Who Is a Malay Today ? Every day Life in Modern Malaysia

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In modern Penang, Muslim Indians (locally called Klings) and “Arabs” typically have distinct business networks, in which languages such as Tamil, Gujerati, and Arabic are spoken, although Malay is the national language. Muslim Indians and “Arabs” are noted for frugality, for hard bargaining and deal-making, for training their children in business at an early age, and for their success in manipulating economic institutions such as chambers of commerce, the Penang religious council, and political parties. By contrast, Penang Malays consider excessive haggling indelicate (tak elok), and those with small businesses, such as satay stalls and coffee shops, take pleasure in offering treats to their kin, friends, and neighbors (layan pelanggan), where the maintenance of social relations overrides the profit motive. When there are profits, Malays enjoy small personal luxuries, investing in hospitality before business. The Penang Arab community still maintains business connections between Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and the Near East, even as many prominent local Arabs serve as members of the Malay Chamber of Commerce, and draw on grants to restore their properties under Malay heritage programs. While other Muslims in Malaysia regard Arabs with a mixture of respect for their presumed religious knowledge and links with the Holy Land, they frequently comment negatively on the global image of Arab wealth and power. For the Penang Arab community, these comments are constant reminders of their immigrant origins. Since few Penang Malays are truly “pure Malays” (Melayu jati), it is in their daily lives and conversations that their other identities are revealed. A speaker may attribute the wealth and success of a colleague to excessive greed, and may point out that the other worker does not always give correct weights in sales, or might claim that the colleague has unfair access to the Malay Chamber of Commerce, “where they are all Klings or Arabs,” while “we ordinary Malays [kita orang Melay biasa]” cannot compete. In reverse, those same (Kling or Arab) members of the Malay Chamber of Commerce, when impatient with kampung dwellers foot-dragging over proposed improvements, will castigate the residents as “backward or underdeveloped Malays.” Yet when the Chamber requests a government loan for those same developments, their members suddenly become monolithically Malay. That individuals who live their private lives as Tamil-�speaking Indians or as Arabs, yet affiliate with the Malay Chamber, shows that situational identity is institutionalized. For several years, the head of the Malay Chamber of Commerce rotated between prominent Indians and Arab families, and although Malays generally tend to respect Arabs, in disputes they are quick to accuse them of being “proud and self-interested” (orang Arab yang sombong dan ikut kepentingan sendiri). Not all ethnic labels entail negative stereotypes. Some (‘pure”) Malays are self-deprecating about their own business skills, and one member of the Malay Petty Traders’ Association regretted aloud that “we Malays always quarrel [biasa gadoh sau sama lain] among ourselves and seem unable to co-operate like ‘the other groups.’” Where conflicts occur in personal relations, parties may increase social distance by asserting a different identity. When an employer usually thought of as Malay needs to exert discipline, he may for the occasion assert his Arab status as he castigates his “lazy Malay” servant: “We Arabs are not lazy like Malays.” Or a Malay employer might note that her housemaid, whose cleanliness is in question, “is really a Kling not like us Malays.” Occasionally, an individual may alternately denigrate both sides of a mixed identity. One young man, the son of a Tamil-speaking father and a Malay mother living in a Malay kampung, complained about the trick a Kling goldsmith used in cutting the weight of a wedding ring he was purchasing. The same young man was later heard criticizing Malay neighbors whom he claimed take advantage of secure government jobs (makan gaji) without having to struggle for a living like hardworking (rajin) Indians. Within the realm of the family, some individuals manipulate cultural practices and the finer points of religion versus adat as symbols of shared or different identity, as needed. When Arabs wish to assert their religious superiority and purity, they conspicuously refuse to follow the Malay bersanding marriage rituals, on the principle that these are not Islamic, for in Islamic marriages incense and flowers have no place. Some Arab families, however, do follow bersanding. When questioned, they claim that it is just a custom that does not interfere with true Islam, and that “we too are like Malays now” (sekarang saperti orang melayu juga). But Arabs who do not practice wedding adat may still want to be recognized as Malays, in the chamber of commerce or Penang religious council, explaining that they are merely setting an example by following the pure, original form of Islam. Arab prestige is not only associated with religious correctness but also with illustrious family genealogies that are displayed on the walls of homes. Some even reside in named Arab kampungs. Unlike Malays, Arabs are patrilineal and patriarchal, have distinctive surnames (e.g., Alatas), and many bear religiously prestigious hereditary titles (Syed for men and Sharifah for women), indicating descent from the Prophet Mohammed. When I discovered that a woman I knew, then married to a poor trishaw driver, was related to a prominent Syed family, I asked her why she was not using her title, to which she responded that she is “too poor to be a Sharifah.” Arab surnames and titles that may be traced back to Arabia are crucial to family identity and prestige, but this has not prevented many intermarriages with local Malays and even Chinese. Most Arab families have long intermarried with non-Arabs without loss of status. In at least two Arab families in Penang, several successive generations of males have married women from wealthy Chinese families, with the result that an Arab might have a Chinese father-, brother- and son-�in-�law as business partners. Despite the fact that members of the family are biologically more Chinese than Arab, the Arabic patrilineal name, titles, and prestige remain intact, and race is not an issue. With each generation, the advantages of being Malay in what is now a Malay national state have led more Indians and Arabs to join a Malay political party and to request Malay IC (identity) cards to clarify their public, if not private, identity. That ethnic boundaries are not so tidy is evident even among Malay national elites. Five of the first Malaysian prime ministers had non-Malay ancestors, who were ether Thai, Buginese, Turkish, Indian, or Bedouin. And several Malay sultans have Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Eurasian and European antecedents. While these facts are publicly known, they are only mentioned when there are negative political points to be scored. Thus one unpopular “Indian” (Kling) prime minister was vilified as “Mahathir the Maharajah,” while Abdullah Badawi (the Bedouin) was respected for his family’s Middle Eastern religious connections.



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