The Indian peranakans of Malaysia
19 March 2012
The tiny Melaka Chitty community offers important lessons on diversity and the strength of flexible identity.
Since taking over as prime minister of Malaysia in 2009, Datuk Seri Najib Razak has been promoting a particular vision of nation-building, encapsulated in the catchy slogan ‘1Malaysia’. In an interview in 2010, the prime minister explained that he aims to strengthen Malaysian society by encouraging a spirit of tolerance that would gradually lead to the acceptance and, finally, celebration of Malaysia’s significant cultural diversity. According to official publications, 1Malaysia seeks to strengthen the relationships and cooperation among the country’s multi-ethnic peoples. While critics say that the concept merely re-packages old Malaysian ‘moderate’ values into a new public-relations tool for the Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition, many others believe that if properly implemented, the campaign could be a step in the right direction. While a clear roadmap of how this pluralistic society – where ethnic identities are endemic and political – can achieve such an ideal has yet to emerge, Malaysia’s experience is of interest to countries across South and Southeast Asia for its capacity to maintain a fragile ethnic balance and minimise ethnic conflict.
In Malaysia, it has been rare for hybrid identities to survive into the modern period. For economic expediency, the British divided the indigenous Malay, Indian and Chinese diasporas by occupation and therefore also by geographic location. In part, this was similar to the divide-and-conquer policies used by the British elsewhere in the colonies, including between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India. In Malaysia, the Indians were employed in the rubber estates and other plantations, the Chinese in the tin mines, while the Malays remained in agriculture and fishing. Inevitably, this resulted in a society deeply divided along ethnic lines.
Against this complicated background, the forefathers of Malayan independence confronted the daunting task of maintaining the fragile multi-ethnic balance within the framework of the Constitution of Malaya, as the country was called prior to independence (not including ‘East’ Malaysia, consisting of the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak). After the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, Britain’s overriding concern was to unite Malaya under one federation. Ironically but unsurprisingly, British efforts at crafting a constitution for an independent Malaya were hampered by the ethnic cleavages they themselves had created. As a consequence, the build-up to independence saw the growth of Malay nationalism and the emergence of three ethnically exclusive political parties: the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).
Though Malaya gained its independence from the British in 1957, the Federation of Malaysia only came into existence in 1963 with the amalgamation of Sabah and Sarawak as well as Singapore (which left the federation shortly thereafter). From the start, the political stability of multi-ethnic Malaysia was premised on the numerical majority and political primacy of the ethnic Malays, who together with the indigenous populations of Sabah and Sarawak were entitled to special constitutionally enshrined rights as bumiputeras – sons of the soil. At the same time, the Constitution guaranteed protection of the genuine and legitimate interests of the non-Malay communities. Since then, both at the federal and the state levels, Malaysian politics has been organised around ethnicity and race.
Today, most Malaysians continue to define their identity primarily by race. Indeed, it is rare to come across hybrid Malaysian communities that practice multiculturalism and do not classify themselves as solely Malay, Chinese or Indian, particularly because the state’s distribution of resources is based on race. In other words, no one wants to be left behind with respect to access to government employment, scholarships or education, sectors that have race-based quotas.
Yet unknown to many Malaysians, for the last 600 years a small community (today about 700 people) known as the Melaka Chittys has been quietly practicing the values espoused by 1Malaysia, imbibing neighbouring ethnicities, languages and cultures to create a hybrid identity. Malaysia’s ethnic politics and cultural diversity have long drawn the attention of scholars from around the world, but even 54 years after independence this society continues to be viewed primarily through the prism of its most dominant and visible ethnic communities. Its numerous smaller hybrid communities, meanwhile, remain largely unknown. In fact, in official parlance they are often classified under the vague category of ‘Others’, though the Chittys themselves are lumped together with the ‘Indians’.
The Melaka Chittys live tucked away in Gajah Berang, a small village on the shores of the famed Melaka Strait that was given to them by Dutch colonisers in 1781. Now it is located in the heart of the historic town of Melaka. Also known as the ‘straits-born Hindus’ or the ‘Indianperanakans’ (the Malay word for ‘local born’), the heterogeneous Chitty community was born of a long history of inter-marriage between women from the local Malay, Javanese, Chinese and Batak communities and Indian traders from Kalinga (presumably in modern-day Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, though most today claim to be of Tamil origin). These latter settled in Melaka during the heyday of the spice trade in the early 15th century, long before the arrival of the European colonisers. In fact, the Chittys trace their roots back to the days of the founder of the Melaka sultanate, King Parameswara (1344-1414).
While the Chittys went on to assimilate an extraordinary mix of cultural practices due to these mixed marriages, two distinct features continue to define them 600 years later. First is their steadfast adherence to Hinduism; second, a local Malay patois that is their lingua franca. Local sources at Gajah Berang suggest that while the Indian men remained loyal to their religion over hundreds of years, their local wives introduced a host of local practices, food and clothing into their households. The results have been fascinating. The Chittys unwaveringly observe Hindu festivals and auspicious days with much fanfare, but the offerings made to the gods – nasi lemak, kuih-muih, chili achar – are obviously influenced by Malay cuisine.
Chitty wedding attire is another striking example. The groom wears traditional South Indian outfits, while the bride holds her own in an ethnic Baba-Nyonya headdress and the Malay baju kebaya panjang labuh. In fact, the Baba-Nyonya are themselves a mixed community, emerging as a result of Chinese-Malay intermarriages. Locals in Gajah Berang suggest that the Baba-Nyonya and Chittys also bonded due to intermarriage; as a result, the Chittys borrowed the Baba-Nyonya bridal headdress for their own wedding ceremonies. The baju kebaya, meanwhile, is the traditional clothing for Malay women; the panjang (long) labuh (loose) refers to the types worn by Malay women in the neighbouring state of Johor.
It is interesting to note that despite their mixed heritage and dilution of their Indian ethnicity, the Chitty community is still generally seen as Indian in Malaysia. Yet in a country where an overwhelming majority of Indians speak Tamil, the Chittys stand out as having consistently used the Malay language for six centuries. In fact, most Chittys speak no Tamil whatsoever except for religious purposes, and even then it is sparingly used. At the same time, it is very common in a Chitty home today to find members belonging to an array of ethnic communities. Chitty cuisine is also indicative of all these multicultural influences, particularly of the Malays.
How has Chitty culture survived in spite of frequent intermarriage? The answer, simply, is that when a Chitty man marries a non-Chitty woman, the bride is required to ‘adapt’ to the Chitty way of life, embracing Hindu practices, the Malay language and a host of other Chitty cultural practices. At the same time, the woman is free to introduce additional cultural practices of her own into the house, especially when it comes to food and dress (and historically, the locally spoken Malay language). Some believe that such compromises have allowed the Chitty way of life to continue despite dwindling numbers and constant intermarriages.
Now, however, many older Chittys lament that members of the younger generation are quickly leaving behind their unique heritage and assimilating into the mainstream Tamil Indian culture of Malaysia. This may be particularly true for those who marry ethnic Indian women, adopt mainstream Tamil Indian cultural traits, send their children to Tamil-language schools and seek to recover what they see as a ‘lost’ language and culture. On a deeper level, this ‘return’ to their original ‘pure’ ethnic ancestry could be regarded as an attempt to belong to the mainstream ethnic communities by shedding the image of marginalisation. There are others, however, who believe that the unique Chitty identity must be maintained at all costs.
The history of the Melaka Chitty has yet to be recorded by professional historians. This lack of scholarship rests primarily on the absence of written records within the Chitty community, as most such documents have been lost over the last six centuries. Most Chittys feel that over time they have also lost their sense of community and their connection to their history and culture; old traditions of oral history and storytelling are fast disappearing.
A local group, the Chitty Cultural Association, has taken the initiative to locate, collect and preserve the few historical sources that remain. A small museum in Gajah Berang appears to be the community’s most complete and perhaps its only local repository of historical narrative. The association believes that some relevant primary documents still survive in archives in India, Indonesia and Portugal; the Chittys in Singapore, who migrated to the island soon after its separation from Malaysia, also possess some historical photographs. At the moment, however, the exact whereabouts of this potential documentation is unknown. If located, preserved and made accessible, such documents would be invaluable to the study of Melaka Chitty history – and could also offer today’s Malaysians an increased sense of their shared past and identity.
Consequently, today very few Malaysians are even aware of the existence of this unique community, and often confuse the Chittys with the better-known Indian trading caste, or chettiars. In the early Melaka period, the Chittys had wielded considerable influence in the court, and even held high offices like that of the syahbandar (harbour master) andbendahara (a position almost equal to the prime minister). However, they later earned a degree of unpopularity for indirectly siding with the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511 in return for trade privileges, as part of a power contest with the Indian Muslims who also wielded considerable power under the Melaka sultanate. Over the years, however, the Chittys have become less visible due to decreasing numbers, intermarriages as well as migration to Singapore, where many have converted to Christianity.
While the Chittys themselves believe that their history provides valuable lessons for today’s 1Malaysia campaign, this diminishing community today faces a serious identity crisis. Even as many Chitty men marrying Indian women now identify less with their Chitty roots, some continue to hold on to their unique ways and practices, which have historically merged with original Tamil culture to create something exceptional and truly Malaysia. In recent years, as Malaysian Indians have asserted their own identities more strongly, the Chittys have remained generally untouched by this process. In fact, the Chitty Cultural Association recently made a request to the government, noting that due to the community’s unique heritage and historical roots in Melaka state, it should be granted the status of bumiputera like the other mixed communities, such as the descendants of the early Portuguese settlers in Melaka.
Among the Chittys, the notion of 1Malaysia exists and already has a history. Whether this history can be replicated once again in a country that has been practising ethnic politics since its independence remains to be seen. But given their minuscule numbers, rapidly diminishing identity and lack of visibility, it is highly unlikely that their unique heritage can be held up as an example of how ‘unity in diversity’ can be achieved through the creation of new communities through inter-marriage. Furthermore, as long as the historically created ethnic-based political parties continue to exist in present-day Malaysia, the three major races will continue to cling to their own identities, thus effectively negating any historical gain that may have been made by such hybrid communities.
~ Anindita Dasgupta is an associate professor of history at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur.
~ K Nadarajan Raja is secretary of the Chitty Cultural Association and a former chairperson of the Chitty Museum in Melaka.