Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Hundred Things Malay: The Book

During the past few months I have been trying to write another book, a book that will be both simple and yet in some ways complex. Perhaps the word “writing” here is not quite correct, for the book has nothing original about it. It may, more appropriately, be a described as a compilation, like a dictionary or tiny encyclopedia. I hope it will be in some ways exciting. I have a tentative title, also by no means original: A Hundred Things Malay, inspired by an elegant book entitled A Hundred Things Japanese published in 1975 by the Japan Culture Institute, Tokyo.

The complexity of my book-in-progress is best indicated by a question raised by one of my foreign students: Is there anything that is Malay? This set me thinking that I should seriously review the whole situation; perhaps even abandon the project. Having worked in what I have called “Malay” theatre for several decades now, I must confess that such a question did, every now and then, come into my mind as well. My own feelings about this issue and the student’s comments which stimulated them again, pushed me to seek out a solution. Yes, how does one define, first a Malay and then something as Malay?

On the question of who the Malays are and where their origins may lie several opinions are available, anthropological, historical, cultural, political. In the case of Malaysia, the definition familiar to all of us is that provided in the Constitution. This definition, is valid, of course only within the borders of the country, and will probably not be acceptable to others even in the so-called Malay World or Nusantara. The perspectives of the Philippines and Indonesia will, arguably, be different.

After some deliberation I decided that the fundamental element in definition of ethnicity or identity must be language. To me that seemed a good start, and so I would take it that anyone whose native language or mother tongue is Bahasa Melayu will be regarded as a Malay.

To some extent, and to a certain extent only, the dilemma I faced in compiling A Hundred Things Malay seemed to have resolved itself out.

But then there are other issues, concerned mostly with things which are now regarded in some ways as Malay, but which in fact originally came from other cultures, particularly from our Southeast Asian neighbours, from India, China, the Middle East or even the West. The recent confrontations between Malaysia and Indonesia about our National Anthem, the popular song "Rasa Sayang Eh" and the barongan theatre are cases in point. One can, no doubt, add many more items to this list.

The essential question, in this particular instance, is when does an imported cultural or art form become Malay? When, for instance, did mak yong, a pre-Islamic, animistic theatre genre with possible roots in present-day Thailand or even further north in Cambodia, become Malay? What elements turned the Urdu-Hindustani Parsee theatre into bangsawan, and is bangsawan indeed a Malay art form? These questions are symptomatic of larger issues. The answers to these and others like them are likely to be at best vague, loaded with emotion, controversial, potentially explosive.

I am reminded of a short poem I wrote some years back which appears in my Mirror of a Hundred Hues.


In turbulent times when definitions
Change by day and night
When race, religion and name
With random whims and fancies
Are restated time and again
The search for roots commences

The only problem with definitions
Is the change that comes
All too soon, while
The thing about roots
Is that deeper search reveals
Them entangled, inextricable

Thus past, present and future
Merge into pesembur
Now one strand identified, now another
Isolated, while dramatized attempts
At placation face undeterminable end
And the mind, uncertain, questions
The basis of a nation, seeks
The sacred markings
Of nationality

In the meantime, I seek compromises so that, somehow, my volume can be published in the near future even if, in the end, the proposed hundred things turn out to be merely fifty or less.

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