From “Malaya” to “Melayu”

Posted: March 20, 2014 in Article

By Sun Hoh Sing

Oriental Daily News, March 17, 2014

How should Malaya, Malay and Malaysia each be distinguished? According to one of the many theories, “Malaya” is originated from Sanskrit term which means mountain, quite similar to Himalaya. “Melayu” is a variation of “Malaya”. As for “Malaysia”, in Greek, “ia” refers to a region or country, as in Austria, Australia, Bolivia, Georgia and so on; “nesia” carries the meaning of island, as in Indonesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and many more.

According to Chinese classical text, in late 7th century, I-Ching, a monk from Tang dynasty had spent many years residing in Sri Vijaya, south of Sumatra. Some people think that the origin of “Sumatra” could be from “Samudera”, a Sanskrit term for ocean. It was originally the name of a kingdom located in the northeast of Sumatra, but the name was later used to refer to the entire island of Sumatra. The other theory claimed that the meaning was actually “Semut-Raya”. According to I-Ching, the country neighbouring Sri Vijaya was known as “Mo-Lo-Yu”. This “Mo-Lo-Yu” is commonly recognized as “Melayu”, a country’s name that was also used as the name of its people.

Some historian reckoned, the full name of “Melayu” should actually be “Malayapura”, which means city of mountains or country of mountains, as “pura” bears the meaning of city or country, just like Singapura. It is believed that the country of mountains was an ancient empire that co-existed with Sri Vijaya (7th-14th centuries). Interestingly, the first ancient kingdom that existed in the mainland of Southeast Asia, Funan, also means country of mountains! Some people even made bold assumption that “Funan” could be the Chinese transliteration of “Banang”, which means great, and in the Malay folk culture, the princess of Mount Banang (Puteri Gunung Banang) exists in a legend.

Champa and Malay language

Based on certain facts, historians have had some dispute in deciding if Funan was a Mon-Khemer or Malay kingdom.

If it was a Malay kingdom, then, Funan (1st-6th century) and its affiliate country Langkasuka (meaning the land of joy in Sanskrit– “Langka” means region, as in Sri Langka; “Suka” means joy), as well as Funan’s succession “Chenla”, are all connected to the Malay ethnic. As for “Champa”, a kingdom that existed and expanded to the center of Vietnam, has even closer tie with the Malays. It is believed that Champa language is very similar to Malay language. This ancient kingdom was later conquered by Vietnam in 1471. Champa has close relationship with Ming government in China. It depended very much on China’s protection, just like Melaka in its early existence. Therefore, without Ming government’s support, Champa would have been vanished by Vietnam much earlier, and Melaka would have been taken by Siam or Majapahit from Java.

Coincidently, the name “Majapahit” is derived from “Maja”, a bitter fruit, and “Melaka” was a name derived from a tree. Some people thought “Melaka” might also refer to port or port emporium, from the influence of Arabic. The Arabic had also named another port in Spain as “Malaga”. Since the beginning of history, the Arabic not only had played a major role in marine transportation that connects the east and west, they had also dominated trade between the two worlds since 8th century. The Arabic control ended in 16th century after the European colonial entered Asia. Hence, it is actually logic to think that Melaka took its name as a seaport from Arabic.

Based on the ancient Indian texts, the term “Malaya” existed before “Melayu”. In the well-known Indian epic poem Ramayana, the term “Malayadvipa” (mountain island) was used. “Dvipa” was added at the end of “Malaya”, the small island that was commonly known as Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. The old Indian texts also mentioned the Malay Peninsula as a land of gold, similar to ancient Greek texts that referred the place as golden peninsula. Following this thread, the development of “Malaya” to “Melayu” is a process of “mountain” and “mountain island” evolving into the concept of “Orang Gunung”. Of course, some subtle changes in tone may have taken place during the process.

The transformation of Malay language

As a matter of fact, “Melayu” is spelled different in Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English. The Malay language itself has also gone through quite some changes, spanning from the ancient Malay, classical Malay to modern Malay. In terms of writing system, it has been written using various scripts. When did “Orang Gunung” evolved into an ethnicity? Historians have different views. Some believed that the concept was formed during the Melaka Sultanate; some thought that it took place as late as 18th century; some even considered the idea of Malay ethnicity was a product of 20th century.

Based on history evidence, Malay ethnic only accounts to 7% of Indonesian’s population. The Malay language has been the common language along the coastline of Malay Archipelago, but it is not widely known elsewhere. This is why it is unreasonable to consider Malay ethnic as the dominating ethnic of all ethnicities in the archipelago. In fact, in the old Javanese used in Majapahit kingdom (13th-16th century), “Nusantara”, a combination of “Nusa”, which means country or region; and “Antara”, which means in between, had stated Java’s superior position over other island or kingdom. This is a variation of Indian language. (Original Sanskrit term should be Dvipantara)

Further research shows that the term “Malay Archipelago” has been introduced as late as 1855. Prior to that, the region was referred as Eastern Archipelago, Asian Archipelago or East Indian Archipelago by the Dutch East India Company (1602-1799) or British East India Company (1600-1858).

“Malaya” demotes the Malay?

The terms Malaysia or Indonesia were only commonly used after 1880. In other words, before 1880, this region was widely known as East India but not Malay World. Initially, Malaysia and Indonesia were synonyms that were referred to Malay Archipelago. However, in 1920, with the rise of Indonesia nationalism sentiment, the Indonesian nationalists ended the East India term by replacing it with “Indonesia”. Along with this, “Malaysia” had become the common term for Malay World or Malay Archipelago. It was after 1963 when “Malaysia” was first referred as a country’s name. Prior to that, in 1957-1963, Malay Archipelago was known as the Federation of Malaya. This term appeared in The Federation of Malaya Agreement in 1948.

It is worth pointing out that in early 20th century, many Malay nationalists did not like the term “Malaya”, it was seen as a term that demote the position of the Malay, and they insisted using the term “Melayu”. The reason is simply because they did not realize that “Malaya” was the precursor of “Melayu”. Also, they did not notice that Indonesian has different understanding towards “Melayu” compared to the Malay from Malay Archipelago. This can be clearly seen in the Indonesians’ choice to use the term “Indonesia Raya” over “Melayu Raya”. They see “Melayu” as an ethnicity (Suku Bangsa) within the Indonesian nation (Bangsa Indonesia).

Instead of “Malaya”, the Malays chose to use the term “Melayu”. As a result of that, the Federation of Malaya was translated as “Persekutuan Tanah Melayu” in Malay, which means the federation of Malay land. The other interesting incident happened during the independence in 1957, UMNO decided to use “Malaysia” as the state’s name. But MCA was inclined to use “Malayu”. UMNO later agreed to use “Malayu”. However, after 1963, all had agreed to use “Malaysia”, which means “the land of mountain people”, a combination of “Malayu” in Sanskrit and “ia” in Greek.

Original Source: 从Malaya到Melayu

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