Masturah Alatas: “What is Malay civilisation and why call it a civilisation?”

By Masturah Alatas

Over the years and not just recently, I have come across Malaysians of both scholarly and lay persuasion attempting to make a case for “the Malay civilisation” in their writings and social media conversations. Often, a picture of Malay men doing silat (a form of martial arts from the Nusantara) accompanies these articles, as if silat (and men) is what best represents Malay civilisation.

This does invite a challenging question, though. Exactly what iconic image could one really use to represent Malay civilisation? Would it hold up to Walter Benjamin’s thesis that “there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”? His words hold true, for when we look at the Colosseum, we don’t just see a masterpiece of ancient engineering and a symbol of an old and powerful civilisation. We also remember the brutality that humans did to humans and animals in that very structure. The same can be said of writing. Writing can evoke all the mellifluous music of poetry, but writing can also be a call to infamy.

The notion of a Malay civilisation would all be good and fine if we were given a clear sense of what definition of civilisation Malay civilisation proponents are adhering to. A Malay definition? A Western definition? One of the Malay words for civilisation is tamadun, a loan word from Arabic. But how do Malays define Malay civilisation? Is there a body of Malay literature on the topic comparable to the works of Ibn Khaldun or Fernand Braudel or Romila Thapar? When we are using a big word like civilisation to talk about a big and slippery thing like civilisation, it doesn’t help to think big when the resources are small.

Civilisations come and go, rise and fall, they have their glory moments and their gory moments, they transform all the time. We have the Etruscan civilisation, the Amazigh civilisation, the Aztec civilisation and so on. Can we call everything a civilisation? Yes, why not, because the second we ask the question we start to think of achievements and contributions that have lasted over time and that give peoples their strong identity. Who gave the Malays, or if you prefer the Malay world, their monuments, their written language, their religion, their technology, their political system, their laws? What great contributions did the Malays give? When we attempt to answer these questions we inevitably have to talk about the influence of the civilisations of India, China, and the Islamic and European nations on the so-called Malay civilisation the way ibn Battuta did in his writings about Southeast Asia.

But it does not seem to me that those arguing for the Malay civilisation are doing so in the spirit of rigorous intellectual exploration and creativity so that we can better understand our own history; the way some scholars, when they write about the Mediterranean civilisations, don’t just privilege the Romans but also the Phoenicians, the Ottomans and many others.

The notion of a Malay civilisation would all be good and fine if we were given a clear sense of what definition of civilisation Malay civilisation proponents are adhering to. A Malay definition? A Western definition?

– Masturah Alatas

These Malay civilisation people speak of scholarly “biases” that favour India and China when talking about influences that shaped Southeast Asian civilisations, but they don’t mention Islam as a bias too. And if you don’t want to consider Islam as a bias because we agree that Islam also had a fundamental role in shaping Southeast Asia’s history, then a closer look at Southeast Asian Islam brings us back to India, Persia, Yemen and so on. So, once again, the case for a kind of purist, autochthonous “Malay” civilisation falls apart.

I, personally, become uncomfortable when I see attempts to replace old Jesuit geopolitical nomenclatures like “Indo-China” with another one like “Sino-Malay”. What happened to India in this configuration? Have we forgotten the origins of the Borobudur and the Angkor Wat, two of Southeast Asia’s greatest monuments? Can we not come up with a better, more socially and historically accurate term than Sino-Malay to talk about Southeast Asian civilisation? Even the word Nusantara has not expunged itself from its associations and roots to Indian civilisation.

Nusantara is a lovely Sanskrit word to refer to Southeast Asia, the way the word Mediterranean refers to that unique basin that bathes the shores of three continents—Africa, Europe and Asia. The word Mediterranean evokes cosmopolitanism, as should the word Nusantara, and not just one ethnicity. But for Nusantara to acquire this inclusive meaning, it really depends on who is using it and how. If people with the wrong agenda or a skewed vision of history use the word Nusantara, it will drive people away from using it; and a chance to write history with new vocabulary will be missed.

These Malay civilisation people speak of scholarly “biases” that favour India and China when talking about influences that shaped Southeast Asian civilisations, but they don’t mention Islam as a bias too. And if you don’t want to consider Islam as a bias because we agree that Islam also had a fundamental role in shaping Southeast Asia’s history, then a closer look at Southeast Asian Islam brings us back to India, Persia, Yemen and so on. So, once again, the case for a kind of purist, autochthonous “Malay” civilisation falls apart.

– Masturah Alatas

When Filipino national hero José Rizal was referred to as “pride of the Malay race”, Filipinos understood the term “Malay race” very differently from the way many Malaysians understand the same term today. The “Malay world” of Joseph Conrad and other writers was not just the world of the Malay ethnicity. The “natives” in the book The Myth of the Lazy Native weren’t just the Malays but also the Filipinos, Javanese and indigenous peoples who all fell under the prejudices of colonialists. In English, to be a native of a country or a city does not just refer to one ethnicity. A native Londoner could be of English as much as of Pakistani origin.

Also in Italy, many speak of the civiltà italiana (Italian civilisation). There is a whole building in Rome that is called the edifice of Italian civilisation. And it is perhaps no accident that it was built during Fascist times. On the building, one can find rhetoric to the virtues and values of the Italian people who built Italy—hard work, heroism, philosophy, trade, beauty, science and inventiveness are just some of them. But there is always this sense that only a certain type of Italian embodies these values.

Alternative, revisionist narratives are fine if old narratives are replaced by something better. But when political agendas and personal chauvinisms are revealed in revisionist intellectual and creative work, very often the first casualty is the work itself. And surely we cannot continue to blame the West or colonialism for our own intellectual follies. Because today, it is not the West dictating to us how we should write our own history.

About the author

Masturah Alatas worked as a reporter for The Star newspaper in Malaysia before moving to Italy in 1992. She is the author of The Girl Who Made It Snow In Singapore (Singapore: Ethos Books 2008) and The Life in the Writing (Marshall Cavendish, 2010), a memoir-biography about her late father, famed sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas. She is one of several writers around the world along with Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh and Susan Abulhawa to be included in the anthology Will The Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change (LeftWord Books, 2017). She teaches English language at the University of Macerata, Italy, where she has been living for close to three decades. She has also published essays and short fiction in Italian, making her the first Malaysian to write and publish in that language.