After many years of decline these cultures are once more changing and developing, and it is therefore most important that the varied peoples of South-East Asia should take stock of their past, and understand why and how their civilization has taken its present form.
Until recently little attention has been given to Malaya’s history before the coming of the Portuguese. A concession has sometimes been made to include in courses of instruction the century of Malacca’s rule before the arrival of the Portuguese. The rich millennium and a half of Malaya’s historical past, beginning around the commencement of the Christian era and lasting until the spread of Islam in this country has often been relegated to the sphere of mythology.
A cursory examination of the present cultural pattern of Malaya leads to the awareness of very deep roots in the past. But the bulk of learned contributions lie scattered in the pages of the various journals and periodicals.
The study of early Malay history requires the ability to handle archeological data as well as the primary sources in Sanskrit, Tamil, Chinese, Arab, Malay and Portuguese. The need for further archeological research on the peninsula cannot be overstressed. There is no doubt that many old doubts will be solved and new vistas of knowledge opened if the spade is handled in this country under the guidance of trained archaeologists.
The Land and Its People
In the words of Sir G.Elliot smith, Malaya was the “great jumping off place of Asia and cultural exchange”.
In remote times the peninsula of Malaya was continuous with Borneo, Sumatra and Java, the whole land mass forming the southernmost extension of the continent of Asia. Celebes, New Guinea and the neighbouring islands were, on the other hand, joined to Australia. There was always a break between Borneo and Celebes and perhaps also between Lombok and Bali. The sea between the archaic continents of Asia and Australia has been found to be very deep, even though the distance at some places, as between Bali and Lombok, is only about fifteen miles.The geologists informed that the area covered by the Java Sea was perhaps the first to sink as a result of volcanic activity. Later Borneo and afterwards Sumatra became detached and since then many other elevations and depressions have occurred.
Today, the peninsula of Malaya projects from the Asian mainland far into the ocean, dividing the Indian Ocean from the China Sea. Modern Malaya comprises the lower half of the peninsula, the narrow northern part being the territory of Thailand. From the viewpoint of ancient history, however, it will be more accurate to think in terms of the peninsula of Malaya—a geographical entity—which was often also a political entity. In the same way Malaysia in the present context should have ethnic, not political connotation.
In the prehistoric period, the Malay Peninsula played an important role in the spread of various races in this part of the world. About 8,000 B.C. it served as the connecting link down which travelled the ancestors of the Australian and the Papuan aborigines. About 2,500 B.C. the ancestors of the Malays themselves trekked down from Yunnan in China on their way to Malaya, Sumatra and Java.
The most ancient implements excavated in the Malay Peninsula were discovered at Kota Tampan in the Perak valley. They share some characteristics with artifacts from the Pleistocene terraces in the valley of the Irrawaddy. Next in point of time are the skeletal remains, found both in Indo-China and Malaya, of the people of the Mesolithic culture who are classified as of the Australo-Melanesoid racial group. These people also spread to Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia and the Andaman Islands. Besides these traits, the Malays show four or five other racial types, but they may be conveniently divided into three main groups: the Negrito; the Senoi, classed by some as Veddoid, or more recently Indo-Australoid, but generally as Indonesian; and the Jakun or Proto-Malay, or Mongoloid Indonesian. The scientist, however, divides them in two blocks, the predominantly Negrito and the predominantly Indonesian blocks, especially as in all three are present the older Australoid and Melanesoid strains. Roughly speaking, the Negrito, called Semang in Kedah and Perak and Pangan in Kelantan, live in the north of Malaya, the Sakai in the centre and the Proto-Malays in the south and around the coasts.
Another notable addition to Malaya’s population in ancient times was that of the immigrants from Sumatra and other Indonesian islands. The most important movement, however, was that which brought the “Deutero-Malays” to this country from the neighbourhood of Yunnan several hundred years before the commencement of the Christian era. These bearers of the iron culture occupied the fertile plains, driving the earlier inhabitants into the hills and jungles. Perhaps because they represented a different strain, perhaps because of the intermarriage of their southern countrymen with the aborigines and the Sumatrans, the descendents of the Deutero-Malays in Kelantan and Patani are bigger than the southern Malays and have been compared to the Polynesians. The better climate and the superior diet of an early rice-growing area may also have played their part in giving them their stature.
In the course of time various other elements mingled with the early Malays. The Indian were in contact with Malaya probably from the fifth century B.C., the Chinese from the Chou times. The Arabs, the Thais, the Malay immigrants from Java and Sumatra, the Bugis of Celebes and lastly the Europeans have all contributed different strains to the population of Malaya. The gentle, friendly and charming modern Malay, with his broad head, olive skin and semi-Mongoloid eyes and nose, is the inheritor of the various races and cultures that were nurtured on Malayan soil. His description by Duarte Barbosa writing in the sixteenth century would in most respects apply to the modern Malay:
They are well-set-up men and go bare from the waist up but are clad in cotton garments below. They, the most distinguished among them, wear short coats which come half-way down their thighs, of silk cloth—in grain or brocade—and over this they wear girdles; at their waists they carry daggers in damascenework which they call creeses. Their women are tawny-coloured, clad in very fine silk garments and short skirts decorated with gold and jewels. They are very comely, always well-attired and have very fine hair. … they live in large houses outside the city with many orchards, gardens, and tanks, where they lead a pleasant life. They are polished and well-bred, fond of music and given to love.
At the time of the founding of the first Indianised states in Malaya around the beginning of the Christian era, the Malays were leading a well-settled community life. They had their settlements at river mouths or in the fertile river valleys, the water highway being a most effective means of communication. Their kampongs or villages had atap-thatched houses raised on posts in gardens full of fruit trees and other plants. Domesticated animals provided them with part of their food which was liberally supplemented by fish from streams and rivers. They also cultivated rice.
The affairs of the kampong were looked after by a council of elders. Administration was on somewhat aristocratic lines with class distinctions of an elementary type. The land belonged to the clan, with a limited kind of individual ownership existing side by side. A special feature of the society, remarked upon by the Chinese, was its matrilineal character in some parts of the country.
These early people of Malaya buried their dead either in jars or in dolmens, building menhirs on the tombs of their chiefs. Their religion was ancestor worship and belief in the existence of spirits in trees, streams, animals and the like. They also worshipped natural phenomenon, especially the sun. Some popular Hindu deities therefore must have been easily absorbed in the local pantheon. In the course of the next few centuries, with the continuous infiltration of Hindu and Buddhist ideas, higher religious and ethical concepts took root easily on a receptive soil.
The Malay language belongs to the Indonesian branch of the Malayo-Polynesian or Austronesian group of languages. Some similarities have been observed between the people of this language group and the Austro-Asiatic which includes the Mon-Khmer of Indo-China, the Mundas of Chhota Nagpur and the Khasis of Assam. In addition to some common features in language structure they also share similarities in birth and burial customs, food habits, and hunting and fishing methods. These connections are to be traced back to at least 2000 B.C. to their common home on the continent of Asia. Thus, some at least of the adventurers who sailed from the eastern shores of India and came and settled in Malaya around the beginning of the Christian era probably reunited with their own distant kinsfolk after having followed a very circuitous route.