IN recent times, I have on occasions been asked to enlighten the Malay literati and relevant groups on campuses on the meanings and differences arising from the terms “Mamak”, “Keling”, “Jawi Pekan”, “Peranakan Arab”, etc.
Many, I came to know, have some misguided notions of these identities and ethnicities, due to ignorance of history and the origins of cultural and social movements, but more so pandering to family and personal memories and narratives. Many outside Pulau Pinang too are not aware of the existence of the variety of Malay/Muslim identities.
One can approach the subject from different perspectives, either as an insider, or an outsider, or both. Some of these have been discussed at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). The Centre of Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRis), USM, has a series of monthly lectures known as Syarahan Cenpris — Dato’ Jenaton. Jenaton was an early Minangkabau pioneer to Penang/Kedah who finally settled in what is now Minden in about 1749. Part of Minden, which sits the USM campus, was at one time called Bukit Tok Jenaton.
Bukit Tok Jenaton and Batu Uban, situated down the hill where USM is located, were the locus of the formation of some of the earliest Malay and Jawi Peranakan communities before the coming of the English country traders and the East India Company.
These lectures are part of the efforts to record oral history on Malay/Muslim life in Pulau Pinang and especially in Tanjong — the place name in the Malay consciousness referring to that small piece of land jutting out from the island. The name “Georgetown” is silent. In a general sense, when orang Tanjong is referred to, it may mean someone from the cape or, loosely, from the island. In early Penang, late 1700/early 1800s, they were referred to as orang Tanjong Penaga.
Tanjong Penaga was the earlier name, displaced by Georgetown.
In many of the lectures, given by various people ranging from descendants of the island’s early families to researchers, one of the emerging themes and queries was the ethnic character and identity of Penang Malay/Muslim society.
In recent years, there were several publications on the subject, not much known or popularised, however. I will touch on these in a later column, and these include my work The Keling as the Other in Malay Consciousness “by One of Them” (2007). For now, I am referring to a doctoral thesis titled The South Indian Muslim, Community and the Evolution of the Jawi Peranakan in Penang up to 1948 (1988/89). The writer, Helen Fujimoto, lamented the scarcity of work on the life and activities of the Jawi Peranakan in Pulau Pinang, “or of the South Indian Muslims from which they were descended”. Many throughout the years have liberally defined the Jawi Peranakan identity. Fujimoto has faithfully described the Jawi Peranakan as evolving through marriage between South Indian Muslim men and Malay Women. Historian W. R. Roff in his classic The Origins of Malay Nationalism (1967) had earlier given a precise definition. Roff referred to those originating from the Coromandel, or the Malabar coasts, and their marriage to Malay women.
Fujimoto’s study remains integral to understanding the group, and brings a new perspective, even to the many descendents which run for many generations, some tracing to more than 10, spread throughout Malaysia and the nations of Southeast Asia. The Jawi Peranakan group was much engaged in the spread of education, the rise of Islamic modernist movement in Pulau Pinang and Singapura, and the increase in social and political consciousness in the decades of 1930s and 1940s in Malaya and Singapura.
Fujimoto’s study focuses on the group and its brief leadership of the wider Malay community, and the long term process of assimilation into the (Malay) community. To dispel some erroneous notions of the group, and many from within the community itself, we belabour on circumstances of the emergence of the term. The term used to describe the Jawi Peranakan in official documents and census was Jawi Pekan or “Town Malay”, or Melayu Pekan, where Jawi was a term derived from early Arab traders and sojourners. And of course, the emergence of the Arab Peranakan, along the way, enriches the porous and changing social boundary — what can be described as being created by a culturally fluid environment and in turn mobilising that very environment.
During the later half of the 19th century, the terminology of Jawi Pekan changed in general usage to the term Jawi Peranakan, emphasising the fact that members of the community were peranakan, or local-born, but had not yet been assimilated into the wider Malay community. The category Jawi Pekan was dropped from the 1911 census because of “insufficient numbers of Jawi Peranakan” since most members of the group were registering themselves as Malays. Even so, those born after 1911 still have the term Jawi Pekan in their birth certificates under the category of Nation. This continued until perhaps the 1920s, and also depends on the person recording the birth.
In the dynamics of daily life in Malaysia, and that of the geo-cultural areas of Penang and Kedah, the question of identity is implicit and central to our consciousness. This is because, among the community, and the national community at large, there is much ambiguity as to who we are, and who we are against our perceived Other. There are also many sensitivities, either due to historical and cultural distance, ignorance and ambivalence, the dominance of popular knowledge and misrepresentation, or the psyche of what can be described as “incestuous proximity” of being inside and the other at the same time.
Fujimoto’s work needs a revisit for an objective and non-judgmental knowledge for those who want to delve into issues of identity, ambiguity and distinctiveness of a community in Pulau Pinang and Malaysia viz the cultural, economic; and political dynamics. The community’s role as provider of national consciousness and Malay leadership in Tanjong especially through the first half of the last century is little known until today.
The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org