Hidden Nusantara: Malay in Singapore

by on September 1, 2015

Among Singaporeans, and some in the wider world, it is well known that Malays, and Malay speakers, make up around 14% of the population of this tiny island state. Many also know that Malay is the country’s national language, as well as one of the four official languages. What is less well known, however, is the rich history of the “Malay” communities that came together to make a better life for themselves, and how that has contributed to and moulded the contours of the Malay language spoken in Singapore.

These speakers of Malayic and other Austronesian languages, a language family with speakers in island Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Polynesia, and Madagascar, came from all corners of the Malay Archipelago, bringing with them their ancestral languages. Unfortunately, much of this was shed in the process of Malayisation—the taking on of the Malay culture and language by these different communities that took place as Singapore developed a national identity of its own.

The resulting complex interplay between ethnic identity and language means that little bits of Javanese or Minangkabau, among others, pop up ever so often in the speech of Malay speakers on this island including mine, for now. But this situation is fast changing. As Singapore approaches its 50th birthday, it certainly would be a worthwhile endeavour for new generations to explore these traces of the different port that Singapore once was, unearthing the region’s hidden history before it disappears forever

A word of caution before we proceed: I’ll be making references to the concept of race in this piece as it is used in the Singaporean and Malaysian context. Even though the mere definition of such a concept is often hotly contested, I have found it useful to convey the sociopolitical context behind its usage and the attitudes that underpin its use.

Unity in diversity

The Malay Archipelago, or Nusantara in Javanese, is a vast region, stretching from Aceh in the West to the Nusa Tenggara islands in the East, and encompassing diverse peoples who differ in language, religion, and ethnicity. Major ethnic groups include the Javanese, who inhabit the fertile island of Java, the Minangkabau, who originate from the Minangkabau Highlands near Padang in Sumatra, the Banjar who live on the Southeastern corner of Borneo, and the Bugis, seafarers who ply the seas from their base in Sulawesi. All speak various mutually unintelligible Austronesian languages.

Amidst this multiplicity of peoples, however, there was once some sense of belonging to a greater and all-encompassing Malay ‘race’, in part brought about by the pervading lingua franca of Malay, which was used as a trading language across the archipelago. This incipient racial identity, which traversed ethnic affiliation, began to develop around the time of the rise of the Malaccan empire, the foremost economic power in 14th century island Southeast Asia, which sent its traders searching for valuable spices and goods and in doing so spread its culture and ideas around the region. This identity was reinforced with the coming of the European colonial powers like the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, as the locals pitted themselves against the newcomers who sought to wrest the riches of the spice trade for themselves.

The subsuming of the South East Asian identities into a single pan-Malay identity was taken much further in Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore), which became a popular destination for migrants from other parts of Nusantara when it came under British colonial rule in the 18th and 19th century. Their policy of free trade meant that Malaya quickly became prosperous, and people seeking to make a living for themselves flocked to the cities of the colony, including Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

While initially these communities considered themselves distinct from each other, as the years went by, the similarities in customs and contexts meant that they began to see themselves as Malay instead. Important examples of these would be the Minangkabau community which settled and assimilated in Negeri Sembilan (a state in the south of the peninsula) and the Bugis who intermarried into the royal family of Johor state (also in the south), leaving behind mostly people who identified as “Malays” on the Peninsula and in Singapore.

Being “Malay” in Singapore

One peculiarity that has usually vexed my foreign friends when they ask about life in Singapore is that we carry identification cards which state the “race” that we belong to. Most Singaporeans would identify as Chinese, Indian, Malay, or the amorphous Other, which is a catch-all term for those who don’t consider themselves any of the former. There was a time, however, when other so-called races would be reflected on such cards. As a case in point, while I am classified as Malay along with my father, my mother is stated to be Javanese, and there a few others in her generation that identify with their historical communities. Indeed, at present, you would be hard pressed to find anyone my age in Singapore who is officially Javanese or Bugis or the like.

However, even though I identify as being racially Malay and speak the Malay language, my daily speech is peppered with Javanese words, something even I myself was not initially aware of. This was only highlighted to me when I asked a question with the word ko (pronounced similar to ‘coke’ but with a glottal stop at the end), instead of the Malay kenapa, or ‘why’. My Malay-speaking friend asked what the word meant, and I was supremely puzzled before I realised that he didn’t use the word in his own daily speech.

This led me to begin examining the other words I used, to determine which were passed down to my own usage because of my Javanese ancestors, and it didn’t take me long to find other words which were in frequent use within my own family but not in many others. For instance, I call an older aunt or uncle wak (Malay: makcik or pakcik), drink some wedang on a cool day (Malay: minuman panas), welcome dayo to my house on festival days (Malay: tetamu), and praise a child for being anteng and not kicking up a fuss (Malay: diam).

These colloquialisms are the only vestiges of my Javanese past, as I otherwise only follow Malay customs and cultural traditions, and it was interesting to note that of all that was Javanese about my family, only some isolated words were retained to this day (in other words, in terms of language, only my vocabulary was affected by my ethnic origins, not my syntax or pronunciation).

I was soon to find out that such a phenomenon was not only unique to my family, but also to other Malay families who were descendants of other ethnic groups from the Nusantara. Some friends had Boyan blood in them, a group of people who came from the island of Bawean in the Java Sea. They called their older aunts or uncles obek, complained of the heat if it was too ojeng (Malay: panas), and complimented gege girls who caught the hearts of many a lonely boy (Malay: cantik).

It is likely that this is a feature common throughout other Malay families who trace their descent through migrants from other parts of the Nusantara, and there in reality exists not just one Malay speaking community, but many unique Javanese- or Minangkabau- or Bugis-infused Malay speaking communities throughout Singapore. Thus, while outsiders may see the Malays as one monolithic community, an examination of their patterns of speaking sheds light on a diverse group of different communities that came together to contribute to Singapore’s growth and rich history.

Singapore’s Malay entertainment scene in the yesteryears is perhaps the most evident example of such diversity. While there were numerous Malay language groups and songs produced in the 1960s and 1970s, some artistes also managed to popularise songs which were in other languages such as Boyan or Minangkabau. Kassim Selamat and the Swallows were particularly successful, producing many songs sung in Boyan such as “La O Be” (Things Have Changed)  and “Nga Lompak Ago Go” (Dancing the Ago Go), aside from their Malay language staples. Anita Sarawak, who became famous in the early 1970s, also produced a traditional Minangkabau song, “Ayam Den Lapeh” (My Chickens Have Fled). The presence of these songs at that time underscored the fact that there were still a lot of people who could understand what they were singing to a very large degree, and who could thus appreciate that Malay could coexist with other languages from the Nusantara in Singapore.

Unity over diversity

Unfortunately, as Singapore progressed through the years, administrative structures have become more and more institutionalised, with formal education having the starkest effect on the use of these other languages. Out of the languages that were described earlier, only Malay has had the state’s backing due to it being our national language and one of the four official languages, and the only language presently taught to children who classify under “Malay” in schools. Malay has also had a monopoly on all forms of mass communication and media within the community, which has made it all the harder for the other languages to preserve a critical mass of speakers in Singapore. As such, Javanese and Boyan, inter alia, have begun to fall by the wayside, being forgotten by the younger generations, and have only been kept afloat by tenacious elders who continue to make efforts to speak to their children informally in their ancestral tongue.

The changes in the linguistic profile of Singapore’s Malay community reflect the social developments that have affected Singapore since it gained its independence 50 years ago, as the various sub-communities were rationalised into a larger and more monolithic group (this has also affected the Chinese Singaporeans, who have replaced “Chinese dialects” such as Hokkien and Cantonese with Mandarin). This was done as a result of the shaping of Singapore’s national identity, so that its peoples could put aside their differences and come closer together.

In this regard, the process of Malayisation has been inexorable, leaving only smidgens of words that are vestiges of a past long forgotten. While I still use some of these words, it is likely that even these will be replaced by ‘proper’ Malay words in the speech of those younger than me; indeed, my youngest brother already does not understand many of the Javanese words I highlighted above.

Unity and cohesion within Singapore are certainly noble goals, but the loss of the other language communities within Singapore’s larger Malay community is certainly unfortunate, as their rich heritage and the past journeys of our pioneering ancestors are slowly being forgotten. It remains to be seen if any young ones will take it upon themselves to keep the memory of their ethnic origins alive.

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