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Valar Qringaomis

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Being "Malay" in Pre-Modern Singapore

"This chapter sets the stage by discussing places with comparable characteristics to Singapore, thus allowing us to form some conjectures regarding the probable composition of Singapore's population in 1350 and its ethnic diversity. We can reconstruct with some degree of confidence a picture of how various groups came to Singapore, and how they perceived came from different origins. Next. we can imagine how people here saw their place in an international context. They were certainly concerned about relations with Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam. South Asia, and China. The conclusion of‘ these deliberations is that some relationships and identities were surprisingly similar to contemporary concepts of Singaporeans as people with both local and global points of reference.

Simple words like “identity” set off fierce debates among sociologists and anthropologists. Ideas about ethnicity and culture were very different in the previous centuries. lt is inadmissible to project modern definitions of ethnicity 700 years into the past, and highly unlikely that all criteria used today to determine who belongs to what group would have been meaningful to people then. The concept that natal or birth community confers permanent ethnic identity, which some people still believe today, has not always been taken for granted in the past? Robert Hefner proposed the term “permeable ethnicity” to refer to the ease with which people in the Straits of Melaka and elsewhere in Southeast Asia could switch ethnic identification. A.C. Milner went further, arguing that “it may be misleading to read the concept of 'ethnicity' in any form back into the precolonial archipelago world. To speak of civilisational communities or groupings may be more helpful. A wide range of group identities and affiliations was available for early Southeast Asians to choose voluntarily; many more ethnic groups existed in the past than today, and this fragmentation was associated with a highly variegated range of symbols of group membership.

It might be tempting to see Singapore’s 14th-century inhabitants as Malay, but that would be misleading. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the terms "Malayu", "Melayu" and “Malay" were increasingly used as a general term to refer to people domiciled in the Straits area. lt is also true that in the 14th century, a Sumatran dynasty established itself first in Singapore, and moved to Melaka around 1400, where it became the key reference point for “Malay" culture and genealogy. The term "Malay" has experienced many shirts of meaning in the relatively brief time since Raffles came to Singapore. In the 18th century, Malay identity underwent significant changes due to the breakup of Melaka's successor kingdom, Johor and the immigration of people from other parts of the archipelago to the Straits of Melaka. For example, the inhabitants of‘ Siak, east Sumatra, who formerly considered themselves Minangkabau, may have negotiated the meaning of being Malay in order to claim the mantle of Johor’s successor.

Leonard Andaya summarises contemporary thoughts on the possible origins of the term “Melayu". The conclusion is that we cannot equate Singapore's indigenous population of the 14th century with the identity today glossed as Malay. The customs, language, and religion which are badges of‘ membership in that group today were not linked in the same way in the 14th century. The people of Singapore, as the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu in Malay) make clear, were not then Muslim; and neither was the dynasty which a Sumatran noble moved from Palembang to Singapore. Their religious orientation will be discussed below...

If we discard the term "Malay", we are placed in a quandary, for we need some word to describe the majority (and minority) indigenous populations of Singapore in the 1300s. Archaeology provides useful criteria by which to define the geographical extent of semi-hereditary, semi- voluntary sociocultural units to which ancient Singaporeans belonged. Pottery made in 14th-century Singapore belongs to a type found at various sites along the entire Straits of Melaka, from south Thailand, Pengkalan Bujang, Kedah, Malaysia and Kota Cina, north Sumatra, at one extreme, to western Java (Banten Girang); it also appears in western Borneo (Tanjong Kubur. Sarawak) and at Kota Batu, Brunei, at the other. This type of pottery has been called Bau Malay. It began to be made around the sixth century, and became the favoured style over this large area.

The distribution of a common pottery style shows a shared consumer culture, and strongly suggests (but of course does not conclusively prove) the existence of a shared identity in the maritime realm of Southeast Asia. Pottery is still used to create and reinforce group identities and boundaries. It does not automatically indicate the language spoken by the makers, however, since pottery can be traded across ethno—linguistic boundaries, and styles from one group of porters can influence those of another. Burmese earthenware pottery, for example, resembles Bau—Malay of the Melaka Straits—Riau—Borneo region, but no ethnic relationship between these two groups is likely. This similarity is probably due to the fact that this pottery style had a single origin in prehistoric southern China and was subsequently adopted by other groups.

Another way of identifying shared identity is by the terms outsiders use to describe a group. Outsiders have long used terms such as “Malayu" or “Melayu" (the predecessor to today's Malay) to refer to groups of people who looked the same to them, but who recognised important degrees of difference among themselves. The Batak of north Sumatra, while sharing important similarities in the eyes of non—Batak, prefer to identify themselves by localised group names such as Karo, Mandeling, Dairi, and Toba. These different points of view are sometimes termed emic (internally used linguistic terms or reference points) and etic (externally used linguistic reference points)...

The inescapable conclusion... is that the word "Malayu" would not do justice to the complex composition of the indigenous population of 14th-century Singapore; the island's inhabitants probably did not refer to themselves with this term, the meaning of which has since evolved through several stages: first into a more inclusive sense, and later into a means of including some, while excluding others.

Wang Dayuan, a Chinese trader and would-be member of the literati class, wrote a text entitled Dao yi zhi lue (Description of the Barbarians of the Isles; hereafter abbreviated as Barbarians of the Isles), published in 1349. He was born around 1311 in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, which became a prosperous port during the Song Dynasty. Nanchang may have been a centre of porcelain trade in Wang's day; it is near the valley of Jingdezhen, a major pottery—producing centre. ln a postscript to his text, Wang says that he "attached to a boat when I was young to go for sea—travel", probably meaning that he booked space for himself and his goods. He made two voyages, one between 1330—1334, the other from 1337—1339. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing else about Wang, including his reasons for becoming the first Chinese sea trader to write ahout his experiences. His book is unique, standing outside standard Chinese literary genres...

Barbarians of the Isles contains a statement which is of great significance for the interpretation of 14th-century Singapore society. Rockhill translated this passage as: “Men and women live mixed up among the Chinese". Wheatley rendered it as: “The natives and the Chinese dwell side by side". Wade provides the literal translation as follows: "The Prime Minister [xiangfu] instructs both men and women to live in harmony with the Chinese people“, or “Men annd women reside beside Chinese people". In his entire account, Wang mentions only two overseas Chinese communities. One of these was not important; it consisted of some Chinese aboard ships of the Yuan fleet sent to attack in 1292 who fell ill, and were left behind on Goulan Shan (possibly Gelam Island, off west Borneo). In Wang's day, 40 years later, “over 100” of the original men and their descendants “live mixed up with the native families". Whereas the men on Goulan Shan seem to have been in the process of assimilation to a Bornean identity, the overseas Chinese in Longyamen appear to have formed a dynamic mercantile community, the inhabitants of which maintained Chinese identity...

Although one cannot be entirely sure what Wang was talking about, it seems clear that he was recording the existence of a settled overseas Chinese community in the Temasik region. If so, this is the first written reference to such a community, and therefore, is of major historical significance...

It seems then very likely that early 14th-century Singapore had one of the first settled populations of Chinese in Southeast Asia, and that Singapore had unusually close links to China in the 14th century. During the early 15th century, the first instinct of the Yongle emperor of the Ming Dynasty was to treat all overseas Chinese as traitors and unfilial to their ancestors (having neglected their graves), and he considered wiping them out. Palembang, which had become a miniature Chinese kingdom, was attacked and thousands were killed. It was then decided to appoint a special Pacification Commissioner (xuan wei si) from the surviving Chinese community. For a brief period between 1405 and 1433, before China turned inwards, Palembang and Melaka occupied special statuses in China's official relations with Southeast Asia."

--- Temasik to Singapura: Singapore in the 14th to 15th Centuries / John Miksic in Singapore from Temasek to the 21st Century: Reinventing the Global City


If the "native" people in Temasek in the 14th century weren't Malay, and Chinese have been in Singapore since that period, does it make sense to say that the Malays are the natives of Singapore?

If all Malays must be Muslim (as per the Malaysian Constitution), does it mean that before Islam came to Southeast Asia there were no Malays?
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