Research Paper Ph. D. in Sociology Program Colonial Construction of Malayness: The Influence of Population Size and Composition Kiran Sagoo

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Research Paper

Ph.D. in Sociology Program

Colonial Construction of Malayness:

The Influence of Population Size and Composition

Kiran Sagoo


This paper focuses on the colonial construction of Malayness, and argues that demographic factors and population size had a major influence in determining the boundaries of Malayness. Using census categories as a tool for analysis, the first part of the paper focuses on migrants from the Dutch East Indies who were classified under the category of ‘Malays and other Natives of the Archipelago’, and demonstrates that the absolute and relative population size of these communities and the Malay population in relation to other communities, was a major factor which determined their inclusion into the above category which laid down the boundaries of Malayness.
The second part of the paper focuses on the Chinese Peranakan, Jawi Peranakan, Samsam and Arab communities and assesses the role of religion and culture as factors determining Malayness. This paper is solely confined to the discussion of Malayness in the Straits Settlements,1 Federated Malay States2 and Unfederated Malay States3 under the British colonial period.

Race and Ethnicity in Malaysia: Background

Malaysia’s present population of approximately 26 million4 is ethnically classified under four major categories of ‘Bumiputera’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Others’. The Bumiputera - ‘sons of the soil’ are the major ethnic category consisting of about 65% of Malaysia’s population. The term Bumiputera includes Malays and other non-Malay indigenous groups. The Chinese are the next largest ethnic group at 26% of the population, followed by the Indians at 8%. Other minority ethnic groups that do not fall under any of the above headings are categorized as ‘Others’ and this group makes up 1% of the total population5. Islam is the major religion, with over 60% of the population stating themselves as Muslim. Approximately 19% of Malaysians are Buddhists, 9% are Christians, 6% are Hindus and over 2% follow Confucianism / Taoism or other Chinese religions.6

Ethnicity is a crucial defining factor in Malaysia. While scholars have shifted away from the primordialist and circumstantialist approach to ethnicity, and approach race and ethnicity as socially constructed categories that evolve according to time and space, ethnicity plays out as being real and rigid in Malaysia. The relevance of ethnicity in everyday activities such as finding a room to rent or a job is illustrated through advertisements from leading Malaysian English newspapers7.


  • Sect. 3. Shah Alam, B’glow hse, near MARA Institute / shop, easy access. Malay girls only. 016-3700914

  • OUG, Old Klang Road. Furnished with bathroom. Working Chinese lady. Privacy. RM300. 012-2507199

  • Sect 6, PJ. Part furnished at RM250. Available 01/01/04, Indian house.

Tel: 03-79800133


  • Section 17/1A. 2 rooms, rental RM700 per month. Chinese family only.

Tel: 78051589


  • Litigation clerk cum typist (b)

(SPM / STPM, 2 years relevant working experience, age below 35, preferably Chinese)

  • Accounts Officer (b)

Minimum SPM with LCCI higher / diploma in accounting. Able to keep full set of account. Computer literate. Familiar with Acctrak 21 accounting software. Chinese female preferred. Remuneration will commensurate with qualification & experience.

  • Security Guards (c)

Minimum SRP. Strong and healthy. Age 30 – 45 years. Able to work shift / public holidays. Bumiputera preferred.

  • Lorry Driver (c)

An established company in Jln Ipoh required urgently Lorry driver & general workers any race. Call 4046288.

It is common practice and socially acceptable to list preferences for “Malay only” or “Chinese only” applicants. Social differentiation is so strong that the term race instead of ethnicity is used in everyday discourse. Fenton (2003:43) however points out that the term ‘race’ in Malaysia, while stemming from the colonial period, does not have the same resonance as when used in the United Kingdom or the United States of America. For this paper, the term ethnicity will be used.

The current ethnic classifications of ‘Malay’, Chinese’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Others’ mask the diversities of ethnicities within each category. The development of these categories can be traced back to colonial practices, with the census playing a major role in shaping these categories. The fluidity of the boundaries of Malayness is well recognized (Andaya 2001, Nagata 1974, Shamsul 2004) and continues to be challenged. This paper will focus on the creation of the category of ‘Malays and Other Natives of the Archipelago’ which first appeared in the 1891 Straits Settlements census and the various ethnicities it compassed that have influenced the boundaries of Malayness today.

Ethnic Identity Formation

Sociologically theories of ‘primordialism’ and ‘circumstantialism’ have been largely replaced by the ‘constructionist’ approach to ethnic formation. Under the primordialist approach, emphasis is placed on kinship and ancient history, which are regarded as ‘primordial attachments’. Ethnicity is thus seen as being fixed, rooted and unchangeable (Geertz 1963). This ‘basic group identity’ as explained by Isaac (1975:38) ‘consists of the ready-made set of endowments and identifications that every individual shares with others from the moment of birth by the chance of the family into which he is born at that given time in that given place’.
The primordialist approach has been criticized as it ignores possible changes in ethnic affiliation and the construction of new ethnic categories, which change according to time and space. For example, the categories of ‘Asia-American’, ‘Latino’ and ‘Pacific Islander’ are recent ethnic constructions whose categories still remain contested. It also ignores situations where individuals choose to given up their ethnic identity and adopt another as in the case of the Pathans abandoning their identities in favor of Baluchi (Barth 1969:117). Furthermore, ascriptive factors that influence ethnic boundaries such as physical appearance, language and religion vary according to the situation. For example, (Chan 1983:267) points to the Dutch (Protestant) Eurasian community conversion to Catholicism, and assimilation into the larger Portuguese Eurasian population, a few generations after the end of Dutch rule in Malacca, Malaysia. A previously rigid religious boundary that divided the Protestant and Catholic churches was no longer as important. In many places in the developing world, prominent ethnic groups are a recent phenomenon, emerging in importance only in the 20th century (Chai 2005:3).
The circumstantialist approach, on the other hand, largely regards ethnicity as deriving from its circumstances. While acknowledging that having a shared culture continues to be important, Glazer and Moynihan (1975) argue that members of ethnic groups were also linked through ties of interest. Cornell and Hartmann (1998:58) summarize the circumstantialist approach as “individuals and groups emphasize their own ethnic or racial identities when such identities are in some way advantageous to them. They emphasize the ethnic or racial identities of others when it is advantageous to set those others apart or to establish a boundary between those viewed as eligible for certain goods and those viewed as ineligible”. Access to opportunities, whether political or economic, appear to be a driving factor influencing ethnic choices. Other analyses which include Olzak’s (1992) ’competition theory’ and Banton’s (Banton and Mansor 1992) rational choice theory, have stressed the access to opportunities element. Under the circumstantialist approach, ethnic boundaries are fluid and individuals adapt according to the situation, with competition and conflict being a major influencing factor. However, the continuous prominence of ethnicity that emerges beyond economic, social or political factors contests this approach (Chai 2005:3).
The limitations of the above two approaches have given rise to a new approach known as the constructionist approach. The constructionist approach combines the above two approaches, with individuals using their identities in pursuit of their goals, but doing little to shape, reinforce or transform their identities (Cornell and Hartmann 1998:73). Among the factors influencing the construction of ethnicity are share political, economic or social interests, for example gaining employment, resistance to public policies or protection of rights from claims of other groups (Cornell and Hartmann 1998:86), a situation which clearly emerges in the construction of Malaysness and also the other categories of Peranakan Chinese, Jawi Peranakan, Samsam and Arabs. Other factors include having shared social institutions or culture (Cornell and Hartmann 1998:86), or political factors such as immigration, resource competition or political access (Nagel 1994:157). In contrast with the circumstantial approach, ethnic boundaries may continue to persist, even after the original interest-based reasons for their creation no longer exists. An ethnic label can either be assigned to a group by others, or the group itself may assert its own identity. Cornell and Hartmann (1998:83) also propose that ethnic identity could be ‘thick’ where it dominates social, political and economic organization, or ‘thin’ where it is a much less comprehensive organizer of social life. This comprehensiveness of ethnic identities can change over time.
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