Yawning Bread. July 2007

A more complex history of 'Malay'

by Dreamhunter





Your article Who is Malay? has incorporated some interesting and historically sound information, such as the ancient migration of Malay peoples from Taiwan southwards to Philippines (not its name then) to Borneo (an Anglicised version of Beruni) onward to Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.

On the other hand, your assertion of Malacca as the lone currently politically accepted cradle of Malay civilisation in Malaysia is incorrect. The oldest Malay kingdom is accepted as Kedah, the seat of the greater Langkasuka coalition of kingdoms in northern Malaya, which also included Pattani, Beruas (Gangga Negara), Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang.

There is no problem among peninsula Malays about Sriwijaya [1] which is acknowledged by all Malays as the classical Malay empire. Langkasuka itself for a while became a tribute kingdom of Sriwijaya. Malays also have no problem about their ancestors being mixed Hindu/Buddhist/animist. Well, you can't deny history, can you?

(The borders shown in the map are modern
ones, for indicative purposes only)

In case, you haven't come across this information, the first kingdom called 'Melayu' was founded around Sungai Melayu (Melayu River), a tributary of Sungai Batang Hari, in an area called Jambi, in south-eastern Sumatra. Sriwijaya invaded and conquered Melayu some time in the 7th century. However, the linguistic and cultural traditions of the Melayu or Jambi kingdom survived and prevailed, in fact grew and spread further under Sriwijaya, so much so that more or less the whole Sriwijaya realm adopted them and made them their own.

Jambi is situated just north of Palembang, the seat of the Sriwijaya empire. In 1088, the Dharmasraya royal family of Melayu/Jambi invaded Palembang and conquered it, thus achieving a reverse takeover of Sriwijaya which they maintained for the next two centuries.

The sprawling Sriwijaya realm throughout its long history maintained several regional capitals, presumably to facilitate trade with neighbouring kingdoms. The Khmer or Kemboja kingdom in its early years was a tributary state of Sriwijaya. So too was a Siamese kingdom called Nakhon Si Thammasoke [2] in southern Siam/northern Malaya which assumed the official name of Sriwijaya Suvarna Bhumi (Sriwijaya Land of Gold).

There has also been a long history of ethnic interaction between Burmans, Thais, Malays, Khmers, Annamese, Chams and other South East Asian ethnic groups. The Mekong riverine system could be a likely link, a land link in much the same way the sea link connected peninsula Malays with their archipelagic counterparts. The Chams for example, who ruled in today's central and southern Vietnam [3] were a Malay people with their own kingdom. The oldest kingdom in South East Asia was the Funan kingdom which very likely was a mixed Burmese/Thai/Malay/Khmer/etc. realm [4]

Then again, if you speak to a Thai ultra-nationalist, he'd tell you that the whole of mainland South East Asia comprises various branches of the lost ancient Thai race (which may be because he'd like to one day reunite into a single Thai kingdom). Whereas, a Kedah royalist would tell you that ancient Siam was in fact first founded by a Kedah prince. So, there you go.

Thus, when you read "Malay", the term has many levels of meaning depending on the context in which it appears. On a Malaysian daily, it would mean "Malaysian Malay". Whereas on an anthropological research paper, it could mean anything relating to the entire Malay archipelago.

Thus, in a narrow sense, and out of nationalistic pride, a Javanese man wouldn't say he's a Malay. But in a broader sense, the Javanese are also members of the larger Malay ethnic family, which in turn is a member of the even larger Malayo-Melanesian-Polynesian-Austronesian family.

Finally, here's an interesting mention from Wikipedia's entry on the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya:

During much of the fifteenth century Ayutthaya's energies were directed toward the Malay Peninsula, where the great trading port of Malacca contested its claims to sovereignty. Ayutthaya was successful with the military support of Ming China and Japan, who wanted to share the wealth of trade at Malacca. The northernmost loose confederations of Malay states were not well bound to Palembang, the Srivijayan capital. During this time, they stretched all the way north as far as modern day Chumporn, and far south including Pattani. It is highly probable that the entire Indochina region was occupied by Malay peoples before the arrival of the Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Burmese, of whom were pushed south or killed. Places across the region from Vietnam to Burma still bear Malay names. 

You'd notice the sentence in it inferring that the entire Indo-China region could likely have been an almost completely Malay-inhabited area, before Malays were pushed out south, killed off etc. by later arrivals from neighbouring regions. Perhaps the Malay peoples have an unfortunate natural tendency to be too laid back, too friendly, too welcoming to strangers, too gentle etc. all of which may have not been too good for themselves in the end?  


Foreword by Yawning Bread

This is adapted from an email sent to me by a reader from Malaysia after he saw my earlier article Who is Malay?

He was originally from Kelantan, but now lives in Kuala Lumpur. History is his hobby, he reports.



  1. Note by Yawning Bread: Sometimes spelt as Sri Vijaya 
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  2. Note by Dreamhunter: Doesn't the name Thammasoke ring a bell? Tones of Temasik, perhaps? You see, Temasik was also at different times a vassal state of Siam.
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  3. Note by Yawning Bread: Champa, their kingdom, was extant between the 7th and 17th centuries, BCE. After a major defeat by the Vietnamese in 1471, more and more of Champa was absorbed into the Vietnamese kingdom. This date also marks the beginning of an exodus of Chams into Cambodia, where they are now a notable minority among the Khmers.
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  4. Note by Yawning Bread: Funan, which first appeared in Chinese historical records in the 1st century CE, had disappeared by about the 5th century CE, and so readers should be careful not to confuse it into the story of Sriwijaya, which came later.
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  5. Note by Dreamnhunter: If I may suggest, try looking up 'Langkasuka', 'Sriwijaya', 'Malay World', 'Nusantara', 'Ancient Malay Kingdoms' & 'Malay Archipelago' for further reading.



  1. See also the article Is there really a race called 'Malays'? by Michael. It was originally written as a comment to this article, but was so long that Yawning Bread decided to make it stand as a guest article in its own right.
  2. See also a further piece by Dreamhunter: Southeast Asian royal families and West Asian links.