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Proto-who? On the origin of Bumiputeras

Published in The Malaysian Insider

Fresh from being told that Hang Tuah — the icon of Malay resilience (“takkan Melayu hilang di dunia”) — did not exactly exist, some Malays may be shocked to learn that they were originally Africans. Suddenly, it dawns on them that those they have mocked freely with names like “Awang Hitam” and “Dayang Senandung” might turn out to be their ketuanan compatriots.

At least, that’s the claim made at a conference known as Konvensyen Asal Usul Melayu: Induknya di Alam Melayu (literally Convention on the Origin of Malays: Ancestry in Malay World). With a RM1.4 million grant from, of all people, the Higher Education Ministry, it is hard to argue with them.

Or is it?

To be precise, a presentation in the convention posited that the ancestral people called proto-Malays originated from Africa before migrating to the Sunda Shelf, the mass of land covering the area of Southeast Asia. It is believed that the proto-Malays then survived the supervolcanic eruption of Danau Toba in Sumatra by living in places not affected by the volcanic ash.

The Toba event happened between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago, which would make proto-Malays among the only 10,000 humans estimated left during that time. The event is an important explanation for the bottleneck in human evolution, which answers how the human race actually descended from a very small population.

Fleeing from global warming that flooded the Sunda Shelf into different islands 25,000 years ago, the people would have migrated north to the rest of the world, populating, among others, India, China, Japan and the United States. In short, these proto-Malays might be the origin of human life on Earth.

This, of course, flies in the face of the previous three theories on proto-Malays, which suggested Yunnan, New Guinea or Taiwan as their point of origin, which means they were northern people migrating south. These three theories were mostly based on archaeological findings and linguistic studies, as opposed to genetic studies which became the reference for the latest theory.

Who exactly were the proto-Malays, though? They refer to a group of Austronesian speakers (an ancient grouping of languages) from mainland Asia that moved to the Malay peninsula and archipelago in a series of migrations between 2500 and 1500 BCE. Adept in oceanography and fishing skills, these seafarers served as navigators, crew and labour for Indian, Arab, Persian and Chinese traders. They have since settled down in many places, acclimatising with indigenous tribes like the Semang and Senoi in the Malay peninsula.

This new theory, in turn, would strengthen the point of view that the descendants of proto-Malays, the Malays and Orang Asli (read: Bumiputeras), were not immigrants, and, in fact, were the original settlers of the land in Southeast Asia (read: Malaysia). Add that with the superiority of being the point of origin of the human race, and you get a delusion worthy of the “master race” that was the proto-Aryans.

One just need to hear Universiti Sains Malaysia scientist Zafarina Zainuddin explain the motivation behind the study. She hopes that the finding that “Malays have genetics which originate from the Malay land” would reignite the “Malay spirit… so that people will be proud to be Malays.”

Try saying that in an international scientific conference with a straight face.

Racial politics consequences aside, here’s the surprise: this theory is not exactly new. In December 2009, the same idea had been put forward by a coalition called Pan-Asian SNP Consortium, which is part of The Human Genome Organisation (Hugo). Their findings support the hypothesis that Asia was populated mostly through a single migration event from the south rather than north. The paper titled “Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia” was then published in the journal Science.

However, rather than supporting a racial agenda, the organisation was glad that the findings would have an immense effect in the field of medicine. Genetic studies in racial lines would help in designing medicines to treat diseases that pose higher risk on Asians. Compare Zafarina’s statement with Dr Edison Liu’s, of the Genome Institute of Singapore, a leading member of the consortium, who lauded the findings as “robbing racism of much biological support” because of the common genetic heritage between different races.

Which also brings one of the most important questions to light. If there was already a much earlier research being done, backed by a major player like Hugo, and involving both our Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia, what was the RM1.4 million for? Why was such enormous money spent on a redundant project and, moreover, why was it spent on something as petty as “reigniting” Malay pride?

The word “waste” comes to mind, and we can be sure that there are countless researchers, especially in the genetics field, who would much appreciate that sum. As always, we Malaysians have the opportunity to move things forward, but most unfortunately, we are mostly still stuck with the past, trying to reaffirm an uncertain golden era for the sake of racial pride.

In other news, when Muhyiddin Yassin opened the convention the day before, he proudly claimed that the strength of Malays is based on their rational thinking, which makes them an advanced, modern and accommodative race. Judging by this sort of studies, I would respectfully beg to differ.

Published inTMI column
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