Rum, Ferringghi and other foreigners: the ethnic “other” in the Malay imagination – a talk by Prof Dato’ Dr. Ahmad Murad Merican

The Muslims who first encountered the Portuguese brought the idea of the “Franks” as the people who had attacked the holy places during the Crusades. The word “Frank” originated from the Farsi Farang or Farangi, meaning European (Frank).

Rum, Ferringghi and other foreigners: the ethnic “other” in the Malay imagination – a talk by Prof Dato’ Dr. Ahmad Murad Merican

A multitude of different peoples had been visiting the Malay archipelago (and Southeast Asia) for centuries prior to the Europeans in the sixteenth century. These were visitors and traders who were part of extensive networks from China, to India, and to West Asia and the Mediterranean region. From West Asia, which includes India westwards – from the meaning of ‘atas angin’ (above the wind) as a Malay geographical and ethnic marker, – the visitors formed as least semi-permanent communities in the main trading cities. The often-quoted account of Portuguese historian Tome Pires mentions 1,000 Gujerati merchants, and 4,000 Persians, Bengalis, and Arabs together with a sizeable number of Tamils.

We know of the Batu Ferringhi in Pulau Pinang. If we translate the name of that well-known beach area, it would come to mean ‘foreigner’s rock.’ Not many take the name seriously. We can imagine how the Malays in Kedah (Pulau Pinang before Francis Light), like the Malays in Melaka earlier or at the same time, had likened the foreigner in the Portuguese as a Ferringhi (meaning foreigner, outsider). It depicts an early encounter between East and West. Early Portuguese fleets, carrying hundreds of Portuguese with little prior experience of non-Christians were perceived as the “Franks” by the larger non-European Asian population.

The Muslims who first encountered the Portuguese brought the idea of the “Franks” as the people who had attacked the holy places during the Crusades. The word “Frank” originated from the Farsi Farang or Farangi, meaning European (Frank). Some attributed Farang to the Arabic afranj. Hence, we hear of the Faranj, Franji, Paranki, Parangiar, and of course Ferringhi.

While there is the ‘us-them’ distinction, there was no presumption of moral or cultural superiority involved in the Malay categorization of the Ferringgi as the Other.

PROF. Dato’ Dr. Ahmad Murad Merican

Drawing from the geographical and cultural location as ethnic markers and self-identity – the other is ‘bawah angin’ (below the wind), referring to most obviously the Chinese and the Japanese. While also the ‘atas angin’ in the Ferringgi was in the immediate environment and the observable pasts, that of Rum seems to represent a revered, an almost sacred realm in the traditional Malay psyche.

In the narrative of Hang Tuah, we find that Melaka had become a significant power in the region and wanted to pioneer relationships with the great powers of the ‘negeri di atas angin’ (lands above the wind) such as Rum, Eqypt and Makkah. Accordingly, Hang Tuah led missions to Majapahit, Kalinga, Brunei, Acheh and Rum.

On a few occasions he, or other representatives of the Sultan, bought gems and elephants, to reflect their prosperity and finally, of necessity, purchased weapons from Rum, as Melaka was being threatened by an invasion from the Ferringghi’s (Portuguese). The unknown author of Hang Tuah portrayed Hang Tuah as a much-respected statesman in the various polities of the Malay archipelago, and also that of “Byzantium, the outpost of ‘Rome.’ Rum, certainly than, was not the city of Rome.

Although reference was made to Byzantium, then Constantinople, Rum also refers to the region of the farthest extent of Hellenism and the ‘Occidental’ reach in Asia. And this would stretch until the regions on the north of the Indian sub-continent. Perhaps a re-reading of ‘Rum’ as narrated by such text, and including other known ones such as the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa is inevitable to demythologize the expanse of the Malay worldview. The Raja Rum, whether understood as Greek, Persian or Turkish ruler is a popular figure in traditional Malay literature. An array of the kings of Rum occurs in many Malay literary genres conjuring images in the Malay imagination.

Thus from the known (or unknown) writers, we know much of Malay society, encounters and influences from the outside world. Apart from the numerous classical texts from across the ‘Malaysia’ of the Malay archipelago which need constant reinterpretations, not only in its literary form but in sociological, anthropological, historical and geographical perspectives. There are also autobiographies, sociological and journalistic narratives that definitely deserve a revisit.

This talk is about how Malays have viewed foreigners from the time of pre-Independence. It promises to shed light on the present complexities of ethnic relations in Malaysia.

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