Being Malay, so what?: Only a Political Construct

June 18, 2015

Selamat BerpuasaNOTE: My wife, Dr Kamsiah and I wish Muslims around the world Selamat Berpuasa (Happy Fasting) which commences today. May there be Peace and Goodwill in the Month of Ramadhan).–Din Merican

Being Malay, so what?: Only a Political Construct (Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution

by Dyana

…we should not let politicians decide what is Malay and what is not. Our identities are our heritage, and the government has no right to tell us what we are. As Syahredzan said, “The greatest tragedy that has befallen Malay culture and the Malays over the years is actually the hijacking of Malayness by those with vested interests.”–Dyana Sofya

Dyana SofyaLast weekend, Projek Dialog, a non-governmental social discourse project aimed at promoting healthy debate and understanding within multicultural Malaysia, organised a forum entitled Melayu dan makna-maknanya, or “Malay and its meanings.”

I had the honour of being a panellist at that forum, together with Dr Lawrence Ross from Akademi Pengajian Melayu, Universiti Malaya; Syed Muhiyuddin from HAKIM; Syahredzan Johan from Lawyers for Liberty, and Nurhayyu Zainal from Parti Sosialis Malaysia. The forum was moderated by Projek Dialog’s Yana Rizal.

The forum began with Syahredzan enlightening the audience on the Constitutional definition of Malay. According to Article 160 of our country’s highest law, a Malay is defined by three characteristics, viz. a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay customs.

Mahathir the Political ConstructMahathir–The Political Construct (Art.160)

This legalistic definition of Malayness is interesting, because it effectively means that Malay is a political construct rather than an ethnic concept. Technically, this means that a Malay in Malaysia need not necessarily have any Malay genes whatsoever. For example, only in Malaysia would a Javanese identify as a Malay. In Indonesia, for example, no Javanese would ever claim to be a Malay.

Curiously, the Malaysian definition of Malay also prevents other ethnic Malays from qualifying as Malays. For example, the great Filipino nationalist, José Rizal, an ethnic Malay who is hailed by history as an icon of the Malay race, would actually not qualify as a Malay in Malaysia, by virtue of the fact that he was not a Muslim.

A colonial legacy

In truth, the peoples of the Malay Archipelago are made up of over 300 diverse ethnic groups, such as the Javanese, Batak, Sundanese, Achehnese, Boyanese, Minangkabau, Malay, Mandailing (of which I am descended from) and many others, including the Bugis who are reputed to be great warriors, though such a reputation is today in doubt. Therefore, ethnically, Malays represent a small ethnic group that is one of many others.

How then did Malay become the popular reference for the native ethnic groups in Malaysia (in Indonesia, Malay refers to a small minority ethnic group)? Firstly, it was the British (such as founder of Singapore Stamford Raffles) who began to use the label.

This is mainly because most natives in the region spoke the Malay language ― the de facto lingua franca of the region due to the fact that it was the language used along the Straits of Malacca and the coastal areas of the Archipelago. Hence, even though the Malay ethnic community itself was small, the Malay language was adopted by both foreigners and locals as the trading language of the region.

Having decided to label all the different ethnic natives as Malays, the British decided to streamline it through its official documents such as the government population censuses. And through the colonial policy of divide and conquer, the seeds of polarisation in our country were sown.

Standardisation of Malay is against the Malay nature itself

It is important to bear in mind that ethnicity is a concept that is far from monolithic or homogenous. Every geographical province or tribe, even within the peninsula itself, has diverse cultural practices and backgrounds. Therefore, ethnicity is an amalgamation of many cultures merged  and fused over time.

Malay_1The UMNO Malay

For example, the Malays in Terengganu and Sarawak have very different dialects. As a Perakian, even I find the east coast Malay dialects to be quite alien. Even cultural practices were different. For example, the Mak Yong, which has Hindu-Buddhist origins, is popular with the Kelantanese Malays, while the Kuda Kepang with its Javanese influence is popular in Johor.

As Dr Lawrence Ross noted, the Malay culture was never homogenous and will always expand and evolve by adapting to its surrounding influences. Therefore, the culture is also not easily defined and should not adopt strict labeling.

However, our own history has been rewritten by the authorities, as over six decades we have experienced a systematic campaign of standardisation of Malay culture and language. This is in line with the Marxist concept of cultural hegemony, in which the ruling class captures the dominant culture of a society by imposing its own worldview on the masses.

According to Syed Muhiyuddin, Malays should not be afraid to reject the attempt by leaders to enforce an artificial identity upon them. However, in order to do this, we first need to understand our own roots better. Therefore, it is high time that we revise our history textbooks in order to produce a new generation of Malaysians who are proud of their roots.

Reclaiming our identities

In summary, we should not let politicians decide what is Malay and what is not. Our identities are our heritage, and the government has no right to tell us what we are. As Syahredzan said, “The greatest tragedy that has befallen Malay culture and the Malays over the years is actually the hijacking of Malayness by those with vested interests.”

Therefore, it is time we reclaim our identities. Echoing Syahredzan, I am a Muslim, a Malay and a Malaysian, in no specific order. I am all three. That is my identity and no one has the right to take it away from me.


Asia’s Renaissance Man: Dr. Jose Rizal’s Last Farewell (Mi Ultimo Adios)

Phnom Penh

May 26, 2015

Asia’s Renaissance Man: Dr. Jose Rizal’s Last Farewell

English translation by Charles Derbyshire of Jose Rizal‘s last poem, written in Spanish and known popularly as Mi Ultimo Adios.

Dr. Jose Rizal

My Last Farewell (Mi Ultimo Adios)


dear Fatherland, clime of the sun caress’d,
Pearl of the Orient seas, our Eden lost!
Gladly now I go to give thee this faded life’s best,
And were it brighter, fresher, or more blest,
Still would I give it thee, nor count the cost.

On the field of battle, ‘mid the frenzy of fight,
Others have given their lives, without doubt or heed;
The place matters not–cypress or laurel or lily white,
Scaffold of open plain, combat or martyrdom’s plight,
‘Tis ever the same, to serve our home and country’s need.

I die just when I see the dawn break,
Through the gloom of night, to herald the day;
And if color is lacking my blood thou shalt take,
Pour’d out at need for thy dear sake,
To dye with its crimson the waking ray.

My dreams, when life first opened to me,
My dreams, when the hopes of youth beat high,
Were to see thy lov’d face, O gem of the Orient sea,
From gloom and grief, from care and sorrow free;
No blush on thy brow, no tear in thine eye

Dream of my life, my living and burning desire,
All hail! cries the soul that is now to take flight;
All hail! And sweet it is for thee to expire;
To die for thy sake, that thou mayst aspire;
And sleep in thy bosom eternity’s long night.

If over my grave some day thou seest grow,
In the grassy sod, a humble flower,
Draw it to thy lips and kiss my soul so,
While I may feel on my brow in the cold tomb below
The touch of thy tenderness, thy breath’s warm power.

Let the moon beam over me soft and serene,
Let the dawn shed over me its radiant flashes,
Let the wind with sad lament over me keen;
And if on my cross a bird should be seen,
Let it trill there its hymn of peace to my ashes.

Let the sun draw the vapors up to the sky,
And heavenward in purity bear my tardy protest;
Let some kind soul o’er my untimely fate sigh,
And in the still evening a prayer be lifted on high
From thee, O my country, that in God I may rest.

Pray for all those that hapless have died,
For all who have suffered the unmeasur’d pain;
For our mothers that bitterly their woes have cried,
For widows and orphans, for captives by torture tried;
And then for thyself that redemption thou mayst gain.

And when the dark night wraps the graveyard around,
With only the dead in their vigil to see;
Break not my repose or the mystery profound,
And perchance thou mayst hear a sad hymn resound;
‘Tis I, O my country, raising a song unto thee.

When even my grave is remembered no more,
Unmark’d by never a cross nor a stone;
Let the plow sweep through it, the spade turn it o’er,
That my ashes may carpet thy earthly floor,
Before into nothingness at last they are blown.

Then will oblivion bring to me no care,
As over thy vales and plains I sweep;
Throbbing and cleansed in thy space and air,
With color and light, with song and lament I fare,
Ever repeating the faith that I keep.

My Fatherland ador’d, that sadness to my sorrow lends,
Beloved Filipinas, hear now my last good-by!
I give thee all: parents and kindred and friends;
For I go where no slave before the oppressor bends,
Where faith can never kill, and God reigns e’er on high!

Farewell to you all, from my soul torn away,
Friends of my childhood in the home dispossessed!
Give thanks that I rest from the wearisome day!
Farewell to thee, too, sweet friend that lightened my way;
Beloved creatures all, farewell! In death there is rest!

Jose Rizal: A Biographical Sketch
by Teofilo H. Monte Mayoa

JOSE RIZAL, the national hero of the Philippines and pride of the Malayan race, was born on June 19, 1861, in the town of Calamba, Laguna. He was the seventh child in a family of 11 children (2 boys and 9 girls). Both his parents were educated and belonged to distinguished families.His father, Francisco Mercado Rizal, an industrious farmer whom Rizal called “a model of fathers,” came from Biñan, Laguna; while his mother, Teodora Alonzo y Quintos, a highly cultured and accomplished woman whom Rizal called “loving and prudent mother,” was born in Meisic, Sta. Cruz, Manila.

At the age of 3, he learned the alphabet from his mother; at 5, while learning to read and write, he already showed inclinations to be an artist. He astounded his family and relatives by his pencil drawings and sketches and by his moldings of clay. At the age 8, he wrote a Tagalog poem, “Sa Aking Mga Kabata,” the theme of which revolves on the love of one’s language. In 1877, at the age of 16, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree with an average of “excellent” from the Ateneo Municipal de Manila. In the same year, he enrolled in Philosophy and Letters at the University of Santo Tomas, while at the same time took courses leading to the degree of surveyor and expert assessor at the Ateneo. He finished the latter course on March 21, 1877 and passed the Surveyor’s examination on May 21, 1878; but because of his age, 17, he was not granted license to practice the profession until December 30, 1881.

In 1878, he enrolled in Medicine at the University of Santo Tomas but had to stop in his studies when he felt that the Filipino students were being discriminated upon by their Dominican tutors. On May 3, 1882, he sailed for Spain where he continued his studies at the Universidad Central de Madrid. On June 21, 1884, at the age of 23, he was conferred the degree of Licentiate in Medicine and on June 19,1885, at the age of 24, he finished his course in Philosophy and Letters with a grade of “excellent.”

Having traveled extensively in Europe, America and Asia, he mastered 22 languages. These include Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Malayan, Portuguese, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Tagalog, and other native dialects. A versatile genius, he was an architect, artist, businessman, cartoonist, educator, economist, ethnologist, scientific farmer, historian, inventor, journalist, linguist, musician, mythologist, nationalist, naturalist, novelist, opthalmic surgeon, poet, propagandist, psychologist, scientist, sculptor, sociologist, and theologian.

He was an expert swordsman and a good shot. In the hope of securing political and social reforms for his country and at the same time educate his countrymen, Rizal, the greatest apostle of Filipino nationalism, published, while in Europe, several works with highly nationalistic and revolutionary tendencies. In March 1887, his daring book, NOLI ME TANGERE, a satirical novel exposing the arrogance and despotism of the Spanish clergy, was published in Berlin; in 1890 he reprinted in Paris, Morga’s SUCCESSOS DE LAS ISLAS FILIPINAS with his annotations to prove that the Filipinos had a civilization worthy to be proud of even long before the Spaniards set foot on Philippine soil; on September 18, 1891, EL FILIBUSTERISMO, his second novel and a sequel to the NOLI and more revolutionary and tragic than the latter, was printed in Ghent. Because of his fearless exposures of the injustices committed by the civil and clerical officials, Rizal provoked the animosity of those in power. This led himself, his relatives and countrymen into trouble with the Spanish officials of the country. As a consequence, he and those who had contacts with him, were shadowed; the authorities were not only finding faults but even fabricating charges to pin him down. Thus, he was imprisoned in Fort Santiago from July 6, 1892 to July 15, 1892 on a charge that anti-friar pamphlets were found in the luggage of his sister Lucia who arrive with him from Hong Kong. While a political exile in Dapitan, he engaged in agriculture, fishing and business; he maintained and operated a hospital; he conducted classes- taught his pupils the English and Spanish languages, the arts.

The sciences, vocational courses including agriculture, surveying, sculpturing, and painting, as well as the art of self defense; he did some researches and collected specimens; he entered into correspondence with renowned men of letters and sciences abroad; and with the help of his pupils, he constructed water dam and a relief map of Mindanao – both considered remarkable engineering feats. His sincerity and friendliness won for him the trust and confidence of even those assigned to guard him; his good manners and warm personality were found irresistible by women of all races with whom he had personal contacts; his intelligence and humility gained for him the respect and admiration of prominent men of other nations; while his undaunted courage and determination to uplift the welfare of his people were feared by his enemies.

When the Philippine Revolution started on August 26, 1896, his enemies lost no time in pressing him down. They were able to enlist witnesses that linked him with the revolt and these were never allowed to be confronted by him. Thus, from November 3, 1986, to the date of his execution, he was again committed to Fort Santiago. In his prison cell, he wrote an untitled poem, now known as “Ultimo Adios” which is considered a masterpiece and a living document expressing not only the hero’s great love of country but also that of all Filipinos. After a mock trial, he was convicted of rebellion, sedition and of forming illegal association.

In the cold morning of December 30, 1896, Rizal, a man whose 35 years of life had been packed with varied activities which proved that the Filipino has capacity to equal if not excel even those who treat him as a slave, was shot at Bagumbayan Field.