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Definition of 'Malay' root cause of Indonesian anger

Tourism Malaysia must be congratulated for adopting a brilliant tagline for its international advertising campaigns. In just two words, ‘Truly Asia’, it sums up the essence of Malaysia in a memorable manner. Together with its descriptor - ‘The wonders of Asia in one exciting destination’ – it makes a competitive and compelling case for the country.

Why go to say, Thailand or Vietnam, with their monocultures, when you can have a multicultural experience in Malaysia? Malaysia has no problems with China and India because its claims are explicit; there are people of Chinese and Indian descent who practice some form of their original cultures in Malaysia.

Tourists are not disappointed, as the country is abundantly blessed with tourist attractions – architecture, festivals, food – which are genuinely of Chinese or Indian origin.

However, several Tourism Malaysia advertisements and events have been met with anger in Indonesia. The root of this dispute stems from the very different definitions of ‘Malay’ in Malaysia and Indonesia. Put simply, ‘Malay’ is regarded as a ‘suku’ (ethnic group) in Indonesia and a ‘bangsa’ (race) in Malaysia and this difference has profound consequences.

Indonesians are proud of their country because of their long, difficult and bloody fight for nationhood and independence. They trace their struggle to 1928, when a congress of young Indonesian nationalists from many ethnic groups and islands proclaimed the ‘Sumpah Pemuda’ (Youth Pledge), which formalised the concept of ‘one country - Indonesia, one people, Indonesian - and one language of unity, Indonesian’.

Significantly, Malay was chosen as the Indonesian national language instead of Javanese, the language spoken by the numerically, politically and economically dominant group in Indonesia. This because Malay was the lingua franca in the archipelago and, therefore, an ethnically neutral unifying force in the new nation.

Thus the Republic of Indonesia began as a social contract between many ethnic groups of various religions, who shared the common burden of Dutch colonialism and who had decided to unite as one nation.

Today, Indonesians regard their nation as made up of more than 300 ethnic groups, with the Javanese (41% or more than 90 million) being the largest, followed by Sundanese (36 million), Malay (8 million), Madurese (8 million), Batak (7 million) and so forth. Importantly, the Indonesian constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of choice of religion and ethnicity does not determine religious belief.

Indonesian children are taught this history and national identity from elementary school. They learn about the different ethnic groups that make up Indonesia, with their specific customs, songs, dances, dress and so forth. They are taught that the Lilin dance is Malay, the ‘angklung’ in Sundanese, the ‘Reog Ponorogo’ dance is Javanese and ‘Rasa Sayange’ is Ambonese.

In Malaysia the definition of ‘Malay’ is a political construct which is spelled out categorically in the constitution. A Malay is ‘a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language (and) conforms to Malay custom’.

Given the vagueness of the definition, it is easy to see why Malaysians tend to think that almost anything Indonesian is automatically ‘Malay’. All Indonesians speak Malay/Indonesian, the vast majority of them are Muslim, and therefore, ‘Indonesian’ equals ‘Malay’, with the exception of some items which are explicitly not Muslim, like the Balinese ‘pendet’ dance.

The incident which provoked the most serious Indonesian response was in 2007, when Tourism Malaysia used Rasa Sayang(e) in its ‘Visit Malaysia Year’ advertising campaign. The Malaysian tourism minister’s response to the Indonesian protests was that Malaysia had a right to use this song as it is from a shared heritage in the Malay archipelago.

This was perceived by Indonesians as ignorant and arrogant. (In the Malaysian context, it would be like the Dayaks saying that ‘boria’ is Dayak as it is part of the shared Malaysian culture.)

The Malaysian answer was bewildering to Indonesians because the Ambonese are dark-skinned, with curly hair from their mixed Melanesian, Malay and African lineage - they look like the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia - and are predominantly Christian.

In other words, they do not fulfil any of the criteria that define ‘Malay’. They look different, use a language which is unintelligible to standard Malay speakers and have a different culture and religion from the Malays.

It was unfortunate that the minister Tengku Adnan Mansor took what Indonesians perceived to be a confrontational stance in this disagreement. The situation could easily have been diffused at this stage by him saying something like:

‘All Malaysians love this song and we have been singing it for generations. Since it is a folk song we cannot pay royalties as no one holds the copyright, but we Malaysians would like to thank the Ambonese for sharing it with us by providing five scholarships to their students to study in Malaysian universities.’

It would have soothed Indonesian discontent and promoted Malaysian education in one fell swoop. Instead, Indonesians began thinking of Malaysians as stealing parts of obviously non- Malay Indonesian culture and calling it ‘Malay’, just to attract a few more international tourists.

With the heightened sensitivity since then, any little incident is now played up for maximum political mileage. These disputes are set to occur again and again as the crux lies in the definitions of ‘Malay’.

Given that the conflicting views are closely entwined with the politics and history of the two countries, these definitions are set in stone. After all, if Malaysians look at themselves from an Indonesian perspective, they would be forced to conclude that there is no majority race in Malaysia.

It is a country where the Malays are the largest minority group, followed by the Chinese, Indians, Javanese, Bugis, Acehnese, Madurese and the indigenous peoples of Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia, a nation where the majority are pendatang, led by a Bugis pendatang from South Sulawesi. The current Malaysian government will never allow this view to prevail.