Whither the Malay language in Sri Lanka?  -  by B.D.K. Saldin  
  Malays in the military service of Kandyan kings - by M.D. (Tony)  Saldin  
   
  The Sri Lanka Malays then and now
 

The Past

  Who are the Sri Lanka Malays?
They are the descendents of people who were brought to Ceylon by the Dutch and British colonisers during the 17th – 19th centuries. The ancestors of the present day Sri Lanka Malays were from all parts of what is now Indonesia and Malaysia. They came to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as exiles, convicts, and soldiers. It is believed that they spoke in a mixed language which had Malay as its base.
 

Why are they called ‘Malays’?
Though members of this community are now known as Sri Lanka/ Sri Lankan ‘Malays’, historical evidence indicates that most of them came from what is present-day Indonesia. When the British colonised Ceylon in 1796, they came in contact with this community that spoke a lingua franca which had a form of Malay as its base and hence applied the name ‘Malay’ to describe this community. The Sinhalese people call the SL Malays ‘Ja Minissu’ and the Tamils refer to them as ‘Ja Manusar’ and the ‘Ja’ here is a reference to the fact that they originated from Java, Indonesia. The Malays of Kirinda call themselves ‘Orang Java’ and this is a term that is more accurate reflection of the origins of the SL Malays.

  What did the Malays do for a living?
Most men were employed as soldiers and formed the Malay Rifle Regiment in the 1800s. When the Rifle Regiment was disbanded in 1973, the Malays took up employment in the security forces, the Police, and the Fire Brigade. Additionally, many Malays were employed in the plantations and the civil service.
 

The Present

How many Malays are there in Sri Lanka today and where do they live?
The census of 2012 states that there are 40,189 Malays in SL at present. They live mainly in the Colombo, Kandy, Hambantota, and Badulla districts.
 

What about the religious affinities of the SL Malays?
SL Malays are Muslims by religion. Although they have generally been stereotyped as being ‘relaxed’ Muslims due to their adoption of western style of dress, modern views,  consumption of liquor, and ‘easy-going’ lifestyle, present-day Malays identify themselves through their affiliation to Islam more visibly than before. It has been stated that the influence of the community members who went to the Middle East for employment may be one factor for the increased focus on religion.

  What are the social and economic conditions of the Malays of Sri Lanka?
Many people who are casual visitors of the Malay community in Sri Lanka take home an impression that the Malays are a middle-class, English-speaking, relatively affluent community. While this is true of the urban Malays (principally those living in the Colombo and Kandy districts), it is not an accurate picture of the SL Malays in general. Many live away from the city, and are employed in the government sector (in the security forces, as teachers, clerks in government departments etc) or engaged in small-time business activity (retail-shop owners, fishermen, cooks). The situation of many Sri Lanka Malays has been improved by the creation of job opportunities in the Middle East. Since the SL Malays are Muslims, they have been able to secure employment in the Middle East with ease and many lives have been enhanced by the income generated by one member of the family being overseas.
 

What is the language of the Sri Lanka Malays?
Although there are approximately 40,000 Malays in Sri Lanka, not all of them are speakers of the Sri Lanka Malay language, the mother tongue of this community. Unfortunately, the language is on the decline in most urban settings. However, away from the cities, the language is maintained, especially in the small fishing village in Kirinda, about 20km away from Hambantota. Ethnologue, a website devoted to documenting language diversity in the world, calls the variety of Malay spoken in Sri Lanka a ‘creole’, but this term has negative connotations as, to a layperson, it implies a language that is ‘inferior’ or ‘simple’. Therefore the Malay spoken in SL is better classified as a ‘variety’. SL Malay has a largely Malay vocabulary mixed with Sinhala and Tamil syntactic features. Since it displays features which are unique among contact languages, SL Malay has been studied by linguists who have an interest in languages in contact and sociolinguistics.

  What are the other languages Sri Lanka Malays speak?
The Malays have been called the most multilingual community in Sri Lanka since most speak three languages (SL Malay, Sinhala, and English) and some are proficient in four (Tamil as well as the three languages mentioned above). In addition, they can read Arabic as they are taught to read the Quran and many Malays returning from the Middle East also state that they have some proficiency in spoken Arabic and Hindi.
 

What are some of the customs of the SL Malays?
In cultural practices such as marriage and funeral rituals, the Malays have been influenced by their co-religionists, the Moors of Sri Lanka. The Moors are descendants of Arab traders whose arrival predates that of the SL Malays. The giving of a ‘dowry’ by the family of the bride, the tying of a ‘thali’ (a gold necklace) by the groom etc can be cited as examples of Moor marriage practices which are now commonly witnessed at Malay weddings. In addition, western traditions such as the cutting of a wedding cake and the exchanging of rings are also found at Malay weddings today. The wedding attire might be western (groom in suit and tie, bride in gown), western + eastern (groom in suit and tie, bride in sari), Indian (groom in sherwani and bride in sari/ gagra choli) or Malay (groom in traditional Malay attire and bride in sarung kebaya). It is also common to have Sri Lankan sweetmeats alongside Malay delicacies at festivals such as Eid-ul-Adha or Eid-ul-Fitr.

  Do the Malays of SL have food that is distinctive to them?
Some Malay dishes such as the satay (chicken/ beef in grilled in skewers), babath (tripe) and Malay pickle (shallots, green chillies, dates, onions etc in a pickle) are now staples of the Sri Lankan diet. In addition, there is also daging goreng (fried beef), daging chooka (beef cooked in vinegar and pepper), pasthol (a large patty with tripe or beef filling) etc.
 

Are there organisations that bring together the SL Malays?
At present there are many social organisations or ‘clubs’ that function as the hub of social and cultural lives of the SL Malays. The Sri Lanka Malay Confederation (SLAMAC) is the umbrella organisation and around 20 Malay clubs operate under its aegis with varying degrees of commitment and efficacy. The Colombo Malay Club is one of the oldest clubs in Sri Lanka and the Colombo Malay cricket Club (CMCC) is the oldest cricket club in the country.

 

The Future

  How does the future look for the SL Malays?
A positive trend in the SLM community is that there are more young people committed to education. Increasing numbers of students are opting to stay in school until they complete the GCE (A/L) exam, many qualify to enter university, and others devote their time to obtaining academic and professional qualifications, so the future looks brighter than ever before. Urban Malays have been fortunate that their proficiency in English has enabled them to seek employment opportunities in the private sector as well the government sector. Unfortunately, statistics relating to employment are no longer available by ethnicity, so it is not possible to give exact figures or to compare past vs present levels of employment/ umeployment.
 

What are the challenges faced by the community?
The biggest challenge faced by the majority of the community is unemployment and the economic hardship that results from it. In contrast to many urban Malays who are becoming increasingly secure in their economic situations, the Malays outside of the cities are struggling with the challenges of day-to-day living. As a result, many parents are unable or unwilling to let their children complete their education, preferring instead to have them contributing to the family coffers.

 


A typical SL Malay family of the 1960s from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo by courtesy of N. R. Weerabangsa, Kandy.

 


Some present-day SL Malays from Mabole, Wattala, Sri Lanka. From L to R: Hajiani Eileen Dane, Hajiani Matahari Jaleel, Al-Haj Tuan Mehar Jaleel.
Photo by courtesy of Romola Rassool.

 


A Malay mosque located in Slave Island, Colombo.
Photo by courtesy of Romola Rassool.