Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Cultural Chameleons: Portuguese Eurasian Strategies for Survival in Post-Colonial Malaysia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Cultural Chameleons: Portuguese Eurasian Strategies for Survival in Post-Colonial Malaysia

Article excerpt

According to recent statistics, about 57 per cent of Malaysia's 18 million inhabitants are ethnically "Malay". Of the remainder, 32 per cent are categorized as "Chinese", 9 per cent as "Indian", and 2 per cent as "Other". The fact that such statistics exist suggests, as Joel Kahn has pointed out, that racial definitions of this sort are straightforward and unproblematic.(1) But the statistics disguise deeper complexities. For example, it is far from clear what being Malay actually means. As Clive Kessler demonstrates, the standard definition of a "Malay"-one who is bumiputra (indigenous, lit.: "son of the soil") and Islamic - does not account adequately for Malay bumiputra who are not Muslim (e.g., certain aboriginal groups), for bumiputra Muslims who are not Malay (e.g., the Melanau of Sarawak), or for Muslim Malays who are not bumiputra (e.g., Acehnese immigrants from Sumatra). Further, it does not account for Malays who are neither bumiputra nor Muslim (e.g., Javanese and Batak Christian immigrants), for bumiputra who are neither Muslim nor Malay (e.g., ethnic Thai Buddhists and some tribal populations in East Malaysia), nor for Muslims who are neither Malay nor bumiputra (e.g., Indians, Arabs, etc.).(2)

The labels "Chinese" and "Indian" mask equally broad categories, encompassing people who speak distinct languages, profess diverse religions, and came to Malaysia for different reasons at divergent points in history from disparate parts of their home subcontinents. Some - like the Baba (Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese) and Chitty Melaka (Straitsborn Indian) communities - have resided in Malaysia for so long that their language, dress, food, and many other customs are effectively Malay. The fact that these communities are of longer-standing than some more recent Islamic immigrants makes the criteria for bumiputra status seem arbitrary. And this does not even begin to consider communities lumped together under the label "Other". The orang asli (aboriginal peoples) and Portuguese Eurasians (some of whom trace their residency back four centuries), to give just two examples, are considered bumiputra for some purposes and not for others, but neither group is considered "Malay".(3)

Considering the heterogeneity of the population, we should not be at all surprised to discover that the construction and consolidation of communities (at both local and national levels) are crucial issues in post-colonial Malaysia. The government is faced with the enormous task of forging national unity, of linking unknown peoples together in an imagined political community.(4) Their task is made more difficult not only by the legacy of colonialism, based as it was on a policy of divide and rule, but also by problems arising out of both the introduction of Western political and economic ideas and the change from a colonial Christian confederation to a modern Islamic state. At the same time, however, discrete communities attempt to subvert the process, marking their ethnic difference in ways that can be understood by those within the community and the state (both the old colonial state and the new one) as well as by those who stand outside. But no community exists in isolation: marginal ethnic groups in particular are bound together in "an ongoing process of daily social interaction".(5) In a spirit of "strategic pragmatism", Raymond Lee suggests, boundaries remain "flexible and mutable ... as ethnic groups confront and negotiate with each other in determining their respective identities" and in jockeying for position vis-a-vis other groups.(6)

In this article, I extend Lee's notions of strategic pragmatism and flexible boundaries, not by examining the interaction between several marginal ethnic groups (as John Clammer has already done for Malacca, the most historically rich and ethnically diverse city in the country),(7) but by documenting the shifting identity over time of a single group, the Portuguese Eurasian community of Malacca. …

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