Malay heart wishes to embrace the mountain, but the arms are too short’
Portrait of a Sri Lankan Malay by B.D.K. Saldin Reviewed by Carl Muller
It was Shakespeare who asked: "Tell me where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?" This is the question that B.D.K. Saldin also seems to pose in his book, 'Portrait of a Sri Lankan Malay'. I have to be pleased with the title. 'Sri Lankan' is what I have long pitched for in relation to my own community. Sri Lankan Burghers – that is what we are – just as the Sri Lankan Malay doesn't insist that he is a Sarawak Malay, or a Sabah Malay or a Johore Malay.
Saldin's preface also deals with this seeming confusion between Malays and
Moors, and he tells us that “the only similarity between a Malay and a Moor is
their religion, which is Islam”. As I dipped into the book I was at first
struck by the manner in which the older generations of Malays in this island
(and that could include the author too) had to relate to politics, economics and
to the Malay mind. An on-going process of change for better or worse has baffled
the mind – any mind – born into and brought up in steeped traditions and a
restrictive environment. We see how well the author tries to understand and
re-adjust to these new boundaries and, possibly, opportunities.
can I put it? It is the shift from kampung to condominium that can destabilize
the traditional sense of both space and time. It is relevant at this point to
also try, in my own way, to answer the question: "Who are the Malays?”
this can be a most complex question that has received some most curious answers
– for in different contexts, the term "Malay" has multiple meanings.
The average Sri Lankan will say that the Malays captured Saradiel and just
imagine, Prince Moggallana brought in a strong force from Malaya for his
showdown with Kassapa (so Paranavitane tells us). But taking a wide social and
cultural definition, "Malay" refers to an extremely large ethnic stock
over a wide area of the Earth's surface – from the Malay Archipelago and
moving westward to South Africa.
Malaya today, a good Malay friend tells me, a Malay is a person who (a)
professes the Muslim religion; (b) habitually speaks Malay; and (c) conforms to
Malay customs. This can be most flexible. It could mean that any non-Malay who
converts to Islam and speaks Malay and observes Malay customs, can be a Malay.
this is the definition of Malaya's Federal Constitution although there is no
such flexibility in Sarawak where a Malay is only a Malay if he or she is born
All this is putting me in a stew, to let me simply add that what we see of the Malays, the whole Malay race from as far away as the Philippines to Malaya, Sri Lanka and South Africa, is the form of their language.
Saldin has not tried to analyse or give us an in-depth treatise on the Malay
mind, but he has given us extremely valuable information on the origins of the
Sri Lankan Malay. For instance, the Dutch exiled many trouble makers from Java.
into this island came Indonesians from Sumatra, the Mollucas, Madura and Tidore.
These people all spoke Malay but, as the author says, they were "Ja
minissu"- not Malays. However, the British found here a Malay-speaking
community and dubbed them Malays. Later, the British did bring in true Malays to
their Malay Regiment but the terminological error has stayed. Everyone
considered only Java when thinking of the old Dutch East Indies - and the author
insists that it is also most reprehensible to keep grouping Moors and Malays as
"Muslims" in Sri Lanka. The correct method, ethnically and not
according to religious groups, would be to recognize Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors,
Malays and Burghers.
particular chapter makes fascinating reading. Tell you more? Fat hope! Read it
yourself! I am reviewing this book in order to whet your appetite - and if you
read it, it tells you what many have never cared to know. The Malay in this
country is unique. The most important ingredients are Agama and Adat – faith
and tradition. While Islam is the foundation of his spirituality, customs
regulate his social life. You will find that customs, cultural beliefs,
practices, and even superstitions are even confused with religious edicts.
are marriage rites; and one thing stands out: cultural requirements are strictly
observed as if they are a part of religion. We are also reminded of Taqwa -
faith in Allah; Takdir - fate; Tawakkal - submission to fate; and Ta'at -
loyalty. What is of significance is the realization that, to the Malay, being
pious in life is not just a necessity. He considers it an honour, a privilege, a
special gift. We see all this in Mr. Saldin's story of his immediate ancestors.
Consider this excerpt:
Malays were fond of making vows for each and every desire, from recovering from
an illness to achieving success at an examination. The modus operandi is to
invoke the assistance of a saint and vow that if one's wishes are fulfilled, one
would visit the shrine of that particular saint or give a Mowlood, etc. It was
believed that dire consequences would follow the nonrepayment of a vow. I have
known instances where the vows were so numerous that it took a lifetime for a
person to repay all the vows he had made; so that whatever pecuniary gains he
had made all had to be spent on repaying the vows and he was no better off.
when a function has been fixed and it threatened to rain, black ants were fed
with sugar, with invocations to the deities to keep the rain away. To us in this
enlightened age, all these may sound frivolous, but to the people of that era it
was deadly serious.”
we progress, from "evil eye" to talismans, even "witch
doctors", to the anglicisation of Malay names, a cure for lockjaw. There is
so much to enlighten us too. The Malay sirikaya (which the Moors call
wattalappan) is a pure Malay dish! To meet someone with a full pot of water when
setting out on a journey is a good omen. When setting out from home, one must
say ‘se as pi anti datang’ (I shall go and come – emphasis on
"come" because to simply "go" is to leave the world!
stands as a lesson to us all is, as we see, the Malay's high priority on loyalty
and particularly in filial obligations to their elders. Even friendships are
deeply rooted in moral values. Above all, we will find clues galore to the
typical Malay character of gentility, thankfulness, contentment, compromise and
tolerance. It does not mean that the Malay adopts a sort of Mexican manana
"tomorrow culture" but there are also undertones such as “why worry?
everything is predetermined”.
the Malay girl's coming of age, he says there is the greatest similarity with
Sinhala customs, and adds: "The forces of westernization that swept over
Sri Lanka in the Twenties of the last century affected all ethnic groups. In the
west, demarche is taken as a matter of course and, apart from a girl's immediate
family, no one is aware that a girl has reached, womanhood. In the east, where
marriages are arranged, it is necessary to inform the neighbourhood that a girl
is available for marriage. Due to the acceptance of western concepts, growing up
ceremonies among the Malays have now become obsolete."
circumcision, he also says: "Modern Malays have jettisoned those traditions
of circumcising a boy at the age of seven and circumcise their sons at birth.
Some aver that this practice only looks after the physical aspect but totally
ignores the spiritual."
Mr. Saldin has, with great striving and in excellent mettle, given this country something precious in that we can now truly understand the Malay and be ever so glad that he is part of this island. Theirs is a disciplined community and they have contributed much – very much to the life of this island. In today's unsightly maps of ethnic tension, we find the Malays standing unfazed, yet ready by their own way of life to show us how we can all live together in peace.
Malay neighbour once told me of an old saying: “Rasa hati nak peluk gunnung;
apaka daya tangan tak sampai.” Literally, this means: "The heart wishes
to embrace the mountain, but the arms are too short." This book certainly
lengthens the Malay arms! Embrace now the mountain, hold it steady, let it not
fall and in so doing, spread its ruinous rubble of corrosive ethnic hatred and
greed that will one day make this a land unforgiven by God.—Sunday Times 21