Friday, February 27, 2009

Origins - the Malay angle


AB Sulaiman | Feb 25, 09 12:11pm

Michael Chick’s

3-part narration on the origins of the Malays was very scholarly presented. He established the migratory routes of the homo sapiens, from one single point in the savannahs of Africa to all corners of the world.

He related how and where it then branched and sub-branched off into different tribes and cultures all along the way. His contention is that the Malay race is a sub-branch of the Austronesians - a mix of Dravidian, Mongoloid, African, Arab, Persian, Hindi, Gujerati, Tamil, Portuguese, Dutch and other bloods.

His inherent message is clear, that there is only one race in the world, and that is the human race and we all share our origins in Africa. Physiologically we are all the same homo sapiens wherever we live and what the colour of our skin may be.

austronesian people 040209I would agree with his presentation on the basis that this must have been based on the copious amounts of research, analysis, and theories made by scientists on this area of study. It represents the sum total of the current level of human knowledge on this subject.

I could of course challenge some of his points but I have to come up with some very compelling arguments and evidence to prove him wrong. Man being able to walk from Hanoi to Kota Kinabalu? Of course, and I won’t dispute this because I too believe in this scientific fact that not too long ago (about 10,000 years) in geological times, there was no such thing as the South China Sea.

But sadly I have to state that not too many Malay people (the subject of his presentation) would readily agree. The objection would be along the lines that much of his arguments go too much against the Malay grain.

Malays having our ancestral roots in Africa? That’s abominable! We have a Hindu background? That’s preposterous! We ‘pure’ Malays have Arab, Chinese, European and Hindi ancestors? That’s seditious!

We go by the chorus line that we are Malays, and we are one. We are furthermore Muslim as we have always been and shall ever be!

The Malay objection would unfortunately not be based on any well-researched and well-reasoned arguments and contentions. It is in fact based on conventional cultural wisdom inherited from our elders.

Such wisdom can’t be proved, but neither can it be disproved. Its viability, strength, and legitimacy, thereby lies on the persuasive and mainly coercive powers of society leaders, namely the religious ulama and the autocratic political leaders, to identify just two.

Herewith I’d take this opportunity to list some Malay cultural wisdom.

1. Knowledge

To the Malays, knowledge is God’s revelation. The origin of knowledge therefore is from the Almighty. Everything that represents knowledge comes from God.

This poses a big difference from the human understanding of it. To the rest of the human community, knowledge comes from the processes of deduction and induction, of human experience, testing and experimentation; of checking and counterchecking facts and figures; of evaluation and re-evaluation of existing postulations.

The writer’s postulations would be suspect as shown towards the end of this writing, as it can be perceived as ‘anti’ Malay. It certainly was written within context of the Malay misunderstanding about the origins of the human race and particularly the origin of the Malays.

2. Evolution vs creation

The Malays do not subscribe to the Darwinian concept of evolution. So the idea that mankind evolved from the savannahs of Africa is one huge fairy tale probably manufactured by decadent western culture. To the Malays, mankind is a creation of God, starting from Adam whom God made in Heaven.

At most, the Malays will say that their ancestors came from one part of Sumatra at around the early years of the first millennium.

The years earlier than this, 5,000, 30,000, 40,000 years ago, for instance, have been an era too far to the past for the Malays to perceive. 100,000 years and earlier would really be too far in the distant past.

So most if not all of the writer’s narration that some Malays came from the Indo-China region of Vietnam and Cambodia would probably be dismissed.

3. Acceptance of past wisdom without doubt, scepticism or criticism

The creationist contention of man’s origin is to be accepted without any benefit of doubt or analysis. It has been a wisdom inherited from the earlier generation, so what is right to our fathers and forefathers must be right for us too.

Any demand for scientific proof by modern human civilisation would be discarded as a western way of thinking. This amounts to sedition.

In the event, no proof or evidence supporting the creationist theory is ever required. The connotation is that we just have to accept the creationist theory or burn in hell should we disagree.

4. The Malay world view: there is only one religion and it is Islam

The writer mentioned that the ancestral religions of the Austronesians have been a mixture of almost all shades of animism and paganism, copiously enhanced by Hinduism and Islam, not to mention Buddhism and Christianity.

kpg melayu ampang mosque protes petrol price hike 200608 05This the Malays will not accept, for their spiritual past is the era of ‘jahiliah’ when evil and sin ruled supreme. When their ancestors converted to Islam in the early 15th century, they entered the era of righteousness and enlightenment brought by Islam.

To the Malays, the social history of mankind is clearly divided into two: ‘jahiliah’ and enlightenment. There is nothing in between.

Furthermore it is not just Islam, but Islam of the specific mould: Sunni and followers of Imam Shafie; of Wahabbi clone and at least until of late of the Hadhari category. It is Islam of the type as approved by the ulama, the spiritual advisors of the ruling Ketuanan Melayu political leadership.

Mystifying life

I have no doubt made an oversimplification to the admittedly complex Malay mental frame and the four mentioned above are but the merest tip of the iceberg. But the fact still remains that the Malays truly take all inherited past wisdom as the gospel truth.

In the event, the following mystical points become relevant:

5. Perfection happened in the past the period of the Rashiduns

The Malays follow the wisdom that a life of perfection has existed before, and it was the period when Prophet Mohammad established the Islamic religion in and around 510 AD. This if followed by the Rashiduns, the caliphates of Abu Bakar, Omar, Othman, and Ali.

The Muslims of today, and this goes for the Malays as well, look back into this past era and try to emulate and approximate it. Their religious education and upbringing would nurture this obligation. I have found this out in the course of my personal experience in life.

mosque masjid people in the mosque hearing the cheramahThis is a far cry from the modern idea that perfection is unachievable but we as mankind will have to strive hard to achieve it in future. Modern civilisation is different – perfection is in the future.

We strive to achieve it, but know that it is not achievable. In the process, we try hard with the best training, knowledge, skills and dedication to work. ‘In search of excellence’ is one modern idiom pushing human civilisation forward.

6. Life of conservatism, conformity and preoccupation with the hereafter

Partly because of this penchant for emulating and approximating the perfect life of the past, the Malays have a tendency to look back and conform to past values. The purpose of the Malays wishing to lead this conformist and conservative life is to prepare themselves for life in the hereafter.

In this country, it is one of the issues that puts a wedge in Malaysian life – the call made by religious and nationalist extremists, and purists, to make the country an Islamic state.

7. Fear of change

The Malay penchant for the past again has an unintended consequence. This time it is the fear of change. Change is a concept that happens everyday. But in order to perceive it, we have to be aware that it is happening.

Be aware of change and it happens. But let us be blind and not be aware of it and no change ever happens. There is instead a natural development, like a tree growing, but no change.

To the Malay mind, change may be a constant in life, but there is one huge exception – religion does not change. The Syariah law, the legal embodiment of Islam, is perceived to be unchanged from the time of Adam throughout the ages past and present and on to the future.

How does he perceive the existence of Sunni Islam, of the Shafie shade, Wahabbi clone and Hadhari category as practised in this country and opposed to the other types of Islam as practised in Iran, Iraq or of Indonesia?

Either way, don’t these varieties amount to changing a religion to suit a specific culture in a specific region and specific country? Well, they do, but my Malay friends would say that God would take care of that.

But as for change, no, there is no change in the Syariah and Islam. Islam and the Syriah are forever.

This fact remains: when the Malays deny that change does not happen in Syariah law, this philosophy is echoed in their philosophy, that there must not be any change in his cultural arena as well.

The Malay mindset is thereby insulated against change. The question to ask here is this: is this insulation good or bad? I would prefer the reader to seek the answer himself although I might offer the following generous hints:

a. Our domestic and international comparative economic indices are falling;

b. Our legal system is in a huge mess;

c. Our education system has deteriorated;

d. There have developed cultural cleavages in the country; and

e. There is a brain drain where the knowledgeable, skilful, and talented are running away.

Any one of these can floor any other country. But we are lucky for we have enough fat to currently weather the storm. Come tomorrow when our reserves have been depleted, and we might be in a deep spot of bother.

All said and done, to the Malays, there are many races but there is only one religion. Islam is taken as the one religion that is ‘accepted’ by God. But of all the races, the Malays deem it highly fortunate that they are culturally Muslim.

They bask at the idea that the Malay is the only one race that is 100 percent Muslim. Not even the Arabs, the originators of this great religion, can claim this distinction, as there are Christian and Jewish Arabs.

The Malays have developed this elitist mentality that the term Malay is synonymous to ‘Islam’. So to be born Malay is to be born Muslim and to be Malay and Muslim is the best card of the lottery draw of life.

The Malays are now obliged to protect their cherished ‘Malay-Muslim’ heritage. For this is the only truth they can identify themselves with.


AB SULAIMAN is a retiree but is finding little cheer in the social upheavals gripping the country. He hopes to provide some understanding to the issues at hand and wherever possible, suggest some solutions.