘Tanah Melayu’ was an alien concept
for the kingdom of Malayur (or Malaiyur) was not even on the Malay
Peninsula but rather on the southern tip of Sumatra , next to
Pelembang. Why, even the sentence ‘Takkan Melayu hilang di Dunia’
reads as a curious amalgam of Malay, Sanskrit and Persian words that
betrays the globally-connected and cosmopolitan character of the
community that gave birth to this hybrid lingua franca we now call
the Malay language. (Which by the way, should really be referred to
as the Malaysian language.)

The calls for Malay unity today should
therefore be deconstructed and critically analysed with this grand
historical landscape in close view, and with us reminding ourselves
again and again that the notion of a unitary Malay race (like the
notion of a unitary Chinese or Indian race) were fundamentally
colonial fictions that date back to the age of Empire and
imperialism’s mode of race politics. 

READ MORE:  Back to PPSMI? One size cannot fit all

Some of the right-wing
ethno-nationalists among us may not be too comfortable with the idea
that the cherished comfort zones they have grown accustomed to are on
the verge of shrinking; but it is crucial for us – Malaysians one
and all – to remind ourselves that this is our common homeland and
the home to all our cultures that have mixed and mingled for so long.
Indeed it is precisely that long process of historical overlapping,
inter-penetration and cultural osmosis that accounts for us being
that ever-so-varied community that can make the boast “ Malaysia ,
truly Asia ”. Having witnessed the long-awaited rupture where
ethnic and racial loyalties were finally by-passed on that fateful
election night, let us at least keep the euphoria for a while longer.
We owe this to ourselves as well as our hybrid ancestors who made the
leap beyond racial loyalties, and we can do it again.

The Malays will never cease to be, as
long as we understand that the Malays are in fact a community of
communities, and that one can be both Malay and the Other, as long as
we all remain – first and foremost – Malaysians to whom this
country belongs.

 

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow
at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang
Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the
www.othermalaysia.org research site.

(Note: This is the English version of
the same article that will published soon as part of the compilation
of articles by Dr. Farish A. Noor, entitled “Di Balik Malaysia:
Dari Majapahit Ke Putrajaya”)

 

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