By Karim Raslan

From the viewpoint of race, Indonesia is a liberating, even intoxicating place, especially for Malaysians like me who’ve been conditioned to view people in cultural and religious “silos” — Malay, Chinese and Indian. The Indonesian approach to race is infinitely more fluid. Distinctions are relatively unimportant.

These contrasting ways of perceiving the world lie at the heart of many of the squabbles that arise between Indonesia and Malaysia. These emanate from a sense that we really ought to understand each other better when in fact history and politics have long intervened to create two very different polities.

On the one hand, there is Malaysia, where political power is in the hands of the Malay-Muslim community. Indeed, Malay identity has been very broadly defined. People of Arab, Javanese and even Turkish descent are considered Malay, thereby consolidating power in the face of a large and dynamic non-Malay population.

In Indonesia, however, the challenge has always been how to unify this archipelagic nation and prevent its fracturing. As a result, there’s the uniting and all-embracing rhetoric enshrined in the phrase, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” unity in diversity. People seem to be able to shift between boundaries easily. Javanese, Muslim, Christian, Batak, Hindu and Balinese merge into one another.

Of course as the process of decentralization puts a brake on the national agenda and local identities become more pronounced the concept of “putra daerah” (the locally born) will inevitably undermine the idea of Indonesian-ness.

Still, as a Malaysian Malay I’m always interested when I meet Indonesian Malays. Despite shared cultural traits, politics and history have intervened to shape our lives very differently.

Malay identity at its core has been deeply influenced by both the palace and the mosque. While the two identities “Malay” and “Muslim” are often linked, we are also tied to our feudal past. The idea of kingdom with all its connotations of hierarchy is still very deeply rooted.

Indeed in Malaysia, the word for kingdom, “kerajaan,” means “government,” thereby reinforcing the “royal” roots of our polity, something that would be unacceptable in republican Indonesia.

It’s very different in the archipelago. Malay-ness here isn’t linked with politics. Indeed, many of the Indonesian Malay royal houses made the fatal error of siding with the Dutch against Sukarno’s independence fighters and were totally destroyed.

A very significant historical event was the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, essentially a division of spoils that cut the “Malay world” in half. What had once been a seamless aquatic polity linking Kedah, Penang, Acheh, Riau and Pontianak was divided between Dutch and English spheres of influence.

In the Dutch East Indies, the Malay community was left to compete against the politically and numerically dominant Javanese, as well as many other extremely hardworking and enterprising Sumatran-based peoples such as the Minangkabau, Achehnese and Bataks — many of whom speak languages similar to Malay.

Interestingly, all these peoples would have been considered Malay in Malaysia.

This tension between language and identity has been a hallmark of the sociocultural history in the Malay world. If you read the 19th century “Tuhfat al-Nafis” (The Precious Gift), by Raja Ali Haji Ibn Ahmad, you will quickly get a splendid sense of the constant struggle for prominence between the various communities — the Minangkabau, the Bugis and the Malay.

Raja Ali’s preferences were obvious. He was clearly pro-Bugis and skeptical of the Malays. He did not hesitate to criticize the Malay princes that challenged the influence of the newly arrived and far harder-working Bugis.

The Bugis, from Sulawesi, were to dominate many of the Malay sultanates including Riau. Their hunger, courage and sheer determination overwhelmed the local Malays.

You only have to visit the faded grandeur of Medan’s Istana Maimoon to get a sense of loss and failure.

History’s record is cruel and unforgiving. Winners shape history and erase the achievements, even the existence of the losers. For many Malaysian Malays it is eye-opening to come to Indonesia only to discover that their community — their people — have long been on the receiving end of history’s lessons, suffering and losing out to more dynamic, driven people.

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Source : The Jakarta Globe

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