Thursday, March 31, 2011
THE IDEA BEHIND THE IDEA
Image by Stuck in Customs via Flickr
By Howl Pillay
Bumiputra. From the Sanskrit--Bumi (Earth,Land) and Putra (Sons, Inheritors). Give us any Malay word and we can easily trace its roots to Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, English, Portuguese and Spanish.
But tracing the origin of words does not tell us why and how certain words and terms came into use in a particular way. Why did the Malays choose “Bumiputra” to express a political idea, an idee fixe and an ideology ? Does the word “Bumiputra” unconsciously express an aspect of culture, a past or even a suppressed ‘race memory’ ? Here are some possible answers to these questions.
There is no more fascinating history than the history of South East Asia. It beats me why this history is not compulsory reading in our schools. Perhaps it is because education here has a strong political agenda. It remains a tool to propagate and perpetuate political and economic policies of the government. What a pity! And what else is “Interlok” all about ? What a shame! But those who have read South East Asian history know that its treasures are numerous!
So much of this history is turbulent-- waves of migration, wars, conquests, subjugation, depopulation, under-development, colonialism, cultural hegemonism and economic domination. But make no mistake. South East Asia has a real and formidable indigenous history. There is no finer example than the magnificent civilization of the Khmers centred around the fertile flood plain of the Tonle Sap lake, the Siem Reap River and the mighty Mekong River. These three distinct but interconnected water systems act as a huge natural hydraulic mechanism that stores and discharges live-giving waters in abundance for wet rice cultivation.
The Khmers worked their sophisticated, stunning and splendrous magic here for close to half a millennium. From the eighth to the thirteenth century the Khmer civilization with Angkor Wat as the pinnacle of her agricultural, artistic and architectural achievements was the Rome of South East Asia. No other civilization came close. Even the Bumiputra hero, Mahathir Mohamad found it hard to resist the form, grace and beauty of Khmer architecture-- the Petronas Twin Towers reflects the architecture of Angkor Wat, the jewel in the crown of all the temples in the Angkor complex.
I had the pleasure and privilege of travelling to Angkor and Kampuchea on many occasions. Both her ancient and modern history ( Pol Pot and Co ) had always and still fascinates me. I had over the years read books, articles and features on the Khmers-- Pierre Loti, D.G.E Hall. Chandler and Short. And then on a day, a bend in a muddy brown river, a wooden landing platform, graceful hand-made boats moored to it, coconut palms in a cleared patch, a cluster of houses on stilts and leading away into the distance, green fields of rice paddies, brown faces, sarongs and loosely tied headgear. They called it Kompong Snang or something. “My God! I have been here before!”, I said to myself. It could be anywhere in Malaysia but perhaps more so in the east coast. Kelantan or Trengganu.
And here just like in a Malay kampong the welfare of the community was more important than the achievements of an individual. For without communal work wet rice cultivation was doomed to fail. In ancient Angkorian society the division was even more pronounced between those who grew the rice and those who did not. In these Kompongs there were no kings, no nobles, no high officials. But everyone here shared an ambition-- to be “rescued from the mud” and become an elite of sorts. Few succeeded. Perhaps a tenth of the toiling masses. They became the clerks, artisans, master craftsmen, artists, dancers, concubines, high officials of state and priests together with favoured royal servants, their relatives and soldiers of a sophisticated civilization.
In this equivalent of Rome, the center of a veritable South East Asian Empire, as in pre-Islamic Malaya, ancestor worship was the glue that kept communities, clans and families together. This ancestor worship was markedly different from the ancestor worship of the Chinese centred on strict rules of naming newborns, maintaining surnames and of keeping genealogical records. Since genealogies were not maintained, all the ancestors were collectively termed in Khmer society as “Nak Ta”. They were the symbolic ancestral spirits of all the people in a particular place who by dying in that place came to pervade and patronize the very soil of the place.
In these ancestral places, the “Nak Ta” were benign, tame and could be spoken to. And those spirits in the forests or in abandoned places were thought to be malignant and powerful. “Nak Ta” in the form of good collective ancestral spirits were often asked to assist and intercede. If all this sounds familiar with bomoh culture, it is one and the same. And once the believe in “Nak Ta” pervading and patronizing the very soil of a place has firmly taken root, the continuity of habitation and continuity of sacredness of the land became the twin pillars (twin towers?) of much of South East Asian including Malay society. The “Balek Kampong” phenomenon involving millions in modern day Malaysia is an expression of these twin pillars.
So the French are right after all! The more things change, the more they are the same! And our Bumiputra brothers ( No! not those of the new Khir Toyo type immigrant ) springing from the soil that was inhabited, pervaded and patronized by their collective ancestral spirits, the “Nak Ta”, are reluctant to accept that many generations of Chinese and Indians now lay buried in this land. And many more will be buried here but these ancestral spirits will never be “Nak Ta-ed”.But why?
Perhaps “Nak Ta-fication” is a process similar to beatification in Catholicism-- a long, painstaking and cumbersome process which will no doubt include showing proof of a miracle or something close to it. Like showing how, as if by a miracle, Chinese and Indian genes are changed into Malay DNA!
Till then it is comforting to know worship of ancestral spirits is alive, well and powerful. And now we know where and how it all began!
at 7:23:00 AM