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Melayu Raya and the need for clarity

by: Sharifah Munirah Alatas

A few days ago, a comment was made by a politician about PPBM’s entry into the Muafakat Nasional (MN) alliance. That individual claimed it will strengthen the pact and “unite issues concerning Islam, the nation as well as the Bumiputeras”.

More was said about how the alliance would create a “Melayu Raya” concept and strengthen unity among races, religions and cultures. It was suggested that this cooperation “will create a harmonious, conducive situation to nation building”.

Such a statement is commendable, but incomplete. It’s incompleteness has the potential to generate misunderstanding in our society, which is already divided along racial and religious lines. If we really hope for unity, harmony and genuine nation building, politicians need to clarify the concepts they highlight.

Our leaders need to be serious about educating themselves so that they do not inadvertently cause anxiety for the rakyat.

Melayu Raya, as a concept, requires us to reflect on the history of ideas and what transpired in our historical development. Leading intellectuals in Southeast Asia, in their past struggles against colonialism, conceived of shared expressions that defined their respective situations under European colonial masters.

These masters were the Dutch in Indonesia, the British in Malaya and the Spanish in the Philippines. Their ideas were articulated within ideas such as Nusantara, Alam Melayu, Melayu Raya, and Malphilindo.

Some scholars argue that the ideas of Alam Melayu or Melayu Raya were a concoction of early 20th century Malay nationalists who wanted to create a wider, unified state which encompassed Indonesia and Malaya. This concept is framed within a socio-political and ethno-nationalistic agenda.

Others suggest a more plausible analysis, one based on early Malay manuscripts where the term Melayu Raya is a civilisational concept rather than an ethnic one. Also, they attribute the concept Alam Melayu (or Malay World) to what existed in the region centuries before the colonialists arrived. There were a number of Malay kingdoms or sultanates then, headed by rajas. Alam Melayu was really “alam kerajaan”.

The different kerajaan in pre-colonial Southeast Asia were not successful in unifying the region under one polity or ethnic entity. Furthermore, there was no desire to do so, as each kerajaan flourished within the region and was connected to the outside world through an organised network of maritime trade.

Any mention of the Melayu Raya concept by our leadership should refer accurately to the historical discourse around Alam Melayu and kerajaan. Also, leaders must be aware of the role played by kerajaan as opposed to the more politically charged, nationalist ideas that emerged later, during the early 20th century.

Was the recent statement made in remembrance of Ibrahim Yaakob and comrades, who hoped for an independent Malaya together with Indonesia under the Melayu Raya/Indonesia Raya framework?

Or was it a genuine call to look back at the united, peaceful maritime civilisation that defined Alam Melayu?

Leaders should be informed that the concept Melayu Raya has a long trajectory in our history. The term should not be equated with Malay supremacy, superiority and ethnocentric nationalism.

In this way, we will have a better understanding of how the concept will promote unity, harmony and nation building. Leaders must be more vigilant in contextualising ideas when they address the public.

Unless we are united in how we understand history, it would be difficult to see how Melayu Raya can act as a unifying force, or if the idea can be the glue that binds our different communities under one national and united identity.

For example, when media commentators, leaders, thinkers or the general public express feelings of patriotism, we should know our history very clearly. We should know that Aug 31, 1957, is Merdeka from British rule. It is not the date to celebrate the new nation we call Malaysia.

Merdeka should be celebrated for what it is, i.e. the post-colonial independent nation of Malaya. Additionally, Hari Malaysia or Malaysia Day is just as important to commemorate. It is the day we graduated from independence to a more inclusive nation. Sabah and Sarawak helped to form our new nation of Malaysia, which embodies the reality of “building a nation”.

History tells us that on Sept 16, 1963, Malaysia came into existence, when Sabah and Sarawak agreed to form our “newer” nation. It is 2020 and we are now that new nation of Malaysia, based on the same fundamentals embodied in the Federal Constitution.

A new form of national consciousness was added onto the notion of nationhood nurtured at independence in 1957.

If our leadership within MN prefers to project the concept of Melayu Raya, it is best that they emphasise the totality of our national consciousness in the narrative. This includes Hari Merdeka and the important events leading up to Hari Malaysia.

A collective consciousness should recognise that Melayu Raya, Hari Merdeka and Hari Malaysia embody the important values of inclusiveness among the different races, ethnicities, religions and cultures within a geographic construct. It is not confined to specific ethnicities or religions.

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