The past several days have seen a growing debate in Malaysia about ethnicity and indigeneity. The proximate trigger is a speech delivered by M. Kulasegaran, Malaysia’s Minister of Human Resources and a Malaysian of Tamil heritage. The Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia reported that the speech—delivered in Tamil—contained the following statement:
Kebanyakan orang telah lupa, orang Hindu mula jejak negara ini 2,500 tahun dulu. Apa buktinya? Sekiranya anda pergi ke Lembah Bujang, kesemua bukti terdapat di sana. Terdapat banyak kuil lama yang ditemui di sana.
Apabila kitalah yang berada di negara ini terlebih dahulu, maka, merekalah (Melayu) yang sebenarnya pendatang! Kita dan Melayu adalah setaraf. Ini tanah air kita!
Most people forget, Hindus first forged the trail of this country 2500 years ago. The proof? Head to Lembah Bujang, the evidence is all there. There are many temples that have long been there.
If we were in this country earlier, then they [the Malays] are the real immigrants. We and the Malays are the same [EDIT: a better translation might be “the same level”]. This is our homeland.
Kula has vigorously contested Utusan‘s coverage, arguing instead that he was merely pointing out the long history of Indians in peninsular Malaysia, subsequently clarifying that he meant to apply the term to those who stir up racial hatreds, and finally apologizing and offering to withdraw the statement.
Whatever the facts of these particular comments are, Kula’s interpreted comments touch on core issues in Malaysian politics that are almost taboo in public discussion. Most of the online commentary and reaction focuses on the question of whether or not the fact that Hindus from the subcontinent were in Malaya for thousands of years somehow challenges Malay supremacy. But the taboo is not that: the taboo is suggesting that Malays themselves are immigrants, which is what pendatang [= immigrant] precisely means.
How could Malays, Malaysia’s titular ethnic group and one of the country’s “sons of the soil,” be immigrants? The answer is to realize that the term Malay has several uses: as a crude term for the “race” of people of island Southeast Asia; as a term that covers the ethnic group speaking one of the variants of the Malay language found in peninsular Malaysia, parts of Sumatra, and in parts of Borneo; and as a political category referring to the ethnic group living in peninsular Malaysia that is neither Chinese, nor Indian, nor “other” (Portuguese, Thai, orang asli, etc). These categories of usage overlap, and Malaysian politics has worked to elide the second and third understandings in particular. But the definition of Malay enshrined in the country’s constitution specifically does not mention land or territory, rather language and custom and religion.*
The question of why the constitution would not refer to land or place in defining what a Malay is requires further discussion, but the consequence is that the political category of Malay may legitimately encompasses the descendants of many peoples, not just those with “ancestral ties” to the Malay peninsula. The tension that follows is clear: “Malay supremacy” evokes and is justified by a relationship between people and place, but “Malay” as a political category does not require it.
That Malays today have a plural heritage is not a secret, nor is it politically problematic in and of itself.** But raising the issue of Malays as pendatang means questioning the indigeneity of the political category “Malay”, and with it the logic of enshrining Malay special rights on behalf of community whose members may have only lived in the country for a generation or two. Enshrining Malay special rights in the constitution is an act of politics—it was a political choice. And even talking about it tangentially is taboo precisely because since independence, Malaysian politics has attempted to erase the history of choice and the politics around it.