What Being Part of the Malay World Means to Me

Agnes arrived in Singapore this morning and I was with her the whole day, editing the surtitles for the upcoming performance. I think the slides look fine. What I’m nervous about is trusting myself to understand some of the Javanese lines, comprehend that, and coordinate myself, to click on the English translation.

One of the things she mentioned today was that one of her Singaporean friend is a descendant of one of the Javanese Keratons. I didn’t say much, but I was reminded of the chat I had with my mother last week or so. Apparently my maternal grandfather and his siblings came from Java and they were from one of the Javanese Keratons as well. We never knew the reason why they left Java, and we only knew that generation who left made the conscious effort to not to bring up the Keraton life or use royal titles in their names such as Raden. I myself, was never close to my grandfather, nor know the grandaunt who took care of my mum who passed away even before I was born. I know nothing of my Javanese roots.

Meanwhile, growing up, I’ve always known that my paternal grandad came to Singapore at a very young age, and is of the Bugis people of Riau Islands origin. My impression of Bugis people from what I read is that they are fierce pirates. My granddad is.. Well.. Patient and soft spoken, but perhaps because of old age. He sure loved the sea though and lived in Pulau Sekijang (now Lazarus Islands) when he came to Singapore. This bond to the sea seemed to pass down to three out of four sons, who chose a career in marine-related jobs.

For me, knowing that my origin is a mix of Javanese and Bugis-Riau means that I am part of the Malay World community, and this is with reference to the 15th century description of people living in the Andaman Sea, Sunda Strait, Malacca Strait and South China Sea area. To me, it’s more of a geographical meaning that I feel more connected to. Do I feel myself bonded to the Malay-Islam identity which arose from the introduction and spread of Islam as a religion here? I’m not sure. Do I feel myself boxed up by Malay as a race in Singapore’s racial category for its population? I don’t think so. I think focusing on the fact that I’m part of the Malay World gives me a better understanding of myself, to know that I share blood ties no matter how distant, and historical similarities with someone else who is living far away from me, gives me more excitement. And knowing that is enough. Life as a human who has basic respect for life, is good enough with me.

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