As promised, a discursus about Malaysian cultures.

For those of you who went to college, did you ever take an anthropology class where you spent the first couple of weeks dismissing the entire premise of "culture" and "ethnicity" as something that was real, fixed, analyzable, and so on?  Where you realize that the fluidity of definitions regarding the properties of a culture render most interpretations of it useless?  Like a Serb can magically become Croat by going to a Catholic church instead of an Orthodox one, or a Moldovan can turn into a Romanian by stepping across a border and using Latin instead of Cyrillic letters?  Or a Russian with a Ukranian last name has "Ukranian" children, but by changing her last name to a Russian one can start having "Russian" children?  Remember how it was enlightening for about two seconds, and after that became quickly tiresome and boring?  Prepare to be exasperated.

How many cultures and ethnic groups are there in Malaysia?  Depends on who counts and what the point of reference is.  The simplest answer is three: bumiputra ("son of the earth"), Chinese, and Indian.  But that’s not quite right.  Bumiputra is supposed to refer to all "indigenous" Malaysians, but normally refers to Malays.  That ignores the dozens and dozens of other groups speaking different languages, following different religions, and having different lifestyles.  Chinese is no easier.  In Malaysia, there is a very real difference between Straits Chinese (peranakan–"half caste") and other Chinese.  The former settled around Malacca and present-day Singapore during the 1500s to 1600s, the latter were imported from China by the British in the late 19th and 20th centuries to work in the tin mines.  The former speak Malay and intermarried with local Malays, the latter some form of Chinese, but even that gets complicated with at least seven distinct and mutually unintelligible dialects floating around.  The Indian community fares little better.  Most were brought by the British to work on the rubber plantations, but from very different parts of the subcontinent.  The largest group is the Tamils, but there are significant Tegulu, Malayalam, Punjabi, Pakistani, and Bengali communities as well.  Then there is the distinct Chettiar or "Chitty" community descended from Indians that have intermarried with Malays in a way similar to the peranakan Chinese.

We’re not done yet.  In Malacca there is a very strong Portuguese (yes, Portuguese) community that is a remnant of Malacca’s days as a Portuguese trading center.  The guy who sells spices at our grocery store is Portugis.  Then there is another distinct Eurasian community made up of the descendants of intermarriages between English men and Chinese or Malay women.  And the whole Bumiputra thing is more confusing than it looks.  There are Bumiputras that live in Peninsular Malaysia who are not Malay, and are lumped together under the term Orang Asli, which literally means "original people."  They comprise about two dozen distinct ethnic groups, distinguishable because they are of a different physical stock (closer to Melanesian) and do not practice Islam.  Moving to Borneo, there are dozens more who are technically supposed to be bumiputras.  The bigs groups include Kadazan, Iban, Bajau, Melanau, and Orang Ulu, but there are tons more.  More infuriatingly, there is a group called "Malay" that live on Borneo, but who are physically related to other Bornean groups, not Peninsular Malays.

There’s also religion, to the extent that this is supposed to mark an ethnic difference (if you don’t think so, ask a Bosnian).  Some bumiputras practice Islam.  All Malays practice Islam, because that’s part of the governmental definition of Islam.  Some Pakistani and Bengali Indian Malaysians practice Islam.  Some non-Malay bumiputras practice Islam, but most do not, especially in Borneo.

If you go to the National Museum, you will discover that Malaysian governmental ethnographers have decided that there are seven ethnic groups: Malays, Peranakan, Indian, Chitty, Portugis, Orang Asli, and Bornean.  Where are the non-Peranakan Chinese?  Beats us.  What makes the small Portugis community worthy of a separate ethnic group, but the far larger Kadazan community not?  Who knows.

One response to this confusing list is "who cares?"  Well, in a country where just about everything in politics revolves around ethnicity, this is a huge deal.  We’ll have to talk more about this some other time.  Another response may be "yeah, but there are really only three that matter–the big three."  That seems to be the government’s point of view, but that’s patently incorrect.  As a side note, statistically-inclined social scientists have been making a big deal lately out of counting ethnic groups in countries around the world so that they can do statistical analyses of the effect of ethnic cleavages on a whole host of variables.  The relevant term here, we believe, is "measurement error."

Comments 4

  1. fazu March 16, 2005

    You guys seem to be taking to the issues of ethnicity in Malaysia like ducks to water.
    “More infuriatingly, there is a group called “Malay” that live on Borneo, but who are physically related to other Bornean groups, not Peninsular Malays.”
    This may be partly explained, if I may venture, by the fact that “Malayness” cannot really be defined as an ethnicity in the common sense of the word. Malayness is more of an idea or a cultural ideal, making it possible to categorise those who seem to subscribe in any way to the so-called “basics” of Malayness (e.g. language, or in Malaysia’s current political context, religion) as “Malay”.
    And by the way, it’s “Telugu” 😉

  2. Tom March 16, 2005

    Hey Fazu– We have to be honest, ethnicity and ethnic group dynamics in Malaysia are fascinating to us. Here’s the thing–as far we we can really tell, there’s no ethnicity in the world that can be actually explained by anything more than an “idea” or a “cultural ideal,” as far as we can tell. What makes a Javanese different than a Sundanese? They are all, at the root, just categories that people decide on.
    By the way, how was your trip to Indonesia?

  3. fazu March 17, 2005

    “Here’s the thing–as far we we can really tell, there’s no ethnicity in the world that can be actually explained by anything more than an “idea” or a “cultural ideal,” as far as we can tell.”
    hmmm, what do you think about the likes of the Chinese or the Japanese? can we say that ethnicity in these cases are not just an idea/cultural ideal but also underpinned by racial attributes/gene pool? can one be black/white and at the same time be japanese, no matter how immersed one becomes in japanese culture? (but then maybe this could be due to the fact that Japan for instance is a nearly homogeneous society?) it’s not an easy question i guess.
    i’m going to bali next weekend but i managed to make a short trip to the riau islands (bintan and penyengat specifically) and it was awesome! a famous malaysian once said upon visiting indonesia for the first time: “This is a country I always knew.”
    My feelings exactly.

  4. Tom March 17, 2005

    We’re so glad that you liked Indonesia. There’s something about that place, we just can’t describe it. We see it here too, of course. If you’ll forgive the trite expression, it’s that Kebudayaan Nusantara. But now you’ve been to Riau and we haven’t, and we’re jealous. The list of places we’d like to travel also includes Padang (for that masakan Padang, could you guess?), Manado, Kalimantan, and Makassar. So much to see, so little time.
    Back to culture, though. It’s manifestly true that there are some people who are related to other people, and have a closer genetic profile, and all that jazz. But ethnicity and culture is often a separate deal. You’re probably right that I could not ever be considered Japanese, but could a Javanese born in KL be considered Malay? And to go back to the former Yugoslavia, Bosnians/Serbs/Croats are indistinguishable by blood, but so-called ethnic differences are considered tremendously wide.
    Our point is that it’s all about the frame of reference, and that it’s funny to try to pin down culture, because you’ll never hit it right.

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