THE term “Dunia Melayu”, or Malay World, has been articulated without being precise as to its essence and parameters.
Such ambivalence may not augur well for Malaysia, and in the nation embracing culture as integral to its foreign policy.
In national popular consciousness, as a category and vocabulary used among the Malays in Malaysia, the term Dunia Melayu also can be seen to fairly overlap with the period of the New Economic Policy.
Gapena (The Federation of National Writers’ Association, Malaysia) has been synonymous with the Dunia Melayu movement with its first Dunia Melayu Symposium held in Melaka in 1982.
That provided the opportunity for most of the participants to begin engaging with other Malay, the so-called Malay diaspora.
Malays in Sri Lanka, and Madagascar began to emerge in the national discourse.
The second symposium then, was jointly held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, three years later.
This was when Gapena transcended the geographies of the Malay Archipelago, contributing to the general awareness among scholars, researchers, journalists, writers, culturalists, and the Malay laity about the existence of the Malay stock (Rumpun Melayu) outside the Dunia Melayu motherland.
The rumpun would generally be accepted as comprising Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, and much recently, the peoples of the Philippines.
The man considered to be responsible for our consciousness of the Dunia Melayu was Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Pendeta Ismail Hussein (1932-2014).
Ismail was the long-time leader of Gapena and an academic with Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
He was a student of University of Leiden Dutch scholar professor A. Teeuw from 1962 to 1964.
The problem of nation building is linked to the notion of nationhood in the wider geographical and historical context.
In this sense, the history of Malaysia needs to be reminded, and continuously foretold for future generations.
In his speech at the ceremony on the handing over of his books to the Kedah Public Library in Alor Star, and the Ismail Hussein Collection Exhibition by the Sultan of Kedah in 1988, Ismail expounded the notion and the different layers of Dunia Melayu.
The narrative on the Malays produce the term The Malay Archipelago (Kepulauan Melayu) and the Malay racial stock (Rumpun Bangsa Melayu).
Ismail articulated four levels of existence with reference to the Malay World.
In his 1988 speech, for the first time, he identified the four layers of the Malay world.
The first was what he called the ‘Dunia Melayu Inti’ (The Core Malay World); the second ‘Dunia Berbahasa Melayu’ (The Malay-Speaking World); third is the ‘Dunia Rumpun Melayu’ (Malay World Racial Stock); and the fourth ‘Dunia Melayu Polinesia (The Melayu-Polynesian World).
Each ‘world’ overlapped and is not mutually exclusive.
Each world, according to Ismail, represented its own ‘alam.’
The core (inti) comprises the geo-cultural territories of Malaysia, Brunei and the coastal Malay-Muslim communities in the Nusantara region.
In the core Malay World, Islam is synonymous with the Malays, where ‘Masuk Melayu’ (becoming Malay) would at the same time mean ‘Masuk Islam’ (becoming Muslim), and vice versa.
Then there is the Malay-speaking world comprising nation states that have adopted Bahasa Melayu as their national language.
Apart from Malaysia, the others are Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore.
We must not forget that the Malay-speaking world also comprise Malay communities in what is now Thailand fairly stretching to the Ithmus of Kra, the Mergui Archipelago in the Tanintharyi (Tanah Sari) area in Myanmar, facing the Andaman Sea, various parts of the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
Not all in the Malay-speaking world are ethnic Malays or from the Malay stock.
There are those who are ethnic Indians and Chinese.
And not every one in the Malay-speaking world is a Muslim.
There are also Malay-speaking Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and animists.
Subsequently, there is the Malay World Racial Stock.
According to Ismail, this would include the indigenous people of Taiwan (but I would also include the Chams, native to Cambodia and Vietnam, which Ismail did not mention).
Tacit in Ismail’s projection is the geographical, historical and cultural stretch of the Malay Archipelago, including the islands of the Philippines.
And finally, the largest expression of the Malay refers to the Melayu-Polynesian World, located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from Madagascar to Rapanui (Easter Islands) and from Hawaii to the Aotearoa (literally “land of the long white cloud), the Maori name for New Zealand, and thousands of islands
Almost all the Melayu-Polynesian nations outside the Malay Archipelago are not Muslims.
The extent of the Malay world, as identified and articulated by Ismail, demonstrated diversity and inclusiveness within the ‘tanah air’ comprising almost a quarter of the surface of the earth.
The collective histories and memories evoke a concrete and immediate reality of the Malay peoples.
At the same time, stretching the Malay world to the furthest imaginable realm evokes the grand tradition of a people.
Ismail’s reconstruction of the Malay world must be seen in light of national polemics in the Malay character, indigenity and origins.
The nation’s trade, cultural and foreign policies must factor in some 350 inhabitants of the Dunia Melayu.
There is Malaysia, and there is the rest of the Dunia Melayu straddling the two great oceans.
The writer is a professor at ISTAC-IIUM and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation.