Monday, 9 February 2015

'Colloquial Malay'

I bought Colloquial Malay, the book I'm using to study Jawi, for £3 at a second-hand bookshop in Oxford. I want to say a few words about it because it's like a magical window into a horribly unequal racist past where moustachioed white men shot elephants and surveyed the land while barking orders at sycophantic Malay trackers and house-boys. Colloquial Malay was written by renowned scholar of Malaya, R. O. Winstedt - or, as it says on the cover, 'Sir Richard Winstedt, KBE, CMG, DLitt (Oxon), Reader in Malay University of London' - and originally published in 1916 (my edition, 'new' and 'revised', was published in 1945). It has a very useful section on Jawi, although it's only twenty pages long and sandwiched between the main content of the book (bizarre parallel text conversations) and an addendum of 'technical terms for airmen', which, to put it mildly, isn't as useful these days as it once was.

The table of contents is fascinating. Nowadays, a book on colloquial Malay or Indonesian would include the same things as a book on the colloquial side of any language - buying things in a shop, asking for recommendations in a restaurant, watching television programmes, that kind of thing. Not this one. Winstedt helpfully offers his readers a 44-page grammar of Malay, a 5-page section on proverbs, and then a series of conversations:


The language of the conversations certainly isn't court or classical Malay - it's definitely dialect and pasar Malay, and in that sense it's 'colloquial'. But it's pretty clear even from the contents that Winstedt's Malay is intended for one purpose: talking down to the natives.

This impression is borne out by the text. It's hard to believe anyone, at any time, found this stuff useful, but I suppose they must have. Some choice phrases:

With a Chief:
'Everyone knows the white man is very strong-minded.'

'I am tired of telling you to water the maidenhair ferns in the evenings.'
'I too am sick of your laziness. Here take your wages and leave my service.'

A Police Inquiry:
'Last night a Chinaman waylaid a young Malay woman, stole her jewellery and murdered her.'
'What sort was the murdered woman, of good or bad repute.' [sic]
'Probably she led an immoral life on the sly.'
'Have you ever heard of a Malay woman wandering alone at night wearing gold ornaments?'
'Bring me a six-chambered revolver and 20 cartridges.'

'I don't want coolies who work intermittently.'

'Where pray does this Sakai track come out? If you don't know, don't pretend you do. I'm not anxious to get lost.'
'There is no need to be frightened. The magistrate is not an ogre. You won't be devoured.'
'Look at that Chinaman stealing fishing-stakes. Chase him. Cut him off from the village.'

Hunting Big Game:
'Why! what a fine pair of tusks! Tuan, you are very lucky; they are quite three cubits out of his head.'
'Wah! The Tuan is very clever; only two shots and this huge elephant is dead; it would have taken a Malay at least ten shots to kill him, if not more.'
(Both of these said, of course, by the Malay tracker to the incredible white tuan.)

'I know the Malay trick. Get advances and then complain you have headache or your child is sick and you want an extension of time.'
 It's amazing to think that the world has changed so much in such little time. I'm not saying that white supremacy and the assumption of European brilliance have totally gone away - they haven't - but obviously this book couldn't be published now, and not only because most of its content is useless for any modern student of Malay.

Winstedt's other books are generally informative and useful. His The Malays: a cultural history (1947) is surprisingly interesting, although naturally it still reveals some of the man's colonial biases, and the prehistory side of things is totally wrong, assuming as it does a migration of Malayo-Polynesian speakers from Yunnan down through the Malay Peninsula. Winstedt also distinguishes racially between 'Proto-Malays' and 'Deutero-Malays', meaning poor hinterland Malayic speakers and rich coastal Malayic speakers respectively. Nobody really believes in such a distinction anymore.

I'm not sure what the message is here, but I suppose it's that intelligent and well-meaning people who invest time and energy in trying to understand the language and history of another group of human beings can still end up harbouring silly prejudices about them.


  1. "it's like a magical window into a horribly unequal racist ..."

    This is also the present.

    1. The present is somewhat differently horribly unequal and racist. But yes.

  2. What's most interesting to me are the portrayals of the ethnic Chinese as rather anti-social and disreputable and possibly of even lower status than the Malays. This is certainly not my impression of the Overseas Chinese community today, which seems to be of economically successful overachievers who are politically disadvantaged in order to appease the less competent Malay majority.

    1. Hmm.

      I expect the portrayal of the Chinese in the book has something to do with the low opinion the British had of anyone who wasn't European. In any case, I suppose Christian British men would see more value in subservient teetotal Muslims than in pagan Chinese people who might drink and stir up trouble and have connections elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago (and even further afield).

      As for the generalisations in your comment: I posted Winstedt's bizarre conversations as I had hoped we were beyond their logic, the logic of ethnic generalisation. It's a shame to see that this isn't so.

  3. So ethnic generalizations are necessarily invalid? Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia are not, on average, economically successful but politically disadvantaged when compared with the Malay majority? Are you really going to go with that? I think you are inadvertently suspicious I'm making claims about genetic propensities, but in fact my remarks were meant to illustrate the opposite: that very different stereotypes of an ethnic community can arise within a short space of time. If the Chinese were genetically determined to always be smarter and more successful, you'd think they'd have the same reputation a century ago, since their genetic endowment shouldn't have changed that much in such a short space of time.

    1. I take issue with the idea that Malay people are 'less competent' rather than with the claim that ethnic Chinese people are deliberately disadvantaged. The latter may be the case; the former is ethnic generalisation of the old-fashioned variety.

      Also, yes, I was suspicious of that - it's certainly not unprecedented in the comments on this blog - and I'm grateful for the clarification.


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