Sangeetha Thanapal: Understand Georgraphy And History – Malays Always Indigenous To Singapore

In my work on racism and racial dynamics in Singapore, I have spent some time resolutely attacking what I believe to be harmful stereotypes of Malay people, and pointing out the myriad ways they are discriminated against in their own land. Racist Chinese people generally dislike it when I do this, and they often reply by stating that if Malay people do not like it here, they can move, (or go back to), Malaysia. Many Chinese Singaporeans tend to behave as if they have right and ownership over this land, and subsequently that they are entitled to decide who gets to live in it.

This is all very odd to me, because it is almost as if these people never went through a single history class at Lower Secondary level.

So let us begin with a simple but vital assertion: This land does belong to Malay people. Malay people have been living in Singapore and the area for thousands of years. In the third century, Chinese records refer to us at Pu Luo Chung, which is a transliteration from the Malay Pulau Ujong, meaning ‘island at the end’. The names given to this area are Malay, but apparently the people who speak this language are not considered indigenous to it? Who exactly are your indigenous people, if that term doesn’t include Malay people?

There is a reason why it is Malay lore and myth in which references to the land happens. It is because they have been here long enough to produce literature about it. When you focus on the gap between our knowledge of the land and theirs, especially traditional knowledge, you start to see their relationship to the land. There is no way they are not indigenous to this land.

Land, language, memory & history. These are all linked, and the rest of have do not possess this connection to the land. Somebody was living here before the British came, and it sure was not Chinese people.

Denying this is ahistorical, and it constitutes an erasure of people’s histories. Denying their existence and that history is a colonial act in itself, and every colonial act is violent. It is not only an act of erasure but one of displacement as well.

Singapore was not terra nullius, meaning it was not ‘nobody’s land’. Singapore belonged to the Johor Riau Sultanate, which means by definition it is Malay land.

Indigeneity is not always defined by geography, but by people as well. What we think of as Malay includes indigenous people, Bugis, Minangkabau, etc. The idea of Malay does not just mean people from Malaya, but the people of the Nusantara. This entire archipelago is the Malay world. As Singapore existed within this world, it is undoubtedly Malay land.

The Singapore government’s mistreatment of Malay people includes a focus on Malay people as diasporic, which states that Malay people came here from elsewhere, and this is an act of historical erasure. They didn’t come here, they were already here. The Singapore you think of now was never a country before, it was part of Malay land and the Malay world.

If you cannot accept or understand this, that means you cannot understand geography and history. Why do people have so much difficulty accepting facts? Non-Malay minorities are also here on stolen land, and we need to accept and understand this. Even the rest of us, including Indians, don’t have a claim on this land. We can never truly find solidarity if we insist on acting as if Indian people and Malay people have the same claim to Singapore.

This does not erase our contributions or our generations that have grown up here, or our own attachment to the land. But it simply not equivalent to Malay people’s claim over it. No one is asking for reparations and no one is asking you to leave their land. So why do so many people find it difficult to accept facts and the truth?

In Singapore, Malay people are targeted for legal and cultural extinction. The percentage of Malay people in Singapore is decreasing, despite the maintenance of total fertility rate for the community. Population policies seek to bring in Indian and PRC migrants, but not Malay. They are slowly being phased out as immigration policies are making Malay people extinct in their own land. This is Malay land, and they have become second class citizens on their own land. That is simply unacceptable.

So, who gains from the denial of Malay indigineity to Singapore? Who gains from erasure of this past? What do they gain? At what point can we admit that this “debate” over how long Malay people have been here and where their ancestors came from is just a rhetorical exercise aimed specifically to cast aspersions on indigenous birthright?

I have my theories but I’m going to leave this here for people to think about.

In our anti-racism work in Singapore, aboriginality must be foundational. As minorities, we need to examine our own complicity in the ongoing project of colonisation, whether it be White or Chinese in nature. During the time I have been engaged in doing this work, I have come to believe that anti-racism for the Malay community has to begin with assertions of indigeneity and ownership of land. Regardless of where you are and where you come from, you have a responsibility to know the names of the territories you are on and the people who have called those places home.

Update: My dear friend @POZboySG pointed out what he felt was the lack of attention to Orang Asli people in this piece. He is completely correct. I did not address it because I felt I knew very little about it and that means I am not the right person to do so. I cannot speak about Orang Asli forced assimilation into mainstream Malaysian culture as I am simply not qualified. I did talk about indigenous people AND Malay people as being indigenous to the land, because that is how I see it. For the purposes of talking specifically about Singapore, I feel speaking of Malay people as indigenous to the land is the best political way to approach it, especially when faced with Chinese hegemonic claims. This is of course my opinion, and up for debate.


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