Religion & Culture of the Malay Archipelago

Addres to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, August 23rd, 2009

What is a Malay?

Having just returned from my third visit to Indonesia, and having previously spent some significant time in Timor-Leste, and somewhat less in Malaysia and Singapore one could be forgiven for thinking that I have an interest in the area. This interest is of course partially due to regional strategic proximity; located between our own country of Australia and the huge developing countries of China and India. The region is significantly different in climate, the tropics being quite a pleasant change to the equally enjoyable cool temperate seasons. Culturally - and economically - diverse and again vastly different to the Australia perspective, the Malay regions are a somewhat distant neighbour that we Australian know too little of - except for perhaps the tourist region of Kuta in Bali.

So I must confess a slight inaccuracy in the title of my address today. The title "Religion & Culture of the Malay Archipelago" romantically derives from the famous 19th century book by the British naturalist Alfred Wallace. But to make reference to "the Malay archipelago" is erroneous in two ways; first in a matter of some fact and secondly in the matter of definition. For the "Malay archipelago" is traditionally defined as the islands between south-east Asia and Australia and not peninsular Malaysia which will be part of this discussion. In Wallace's book it certainly also included the Philippines, a people whom I will not be discussing in detail today, although by some definitions they are also Malays. The region may be part of the Malay archipelago, but the people are not typically speakers of the Malay language.

The problem is further complexified by the existence of a rather specific Malay ethnic group which inhabits sections of peninsula Malaysia, the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo and some islands in the region. Their language has become the source of Bahasa Malayu and Bahasa Indonesian, spoken by some 250 million individuals, but this is only the secondary language for the overwhelming majority of people in the region who will speak a Bahasa Daerah, or local language, as their mother tongue. Chief among these is Javanese with some 84 million first-language speakers, and Sundanese with some 34 million speakers. But, they all speak a language called Malay - and for the purpose of this discussion, these are the people we will be talking about.

Religious and Cultural History

There are a number of Paleolithic and Neolithic sites throughout the region and there are still a significant number of tribal people who practice hunter-gatherer lifestyles supplemented by modest agriculture. Almost universally, according to archaeological research and more contemporary anthropology such tribal groups engaged in animism and ancestor worship as their main religious practice. However these are very diverse religious practices, still engaged in rural villages in Sumatra, Borneo and Indonesian Kalimatan, Maluku, Salwesi, and Nusa Tenggara. In many cases you will find that people who engage in such practices still officially a members of other religions, particularly Christian. Often this was the result of political expediency; after four hundred years of Portuguese colonialism only 25% of the East Timorese population were converted, but shortly after the Indonesian invasion of that country over 90% saw good reason to seek the sanctity of state-endorsed religious faith.

Historically, Ptolemy placed the Malay peninsula on a map and referred to the Straits of Malacca. Chinese Buddhists and Indian Hindus established kingdoms in the area in the 2nd and 3rd centuries including Kedah, Patani on penisula Malaysia, Barus, Jambi and Palembang on Sumatra. There is also a peculiar claim by the Minangkabau of Sumatra who early the 16th century showed a gold cap to the Portuguese explorer and conqueror, Albuquerque, claiming that it belonged to Alexander the Great. If this sounds odd, a plausible Indo-Sycthian migration path has been mapped from Greek Bactria in western India, through the Khyber Pass to the Punjab, south to Shaka on the west coast of India and finally across to Pallava on the south-east coast and from there to Sumatra in the third century CE. In the fourth century in western Java the Hindu Tarumanagara kingdom established itself and remained in power until the seventh century before it was overtaken by the Srivijaya, a Vajrayana Buddhist kingdom established in Sumatra island in the seventh century and which at one stage exerted influence over most of the coastal regions of south-east Asia, southern Cambodia, and even contributing to the population of Madagascar. In central Java their allies were the Sailendra Mahayana Buddhist kingdom who covered their land with Buddhist monuments, including the world famous Borobudur, a pyramid consisting of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, decorated with more than 2,500 panels and over 500 Buddha statues.

To the west of the Sailendra were the Hindu Sunda and Galuh kingdoms, which survived in various forms from the middle of eigth century until the beginning of the 16th. The the east was the Mataram Kingdom which although primarily Hindu (building the Candi Prambanan), also had a significant Buddhist influence. Lasting from the 8th to the middle of the 11th century, it increasingly moved eastward and eventually transformed into the east Javan Kediri Kingdom, famous for its development of literature. In turn this was taken over by the Singhasari Hindu Kingdom in east Java which lasted a mere seventy years, but was famously responsible for being in the Javanese repulsion of an attempted Mongol invasion in 1292 and the beginning of the Hindu Majapahit empire, which would survive for another two hundred years and for a while wh would establish an empire that included peninsula Malaysia, Sumatra, Flores and Timor, most of Java (the Sunda Kingdom was under its influence), Borneo and even parts of the Phillipines. This great Javanese Empire was also a period of the development of Javanese mysticism, or Kejawen, which embody a search for inner self for peace of mind; although without scriptures, institutions or even formal structures it does address ethical and spiritual values.

The final two religions to make the presence felt in the region were Islam and Christianity. The former was first adopted by some people during the 11th century through various traders which had been present for several centuries. By the end of the 16th century however, Islam, primarily through conversion, had surpassed Hinduism and Buddhism as the dominant religion of the peoples of Java and Sumatra. At this time, only Bali retained a Hindu-practising majority, and the eastern islands remained largely animist but would adopt Islam and Christianity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Sultanate of Malacca was founded early in the fifteenth century and included peninsula Malay and parts of Sumatra. The Portuguese invaded in 1511 and in 1528, the Sultanate of Johor was established by a Malaccan prince as a successor state. The Sultanate of Aceh became a regional power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and at its peak it was a formidable enemy of the Sultanate of Johor and Portuguese-controlled Malacca, as all three attempted to control the trade through the Strait of Malacca. On Java, the Sultanate of Demak was established in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and Islam was promoted quickly through the island by what would become known as the Wali Songo a loose group who adapted local custom to their missionary work, leading to the establishment of other sultanates in the region, such as Banten in the sixteenth century and, as the last major independent state before colonisation, the Mataram Sultanate which lasted until the mid-eighteenth century when civil war resulted in the Dutch asserting their authority.

Christianity in the Malay states is, and remains, a small minority, less than 10% of the population in Malaysia and Indonesia, and often dependent on expatriate communities. Although contact was first made with the Nestorians as early as the 7th century, it was not until the British took control in the late eighteenth century in Malaysia that there was serious attempts to promote the faith and some level of support was developed in Chinese communities. In Indonesia, the story is somewhat different. Portuguese Jesuit missionaries worked in the Maluku islands in the 16th century and, of course, East Timor and Flores have large Catholic populations. When the Dutch took over in Indonesia, the Protestant Reformed Church (Calvinists) made their mark with the doctrines of the total depravity of mankind and salvation through, grace alone. Today they have some fifty of Churches throughout the country.

I must also make mention of the small and recently approved Unitarian Christian Church of Indonesia, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting; indeed a delegation visited me within two hours from my arrival in Semarang. Later they organised an impromptu service for where I was invited to give a presentation on the Unitarian contribution to history. This group, totalling some four hundred individuals throughout the country, whilst mainly based in Semarang have smaller fellowships in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Sukorejo, Solo, Klaten, Surabaya, and the eastern islands. From the work of two families, former Seventh Day Adventists who had Arian doubts, they have built a Maternity Hospital, are in process of building a school and have engaged in important interfaith work, acting as a bridge between the Christian and Muslim populations, and with significant involvement in the LibForAll Foundation which hosted an international religious tolerance summit in Bali in 2007.

Diversity, Freedom and Restrictions

As this historical summary suggests, the Malay states have been subject to rather diverse religious and cultural influences. How they have dealt with those influences however is very uneven. What is tolerated in some countries is strictly prohibited in others. In terms of a separation between Church and State, Singapore - despite a number of other anti-democratic features in its legal system - has shown to implement this principle most thoroughly, although there is a continuing issue with the refusual of Jehovah's Witnesses to do military service. In terms of religious freedom, Timor-Leste rates very highly despite some undue influence of the Catholic Church in secular law.

Indonesia is an interesting case; under the state ideology of Pancasila, everybody is required to belong to one of the five state-endorsed religions namely Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, or Protestant. This leads to some rather tenuous interpretations as much of the rural population practises animist beliefs. The Dayak of central Kalimantan practise a folk religion known as Kaharingan; it is interpreted as a version of Hinduism by the government. Despite this legal sleight of hand, it must be emphasised that that religious freedom is largely a reality in Indonesia. With almost 90% of the population adhering to Islam, two main branches are notable; a homegrown version known as abangan which incorporates local syncretic practises, or adat, and the aforementioned Javanese spiritualism, and a more conservative stream known as santri who are more likely to be urban dwellers, and tend to be oriented to the mosque, the Qur'an, and perhaps to Islamic canon law. As an example of abangan the Sultan of Yogyakarta, a practising Muslim, will visit the south sea coast to make offerings to the local goddess who, according to the mythology, assisted the original Sultan in establishing his kingdom. In a more contemporary vein the first President of the Reformsi period, Abdurrahman Wahid (also known as Gus Dur), was a former leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative Sunni group, now heads the Wahid Institute, dedicated to a tolerant, peaceful and pluralism Islam.

In contrast, religious freedom and the separation of the Church and State is most certainly not a reality in Malaysia or Brunei. In Malaysia, a Malay is defined by both race and religion - they must be Muslim. Christian literature are required by law to carry a caption "for non-Muslims only" and proselytizing it is prohibited leading to jail sentences and whipping. The Constitution allows the states to prohibit the propagation of other religions to Muslims, and most have done so. In 1999 the Malaysian High Court ruled that it has no jurisdiction to hear applications from Muslims who want to change their religion; this is entirely the domain of the Islamic courts. One individual who was raised as a Hindu and married a Hindu, but has Islam on her identity card was incarcerated for six months in an Islamic re-education camp and has been refused access to her Hindu husband or guardianship of her child. In Brunei, the state ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy is enforced with a prohibition of promoting other faiths than Shafi'i sect of Islam. There are import restrictions on religious teaching materials and permission to build churches, temples, or shrines is rarely granted. Even magazine articles on other faiths are routinely censored. The Ministry of Education requires courses on Islam and the MIB in all public schools.

Some years ago, I raised the importance of working with the liberal Muslims in the Malay states and establishing lasting connections with the Unitarians in that region. I reiterate that point again today. It is our (as well as their) long-term strategic interest that these countries do not fall under the aegis of religious fundamentalism and the use of terrorism. We are few but have the resources and education to promote secularism, social justice and technical development to our poorer, less developed and far more populous neighbours. We can a difference; and it is our interest and their interest that we do so.