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The Mandailings in Peninsular Malaysia

Roots of Penang Malay
By Ong Ju Lynn

Who are the Malays of Penang? It seems there is no easy answer to this question of identity. What emerged at a Malay Colloquium held last month was that the “Malay identity” comprises a kaleidoscope of diverse cultures and ethnicities. Discussions at the colloquium revealed how interrelated communities on the island are, and how the history of one community cannot be fully understood without having a picture of the whole.

The colloquium threw up other fascinating nuggets of information on what makes Penang, Penang. For instance, did you know Penang was a penal colony and a slave-trading centre? Did you know that some Penang Straits Chinese and Straits Malays are descendants of slaves or of convicts from the British empire?


A Malay family. The mosaic of faces reflect their different lineages.
The Malay of Penang are mixtures of the Jawi Peranakan of Indian, Bengali, Arab and Indonesian descent.

Datuk Dr Nazir Ariff of the Penang Heritage Trust and co-chairman of the colloquium, began his introduction by stating that the goal of the Malay Colloquium was “to trace the history of the Muslims in Penang.’’ For in the context of historical Penang, the only thing the diverse communities that became subsumed under the “Malay race’’ have in common is that they professed the Islamic faith.

If defined by lineage alone, indigenous Malays form only a small part of the Malay population of Penang today. But, together with the pot-pourri of immigrant Muslims who made Penang their homeland, the Malays are an integral part of the creation of the Malay culture.

This was the main thrust of the colloquium, the first of a series of four colloquiums under the year-long Penang Story project organised by The Star and the Penang Heritage Trust.

In the evolution of Penang’s social landscape, the Malay community assumed dominance after dispersing the nomadic Semang-Pangan orang asli, said Prof Dr Mohd Razha Rashid, a panellist at the colloquium. His presentation painted a picture of pre-historical Penang.

Archaeological evidence shows that Penang (island, and its mainland territory, Seberang Prai) was inhabited by the Semang-Pangan of the Juru and Yen lineage, both now considered extinct cultures. They were dispersed by the Malays as far back as 900 years ago. The last orang asli settlement recorded in Penang was in the 1920s in Kubang Semang, he said, adding that many of the towns and villages in Penang have names derived from orang asli words.

When Francis Light arrived, there were already many permanent fishing and rice-planting Malay communities in Penang. After acquiring Penang through illegal means from Kedah’s Sultan Abdullah Muazzam Shah, Light made the island a British trading post and, for better or worse, set in motion the process of immigration that began the melting of the ethnic pot.

Muslim traders – from the Arabs of the Middle-East, and the Tamils and the Bengalis of the Indian continent, to the Achenese, Minangs and Mandailings of the Malay Archipelago – became a part of Penang’s urban landscape.

To cement their ties with this new land and to maintain their status, these immigrants of faraway lands married indigenous Malay women, creating the Jawi Peranakan, that is, Straits Malays – or, as they’re known locally, the Jawi Pekan.


Two Nyonya's posing in their traditional kebayas. Some Baba nyonyas of Penang have Nias (Sumatran) blood running in their veins.

Unlike indigenous Malays who mainly fished and cultivated rice, the Jawi Pekan lived in towns – “pekan” is Malay for “town” – and traded in spices, textile and cloth.

How these diverse communities with their distinct cultures, foods, and lifestyles became assimilated under the “Malay identity’’ was not discussed at length during the colloquium. But panellist Yusuff Azmi Merican, a former teacher, in his frank presentation about the Jawi Peranakans, shared his experience on the disappearing cultures.

In his 60s now, Yusoff recounted how surprised he was to find out quite late in life that he was classified as Jawi Peranakan in his birth certificate.
“ I’d never bothered to look at my birth cert until the marriage of my son. He needed my birth cert and when I found it in the drawers of an old cupboard, I was actually shocked to find that I was identified as a Jawi Peranakan,’’ he said during the Oral History Panel of the colloquium.
He said that Jawi Peranakans had forgotten their identity because, in the 1940s, it became imperative for all the Muslim communities to unite as Malays in order to fight the common enemy, the British.

Mamaks (Indian Muslims) forgot about being mamaks, Arabs forget about being Arabs, and we all came together to establish Umno to fight for independence.

“ We may have forgotten our differences and have all come together as Malays, but let us not forget the roles of these people in the development of Penang and the country. The Mamaks build mosques, established wakaf (endowment) lands, and made great strides in education. The great ‘Malay’ historian Abdullah Munshi was a Jawi Peranakan, and so was the first president of Umno, he said.

The Jawi Peranakans also enriched the Malay culture through their boria (a popular entertainment that used to be performed during the Muslim new year, Awal Muharram) and bangsawan (traditional theatre).

Panellist Abdur-Razzaq Lubis had more scathing things to say about the forces that led to the disappearance of the identities of these ethnic communities. Attempts to localise the history of Malaysia had forced a narrow interpretation of an exclusive “Malay identity, he said.

In his paper entitled The Indonesians in Penang, the Asian Public Intellectual scholar said that the separation of Malaysia from Indonesia was an artificial boundary imposed by the British and Dutch colonialists. The boundary has limited and confused discussions on the political, cultural and economical spheres of the Malay Archipelago.

“ This is an enduring colonialist legacy which had been defended by a narrow, nationalistic interpretation of the Malay race. The prejudicial identity of the ‘pure Malay’ brought about an administrative ethnic cleansing which extinguished the history of other non-Malay inhabitants of the land.’’


Doing the joget (1938)

The joget, the most popular Malay folk dance, was performed at cultural festivals and weddings. It is a good example of how elements from various culture can merged together into a single dance form. The joget has Portuguese roots and uses the Western violin, the Arab rebana, South-East Asian gongs, and Kelantanese singing style.

Abdur-Razaaq, who is of Mandailing descent, added that by reducing the rich human diversity of the Peninsular into three races – Malays, Chinese and Indians – many historical ethnic cultures were lost.
He also talked about the slave trade in Penang, a topic to which another panellist promptly added a poem he remembered learning as a child:

Tanjong Tokong tanah merah
Anak dara murah-murah
Satu dua diut saja.

(Tanjong Tokong, the red land
Virgins come cheap
Only one or two cents.)

According to British records dated 1823, the “girls and boys” (slaves) from Nias, Sumatra, were much sought after. Nias female slaves had a high market value as they were fair of complexion and were a favourite of wealthy Chinese merchants. Slave-owners, however, were not limited to a particular racial group. Slavery was the privilege of the wealthy and the practice continued into the late 19th century despite a ban by the British.
The otherwise somber colloquium was lit up by the final panellist, Mohd Bahroodin Ahmad, better known as Cikgu (Teacher) Bahar. Having recited the poem on slavery in Tanjong Tokong, Penang, he went on to illustrate life in Penang in the days before independence. His central theme was the diversity of what constituted the Malay language and culture.

Clad in a traditional Penang Malay costume, he explained the origin of each item of clothing during the Oral History Panels session. The shirt is called baju kancing prak, and the coat, kot asam pedas. The belt is very Indian in origin, while the songkok (cap) is a little higher then what is worn now, reflecting Achenese influence, he said.

Then he broke into song and dance, imitating the different Malay accents and slang used in different parts of Penang, singing excerpts of popular old songs, and acting out P. Ramlee movie scenes.

So entertaining and informative was Cikgu Bahar's presentation that a panellist suggested that he be videotaped while he related his story of the Penang he knew. This is more than oral history. This is visual history!’’ remarked panellist Prof Omar Farouk Bajunid of Hiroshima City University.
Orally or visually, Penang’s rich history needs to be retold. The Penang Story is a story of the ordinary people. It is the retelling of history in the light of its own people, the purveyors of the multicultural heritage of this unique place on earth.

As colloquium co-chairman Prof Dr Wazir Jahan Karim of the Academy of Social Sciences Malaysia put it: The history of the Straits Malay has not ended. It is being lived today. Their history needs to be redefined by the protectors of Malay heritage.

The Malay Colloquium is the first of a series of four community colloquiums the rest will be on Indians, Chinese, and “other communities to be held under the year-long project.



The Penang Story project is organised by the Penang Heritage Trust in collaboration with Star Publications (M) Bhd with the aim of assisting Penang and Malacca’s joint listing in the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisations World Heritage list. The project is sponsored by the Japan Foundation, ABN-AMRO Bank and the Penang Government while City Bayview is the official hotel.

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update september 2006