New Straits Times >> Columns

Saturday, January 18 2003

Point Blank: Reclaiming Malay intellectual history

Johan Jaafar*

I WAS amazed when a successful Malay businessman said that he had nothing to be proud of being a Malay other than being born a Muslim.
He is not alone. "Malay" is fast becoming merely a social category. The evolution and consolidation of this category is further promoted and enhanced by the vernacular education system. And, of course, politics. Malayness is defined in terms of agama, bahasa and raja (religion, language and king). One becomes a Malay not by choice but by birth. And being a Malay has its benefits. You have to be a Malay to get scholarship, work and contracts. Thereafter, the same people find nothing but fault with their race. This kind of thinking permeates the uppity Malays ironically, many of them are the product of the most ambitious social engineering programme ever attempted by a government the New Economic Policy (NEP).
Certainly they have not read the writings of Abdullah Munsyi, who lived and wrote his Hikayat Abdullah and Hikayat Pelayaran Abdullah during the days of Stamford Raffles. Abdullah was so critical of his race that many Malays condemned him as "budak Raffles" (Raffles' boy).
He was labelled a traitor of the Malay race. But no one can fault Abdullah for his frankness, or his intention.
Other Malay nationalists and writers have since been writing about the Malay problem. Syed Syeikh Ahmad Al Hadi and his colleagues in the early 1920s, journalists and nationalists such as A. Rahim Kajai and Za'aba took the Malay issues by the horns. They were critical of the Malay mindset even back in the 1930s and 1950s.
The truth is if one were to read the illustrious history of Malay newspapers and periodicals the debate about the weaknesses of the Malays has been going on since the first Malay paper, Jawi Peranakan, was published in 1879. The first half of the 20th century marked a period of intense re-assessment and rethinking among Malays. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Malay literary works were saturated with criti-cism of Malay excesses and failures. If anyone thinks the Malays are shy of criticising and condemning their own kind, look again at some of the best Malay movies, novels, short stories and poems.
This is the Malay history not taught in schools. What we learn is history that narrates events and dates, and nothing else. The intellectual history of the Malays has been largely ignored. Little wonder many Malays are clueless about the history and culture of their own people.
They only encounter their own kind when they go back to their kampung.
For the movers and shakers, the placid life in a sea of calm and tranquillity is nothing but a sign of backwardness.
The history of the Malay race is not about the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Srivijaya, Majapahit, Sumatra-Pasai, Malacca or Johor-Riau.
It is about the history of the people and their intellectual contribution.
The intellectual history of the bestknown Malay sultanate Malacca has never been written.
The textbooks are a concoction of parthistory, part-literature and part-jingoism, and mostly boring stuff. A history student will read about the when and how Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese. Students of literature will learn about the exploits of Tun Perak, the sacrifice of Tun Kudu, the brilliance of Bendahara Tun Mutahir, the loyalty of Hang Tuah and the myth of Puteri Gunung Ledang.
But where is the history of the Malays? Malay historiography is one. But as pointed out by J.C. Bottoms, "history to the Malays has not until recently been either a science or an art, but an entertainment".
So, you can never position Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai or Bustanul Salatin as history books per se. Despite the hikayat's (literally "stories") fictional nature, these are actual histories of the Malays. One needs only to discern fact from fiction to understand that a court chronicler (widely known as Pujangga) was a historian par excellence and an artist. If you lived as Pujangga did in feudal society, to avoid the wrath of the raja, and to stay alive, you had to be exceptionally good in the art of saying one thing yet meaning another. He would have had to narrate incredible tales of lust and greed subtly or using wit and humour expose the follies of his rulers.
After all, he was there to provide legitimacy to the ruling elite.
The rich oral tradition of the Malays; the world-renowned pantun, gurindam, syair and peribahasa; the world of Pak Pandir and Pak Kaduk and the much- loved animal stories are part of the rich literary tradition of the Malays.
Other than the hikayat from Java, India and the influence of Islamic literature, the Malays had the first legal digest in the form of Hukum Kanun Malacca.
Some of the best thinkers in the Malay world Hamzah Fansuri, Nuruddin Al Raniri and Shamsuddin Al Sumatrani are forgotten.
The contributions of Muslim scholars and theologians have been largely ignored. Perhaps, as the New Malays (whatever that means) clamour to be part of a global citizenry, they have to understand where they come from.
They have an equally rich history and tradition comparable with any other race and civilisation.
But these do not make sense unless a comprehensive intellectual history of the Malays is written or at least documented. Otherwise, the Malays of tomorrow will be ashamed of being Malay.

* The writer is a farmer who cares about the reputation of his own race. He can be contacted at