Farewell to the homogenous Malay

By Farish A. Noor

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 were never something 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 were 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 election 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 (Malay Land) 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 (Malay Supremacy) was being eclipsed. The vernacular Malay press, in particular, has gone into overdrive, harping on about every perceived slight and injury to Malay pride, their editorials littered with the recognised markers of discontent: “Biadab, kurang sopan” (impudent, rude) are the accusations that have been levelled in no uncertain terms.

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 or BBPM), cobbled together by five-and-twenty Malay-Muslim non-governmental organisations (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.

Communalism, 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 election, 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 the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), an organisation that rightfully pointed out the MIC’s failings to defend the community and to stand up to the right-wing ethno-supremacists of Umno. The MCA’s 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.

And let us not forget that at the height of the election campaign, another coalition of 88 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 its 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 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) is fundamentally a colonial fiction that dates back to the age of the Empire and imperialism’s mode of race politics.

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.