Mysteries of the Malay World; Yet More Variety in Southeast Asia

by bria4123 on October 21, 2011


Actually many Malay worlds. The Malays’ ancestors originated in China and Taiwan, and began to migrate islands throughout Southeast Asia about 5,000 years ago. But some people think they originated in Southeast Asia and moved north. Wherever they came from, they ended up settling lands from east Africa and Madagascar to Polynesia.


The Malays retained their orientations to the sea. This made their cultures different from the large wet-rice based states, like Angkor and Pagan. Southeast Asia has so much variety.

All Southeast Asian societies put their own spins on the influences that Indians began to bring about 2,000 years ago. Malays were no exception. They adapted the Ramayana and Mahabharata to their own world-views, and inserted tales of sea faring that weren’t in the Indian texts.

Like many seagoing societies, Malays stress limberness and emotional control. Two of their most popular sports are top spinning and kite flying, which test both skills.

In the former contest, tops are tethered to a rope that you pull. Men launch theirs at other tops that are already in motion to knock them over. I was invited to one of these matches. My hosts let me try–over and over and over. They remained polite, but if there’s a Malay word for uncoordinated wuss, they were surely thinking of it.

Malays enjoy competition, but they’re more proud of their focus on communal harmony. Traditional village law is called adat, and it stresses reparation more than punishment. A murderer often becomes the servant of his victim’s family, rather than incarcerated or killed. He thus helps the people he hurt, and remains a productive member of society.

But harsher laws were imposed when Malays imported Islam. Death by stoning became the penalty for adultery.

But Islam brought many positive things. Malay cultures were already complex–stressing the competitiveness of ocean-going traders and harmony of settled villages. Islam and trade with people throughout the known world were about to make them among the world’s most interesting civilizations.

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