The Story of the Migration of the Malays from the Malayan Peninsula


When speaking of the traditional Malay communities, it’s natural to assume that they come from Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore. What’s interesting today, is that there are thriving Malay communities across the world that some of us probably haven’t heard about because there hasn’t been much published on the subject. Between the 16th and 18th century, through means of colonisation, many Malays from the Southeast Asian region traversed continents to work under the Dutch and British rule and thereby formed small communities of their own. These communities, such as the Coco Malays of Keeling Island, off Australia, Malays of Bo-Kaap Cape Town, South Africa and Malays of Sri Lanka are distinct and have evolved through time and generations, flourishing in their own respect while still preserving their heritage, culture and traditions. In this issue, in light of the Hari Raya Aidilfitri festivities, we pay homage to the Malay communities of the Southern Hemisphere by unveiling more about their history, culture, language and much more.

The Cocos Keeling Islands, a tiny coral atoll in Australia’s Indian Ocean territory, are home to approximately 450 Malays and 150 others. Cocos Malays are largely identified as Malay Muslims and have strong connections with the Malay worlds (Indonesia and Malaysia) as well as the wider Islamic world. The island is a part of Australia, which makes the community there Australian citizens. The island’s economy is associated with that of Australia and its culture relating to Western Australia and Sabah, Malaysia. Cocos Keeling Island was first discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling, a merchant seaman and adventurer exploring the East for the East India Company, during one of his voyages from Java to England. Then, in 1805, British hydrographer (relating to measurement and description of the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, lakes and rivers, as well as with the prediction of their change over time) James Horsburgh charted the islands and called them the Cocos-Keeling Islands in his sailing directory. He named one of the islands after himself.

A little more than two decades later, Captain John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish trader, landed on the islands on his homeward voyage from the East Indies. His orders were to investigate Christmas Island for settlement. Bad weather prevented these plans but he surveyed the Cocos-Keeling Islands, dug wells and planted fruit trees. There are 27 islands that make up Cocos or Keeling Islands, but only two of those islands are inhabited – West Island and Home Island. The first group of settlers were brought to the islands as workers by the merchant Alexander Hare, known as the ‘English White Rajah of Borneo’ in 1826 to work on his copra (dried coconut flesh) plantation. The Scottish Clunies-Ross family then ruled the islands for over 150 years. They workers were mostly of Malay descent with a number of people of Chinese, Papuan and Indian heritage. While now being referred to as Cocos Malay, the settlers hailed from places such as Bali, Bima, Celebes, Madura, Sumbawa, Timor, Sumatra, Pasir-Kutai, Malacca, Penang, Batavia and Cerebon.


The tiny society of about 600 people has been held together for more than 150 years by geographical isolation, shared religious beliefs, strong familial bonds and a unique version of the old ‘Trading Malay’ language of the East Indies. Despite their mixed origins, the Cocos Malay people carved an identity of their own within one generation of settlement on the Cocos Keeling Islands. The ‘Cocos-born’, as they were officially called, lived separately from the European owner-settlers of the islands. The Cocos Malays have their own mosques, their own leaders and ceremonies. Elements of the English-Scottish traditions of the early ruling Hare and Clunies-Ross families were absorbed and incorporated into their culture. Some foods, dances and musical influences were passed down through generations. At present, the cornerstone of Cocos Malay society is the Islamic religion. Few depart from its teachings and observances, and Islam is the focus religion of the locals on the Australian island.


Cocos Malays have their own language variety, which is called Basa Pulu Kokos. The language is considered rough yet sophisticated in some ways because of the interplay of slang in it and the constant change in word meanings. The language is predominantly Betawi Malay — a Jakarta creole mix of Malay and Indonesian (as well as Javanese and Sundanese which the Betawi language derived from) with local pronunciation and elements of English and Scots being mixed in. The Cocos Malay dialect derives words from Bahasa Indonesia and Malay due to the irregular contact with outsiders. However, some words have been adapted to local terms to create Basa Pulu Kokos. Following are some of their phrases and vocabulary:

• Selamat pagi – Good morning
• Selamat ténggah hari – Good Afternoon • Selamat soré – Good Evening
• Selamat malam – Good Night
• Apa Kabar? – How are you?
• Kerangkeng – Food closet
• Ke kaca – Cute
• Kenes – Cute
• Baik – Good


In the outskirts of the bustling city of Cape Town, South Africa, lives a colourful community of people that resemble our Malaysians. Boasting rainbow- painted vibrant buildings, the Bo-Kaap is a multicultural neighbourhood known to be one of the liveliest and oldest residential areas in Cape Town and the historical and cultural melting pot of the Cape Muslims or Cape Malay community.

The Dutch East India Company established a colony at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, serving as a resupply station for vessels and ships travelling between Europe and Asia, which soon after evolved into the city of Cape Town. The Cape Malay community trace their roots back to Muslim craftsmen and artisans from the Malay Archipelago who were employed and brought over to the Western Cape of South Africa, which was declared a Dutch colony by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 of the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch needed labourers for the growing port and began bringing in slaves from their colonies in the Indonesian archipelago, as well as parts of Africa.

The community comprised servants, slaves and people whom the Dutch exiled from Southeast Asia who also included the likes of aristocrats from the Muslim Sultanate in Java and later became the first people to introduce Islam to South Africa. The workforce of the then new Cape Colony was imported from Dutch holdings across India, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as mainland Africa and Madagascar. It is said that Islam quickly spread within the non-white communities of South Africa because Christian slave owners refused to convert their ‘property’ into Christianity as the law dictated that Christian slaves could buy their way to freedom.

Later, the British took helm of Cape Town and began phasing out slavery in the first half of the 19th century, the newly-freed non-Asian Muslim rural slaves moved to Cape Town, the only centre of Islamic faith in the region. The South and Southeast Asians constituted the Muslim establishment in the colony and the newly freed slaves subsequently adopted the Malay language used by the Asians. Malay was the initial lingua franca of Muslims, though they came from East Africa, Madagascar and India, as well as Indonesia and established the moniker “Malay” for all Muslims at the Cape irrespective of their geographic origins.

From tragic beginnings, Cape Malay has emerged as a strong culture of its own distinct from the Asian, African and Dutch cultures that have influenced it. The community has a tumultuous history ranging many years, from fighting slavery to resisting their classification under the apartheid government, and playing important roles in the struggle against the unjust former regime.


When the British took over the reigns of the Dutch colonies in South Africa in the late 1700’s and banned slavery, more and more people started immigrating to the area, both adopting and adding to the local way of life. Over the years, the community flourished to include people from other parts of Asia as well as Africa and by the 1800’s, the term ‘Malay’ was used to label all practising Muslims in the region because most of the people there spoke ‘Bahasa Melayu’ to each other at the time. This is why some people argue that the term ‘Cape Malays’ can be a little misleading, because of the multi-ethnic nature of the community there and prefer to use the term ‘Cape Muslims’ instead.


The Cape Malay language is unique to the ear and can be identified as Afrikaans, an authentic Afrikaans/English dialect born and bred in Cape Town by the Cape Malay and coloured communities over centuries. The community came to be called Cape Malays as they all spoke the important trading language at that time. Cape Malays are also known as Cape Muslims. They were bound by a common language, religion and presence of important political and religious figures. The culture has endured centuries and survived some of the worst abuses of the Apartheid regime. Their interaction with the Dutch produced a ‘kitchen’ Dutch that was the beginnings of the Afrikaans language. There’s also the mish-mash of the odd Malay word that has stood the test of time and still gets added into a sentence or two.


Then, there is the contribution that the Cape Malay culture has made towards food. The bredie, the bobotie and the frikkadel are just a few food items that have become synonymous with South Africa as a whole when in fact, it’s in the heart of the Cape Malay kitchen that these meals were born. And the food plays on, as does the music.

Music is the pulse of Cape Malay culture and it keeps traditions moving from generation to generation. It is in the warm and heartening notes of the Cape Malay folk songs that you will find a home in this culture as an outsider. The style is unique to Cape Town, the lyrics sad and emotional to echo the feelings of slavery. The songs are still celebrated and sung at Cape Malay choir concerts and competitions and the singing style is one that has not been appropriated or copied in any other culture. Cape Malay music has been of great interest to academics, historians, musicologists, writers and even politicians. The well-known annual Cape Town Minstrel or Carnival street festival is a deep-rooted Cape Malay cultural event which incorporates the Cape Malay comic songs or moppie (often also referred to as ghoema songs). The barrel-shaped drum, called the ‘ghoema’, is also closely associated with Cape Malay music.

In January of every year, the Cape Minstrel Carnival hits the streets and Cape Town bursts into colour in the way of a street festival and parade where different groups of entertainers from all the Cape Malay communities in and around Cape Town gather in the city to compete against one another. Here is where the Kaapse Moppie, a comic song with a satirical take on politics, comes to play. The annual event has its roots again in the days of slavery, but continues to maintain an almost holy stature in the Cape Malay cultural events calendar to this day.


Did you know there’s an old community of Malays in Sri Lanka? They’re neither expats nor immigrants, but a minority group who’ve been in the island nation since the 13th century. Their origins in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka are somewhat vague due to the ancient ties between the Sri Lankan kingdom and Srivijaya kingdom in the 8th century. Adding to the confusion is Sri Lanka’s former moniker, Malaya or Malaya-rata (meaning mountainous in Malayalam) in the mediaeval period due to its rugged hills and stroke remarkably similar to pre-1963 Peninsular Malaysia.

Dating back to the 13th century, a significant Malay presence in Sri Lanka was made when Chandrabhanu Sridhamaraja, a Malay of Tambralinga, managed to occupy the northern part of the island in 1247, his followers assimilated into the local population. The ancestors of the present day Malay community of Sri Lanka arrived mostly during the period of the Dutch colonial rule. The Dutch had ousted the Portuguese from the coastal regions of the island in the middle of the 17th century. Sri Lankan Malays first settled in the country when both Sri Lanka and Indonesia were part of the Dutch colonies from 1640 until 1796, when a second wave from 1796 to 1948 came from the Malay Peninsular, when both Malaya and Sri Lanka were under the rule of the British Empire. That said, Sri Lanka has had a longer history of Malay presence dating back to as early as the 13th century.

The Dutch colonised Sri Lanka in the mid-16th to 19th century and brought over people from the Malay Archipelago as exiles, convicts or soldiers. When the British took over in 1796, they noticed this community spoke a language based on the lingua franca Malay language, so they called this community Malays. These “Malays” come from all over the Malay Archipelago including Blai, Java, Riau, Ambon and Peninsular Malaysia. Among the early exiles were kings and princes from south Sulawesi, Madura and Java.

There were some good reasons for the Malay migration to Sri Lanka until the early half of the 19th century. They moved not just as individuals, but brought along their families and children by uprooting themselves from their indigenous environment. The Malays found affinity with Sri Lanka owing to the climate, promise of good living and guarantees to practise Islam and their traditional way of life.


In the early days, Malay soldiers formed part of the armed forces of Sri Lankan kings. There’s evidence from the 10th century AD that a Sri Lankan King called Mahinda V had a troop of Malay soldiers in his army. During colonisation, the Dutch held a generally favourable view of the Malays for their steadfast loyalty and unflinching bravery. The Malay soldiers played a big part in capturing Portuguese-controlled areas of Ceylon and as a result, were given land by the Dutch as a token of gratitude. When the British took over Ceylon from the Dutch, their fighting skills did not go unnoticed.They were mostly employed in the Malay Regiment of Sri Lanka in the 1800’s. They were actually the first ever Malay Regiment formed and were so skilled that they received the British Queen’s colours in 1802. Sri Lankan Malays proceeded to work in the security forces, police, fire brigade, plantations and civil service.


One of the most fascinating aspects of the community is their language, a dialect called Sri Lanka Malay (SLM) that’s a mixture of Sinhala, Shonam (Sri Lanka Muslim Tamil) and Malay. Sri Lankan Malays speak Sinhala, Tamil, and/or English. Today, few children speak Sri Lanka Malay in the home as their native language. The vast majority of speakers of all ages primarily use English or Sinhala in their daily interactions, except in a few small communities. As a consequence of various national language policies and world orders over the centuries, Sri Lanka Malays have responded with shifts in their language use, leading to different degrees of loss of their vernacular in favour of other more dominant languages. The language does not have official status in Sri Lanka and is not supported in the educational system.


Like their ancestors in present-day Indonesia and Malaysia, Sri Lankan Malays are Muslim. Mosques were erected by the local Malays along the coasts of Sri Lanka in places like Hambantota, Beruwela and Galle. The Jawatte mosque in Colombo and Masjidul Jamiya are military mosques on Slave Island and renowned for their architecture and long history.


In the early days, the Sinhalese women were introduced to the ‘ja-hetta’ and the ‘kambaya’ by the Malays. The word ‘sarong’ is a Malay word and is the national dress of the Malays. ‘Kambaya’ is a corrupt form of ‘kayen-bayen’ meaning in Malay a novel piece of cloth. The batik scarf was used to cover the head, with a knot on the side. Later on, the batik scarf was contrived into a headgear – ‘Setangan Kepala’. The batik material has been replaced by black velvet and the headgear is now called a ‘Songko’. The batik cloth was also part of the Malay ladies’ ensemble comprising fashionable baju kurung and batik sarong with a scarf to match.

The universal love for good food is also evident in the Sri Lankan Malay community who enjoy dishes such as Nasi Kooning (yellow rice), Sathay Daging (beef satay), Daging Chuka (beef marinated in vinegar, spiced and cooked with sliced onions), dodol and sambhal. In Sri Lanka, Malays have retained certain aspects of their culture and have strongly protected it, examples being the honorific Tuan which precedes the names of Malay males, their family names, social customs and culinary habits. Despite making up a small community, there are a large number of social and cultural groups such as the Sri Lanka Malay Confederation (SLAMAC), Sri Lanka Malay Rupee Fund, the Conference of Sri Lanka Malays (COSLAM) and Malay associations of the communities sprawled across the island. These organisations are extremely active in holding regular social, cultural, commemorative and fund-raising activities and initiatives.

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