The constitutional definition of a Malay is a person who professes the Muslim religion, habitually speaks the Malay language and conforms to Malay custom. The Malays, so the anthropologists and historians tell us, came to the Malay Peninsula and islands of Sonth-East Asia in prehistoric times. Today the Malays are found principally in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, where they form the largest single ethnic group.
The Malays rarely succeeded in achieving political unity amongst themselves, but like the ancient Greeks of the West, were held together by language and culture. The presence of Malay settlements along the shores of the Melaka Straits and coasts of Borneo inevitably resulted in their becoming involved in the great network of international trade which flowed through their midst. Participation in this commerce made them the middlemen of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago and caused the Malay language to become the most commonly used among traders of the region.
It is also largely through trade that Islam came to Malaysia, brought by Indian and Arab traders. The fifteenth century Malay empire of Melaka played a major role in spreading the new religion and in converting the Malays to Islam. Islam today plays an essential role in Malay life and culture. This can be seen in the mosques crowded for the midday Friday prayers throughout the whole year; in the month of Ramadan when fasting is observed from sunrise till sunset; and in the annual departures of pilgrims to Mecca to fulfil the fifth of the basic requirements of Islam. The traditional form of Malay writing is jawi, which is entirely derived from Arabic script. Instruction in the Koran and other aspects of the religion form part and parcel of a Malay child’s upbringing.
Malay festivals are colourful and joyful affairs. They conform to Islamic precepts, but they also retain a special Malaysian touch. The Malay wedding, for example, is carried out according to Islamic rites, but the bersanding ceremony (sitting in state of the bridal couple as king and queen for the day) and several other practices go back to pre-Islamic times. The three main religious occasions are the Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Puasa), the Hari Raya Aidiladha (Haji), and the Maulud Nabi or Birthday of the Prophet. Hari Raya Puasa, which marks the end of the fasting month, is a family affair. The towns are deserted as Muslims go back to their ancestral homes. The day begins with special morning prayers at the mosque. Then, in houses clean and spruce and with everyone (especially the young ones) in their best new clothes, children pay their respects to their parents and younger members of the family to the older family members, and forgiveness is asked (and given) for all the misdeeds of the past year. After this, all homes are open to relatives, friends and neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances as they make their rounds and visit one another. Tables loaded with traditional fare make it a great time for eating, but a perilous one for the stomach.
The two other festivals are more solemn religious occasions. Hari Raya Haji coincides with the day when the annual pilgrimage reaches its climax in Mecca. After the morning prayers in the mosque cattle are sacrificed (korban), the quantity depending on the number of donors, and the meat is distributed amongst the participants and the poorer members of the community. On this day rounds of visits, as at Hari Raya Puasa, also take place, but on a smaller scale. The Prophet’s Birthday (Maulud Nabi) is celebrated by holding processions and gatherings.
Traditionally the Malays have been farmers and fishermen, seafarers and traders. The typical Malay kampung (village), its wooden houses on stilts set amongst islands of coconut palms across flat, chequered rice-fields, or nestling under the lee of jungle-clad hills, or yet again standing over the waters of some slow-moving stream, symbolizes this traditional past. But all this is rapidly changing. Many Malays, young and not so young, have migrated to the towns to seek better opportunities – in business and the professions, in office jobs and in factories.