REVIEW by Ooi Kee Beng
Maritime Southeast Asia was – and is – a region filled with port cities. Such urban centres tend to concentrate both power and money. But more than that, they cannot help but be cosmopolitan and multicultural in essence, generating hybrids not only of ethnicities but of social organisation.
No doubt, over time, the legacy of some proved more lasting than others. Where the Straits of Malacca is concerned, the significantly multicultural and vibrant ports were those that came to form the British colony of the Straits Settlements.
The human dynamics differed, naturally, between the two ends of the waterway. At the northern point of entry floats the island of Penang, generously supplied with fresh water and an excellent deep-water sheltered harbour. Its potential was apparently overlooked because of the success of other ports in the immediate vicinity, such as Acheh, Phuket, the mouth of the Kedah River, and others along the eastern coast of Sumatra.
These functioned well for local traders, and for sailors, fortune-seekers, missionaries, fugitives and conquerors crossing the vast Bay of Bengal, and who needed to rest and find supplies. Penang’s importance after Francis Light secured the island for his own use from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. But from then on, it grew at a phenomenal rate, turning it very quickly into the major port for international trade in the area.
We mention endlessly about the multi-ethnicity of early Penang; how various religions and cultures settled in relative peace and growing prosperity, and how modern economic, political and cultural impulses into Malaya filtered through the settlement. Seldom has the focus been put on the nature and the genesis of civil society in early Penang. Putting elements together to form a mixture is one thing, but how these elements interact to become a compound – a hybrid – is another story altogether. No doubt the loose administration exercised under the early English left much of the creation of social Penang in the hands of the first settlers and their own imported structures.
The ethnic breakdown of Penang’s population over time tells an interesting story in itself. The migratory flows reflect external pressure as much as internal conditions. The push and pull factors varied over time. According to Andrew Barber (in Penang under the East India Company 1786-1858 , reviewed in this magazine’s August 2010 issue), for example, the Chinese population in Penang started at 42% in 1788, and slowly decreased in relation to the Chulia group, and by 1822 made up only 24% compared to 36% for the Chulias and 24% for the Malays. By 1833, the Chinese were down to 21%, the Chulias were at 20%, and the Malays 40%.
Malays were in the majority by the end of the 19th century, just before a huge influx of Chinese began, with the increase in commerce and mining in the area occurring at the same time as Imperial China’s economy was in a shambles following the Opium Wars and a series of earth-shaking internal rebellions.
While the Straits Chinese in Penang, Malacca and Singapore have been popularly studied, the cultural history of the other major communities found along the Straits of Malacca and in early Penang has not. Coining the term “Straits Muslims”, this collection of articles by six authors makes a bold attempt to tell the complex story of the different peoples who had Islam as their common religion, and who plied the northern end of the Straits.
Edited by Prof Dato’ Datin Wazir Jahan Karim, the book discusses the many trading and intellectual networks that came together in Penang and its vicinity, and how peoples such as the Hadramis, the Straits Malays, the Tamil Muslims, and the many Sumatran groups developed a cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism of their own. This social creation helped form what we experience as Penang multiculturalism today.
An interesting point emanating from reading these chapters is the significant difference between “Malay” and “Muslim”. The ethnic diversity that goes into making up the Muslim world, especially the highly mobile part of it that touched on the shores of the northern Straits of Malacca, cannot be easily subsumed under the more often than not politicised word “Malay”. For example, while Syed Farid Alatas claims that “Malay capital had never made any serious inroads during the colonial period”, Wazir counterclaims that a Muslim civil society did come into being in Penang which “transcended ‘political time’” and which though spiritual in its philosophy was secular in its modus operandi.
As Wazir summarily puts it, “This book elucidates the rise of ‘Straits Muslims’ as a multi-ethnic and socially diverse population capable of generating values and principles of change based on spiritualism and secularism. The diasporas of Straits Muslims is not about the social production and reproduction of Islam but adaptation to a unique life-style where ‘ideology’ and ‘process’ are based in different and often multiple perspectives of what constitutes ‘the good life’” (p. xvi).
The details found in this volume on the subject are quite astounding. But any reader other than an ardent one will have to overcome his or her natural aversion to being faced with four thick columns of text when studying this substantial work. The book would certainly gain a lot if formatted in normal rectangular size than in square coffee-table shape, as it is now.
There is a lot to be learned from those pages though. There is also a lot to be discussed due to claims that may seem exaggerated at first reading, such as the statement that a Chinese could become a Malay, while a Malay could not become a Chinese even if he tried.
Be that as it may, this is an important addition to the much-needed expansion of scholarly literature on the diversity that makes up the parts that make up Malaysia. The huge over-simplification of Malaysian life that post-Merdeka politics brought about requires that the issues raised be taken seriously.
— Penang Economic Monthly May 2011