‘Malayness’

Defining ‘Malayness’
‘Malayness’ is a term used to describe the set of characteristics that are used to differentiate people of Melayu (Malay) ethnicity from ‘non-Malay’ individuals. This set of characteristics is known as bahasa raja dan agama, andreferred to as the “three pillars” (Shamsul 2001, p. 357). The three pillars are identified as “language, ruler, and religion” (Shamsul 2001, p. 357). In order to be defined as Malay, in the traditional sense, one must be committed to the religion of Islam, speak the Malay language, and be of Malay ethnicity. Collectively, these characteristics establish an individual as one of the ‘indigenous’ people of Malaysia who benefit from ‘special Malay privileges’ (Shamsul 2001, p. 364). Despite this requirement of ‘indigeneity’, Malays who immigrate to Malaysia also inherit ketuanan Melayu or ‘Malay dominance’ (Shamsul 2001, p. 356). According to the constitution of Malaysia, the Malays inhabit a ‘special position’ that must be safeguarded (Nah 2003, p. 520); however, Indian, Chinese, and other ethnic groups, whose families have inhabited Malaysia for generations, are considered ‘non-Malay’ and do not enjoy the same privileges as the Malays. Therefore, it is arguable that Malayness is both a marker of Malay identity and Malaysian citizenship. Because non-Malays do not enjoy the full extent of Malaysian citizenship that Malays do, to be non-Malay, then, at least from a political perspective, is to inhabit the position of ‘Other’.

The Birth of Bumiputra Ideology
The construction of the Malay-oriented national identity in Malaysia occurred as the result of the actions of the Malaysian government after Malaysia obtained independence from Britain. First, Malay claims of indigeneity birthed the term bumiputra (or bumiputera), meaning “sons of the soil,” which was adopted by the government in 1965. That same year the practice of providing special privileges to these individuals also came into effect. Second, Malay was adopted as the national language of Malaysia despite generations of Indians, Chinese, orang asli (aboriginal people) and other ethnicities present in Malaysia. And third, the Malaysian government esteemed the religion of Islam (the official religion of the Malay race), along with the Malay language and ethnicity, as a component of Malayness. The idea of Malayness supported bumiputra ideology by establishing the Malay versus non-Malay relationship. This concept would become an issue of us versus them and convince Malay radicals that non-Malays were a threat. Racial tension would rise continuously before spilling out into the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia during the riots of 1969. The riots, which occurred between May 13 and July 31, were targeted primarily at the Chinese; however Chinese, Malays, Indians, and others were slain during the violence.

Postcolonial Theory: Issues of Identity, Space, and Time
Literature concerning racial tension in Malaysia examines the issue from a postcolonial perspective, with the understanding that colonialism combines physical and ‘cultural invasion’ (Shamsul 2001, p. 357). The postcolonial perspective reveals that racial conflict in postcolonial nations, such as Malaysia, is 1) an issue of identity/identification and epistemological space or knowledge (Shamsul 2001, p. 357), and 2) an issue of ‘inherited colonial mechanisms’ that have been acquired over time (Nah 2003, p. 513). The former issue is discussed further on this page and the latter is discussed in the section titled Contesting Indigenous Identity.

According to Shamsul, the Malayness perspective has been primarily motivated by a ‘nationalistic’ need to reinterpret history…” (Shamsul 2001, p. 358). That is, in an effort to reclaim the epistemological space that had been claimed and rewritten by colonialism, the Malaysian government sought to create a postcolonial Malaysian history. In order to do so, the government adopted ‘Malay history’ as the ‘national history’ of Malaysia (Shamsul 2001, p. 358). Shamsul explains that Malay nationalists have perceived the Malays as dirampas segalanya di rumah sendiri or ‘dispossessed at one’s own home’…with [both] the colonialists and [Chinese, Indians, etc.] perceived as the ‘dispossessors’ (Shamsul 1999, p. 95; Nah 2003, p. 519). As a result, the Malays have attempted to create an identity for themselves using claims of indigeneity as a method of self-identification. That is, by claiming Malaysia as the ‘Taneh Melayu’ (Malay land) and reconstructing their own history, the Malays are able to construct an identity for themselves—as their identity had been fractured by colonialism.

Shamsul explains that, for this reason, “the idiom of the Malay nationalist struggle was always put in terms of ‘repossessing’ (merampas kembali) or reclaiming political and economic dominance from the British and immigrant population’” (Shamsul 1999, p. 95; Nah 2003, p. 519). However, consequently, those categorized as ‘non-Malay’ are included in the nation as markers of difference or ‘Others,’ a position that exists to solidify the status of the Malays as indigenous and therefore entitled to the privileges they receive. This incorporation of the Chinese and Indians (as well as other ethnic groups) into the Malaysian state, then, occurs via a process coined by Ang as ‘inclusion by virtue of othering’ (Ang 1996, p. 37). Bumiputra ideology (the idea of indigenous versus non-indigenous), despite its better intentions, is actually a form of reverse colonialism. While colonialists invaded new lands and replaced rulers with their own appointed leaders, Malay leaders are claiming Malaysia as the ‘land of the Malays’ and reverting racial groups—despite their own historical ties to Malaysia—to the status of invaders.

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