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Blog: Sabah and my notion of ancient Malayness

It all started with a DNA kit

Not too long ago, I purchased a DNA kit from the National Geographic Genographic Project (NGGP) to help me have a better, perhaps more objective sense of my own ancestry and not just through stories half remembered and half told by the elderly folk from my biological family whose cognitive abilities are hardly reliable now.

My DNA kit from the National Geographic Genographic Project

The NGGP is an attempt to document, understand and map out the migratory paths taken by our ancestors since their first exodus from Africa and how our physical features have evolved over tens of thousands of years; up to date the project has collected DNA samples from almost 700,000 people worldwide. For regular folk, it is an opportunity for us to join the dots and make better sense of the stories of our ancestors as told by our parents and grandparents. To many orphans who were unfortunate enough to have had no contact whatsoever with their biological parents and families, this could probably be the only key they have to their ancestry.

The mitochondrial DNA test results reveal that my DNA has a 40 percent Northeast Asian component, which is found most frequently in the peoples of China, Korea and Japan and almost 40 percent Southeast Asian component, which is found most frequently in the peoples of India and Southeast Asia. Almost 10 percent of my DNA is of Southwest Asian origin, which is found most frequently in India and neighbouring populations including Iran and Tajikistan, two percent from the Mediterranean, which covers modern-day Greece and Italy and six percent from Oceania, which is found most frequently in the Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian islands, also known collectively as Austronesia.

According to my NGGP mitochondrial DNA test results, my DNA profile resembles that of natives in Northern India.

My profile bears resemblance to two reference populations identified by the project:  the Kinh in Vietnam (with its 57 percent Northeast Asian and 43 percent Southeast Asian combination) and the Northern Indian population, which might explain to a certain extent my Chindian (Chinese-Indian) looks and mannerisms which had been pointed out to me by schoolmates, friends and family when I was as young as six and had no real sense of race other than “Malay, Indian and Chinese” (all Eurasians looked at least vaguely Indian to me then). However, it does not explain my “Malayness” – after all I “look Malay”, was raised in a Malay family, observe Malay customs and write and speak the Malay language.  This is considering that the Oceanic component of my DNA is only six percent of my total and not the 20 percent or more that many denizens of the Malay archipelago carry in their DNA (1).

It appears that the Southeast Asian component in my DNA has more to do with my “Malayness” than the Oceanic component.

Were the Malays here first?

It is commonly held that the Northeast Asians (ie, the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and similar) migrated to Southeast Asia tens of thousands of years ago, supporting the belief that the Malay race as we know of today are descendants of Formosans, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan.

Peoples of the Malay archipelago, including the Balinese are said to be a distant genetical sub-set of the Chinese, until recently. Photo by Nanny Eliana

However newer theories based on DNA studies, linguistics and archaeology, suggest that prehistoric migration was from Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia and not the other way around, debunking older theories that suggest that the Malay population are genetically a distant sub-set of the Chinese.

These findings were the result of the largest DNA studies up to date conducted by scientists from 10 Asian countries including Malaysia, China and Singapore which was published in December 2009 (2). The studies concluded that the migration of prehistoric man in East Asia was from South to North, while migrations from the North to the South happened much later, because of the pressure of the expanding population in the North. These migrations were said to bring the Vietnamese, Thais, Burmese and others to Southeast Asia.

These theories also suggest that not only did the Malay population emerge from a spectrum of other peoples in prehistoric Southeast Asia  (evidence shows that Malays lived and flourished concurrently with the Negritos), they also suggest that some continued to move northwards and differentiated further, becoming Tibetans and Thais, with the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese emerging much later.

One needs to note the high level of cultural and linguistic diversity in the Malay archipelago in spite of being occupied by one language family. Linguistic theory suggests that the more ancient a people are, the more linguistic diversity they generate, pointing to the Malays’ very ancient presence.

Due to the largely insular Chinese and Japanese societies until recent times, the DNA composition of natives of China and Japan tend to be preserved till this day with the Southeast Asian content making up to 28 percent of the total DNA in Beijing natives studied in the NGGP, with the rest of their DNA being of Northeast Asian origin. The NGGP has also found that 25 percent of the total DNA found in the Japanese is Southeast Asian with the rest being of Northeast Asian origin.

Sabah – A throwback to “ancient Malayness”

Murut tribesman in Mari-Mari Cultural Village by Sanketa Anand

This little bit of research, as far-fetched and about face as it may sound, has in my recent Sabah trip affirmed my sense of connection to “a notion of ancient Malayness” or how I imagined ancient Malays behaved and lived before the more recent migrations from India and China (recorded as early as the 4th century), resulting in the multiracial cross-pollinating society in Southeast Asia today.

I couldn’t help noticing how the very bony river fish that the Rungus tribe consider part of their regular diet reminds me of the fish soups and broths my great grandaunt used to make when I was a child. Or how similar the Rungus’ jackfruit in coconut milk dish is to my late mother’s jackfruit curry, sans the curry powder (curry being a more recent Indian influence on Southeast Asian cuisine). When the Sabahans speak Bahasa Malaysia, there is a lilt that I find similar to the cadence of Bahasa Indonesia. To my surprise, the native Sabahan photographers I had travelled with found my attempt to copy their accent more similar to Bahasa Indonesia as spoken by natives of Jakarta than their native tongue; I had to point out to them that most Indonesians would disagree.

The dense unconquerable jungles of Sabah are part of the reason why the Sabahans’ way of life has been preserved for centuries. Photo by Sabine Fink

Other than being located far from Southeast Asia’s strategic and important trade centres such as Jakarta, Penang and Singapore, the thick, unconquerable jungles of Sabah are probably the reason that the culture, language and way of life of the Sabahans have been preserved even through colonial times. Even today, there are still many Sabahans who rely on their mangrove swamps, rainforests and rivers for their livelihood and day-to-day activities.

Rungus tribeswoman collecting “lukan” in a mangrove by Wilson Wong.

Take for example a grandmother from the Rungus tribe who makes weekly trips through a sweltering palm tree plantation into a mangrove swamp during the low tide to collect “lukan” or a kind of shellfish that is not unlike oysters in taste and texture, usually grilled and eaten with the local soy sauce flavoured with cut chilli. Or  the people of Gombizau village who have found a way of cultivating bees’ nests harvested from the wild for selling honey and honeycombs to tourists. The river is still how many Sabahans prefer to bathe and wash; on my maiden attempt at river rafting in Kiulu, I have seen many children enjoying a post-school dip in the river while their grandmothers beat their laundry onto smooth river rocks.

According to John Bakar, a native Sabahan photographer, adventurer and conservationist, tribes such as the Murut whose members had been decimated by the British due to their hard-headed resistance to colonial rule, had since gone deeper into the jungle to preserve their kind and way of life at the expense of contact with the outside world. It’s a well-known fact that more British had died of tropical disease in colonial times in Sabah (or anywhere in Southeast Asia, for that matter) than those who had died from being stabbed by a Murut spear.

John was one of the handful of Sabahan photographers that I have had the pleasure of meeting on this trip, as part of a collaborative project by CausewayEXchange, an annual arts and culture festival designed to bridge communities in Singapore and Malaysia. CausewayEXchange will take place between 13 to 22 June in Singapore.

One can be a Rungus tribeswoman and Muslim at the same time. Photo by Sanketa Anand.

For those who can’t imagine hacking through dense jungles to catch a glimpse of tribes such as the Murut, the Mari-Mari Cultural Village in Kionsom is probably the closest thing one could get to experiencing the way of life of the major Sabahan tribes such as the Murut, Rungus, Lundayeh, Kadazan-Dusun as well as the Bajau. In the last three or four generations, the animistic beliefs and practices of these tribes have been replaced by new religions: the Rungus and Bajau are now mostly Muslim while the Kadazan-Dusun are mostly Christian.

The Sabahans’ sense of community reminds me of fifties’ and sixties’ Singapore when the lines dividing the Malays, Indians and Chinese were somewhat blurred by the vernacular Malay that everyone spoke and understood, in a time when religion took second place to inclusiveness. The hosts of our Misompuru homestay were Muslim, but on more than one occasion during my stay did I see their Christian neighbours join them in the living room for a meal or showcasing their beadwork and handwoven fabric as they were made, to visitors like myself; I imagined that they shared whatever profits they made equally.

A vegetable seller in the farmers’ market at Kota Belud, by Wilson Wong

In Kota Kinabalu’s Horizon Hotel, I was reintroduced to modern life and its accompanying creature comforts – my body thanked me for the four-star hotel grade mattress, air-conditioning and room service – but too soon did I find the barriers between “me” and “the others” creeping up: I had no interest in the busloads of mainland Chinese and Korean tourists (apparently there are now direct flights from Seoul to Sabah) and they had no interest whatsoever in me. While I felt more comfortable in my own four walls doing my own thing on the last day of my trip, it was only when I returned to Singapore that I remembered one of the tens of things that made my heart smile when I was in Sabah: a grandmother in a market in Kota Belud, whose kind and toothless smile and the familiar lilt in her voice reminded me of my own late paternal grandmother.

My maiden attempt at river rafting in Kiulu by Sabine Fink


(1) According to a 2006 study, the Formosan DNA  found in Malaysian Malays is about 66.7 percent of their total DNA while in Indonesian Javanese, it makes up 88.6 percent of their total DNA. Polynesian DNA makes up 1.9 percent of total DNA in Indonesian Javanese and 11.1 percent in Malaysian Malays while Micronesian DNA makes up 1.9 percent of the total DNA in Indonesian Javanese and 11.1 percent in Malaysian Malays.

Data is derived from ‘Y-Chromosome Diversity Is Inversely Associated With Language Affiliation in Paired Austronesian- and Papuan-Speaking Communities from Solomon Islands’ By MURRAY P. COX* AND MARTA MIRAZON LAHR, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom, AMERICAN JOURNAL OF HUMAN BIOLOGY 18:35–50 (2006)

(2) For a summary of these new theories, please refer to Tamadun Alam Melayu by M.A. Ishak 2009, published by Persatuan Sejarah Malaysia.

(3) MALAY ORIGINS: Evidence suggests otherwise – Letters to the Editor – New Straits Times

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