Mandailings in Peninsular Malaysia
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
to 'The Mandailings in Peninsular