Malay Multicultural Society: From Colonial to Modern State

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By the nineteenth century, being Muslim was generally accepted as part of being Malay. All the rulers and most subjects of the Malay peninsular states professed Islam and, under British colonial rule, Malays were placed under “Mohammedan” law, while new immigrants continued to masuk Melayu by becoming Muslim. At the time, the convert only had to adopt a Muslim name and to be able to recite the Shahadah (the first verses of the Qu’ran), leaving religious studies to follow. Colonial administration of the Malay peninsula was based on three “races” or “communal groups”: Malays, Indians, and Chinese. This was the foundation of most political rights and privileges in postcolonial Malaya, which in 1963 became Malaysia (Roff 1967; Nagata 1979). Until 1931, censuses recognized Buginese, Bataks, Boyanese, Acehnese, “Manilamen,” Singhalese, and Arabs as separate identities (Low 1972:125–126; Nagata 1974; 1979), but by independence in 1957 these had disappeared from the census: they were compressed into a generic “Malay” category, although the other identities were not lost in social memory. In 1957, Malaya became independent and, in 1963, added parts of Borneo to form Malaysia. According to the 1957 national constitution, a Malay is defined as one who habitually speaks Malay, practices Malay custom (adat), and is a Muslim. This is not a genealogical but a cultural profile, which technically could be adopted by anyone, including foreigners. Some Malays today wish to go further and distinguish “pure” or “real” Malays (Melayu jati/ asli) in a sea of “immigrants” (pendatang), despite the known mixed origins of almost everyone. In 1973, a new economic policy entitled Malays to gain important political and economic advantages, including entrance into certain white-collar occupations and special government and education quotas not offered to other Malaysians, which enhanced the appeal of the Malay option. Although many “mixed” immigrant Muslim families, especially in Penang, technically fulfill the constitutional requirements of Malayness, and hence are eligible for privileges, the following episodes, recorded in Penang in the 1970s and 1980s, reveal how in everyday life, “mixed” immigrant Muslim families still play the identity field, without losing a foothold in the Malay community.



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