In my childhood, there were many intriguing movies that launched my imagination to its wildest limits, challenging preconceptions. One of them was the Neverending Story. Falkor the luckdragon never truly left my imagination, even as I come to appreciate the real world. The Neverending Story is a work of fantasy but the truth is, we all live in a never ending story that is history. The pages of history have been written on and on since the writing exercise first began ages ago, a time long forgotten. To me, embracing history as a whole is an effort to embrace truth. I try so much to learn my own history and that have caused me to stumble against those that would rewrite history for their own gain, denying truth. Malay history has been one of the victims such rewrites.

Explaining such rewriting and denial was the initial reason why I brought up the question of Srivijaya in the first place. I was sidetracked but such digression was temporary as I am proving it here right now. The good thing about the digression is that it proves that there is denial that there was an advanced Malay civilization before Malacca, before Islam became the dominant religion in this region.

The religion of the Malays is of great sensitivity. I am in the opinion that it is not about Islam in particular however. If the Malays were primarily Christians, or Buddhists or members any other belief, the scenario of strong bias towards status quo would be played all the same. I believe that the greatest factor that contributes to the denial of Malay history before Malacca, is not religion per se but is power.

In Malaysia, the constitution defines a Malay as a Muslim. This has allowed the definition of a Malay to be both restricted and widened. It is restricted because non-Muslim Malays are not legally Malays. It is widened because those in the past that would not consider as Malays like Javanese or Indians may now be legally considered as Malays, as long as they are Muslims.

Islam has become a crucial component of Malay culture. In the Malay language, the influence of the language of Islam, Arabic, is easily noticeable. Islam and the culture of Arabs itself are deeply intertwined despite clear differences. This has confused many Malays. The result of that confusion has caused some Malays to identify Arabic culture as Malay, while Malay culture as foreign.

This Islamic identity, or indeed, generally all religions, has always been used to legitimize the power of the day. In the past and even now, the sultans are seen as the ultimate defenders of the faith. So powerful this perception was that even the colonialists from the islands in northwest Europe would affirm the sovereignty of the sultans over matters of religion of the Malays. Do not mind the loss of the homeland to the British but do not touch religion; “pantang” the Malays of those days would say.

The sultans nowadays have little power, even in matter of religion. The real shot callers are those in the upper echelon of UMNO. These members of the Malay political party depend on the support of the majority of the Muslim Malays. Reason is, the commonness between the rulers and the ruled is the source of power which UMNO derives from. The more religious conservative group on the right obviously emphasizes more on religion.

In a cold world, I find commonness as a source of warmth. In a function full of strangers, I would work to find friendly faces, avoiding awkward moments of making new friends or personae non gratae. Even in Ann Arbor at the very beginning, I found comfort in fellow Malaysians. Really, in a fellow Malay Collegian. At the Malay College, I was never close to that friend but only when we were on the other side of the planet did we really connect. That is how commonness affects me and quite possibly, many others.

History justifies the commonness we experience. History explains how we got here, how we met, how we treated each other, etc. The power of history cannot be underestimated. History justifies the endless conflict between the Israelis and the Arabs. History justifies the two world wars. History justifies our prosperity. History justifies our cooperation to build a better world.

Those in power, or simply aspirers, need to justify their authority. The sultan of Johor, Alauddin Riayat Shah II, through his bendahara, Tun Sri Lanang, justified his reign by claiming lineage to Malacca and all the way to Alexander the Great. Odd, is it not, for the justification that came in form of Sejarah Melayu, skips the Buddhist Srivijaya before Malacca and goes all the way to an arguably Islamic hero that lived in Macedonia?

Regardless, for Malaysia, or maybe, just the Malays in Malaysia, it is the Sultanate of Malacca.

As mentioned earlier, the Malay heritage goes beyond Malacca and to Srivijaya. If we trace Malay heritage to anything earlier, we might get back to China and end up in Africa but who knows.

As suggested, the reason why the Malays did not go beyond Malacca is religion. Malay leaders derive their power from the religious or simply cultural commonness that they share with the Malay people (Malays as defined in the federal constitution). Further, the justification of that commonness is the Islamic Malay Sultanate of Malacca. Those of interest that hazardously affect others or just the ignorant, claim that Malacca is where Malay shared history began. It was the origin of our commonness, they say. Conveniently, they ignore the part when the Malays were different, when they were the great traders and sailors of old.

While Islamic, Malacca was established by a Hindu Malay Srivijayan prince, Parameswara; the first king of Malacca argueably converted to Islam at the end of his life. In the same Malacca, Hang Tuah allegedly said, “takkan Melayu hilang di dunia” (the Malays will never varnish); Malacca became the next torchbearer of the Malays, picking up the pieces where Srivijaya left after being butchered by the Cholas from the west, Majapahit from the east and the Sukhothai from the north. It was as if history conspired to wipe the Malays off the planet at that particular point of time, at the turn of the second millennium.

The act of reaching out to Srivijaya, beyond Malacca however could disrupt the commonness the Malay leaders and the typical modern Malays share. An acknowledgment of the greatness of Srivijaya, one of the possibly two golden ages of the Malays, means acknowledging that the Malays as an ethnic or a race has never been always Muslim. The Malays were animists, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. The notion that the Buddhist Srivijaya was great could render the justification of that commonness which is the source of authority as irrelevant. Through the loss of commonness, shift in influence and power would occur, rearranging complex equation of power, creating new status quo.

For those that benefit from being in power, so much is at stake. They could not afford to see such adverse shift and would do anything to prevent the slightest shift that might contribute to their downfall, turning legitimacy to illegitimacy. That anything includes rewriting history; writing history to justify their authority instead of writing history for honest recording purposes.

Sadly, two of the victims of these lies are Srivijaya — along with many other states such as Langkasuka, Gangga Negara and many others that walked the Malay Peninsula — and truth.

8 Responses to “[1225] Of to protect status quo, rewrite history and ignore Srivijaya”

  1. on 18 May 2007 at 16:35 Bob K

    I am curious at how Article 160 of the Constitution is actually worded. It seems to more of an interpretative clause within the context of the Constitution rather than one that defines the anthropological or legal status of any particular ethnicity:

    In this Constitution, unless the context otherwise requires, the following expressions have the meanings hereby respectively assigned to them, that is to say –

    … “Malay” means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and –

    (a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or

    (b) is the issue of such a person; …

    Something worth thinking about?

  2. on 28 Aug 2007 at 21:09 ichaya

    Hey… I was doing some research and happened to stumble upon your blog. Am actually considering a post-grad in Malay history so your blog is providing me with many insights! I too grew up thinking Melaka’s the golden age for the Malays (even across the causeway this is how it’s taught) with Srivijaya and Majapahit as hazy realities.

    So yeah, great stuff and hope you don’t mind if I put your link on my blog… :)

  3. […] there are those that assert Malaysian history begins with Malacca. I opine that this is done to legitimize the position of those in power through religion. Like what been written earlier, history is continuous and […]

  4. […] I have answered my own question, the reductio ad absurdum by Farish Noor provides a more direct path to the answer than what I had […]

  5. […] As one can see, even without the grand claim to Alexander, the lineage of the Sultan of Johor at that time was already impressive, reaching back to the days of Srivijaya. But Tun Sri Lanang needed to reposition the royal line to assume more Islamic tone while discarding the Buddhist and Hindu past. […]

  6. […] is a community whereas its members, individuals, share a common identity. That identity in turn is derived from history, through similarities in languages, ethnicities, religions, or in the broadest sense, culture. It […]

  7. […] If the name had been adopted, many more people would probably realize that Malay and Malaysian history go all the way back beyond the 15th and the 16th century Malacca. […]

  8. […] many Malaysians know this? How many of us tried to suppress part of our […]

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