June 23, 2006

Defining Race

Posted in Malaysia, Reflections, Religion at 12:33 am by egalitaria

What is a race?

I asked myself that tonight and found myself scratching my head. Because you have nation-states like Japan, where there is no question of race and nationality. Think also of China and England where race and nationality are synonymous with the other. Japanese are Japanese by race AND nationality. The English in England are English by race AND nationality.

Things become a bit blurry when migration takes place. So you have an Australian by nationality but English by descent. Extend this to Malaysia. You have Malaysians by nationality but Malay, Chinese and Indian by descent… in other words, a society segregated by race.

In the case of the latter two, the Chinese and the Indians come from a specific place from which race and nationality were never separate – China and India. So fine, being Chinese and being Indian means accepting one's racial descent.

But I've always wondered where the Malays came from. Originally from Malaya (if we presume Malays have to be from a similar country-sounding-place: Malaya) ?

I read interestingly on Wikipedia (which is an amazing mine of knowledge nuggets, by the way) the following:

According to the History of Jambi, the word Melayu or Malayu originated from a river with name Sungai Melayu near to Sungai Batang Hari of today's Muara Jambi, Jambi province of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Generically, the name "Malay" is used to describe all the numerous related groups inhabiting the Malay Archipelago, and which are not of older aboriginal stock. These include the Aceh, Minangkabaus, Bataks and Mandailings who live in Sumatra ; Java and Sunda in Java ; Banjars, Ibans, Kadazans and Melanaus in Borneo ; Bugis and Torajas in Sulawesi ; the various dominant ethnic groups in the Philippines such as the Tagalogs, Ilocanos and Ifugao of Luzon island, the Bisaya of the central Philippines, the Maguindanao, Tausug and Bajau of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago ; and the people of East Timor (again, excluding those of older Papuan stock).

In other words, the term Malay should anthropologically be used to refer to the different peoples of the Malay Archipelago within the region… Not exclusively belonging to any one country… It is a people group that is spread into different countries.. hmmmm… read more below:

In a broader sense, the term Malay also includes most ethnic groups in the Philippines and Indonesia west of Papua. It is best understood as a cultural, not racial grouping. For example, people of the Maluku and Nusa Tenggara islands up to Timor have darker skin but are more readily described as Malays than the Dayaks of inner Borneo.

Okay, so this makes things a little clearer. It is best understood as a cultural, not racial grouping… So it is not a race then? To complicate things further,

Most Malays had converted from Hinduism, Buddhism and animism to Islam in the early 15th century; influenced by Arab, Chinese and Indian Muslim seafarers during the Islamic Golden Age.

Really? I hadn't known that, to be honest…

Their conversion to Islam from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism began in the 1400s, largely influenced by the decision of the royal court of Malacca. Most Malays in Thailand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Surinam — being descendants of those who had already been Islamised in Malaysia, Indonesia, etc — are also Muslims.

Never knew this either.

So the more significant question is… what does it mean to be a Malay living in Malaysia? I'll leave it at that.

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