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Jum'ah, 16 Dzul Hijjah 1441 (Thursday, August 6th, 2020)
December 26th, 2009 03:12

Travels through Malay Lands

Travels through Malay Lands

By : Karim Raslan

As a Malaysian Malay I'm always interested when I meet Malays from Indonesia. I like to hear their stories and get a sense of their lives. Over the past few years I've spent quite a lot of time traveling through Western Indonesia, collecting stories and reading.

The Malay world is revering world. At our roots we have been an aquatic people, sailing and rowing between different small ports and settlements that stretch from Medan and Kedah to the north and Pontianak to the west.

As such I've normally felt the most at ease when I"m closest to water--cruising along the Siak river from the royal town of Siak Inderapura to Pekanbaru, sitting drinking heavily sweetened tea in Medan's Istana Maimoon, waiting in a warung for the the ferry to cross Pontianak's Kapuas river and interviewing the prominent newspaper editor and writer Pak Ridar K. Liamsi in Batam.

At the same time, I've also learnt that the Malay identity is closely tied into the idea of "Kerajaan." The Malay world is hierarchical. It is not egalitarian--a fact reflected in the different ways with which we address one another depending, of course on our relative status.

While this strong bond with royalty and "Kerajaan" has been used to great affect in Malaysia it has in many ways backfired in Indonesia where a more republican and less-royal view has taken root.

Another of the important lessons, I've learnt from all these journeys, the meetings and discussions is the extent to which politics and history has defined and shaped the Malay identity on both sides of the Straits of Malacca.

Indeed, to my mind, one of the most important historical events for the Malay community was the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The treaty divided our revering and sea-based world into two distinct zones: Dutch and English. With one fell swoop the all-important Riau archipelago was severed from the peninsular. This, of course was to lead to the emergence of the Johor Royal House.

As we all know, in Malaysia and according to the Federal Constitution the Malay identity is broadly laid down in terms of language, religion, custom and dress.

This legally-defined approach has laid the basis for a community that is much more all-encompassing and open-ended than the definitions that exist in Indonesia. In doing so people of Arab, Javanese and even Turkish descent can and are considered "Malay" within Malaysia.

Of course, the Malaysian definition is to a large extent the product of our history and the struggle to retain Malay control of the Federation in the years leading up to Independence and thereafter. Throughout that period the Malay political elite thought it was imperative to consolidate and increase the size of the community in the face of strong and economically powerful non-Malay inhabitants--most especially the Chinese.

The situation in Indonesia is quite different. In the Republic, the Malay identity isn't so closely linked with power and authority. Indeed in Indonesia many of the royal houses made the fatal error of siding with the colonial powers against Soekarno's revolutionary forces.

At the same time we must remember that the Javanese are the Republic's dominant social-cultural force. Indeed, so strong is the Javanese influence that a Sundanese have never managed to become President of the Republic!

As such the Malay identity is ranged against a far more numerous and powerful Javanese identity. This is turn reduces the "political" influence of the community. Moreover this weakened position has made the issue of what it is to be a Malay all the more acute.

Why? Well, in Indonesia there are many Muslim communities that speak languages similar to and/or based on Malay. As a consequence the Malay identity has had to withstand pressure and even competition coming from various other identities--most notably, the Minangkabau, the Bugis, the Banjar, the Batak and the Achehnese--all of whom would be considered "Malay" in Malaysia.

This interplay--some might even call it tension--of and between language and identity has been a hallmark of the socio-cultural history in the broad "Malay" world. Indeed, if you read the famed, C19th Tuhfat al-Nafis written by Raja Ali Haji Ibn Ahmad, you will quickly get a sense of the constant give-and-take between the Malay, the Bugis and the Minang communities (and leaders) as they struggle for power and control across the Riau archipelago and beyond--in certain cases as far as Sambas in West Kalimantan.

Still, it soon becomes clear that the author of the Tuhfat al-Nafis was very partisan. Raja Ali was clearly pro-Bugis and rather skeptical of the Malays. Indeed he does not hesitate to criticize the various Malay princes that sought to question and challenge the growing influence of the Bugis at the Riau court.

Indeed, Raja Ali constantly refers to the Malay princes as being ungrateful and treacherous--especially given the prosperity that was produced under the Bugis leadership.

Indeed, the Tuhfat al-Nafis reminds us that history is often written to suit the winners! And in this case, the powerful Bugis lineage that came to dominate the Riau Sultancy through their hereditary position as the Yang diPertuan Muda, most notably the Regent, Daeng Camboja are the winners.

I got a similar sense of being on the "wrong" side of history when I visited the Istana Maimoon in Medan. There amidst the faded grandeur of what must have been a spectacular residence I talked with the young Tengkus about the traumas that the local Malay community had lived through over the past sixty or so years.

The Sultan of Deli made a fatal decision to side with the Dutch which in turn led to his dethronement. Stripped of their wealth and influence the family declined and with them the position of the Malays in Medan, a situation that is only now being slowly redressed.

History is cruel and unforgiving. Winners win big-time, shaping the history books and erasing the achievements and even the existence of the losers. In Indonesia the Malay community has been on the receiving end of history's lessons--suffering at the hands of more dynamic, driven peoples such as the Javanese, the Bataks and the Bugis.

Source: mysinchew.com

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