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The Malays

The Real Malay
by Sir Frank Swettenham

To begin to understand the Malay you must live in his country, speak his language, respect his faith, be interested in his interests, humour his prejudices, sympathise with and help him in trouble, and share his pleasures and possibly his risks. Only thus can you. hope to win his confidence. Only through that confidence can you hope to understand the inner man, and this knowledge can therefore only come to those who have the opportunity and use it.

So far the means of studying Malays in their own country (where alone they are seen in their true character) have fallen to few Europeans,, and a very small proportion of them have shown an inclination get into the, hearts of the people. There are a hundred thousand Malays in Perak and some more in other parts of the Peninsula; and the white man, whose interest in the race is strong enough, may not only win confidence but the devotion that is ready to give life itself in the cause of friendship. The Scripture says: "There is no greater thing than this," and in the end of the nineteenth century that is a form of friendship all too rare.Fortunately this. is a thing you cannot buy, but to gain it is worth some effort.

One of the architects of British Malaya, Frank Swettenham arrived in the Malay Peninsula in 1871 and, in subsequent years, became appointed the British Resident in Selangor and Perak, Resident General of the Federated Malay States and, finally, Governor of the Staraits Settlement and High Commissioner of the Malay States in 1901. This was in no small part due to his keen interest in the country and its people - he was known as one who lived with them, spoke their language and respected their faith, in spite of his own English prejudices.

The real Malay is short, thick-set. well.-built man, with straight black hair, a dark. brown complexion, thick nose and lips, and bright intelligent eyes. His disposition is generally kindly, his manners are polite and easy. Never cringing, he is reserved with strangers and suspicious, though he does not show it. He is courageous and trustworthy in the discharge of an undertaking; but he is extravagant, fond of borrowing money. and very slow in repaying it. He is a good talker, speaks in parables, quotes proverbs and wise saws, has a strong sense of humour, and is very fond of a good joke. He takes an interest in the affairs of his neighbours and is consequently a gossip. He is a Muhammadan and a fatalist but he is also very superstitious. He never drinks intoxicants, he is rarely an opium-smoker. But he is fond of gambling,, cock-fighting,' and kindred sports. He is by nature a sportsman; catches and tames elephants; is a skilful fisherman, and thoroughly at home in a boat.

Above all things, he is conservative to a degree, is proud and fond of country and his people, venerates his ancient customs and traditions, fears his Rajas, and has a proper respect for constituted authority - while he looks askance on all innovations, and will resist their sudden introduction. But if he has time to examine them carefully, and they are not thrust upon him, he is willing to be convinced of their advantage. At the same time he is a good imitative learner, and, when he has energy and ambition enough for the task, makes a good mechanic. He is however lazy to a degree, is without method or order of any kind. knows no regularity even in the hours of his meals, and considers time as of no importance. His house is untidy, even dirty but he bathes twice a day, and is very fond of personal adornment in the shape of smart clothes.

A Malay is intolerant of insult or slight; it is something that to him should be wiped out in blood. He will brood over a real or fancied stain on his honour until he is possessed by the desire for revenge. If he cannot wreak it on the offender, he will strike out at the first human being that comes in his way, male or female, old or young. It is this state of blind fury, this vision of blood, that produces the amok. The Malay has often be called treacherous. I question whether he deserves the reproach more then other men. He is courteous and expects courtesy in return, and he understands only one method of avenging personal insults.

The spirit of the clan is also strong in him. He acknowledges the necessity of carrying out, even blindly, the orders of his hereditary, chief, while he will protect his own relatives at all costs and make their quarrel his own.

The giving of gifts by Raja to subject or subject to ruler, is a custom now falling into desuetude, but it still prevails on the occasion of the accession of a Raja, the appointment of high officers, a. marriage, a circumcision ear-piercing or similar ceremony. As with other Eastern people, hospitality is to the Malay a sacred duty fulfilled by high and low, rich and poor alike.

Though the. Malay is an Islam by profession, and would suffer crucifixion sooner than deny his faith, he is not a bigot; indeed, his tolerance compares favourably with that of the professing Christian, and, when he thinks of these matters at all, he believes that the absence of hypocrisy is the beginning of religion. He has a sublime faith in God, the immortality of the soul, a heaven of ecstatic earthly delights, and a hell of punishments, which every individual is so confident will not be his own portion that the idea of its existence presents no terrors.

Christian missionaries of all denominations have apparently abandoned the hope of his conversion.

In his youth, the Malay boy is often beautiful ... a thing of wonderful eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows, with a far-away expression of sadness and solemnity, as though he had left some better place for a compulsory exile on earth.

Those eyes, which are extraordinary large and clear, seem filled with a pained wonder at all they see here, and they give the impression of a constant effort to open ever wider and wider in search of something they never find. Unlike the child of Japan, this cherub never looks as if his nurse had forgotten to wipe his nose. He is treated with elaborate respect if he so desires, eats when he is hungry, has no toys, is never whipped, and hardly ever cries.

Until he is fifteen or sixteen, this atmosphere of a better world remains about him. He is often studious even, and duly learns to read the Koran in a language he does not understand.

Then, well then,. from sixteen to twenty-five or later he is to be avoided. He takes his pleasure,. sows his wild oats like youths of a higher civilisation, is extravagant, open-handed, gambles, gets into debt, run away with his neighbour's wife and generally asserts himself. Then follows a period when he either adopts this path and pursues it, or, more commonly, he weans himself gradually from an indulgence that has not altogether realised his expectation, and if, under the advise of older men, he seeks and obtains a position of credit and usefulness in society from which he begins at last to earn some profit, he will from the age of forty, probably develop into an intelligent man of miserly and rather grasping habits with some one little pet indulgence of no very expensive kind.

The Malay girl-child is not usually so attractive in appearance as the boy, and less consideration is shown to her. She runs wild till the time comes for investing her in a garment, that is to say when she is about five years old. From then, she is taught to help in the house and kitchen, to sew, to read and write, perhaps to work in the padi field, but she is kept out of the way of all strange menkind. When fifteen or sixteen, she is often almost interesting; very shy, very fond of pretty clothes and ornaments, not uncommonly much fairer in complexion than the Malay man, with small hands and feet, a happy smiling face, good teeth, and wonderful eyes and eyebrows - the eyes of the little Malay boy. The Malay girl is proud of a wealth of straight, black hair, of a spotless olive complexion, of the arch of her brow - "like a one-day-old moon" - of the curl of her eyelashes, and of the dimples in cheek or chin.

Unmarried girls are taught to avoid all men except those nearly related to them. Until marriage, it is considered unmaidenly for them to raise their eyes or take any part or interest in their surroundings when men are present. This leads to an affectation of modesty which, however over-strained, deceives nobody.

After marriage, a woman gets a considerable amount of freedom which she naturally values. In Perak a man, who tries to shut his womankind up and prevent their intercourse with others and a participation in the fetes and pleasures of Malay society, is looked upon as a jealous, ill-conditioned person. Malays are extremely particular about questions of rank and birth, especially when it comes to marriage, and mesalliances, as understood in the West, are with them very rare.

The general characteristics of Malay women, especially those of gentle birth, are powers of intelligent conversation, quickness in repartee, a strong sense of humour and an instant appreciation of the real meaning of those hidden sayings which are hardly even absent from their conversation. They are fond of reading such literature as their language offers, and they use uncommon words and expressions, the meanings of which are hardly known to men. For the telling of secrets, they have secret modes of speech not understanded of the people.

They are generally amiable in disposition, mildly - sometimes fiercely - jealous, often extravagant and, up to about the age of forty, evince increasing fondness for Jewellery and smart clothes. In these latter days they are developing a pretty taste for horses, carriages, and whatever conduces to luxury and display, though, in their houses, there are still a rugged simplicity and untidiness, absolutely devoid of all sense of order.

A Malay is allowed by law to have as many as four wives, to divorce them, and replace them. If he is well off and can afford so much luxury, he usually takes advantage of the power to marry more than one wife, to divorce and secure successors; but he seldom undertakes the responsibility of four wives at one time. The woman on her part can, and of ten does, obtain a divorce from her husband. Written conditions of marriage, "settlements" of a kind, are common with people in the upper classes, and the law provides for the custody of children, division of property, and so on. The ancient maiden lady is an unknown quantity, so is the Malay public woman; and, as there is no society bugbear, the people lead lives that are almost natural. There are no drunken husbands, no hobnail boots, and no screaming viragoes - because a word would get rid of them. All. forms of madness, mania, and brain-softening are extremely rare.

The Malay has ideas on the subject of marriage, ideas born of his infinite experience. He has even soared into regions of matrimonial philosophy, and returned with such crumbs of lore as never fall to the poor monogamist.

I am not going to give away the secrets of the life behind the curtain; if I wished to do so I might trip over difficulties of expression; but in spite of the Malay's reputation for bloodthirstiness, in spite of (or because of, whichever you please) the fact that he is impregnated with the doctrines of Islam, in spite of his sensitive honour and his proneness to revenge, and in spite of his desire to keep his own women (when young and attractive) away from the prying eyes of other men, he yet holds this uncommon faith, that if he has set his affections on a woman, and for any reason he is unable at once to make her his own, he cares not to how many others she allies herself provided she becomes his before time has robbed her of her physical attractions.

His reason is this. He says (certainly not to a stranger, rarely even to his Malay friends, but to himself) "if, after all this experience, she like me best, I have no fear that she will wish to go further afield. All Malay girls marry before they are twenty, and the woman who has only known one husband, however attractive he may be, will come sooner or later to the conviction that life with another promises new and delightful experiences not found in the society of the first man to whom destiny and her relatives have chosen to unite her. Thus some fool persuades her that in his worship and passion she will find the World's Desire, and it is only after perhaps a long and varied experience that she realises that, having started for a voyage on the ocean, she finds herself seated at the bottom of a dry well'.

It is possible that thus she becomes acquainted with truth.

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