Saturday, 27 November 2010

Understanding the Malay World and Its People

Malay World/Dunia Melayu

The notion of a Malay World or Dunia Melayu/AlamMelayu is an interesting one but to manifest it is somewhat slow since mapping where all the Orang Melayu are domiciled have been blurred by their continuous complex worldwide migrations. There were proposals to unite the Orang Melayu geo-politically under Malphilindo (Malaysia-Philippines-Indonesia), Malay-Polynesia and ASEAN[1] (Milner 2008:5) but only ASEAN has materialised and survived.

Proto-Malay/Orang Asli/Orang Asal

The descriptions of ‘Malay’ given by Sir Stamford Raffles and Sir Frank Swettenham could have referred to Orang Asli who are nomadic and live off the jungles. The Orang Melayu are dissimilar to the Orang Asli in that they have totally different belief systems, lifestyles and cultures (Adat dan Budaya Orang Asli – Semai 2009).

Orang Melayu Community

The Malays have always had great respect for their community elders and follow an unwritten code of conduct within their respective communities. They continue to use a social structure which was rooted in the Malacca Sultanate. From the time of the Malacca Sultanate, Tanah Melayu (literally Malay land) had its own system of administration, judiciary, customs and practices. This system was deemed efficient by the Malays and was widely used throughout the Malay Archipelago. However, when the European conquerors came, they had disrupted and partially replaced the Malay administrative system with theirs. Today, Malaysia has two systems in place, the Malaysian federal government administrative system which is descended from the British colonial administrative system and the highly treasured Malay state administrative system which is closely guarded by Sultans of each of the Malay states by its Majlis Agama Islam dan Adat-Istiadat Melayu. From an administrative standpoint, the Malays abide by both these systems which govern them.

Bahasa Melayu

From a language standpoint, as a resultant from practising the Malay administrative system, the Malays use a totally different gamut of honorific titles and vocabulary to address themselves and others. This is most obvious when addressing the Malay royals and those holding certain portfolios. Some of the honorific titles are now used by the non-Malays under the federal government administrative system.


The term ‘Malay’ as has been widely used in English academic textbooks and journal publications has not been properly defined. Without clarification, it has led many to think that Malay refers exactly to Orang Melayu. This is alright for those who do not understand what comprise the Malay. Orang Melayu itself is a complex term. When we refer to ethnicity, there is pure and mixed Orang Melayu. Pure Orang Melayu is what Orang Melayu should mean. Mixed Orang Melayu is known in Bahasa Melayu as Peranakan. Peranakan is both a noun and an adjective. Since 1911, the term Malay cannot be perceived as simply referring to just Orang Melayu for it is a general term which refers to many sub-groups which fall into this category as defined by the British census.
The term ‘Malay’ adopted in this book is a general term which refers to three categories that comprise the fabric of our ‘Malay’ society today. The first category consists of known lineages of Orang Melayu. They do not marry outside their clan nor do they practise outbreeding. They are considered as pure Orang Melayu. There are very few known pure lineages left today. The lineages are being determined by genetic studies. The second category consists of mixed breed sub-groups who are connected to Orang Melayu by blood relations, marriage or adoption. They share three basic attributes with Orang Melayu as stated in the Constitution. They comprise the majority of Malay. The third is a miscellaneous category comprising non-Malay people who legally revert to Islam and are then considered as Malay. Many adults became Muslim on their own accord. Many brides and grooms became Muslims at the time of their marriage to Muslims. Many non-Muslim infants and children underwent the adoption process and then became adopted Muslim children of Muslim families. Many such adopted children bear no blood relation to their foster Muslim parents.

Orang Melayu

The indigenous peoples of Malay stock who inhabit the Malay Archipelago are the Orang Melayu. The term Orang Melayu is synonymous with the terms native Malay, pure breed of Malay, Melayu asli, Melayu jati, and Melayu tulen. Orang Melayu were animists before they became Muslims. They believe in Islam and adhere to the Shafie sect. They read the Jawi (Arabic alphabet-based) script and the Qur’an. Even though they are supposed not to combine Islamic practices with animist religion of their forefathers, they often do, mostly without awareness that they are combining the two. Such practices are especially noticeable at wedding receptions and ceremonial rites. Orang Melayu have their own etiquettes, norms and traditions. Orang Melayu cuisine strictly adheres to the Islamic standards for food preparation, and food prepared in this way is considered as halal (fit for human consumption). Orang Melayu speaks Bahasa Melayu however accents vary between states. Orang Melayu kinship terms are bapa/bapak (father), mak (mother), abang (elder brother), kakak (elder sister), adik (younger brother or sister), anak (child or children), datuk (grandfather), nenek (grandmother), bapa saudara (uncle), ibu saudara (aunt), and saudara-mara/sanak saudara/waris (relatives). Orang Melayu male casual wear includes a shirt or singlet over kain sarong or kain pelekat. The traditional formal male outfit is the baju Melayu suit, kain sampin and songkok. The female casual wear includes baju kurung, T-shirt with kain sarong or a caftan. The traditional formal female outfit is the baju kurung or kebaya panjang. However, name of fabrics, motifs, colours, styles and adornments may vary between states and for different state occasions. These heirlooms are passed down from one generation to the next. Sub-groups of Orang Melayu who are domiciled in peninsular Malaysia are referred to as Orang Melayu Semenanjung. The sub-groups are known by the name of the respective states where they reside or originate. For example, in Perlis (Melayu Perlis), Kedah (Melayu Kedah), Perak (Melayu Perak), Kelantan (Melayu Kelantan), Terengganu (Melayu Terengganu), Pahang (Melayu Pahang), Johor (Melayu Johor), Melaka (Melayu Melaka), and Selangor (Melayu Selangor).

[1] ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN was formed on 8 August 1967 with 10 member countries - Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar) Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Source: Retrieved on 20 Nov 2010.