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The 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.

Mr. 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.

How 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?”

Actually, 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.

In 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.

Yet, 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 in Sarawak!
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.

Mr. 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.

Also, 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.

This 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.

There 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:

"The 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.

Sometimes, 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.”

So 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!

What 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”.

Of 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."

Of 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.

A 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 December 2003