Were the Malays immigrants? — Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli and Rahmat Mohamad

Follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

JUNE 5 — Article 153 of the Federal Constitution prescribes for the safeguard of the special position of the Malays in Malaysia, the ‘sons of the soil’ (bumiputras) of the nation.

Quite recently, there have been adverse arguments that the Malays should not qualify as bumiputras as they too, were immigrants from Indonesia. Were the Malays immigrants?

Malay Archipelago

The people of the Malay race were great seafarers and had expanded their influence in the archipelagic region of Southeast Asia, popularly known as Nusantara, through a number of maritime empires that once dominated this region. The earliest Malay port that existed within Nusantara was Langkasuka, which emerged in the third century AD, a manifestation that Nusantara was not terra nullius - no man’s land. Nusantara is a large region encompassing the modern day Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand, southern Philippines and Timor-Leste.

By the seventh century AD, however, Langkasuka was subjugated to the dominance of the powerful Malay kingdom of Srivijaya. Srivijaya participated actively in a growing world economy at that time and prospered well by engaging in extensive commerce with traders and merchants from different parts of Asia, namely China, India and the Middle East.

The core economic and political power in Nusantara shifted from Sumatra to Java in 1293 AD. Between the 12th and 13th centuries, Majapahit replaced Srivijaya and became a foremost centre of political power and commerce in the region.

Malacca was the next kingdom to take command after the fall of Majapahit. This kingdom had a profound influence on the Straits of Malacca, so much so that the name of this once powerful sultanate is immortalised in the waterway that the sultanate dominated for more than a century.

Nusantara is also home of other kingdoms of the Malay race spanning across this region such as Riau-Lingga in the Riau Archipelago, Palembang in Sumatra, Brunei in Borneo, Yogyakarta in Java and Gowa in Makassar. The Malays were influential in Nusantara, so much so that a 19th century British naturalist, Alfred Wallace described the whole regions the ‘Malay Archipelago’.

Sultanates of Malay

European colonialism started in the Malay Archipelago with the fall of the Sultanate of Malacca to the hands of the Portuguese in 1511. Despite this, most parts of the Malay Archipelago at that time were still largely independent and people of the Malay race roamed freely throughout the region without hindrance.

The Malays are the largest ethnic group in Malaysia (then Malaya) and could be divided into two main categories. The first category is anak jati, the original settlers, having established a number of sultanates on Malaya. The existing Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Perak, Johor and Pahang Sultanates are the examples of kingdoms that were formed by this group of Malays.

The second category, anak dagang, refers to the Malays that came from the Malay Archipelago, outside Malaya, with the intention of making Malaya their permanent home.

A large number of anak dagang Malays have Acehnese, Bataks, Bugis, Minang, Riau, Rawa and Javanese ancestries. They emigrated voluntarily and were not brought over into Malaya. Alongside with the anak jati Malays, the anak dagang Malays contributed significantly to the political structure of pre-colonial Malaya.

For instance, the founder of the Malacca Sultanate in 1400, Parameswara, was a Sumatran Malay. In addition, the Selangor Sultanate was established by the Bugis of Makassar in 1756 while the Minangs of Sumatra founded the government of Negeri Sembilan in 1773. During its glory in the 16thSultanate expanded its territories over to Malaya to include Kedah, Pahang and Johor.

These facts showed that before the formation of modern nations in Nusantara, the Malays were free to roam the region beyond Malaya as the whole Malay Archipelago was regarded as territories of people of the Malay race.

Colonial era

The first political demarcation line in the Malay Archipelago were ‘drawn’ by the British and the Dutch through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 signed in London, separating  century British naturalist, Alfred Wallace described the whole region century, the Sumatran-based Aceh Malaya with its Sumatran and Javanese counterparts. This treaty officially placed Singapore and Malaya under British influence. Despite this, the Malay sultanates within Malaya were not made British crown colonies but were turned into protectorates, with the sultanates possessing some degree of sovereignty.

A small fraction of the Chinese communities, particularly the Baba-Nyonyas, have made Malaya their permanent home for centuries since the era of the Malacca Sultanate.

However, the bulk of the Chinese were recruited and brought over by the British into Malaya in the 19th century from the southern provinces of China, a region outside the Malay Archipelago, to work as coolies in tin mines mostly located in Selangor, Perak and Negeri Sembilan. These immigrants came into Malaya only with one goal- employment - without the intention of making Malaya their permanent home.

Likewise, Indian immigrants were brought over into Malaya from British India and Ceylon to work as labourers. Most of the immigrants were adult males who were single having no intention of residing permanently in Malaya as they have families back in India and Sri Lanka. This large migration, unlike the emigration of the anak dagang Malays, was not done voluntarily as they were brought in by the British rulers at that time to toil the mines and plantations in Malaya. These immigrants possessed distinct languages, cultures and mostly professed religions other than Islam and therefore, the question of assimilation with the Malays was out of the picture.

Possessing a rather similar status with the modern-day migrant workers in Malaysia, most of the Chinese and Indian immigrants at that time were regarded as foreigners. They were neither subjects of the Malay Sultans nor permanent citizens of the British colonies of the Straits Settlements.

Were the Malays immigrants?

Before the independence of the Dutch East Indies and the British Malaya in 1945 and 1957 respectively, there was no formal political boundary that separated nations within the Malay Archipelago. In fact, the whole Malay Archipelago at that time was deemed as territories of the people of the Malay race. They were free to move from one place to the other within the Malay Archipelago without hindrance. It is therefore a baseless argument to consider the Malays as immigrants in their own territories.

Things are however, no longer the same as what it used to be. The existence of international boundaries with strict imposition of customs and immigration controls meant that the Malays could no longer roam freely within the Malay Archipelago. If Indonesian migration into Malaysia takes place now in the modern world, then it is not totally incorrect to describe them as Indonesian immigrants.


The Malaysian Malays could not be regarded as immigrants even though some of them were believed to have Indonesian ancestries. Unlike the Chinese and Indian workers who were brought over into Malaya, the Malays emigrated voluntarily and had the intention to reside in Malaya permanently. The establishments of the Sultanates of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan were testaments of how the anak dagang Malays perceived Malaya as their new home when they emigrated here. In addition, Malaya was in fact geographically located within the region of the Malay Archipelago.

Upon independence, the Malays accepted the Chinese and Indian communities as citizens of Malaya and in return, the Chinese and Indian communities acknowledged the special rights of the Malays as ‘bumiputras’. This was the arrangement made by our forefathers that has preserved Malaysia’s political, economic and social stability.

Even though the Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia were immigrants in the past, the Malays have to accept the fact that they are now their fellow compatriots.

Likewise, the non-Malays should also respect the special rights of the Malays under the Federal Constitution and this right must not be questioned unwarrantedly. Malaysians should continue to respect each other so that the glorious moments of Srivijaya and the Malacca Sultanates could be revived in the modern prosperous Malaysia.

* Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (Ph.D) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and an honorary post doctoral fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Rahmat Mohamad (Ph.D) is a Professor of international law at the Faculty of Law, Universiti Teknologi Mara and secretary-general of the New Delhi-based Asian Aftican Legal Consultative Organisation.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.

You May Also Like

Related Articles