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20 april 2010 08:19 Unifying Malay Diasporians across the World Unifying Malay Diasporians across the World

By Mahyudin Al Mudra

A. Introduction

Malay people are diasporic. For generations, they were known as tough sailors keen on travelling to various places, particularly for trading. Sailorship and commerce were characteristics of Malay culture (Siti Nur Hidayah, 2008). The Buginese/Macassarese were recognized as courageous sea voyagers. So were the Acehnese and Malaccans with their broad commercial networks. A combination of mental and physical strengths as well as Malay people’s sociable personality made assimilation efforts in their mission of diaspora went easily and smoothly.

The term “diaspora” derived from Ancient Greek word “diasperien”. The term contains two elements, namely “dia” which means “across” or “spreading”, and “sperien”, meaning “to plant seeds”. The word “diaspora”, therefore, can be used to refer to people, inhabitants, ethnic groups, or communities that have left their homeland to occupy a new area (Anita Mannur in Braziel [eds.], 2003). Diasporians’ worldwide dispersion, including that of Malays, added up to variations of new cultures or civilizations. The new cultures are blends of the diasporian native culture and the local culture of the new places. 

Malay sailors’ diasporic journeys were important in the efforts of spreading Malay culture. Their traces are obviously evident across the region of Southeast Asia, South Asia, or even African Continent. Malay culture marks in the lands out of Malay archipelago are confirmation of how diaspora will be an effective means to introduce and to assimilate Malay culture into everyday life. Furthermore, Malay diaspora has proven that Malay people are not homogenous and exclusive. The people have a great civilization and are open to any culture with all its diversity.

B. Diasporic Dissemination of Malay People

Malay people’s ancestors were nomadic sailors. Their sturdiness is reflected by the width of the routes of their diaspora, spanning from Riau, Malay Peninsula, Luzon Island, Maluku Archipelago, West Coast of Java, Southeast Asian Region, even to India, Madagascar, and South Africa. It is not surprising that in culture and civilization of the places where Malay sailors once called at or dwelled in, there still remain Malay elements.

Before Europeans arrived at Malay lands, Malay sailors had established commercial relationships with merchants from other countries such as India, China, the Middle East, and Africa. Their relationship with Indian merchants, for example, had been started since the 3rd century. It is alleged that by then, there were already a lot of Malays in India who came for trading. They were skilled sailors well-known for their fortitude and courage.

The connection resulted in a concrete implication on the people. In the 5th century, Hindu and Buddha teachings that originally came from India (and China) burgeoned in a number of places in Malay archipelago. Kutai Kingdom in Kalimantan as well as Amaravati-styled Buddhist statues in various places in Sulawesi, Java, and Sumatra show Hindu-Buddha cultural influence across the region, which was flourishing quite significantly during the century (D.G.E. Hall, 1988).  

Global networks Malay established by diasporians are evident as it was found facts for it. There were many Malay kingdoms working out cooperation with foreign kingdoms, either in commerce, education, culture, or politics. Such diplomatic relationships could possibly be categorized as a diaspora as well, because it was likely that the kingdoms’ men or Malay merchants mingled with the natives during their visits to the foreign lands. They might marry native people and stay to have a family there.

One of Malay kingdoms that had close connections with foreign countries was Samudera Pasai Sultanate which is known as the first Islamic kingdom in Indonesia. The sultanate was founded in Aceh by Sultan Malik Al-Salih in 1297 A.D. upon the remnants of Hindu-Buddha civilization (Rusdi Sufi & Agus Budi Wibowo, 2006).  Before enthroned as Sultan of Samudera Pasai, Malik Al-Salih, whose name before was Marah Silu, was a Hindu. Throughout its history, Samudera Pasai Sultanate set up diplomatic relations with various countries across the world, including China, Mongolia, India, the Middle East, and Egypt (Muhammad Gade Ismail, 1997).

In addition to commerce and international diplomatic relations, other factors that initiated Malay diaspora were wars and European colonialism and imperialism. One example is the arrival of Malay people in South Africa circa 15th century, precisely in Cape Town which used to be known as the Cape of Good Hope. Malay diaspora in Cape Town is one of the implications of European imperialism in Malay archipelago. The Dutch then made Cape Town a place for exile for inlanders/Malay people who refused to bend down.

Syeikh Yusuf Makassar, a famous ulema from Gowa, South Sulawesi, for instance, was evicted to Cape Town by the Dutch. Syeikh Yusuf was an important man behind the greatness of the Sultanate of Banten under the reign of Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa (1651-1683). In July 1693, Syeikh Yusuf and his 49 adherents arrived at South Africa by the “de Voetboog” ship. At the beginning, they were placed in Zandvliet (Madagascar). Soon afterward, Syeikh Yusuf started to teach Islam and founded a Muslim community in Cape Town. By western writers, the community is called as the Slammajer people (Abu Hamid, 1994). Up to these days, the name Syeikh Yusuf, who was originally a Malay, is still remembered and spoken of by writers when they are talking about the history and flourishing of Islam in South Africa.

In 1780, it was Imam Abdullah bin Qadi Abdus Salaam, an ulema from Tidore Sultanate more famously known as Tuan Guru (Lord Teacher), who was excluded to Cape Town. Tuan Guru was detained in Robben Island for 13 years before moved to Cape Town. Despite being a prisoner, Tuan Guru managed to take up Syeikh Yusuf’s efforts to spread Islam in South Africa (Bunyamin Marasabessy, 2005).

There is strong evidence for the arrival of Malay people in South Africa. At least there are 350 Malay words still in use in Cape Town, among them are minta maaf (to ask for apologize), terama kasie (thank you), sembahyang (to pray), wagtoe (time), labarang (Lebaran/Eid ul-Fitri), badjoe (shirt), and tusok konde (hair pin). Moreover, Malay customs and traditions such as cutting babies’ hair, burying dead bodies, and praying for dead persons after 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, and 100 days of their death still prevail in Cape Town’s daily life just as they are practiced by Malay people.

Muslim community, or Malay community, in South Africa still exist today, inhabiting an area that is known as Kampung Makassar (Macassar), which is the homeland of Syeikh Yusuf (Gowa, Macassar, South Sulawesi). The number of Muslim Malay descendants in Cape Town reaches 800 thousand out of total 3,27 million population (

Malay tradition and words also color the people’s life in Cham (Champa). Cham is the name of a kingdom that used to rule the southern part of Vietnam. Presumably, the Chams once had contacts with Acehnese-Malay people (Mohamed Effendy bin Abdul Hamid, 2009). Graham Thurgood, for instance, believes that there was a close relation between Acehnese language and Cham language. For this matter, Thurgood quotes works that studies resemblances between Acehnese epic poem and Cham poetry (Graham Thurgood, 1999).

The inevitable effects of Malay diaspora in foreign lands, and on the contrary, visits of foreign people to Malay region, are their cultural influence and footprints of civilization that still prevail in the respective areas. Hindu-Buddha influence on Malay society can still be seen nowadays in traditional ceremonies, architecture, and Malay language. Some of the Malays that still embrace Hindu-Buddha live in some countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, it is also natural to see that Malay culture and tradition prevail in other places as those in the most parts of Indonesia, Malacca Peninsula, South East Asia Region, South Asia, up to South Africa and various other places.

C. Malay Diaspora: Evidence of Malay People Diversity

Admittedly or not, there has been a mistaken notion in the study of Malayness, as it is often identified through narrow comprehension that results in partial understandings. The term Malay is mostly studied through a certain perspective—done even by Malay scholars and people themselves—and always defined using certain linguistic, political, geographic, ethnic, and religious categorizations (Mahyudin Al Mudra [a], 2008). It is misinterpretation of the meaning of Malayness such as this that could actually erode Malay greatness.

This narrow-mindedness is even more apparent with the sense of exclusivity of a certain group of people. Such view in fact compartmentalizes and puts Malay groups in separate categories. Malayness is not viewed holistically anymore. Instead, it is understood subjectively in favor of some group of people that believe they are the ones who deserve to be called the real Malay descendants.

Claim on “the real Malay” status that is developed in the last several years will not bring back Malay’s greatness. It could sink Malay culture to the darkest depths of the world’s civilization instead. Indonesians, for example, thinks that Riau is the origin of Malayo-Indonesian people. Riau is an area that since 2004 has become two provinces that are Riau and Riau Islands (Heddy Shri Ahimsa-Putra, 2007).

Such kind of claim also appears in a wider scope that it caused a “dispute” between two Malay nations. This problem has seemingly gone into a province where the real identity of the two nations actually lies, i.e. their identity as parts of nobly-cultured and highly-civilized Malay ethnic group.

The concept of Malayness many people believe is that a person can only be considered as Malay if he lives in Malay region, speaks Malay language, practice Malay traditions, and adheres to Islam. Malay people’s view of life then becomes identical with Islamic view of life, constituting the worldly and heavenly views taught in Islam (Suwardi, 1991). There, hence, comes up a notion saying that one of the “requirements” to be Malay is embracing Islam. If a person converts to Islam, he becomes Malay.

The misunderstanding of Malayness might likely be a legacy of colonial hegemony. Eurocentrism injected for centuries has made people see Malayness from European standpoint. Even Malay people themselves, from generation to generation, have been drifted along and caught in the middle of the big twist of eurocentrism (Al Mudra [b], 2008). The paradigm that says to be a Malay, one must be a Muslim, is apparently rooted from a colonial dogma that was created to distinguish and draw a separating line between the European and the native, that all native people (read: the Malays) were Muslim and different from Europeans who were mostly Christian.

Basically, the notion of Malayness is not as narrow as what has been understood all this time. Malay people do not fall into nation-state based categorization (Halimi, 2008). As great people, the Malays have a kind of rich cross-ethnical networks. They are not an exclusive group that shuts their eyes and hearts to global life. They are receptive people that uphold the spirit of pluralism, that consider good relationship and tolerance as most important in life. The Malays assimilate themselves into inter-ethnical marriages and also practice their customs and traditions consciously and continually (Tengku HM Lah Husny, 1975).

Argument on Malay identity should actually be over after the founding of data and facts about Malay diaspora. The existence of Malay communities in various places out of Malay Peninsula, either those who are no longer present or those who still exist until today, should be able to clearly seal the misunderstanding that was believed to be true, by implying that Malayness can no longer be compartmentalized in a certain narrow perspective either linguistic, politic, geographic, ethnic or religious. Malay people are an entity whom would be more accurate and fair if observed from a broad and egalitarian cultural point of view.

D. MelayuOnline Unifies Malay Diasporians All over the World

Malay civilization is dynamic. Malay people have been living side by side with modernization. Yet, they are still longing for a Malay world in a more modern and technologically up-to-date form. Therefore, building Malay does no longer only mean building Malay lands. It is more about building Malay people so that they can get all the glory, being productive and successful Malays that are capable of bearing responsibilities and dealing with life without depending on other people.

As life keeps up of the times, a real action is important in order to collect and arrange Malay mosaics that have been scattered. For that reason, on Muharram 1, 1428 Hijri or January 20, 2007, was officially founded by the Center for Malay Culture Studies and Development (BKPBM) in Yogyakarta. This portal is world’s most comprehensive database about Malay world. The presence of is none but a concrete effort to revive inheritances and values of Malay culture that have been wearing off day to day as a consequence of Malay people’s life that is getting more modern (Al Mudra, 2007).

Cultural works done by’s crews is a never ending process. The resistance of the site to eurocentrism is manifested by digging, keeping, preserving, developing and publicizing, systematically and comprehensively, all information about Malay harnessing cyber media with the purpose of changing world’s opinion about Malayness that has been shaped by eurocentrism hegemony. Furthermore, also tries to reconstruct people’s paradigm to redefine Malay holistically, not exclusively as what has usually done (Al Mudra [b], 2008).

To unify Malay communities scattered all over the world, as a consequence of Malay diaspora centuries ago, is an objective also takes. The portal is considered as having a reliable capability to intensify the connection between Malay communities around the planet. Malay according to’s version is Malay as a culture, not as a tribe, ethnic group, or other narrow cultural entities.

Malay in the site’s version is interpreted as any place, community, group of people, and area in any part of the world that still or once did practice Malay customs and traditions. Historically, Malay culture that has been shared for centuries is not at all a genealogical bond. It is more like cultural bond that is tightly connected with the process of Malay diaspora as seen in the fact that there remain many Malay communities in areas that were destinations of Malay diaspora.

The Malay diasporians who do not live in Malay world now can easily get to know, refresh their knowledge, learn, and delve into everything about Malay whose information was certainly difficult to obtain before establishment. The menus of reflect how rich Malay culture is. This new paradigm is how Malayness is seen through Malay people’s own perspective. The paradigm of Malayness that offers is a wide, diverse, and objective perspective that is constituted in the portal’s systematic, comprehensive, and scientific structure.

Important aspects of Malayness such as history, culture, literature, language, figure, researcher, agenda of activity, etc. are classified in a structure that shows Malay history and culture is rich of scientific treasures. The structure depicts the glory of Malay history and culture that is displayed in a media that uses state-of-the-art technology.

As the biggest and the most comprehensive database amongst other sites of the ilk, is accessible for Malay communities around the world. Moreover, also has wide and strong networks covering many countries at international level. Thus, it is now clear that the site has a great potential to take a role as a medium in the efforts of unifying Malay all over the world.

E. Conclusion

Since centuries ago, Malay people have been known as adventurous and courageous. The Malays are diasporic people consisting of tough and very brave sailors. Malay diasporians liked to cruise over seas and visit other countries, especially in the purpose of building commercial networks. Aside from being a consequence of the people’s commercial activity, Malay diaspora was also caused by other factors such as diplomatic relation between kingdoms/nation, war, and European colonialism and imperialism.

Malay diasporians brought culture to their destination countries that would later be their residences. In the new countries, they mingled with the indigenous people. The contact of the two different cultures would at last result in a new culture which contains Malay cultural values. Until today, Malay culture can be found in all areas across the Malay Archipelago, Southeast Asian region, South Asia, even in Madagascar and South Africa.

However, there are still many people, even Malay people themselves, who do not know the fact that Malay culture has spread to various places. This peculiarity is likely a result of the dogma that was continuously injected by the European colonial. Eurocentrism hegemony has created some misleading paradigm, categorizing Malay as those who live in Malay world, speak Malay language, practice Malay customs and traditions, and embrace Islam. In other words, European’s dogma has broken Malay people up and compartmentalized them in stupefying and weakening partitions. Ironically, such false understanding is also adhered by most of Malay people.

The fact that there are found Malay elements in places out of Malay world, which are the positive implications of Malay diaspora, ought to fix eurocentric false understanding about Malay identity. With Malay elements found in various places, including in South Africa, it should be evident that the Malays are not people oblivious of pluralism and diversity. Malay people do not have to live in Malay world or be Muslim. Malayness can no longer be partitioned in narrow views that in fact can shrink Malay greatness.

It would be better for Malay communities all around the world to unite in a cohesive frame to revive the glory of Malay civilization as what has been long dreamed. For that reason, exists in virtual world as a means that has great potential to unify the dispersed Malay diasporians. The site’s credibility as the biggest and most comprehensive database of Malay world and Malayness has been recognized by many people who work in the relevant field.

It is hoped that can really do its best to meet the expectation and always get supports from various parties in order to unite Malay communities. When Malay communities all over the world united, it is not impossible that Malay glory in the past will be resurrected.


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Mahyudin Al Mudra, SH, MM, Founder and Head of the Center for Malay Culture Studies and Development (BKPBM), General Chief and Chief Editor of

This article is a paper that was delivered in the workshop Revisiting Malay Diaspora for Malay World Networking on January 20, 2010, in the Center for Malay Culture Studies and Development (BKPBM), Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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