Arguing against Malays' 'Sundaland origins'

AUGUST 12 — Earlier this month, historian Zaharah Sulaiman caused a stir in both popular and academic discourse after she was reported claiming that "Malay genes", or rather the community's set of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), is the second oldest in the world.

She had argued that scientific evidence showed the Malay set of mtDNA is 63,000 years old when compared to the Chinese mtDNA that is 43,000 years old. In comparison, the South American civilisation is youngest at 10,000 years old.

While her claim was reported extensively by Malay Mail, it was reported simplistically by others, such as Malay daily Sinar Harian, which among others said that "Malay DNA is the second largest in the world.”

Her claim is not new. It was published last year as part of the book The Origins of Malays, Based from Sunda Continent launched by then prime minister Najib Razak.

She has been quoted repeatedly by Malay daily Utusan Malaysia as early as 2013, every time she makes the claim that the Malays originated from the hypothetical Sundaland, usually in an attempt to prove the argument that the Malays are not immigrants to the region, but have been around since the start.

In a report on the book launch last year, Zaharah was quoted saying she had spent seven years collecting, reviewing and referencing over 1,000 research literatures by human genome and genetics experts from hundreds of institutions around the world.

While it would be presumptuous to question her dedication, it can be argued that the bulk of the argument was ostensibly based on one book: Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, by British paediatrician and geneticist Dr Stephen Oppenheimer.

Published in 1998, the book gave rise to the "out of Sundaland" theory, centred around Sundaland — a massive land mass that was exposed during the Ice Age, but has since become the Malay peninsula, Borneo, Java, and Sumatra after sea levels rose.

The theory posited that there was already a unique culture centred around Sundaland, and as sea levels rose, became the origin of many civilisations after it and later birthed the Austronesian peoples — which included various groups in South-east Asia, Oceania and East Africa, including the Malays.

Zaharah Sulaiman speaks to attendees during the ‘Asal Usul Malayu’ programme at ISTAC, Taman Duta. — Picture by Azneal Ishak
Zaharah Sulaiman speaks to attendees during the ‘Asal Usul Malayu’ programme at ISTAC, Taman Duta. — Picture by Azneal Ishak

Oppenheimer is frequently cited by Zaharah to back her argument that this Sundaland culture was the ancestor to the Malay people, and working backwards, as "proof" that the Malays have been around since Sundaland — and are natives of the Malay lands, and eventually Malaya and Malaysia.

Other proponents of Oppenheimer included Prof Md Salleh Yaapar of Universiti Sains Malaysia and International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), whose lecture "The Malays: Their Origins, Migration and Travels" was quoted by his contemporary Prof A. Murad Merican in a 2016 op-ed in New Straits Times.

Besides Oppenheimer, other literatures frequently cited by proponents of what I shall dub as "Malays Out of Sundaland" hypothesis included Brazilian nuclear physicist Arysio Nunes dos Santos' 2005 book Atlantis: The Lost Continent Finally Found.

In it, dos Santos argued that the mythical lost civilisation Atlantis mentioned by Plato really existed, and was located between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea — purportedly lending more credence to Sundaland as a cradle of civilisation.

Also cited were American anthropologist Wilhelm G. Solheim II who in 1975 presented his Nusantao Hypothesis that the Austronesian people originated from South-east Asia, and a Leeds University's 2008 research, whose co-author was Oppenheimer himself.

These researches were particularly attractive to the Malay supremacists, as they support attempts to debunk the conventional and widely-accepted "Out of Taiwan" theory, which posited that the Austronesian language and people had spread and migrated from Taiwan, or even Yunnan — which would suggest that the Malays came from China.

The papers are convenient because they provide so-called incontrovertible "scientific proof" that the Malays are natives here, and whose status is indisputable — especially when compared to the ethnic Chinese and Indians who were brought here by colonials.

Zaharah has since become the go-to scholar to regurgitate her arguments whenever there is a need to assert Malay supremacy and nativeness.

Last year, she spoke on "Tracking and Returning Malay Race's Identity" at IIUM, and this year, she was invited by Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) to speak on "The Origins of Malays" — right around the controversy caused by minister M. Kula Segaran's remark calling the Malays "immigrants" as well.

She has in the past asserted that while Malays are the natives and lords of the land, they have been soft and eventually pushed over by immigrants.

In a 2013 lecture she delivered at the Islamist-nationalist “Facing Foreign Agenda Symposium”, which I covered, she claimed that the influx of the Chinese into the Malay archipelago, including Malaysia, had been part of a "southbound invasion" from China towards South-east Asia.

She claimed the "invasion", backed by foreign Western powers at times, has since stripped the ancient Malay peoples of their riches and knowledge, causing their descendants to be inferior to other races despite being ostensibly one of the oldest civilisations in the world.

While she cited the "Nam tien", she has been criticised by other academics for misrepresenting the concept. “Nam tien” is a Vietnamese term literally meaning “South march”, that generally refers to a southward expansion of Vietnamese territory from its original heartland in the Red River Delta between the 11th and 18th century.

Regardless, proponents of the "Malays Out of Sundaland" hypothesis completely ignored the fact that the "Malay" term frequently used in Malaysia is but a social construct: solely defined in the Constitution as Muslim natives who practise the Malay culture.

This definition has since been used to justify various affirmative action policies and special positions, and eventually but unfortunately, racism against others who should be afforded the same status as citizens following the formation of Malaysia.

The "Malays" is not a distinct race uniquely different from the others, but if taken as a general term would include a melange of ethnicities and backgrounds from the Malay lands.

And the eventual stinging rebuttal from five academics who worked on human population genetics, archaeology and history against Zaharah's "Malay genes oldest" claim only serves to undermine the hypothesis.

Working with the Human Genome Organisation (Hugo) — which Zaharah had erroneously cited — they said: "We must unequivocally state that there are no such things as Malay genes, Chinese genes, Indian genes, etc. All of humanity are Homo sapiens with Homo sapiens genes."

In a letter to the Malay Mail, the academics led by Prof Maude E. Phipps of Monash University Malaysia's Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and founding member of National Bioethics Council, had slammed various parts of her arguments as fundamentally flawed, misleading, inconceivable and illogical.

The mystery of the Austronesians may continue, but the misrepresentation of sciences to back racial claims of Malay superiority must be disavowed once and for all.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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