Mar 20, 2018 Last Updated 7:10 AM, Mar 17, 2018

Reviving Malayness

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Minako Sakai

Reformasi and regional autonomy have created a popular expectation that power will be transferred from Indonesia’s centre to local people. The resurgence in interest and identification with Malay ethnicity is one example of this recent trend. Distinctively, the revival of ‘Malayness’ represents an outward looking or global approach to ethnicity. Some Malays are putting themselves forward as rivals to the previously dominant Javanese culture. Nevertheless, the progress of the Malay revival is limited by debate over who, in fact, are the real Malays.

Taman Mini Indah, a gigantic theme park on the outskirts of Jakarta, built by the late Mrs Suharto, typified the New Order government’s ideal for a diverse but unified Indonesia. The park displays traditional houses from each province spread across a model of the archipelago. Conspicuously absent from Taman Mini is a house or artifacts representing the Malays as a distinctive ethnic group.

‘Malay’ was often used to refer to the people of Riau, where the Malay language is believed to have originated. Yet ‘Malayness’ is a broad and inclusive ethnic category shared by numerous groups across Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo and Sumatra as well as Eastern Indonesia. For the New Order’s museum curators, the problem was that Malays could not be identified with one particular place in the archipelago.

Regional autonomy has given greater power to the provinces. With this, Malay identity has experienced a revival in various parts of the outer islands. For example, the Minangkabau, a West Sumatran ethnic group well known for their Padang cuisine and unique matrilineal practices, are beginning to emphasise their identity as Malays. The Minangkabau are widely regarded as having one of the most distinctive ethnic identities of all the suku bangsa (ethnic groups). So why have the Minangkabau and other ethnic groups suddenly started to claim Malay identity?

The Malay world

The upsurge in Malay ethnic consciousness presents an interesting contrast to the emphasis on local cultures seen in Indonesia after the introduction of regional autonomy. It is outward looking, and related to a regional resurgence in interest in the Malay world. A series of international conventions entitled ‘Malay World, Islamic World’ (Dunia Melayu Dunia Islam) are held annually in Melaka state in Malaysia, with the aim of bringing together politicians and business people from various Malay regions.

The first convention was held in October 2000 under the leadership of the State Minister of Melaka, Muhammad Ali Rustam. Each subsequent year more delegates have attended from various parts of the Malay world. Its organisers explain that the convention’s purpose is to create a meeting place for Malay people from various fields including culture and trade. When I interviewed Ali Rustam in February 2003, he argued the Malay people have been marginalised. They have been deprived of opportunities to progress and to develop their cultural heritage.

Rustam hopes to rectify this by recreating cultural and business networks across the Malay world. The state of Melaka invites various provincial governors from Indonesia and other countries with Malay communities, including Sri Lanka, Brunei and Madagascar to the conventions.

The definition of ‘Malay people’ used by convention organisers is inclusive and broad, with few concerns about any subtle local cultural differences. As long as people speak the Malay language and adhere to Islam as their religion, they are regarded as Malay.

Local ethnic politics

The impetus for renewed interest in Malay culture is distinctly local as well as regional. Attempts to unite Malay people across borders were discouraged during the New Order. After the fall of Suharto, provincial governors and other local politicians in Sumatra quickly recognised the Malay world initiative as potentially lucrative for business and political opportunities and collaborated with great enthusiasm.

Since 2001 the Sumatran provincial governors have allocated significant funding to run annual workshops to supplement Melaka’s convention.

In addition to the obvious economic and political benefits of having access to the extensive networks of the Malay world, there is another reason for this interest. Popular sentiment is that the New Order period was a time of Javanisation. The governors believe that upholding a distinctive local ethnicity, namely Malayness, will assist in creating a new cultural and political centre to rival Java. Such a cultural shift would also deliver more power to local politicians in those provinces.

Malizar Umar, a member of the West Sumatran Provincial Parliament is one such politician. A leading Minangkabau representative, in 2000 he established a cultural organisation called Movements of People Concerned about Malay Culture. They held academic seminars as well as a Malay cultural festival in the city of Padang in 2002 and 2003.

In an interview in April 2002, Umar stressed the point that ‘wider networks with Malay people are essential for the Minangkabau, as Minangkabau is a narrow local ethnicity, and at the time of regional autonomy we will have to create a new network.’

Riau and the Malay identity

However, this popular support is not evident in all of Sumatra’s provinces. In contrast to the inclusive definition of Malay identity supported by the Melaka convention and Minagkabau politicians, the people of Riau maintain an exclusive understanding of who is Malay. They regard Riau as the heartland of the Malay culture. Yet Riau has not played a central role in the recent resurgence in Malay culture evident in other parts of Sumatra.

A crucial factor in this is the large number of Minangkabau migrants living in Riau’s capital, Pekanbaru, who dominate its economy. Malizar Umar explains that for the people of Riau to admit that the Minangkabau are ‘Malays’ would threaten their position in the province. The Riau Malays fear this could lead to Minangkabau cultural dominance in Riau (see box).

Ethnicity and regional autonomy

Regional autonomy means that Jakarta is no longer the unquestioned cultural and political centre of Indonesia. People can now challenge the old ethnic roles. In some cases this has allowed for greater fluidity across ethnic identities. Elsewhere, ethnicity has become more rigid. The renewed interest in Malay identity and conflicting perceptions of who is Malay and what it means to be Malay, clearly demonstrates that ethnicity is not fixed. ‘Malayness’ is, for many, also a political and economic choice.

It may be only natural for local elites to seek a means of boosting their popular support. Conflict between global and local interpretations of ‘Malayness’, however, continues to cause problems for those ambitious politicians. A dominant Malay culture in Indonesia, or the region, seems some way off.

Minako Sakai ( is a Senior Lecturer in Indonesian Studies, University of New South Wales at ADFA.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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