Elite and cultured Malays


A leading elite Malay family of Sri Lanka,  Hon. M.K. Saldin, the first Malay Legislative Councillor, (Centre( his children and sons-in-laws.

By the early 19th century the original Malay community (the "Ceylon Malays") that had gradually formed during the previous century had firmly established itself within Sri Lankan society. Many of them came from cultured families around the Archipelago.

Their descendants had been driven by the ambition that often activates migrants and supported by closely-knit kinship groups. They rose to elite status taking advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the regimental schools and occupied high ranks in the Regiment.
As a British officer remarked in 1839, "the non-commissioned officers of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment are to a man almost all Ceylon Malays for which service the foreigners (i.e. the later Malay immigrants from the Peninsula) have not the smartness nor intelligence."

As this quote shows, the fate of the Malay recruits who came during the early 19th century from Malaya is a different story. They were mostly half-hearted and desperate job-seekers who roamed in the Straits Settlements only to be lured by the few dollars offered as bounty money on enlistment.

On one occasion in 1841 onboard the ship 'Baroque la Fellies', the Malay recruits waiting to be transported from Singapore to Sri Lanka even murdered the Sri Lankan Malay recruitment officer and escaped with the bounty money.

In a few rare cases unscrupulous sergeants even 'shanghaied' their recruits, i.e. drugging and transporting men without their agreement. Nonetheless these later immigrants were far less sophisticated and motivated than the early ones and ended up as low achievers. Many did not take advantage of regimental education and remained at the rank of private.
These later immigrants never really assimilated into Sri Lankan Malay society, even though many married local women. The established elite Malays looked down upon them and often treated them as simpletons. Being less established and privileged than the older Malay community, some tried to return to their home country. Thus in the 1860s a return movement began when the regiment offered them repatriation, though some of them decided at the last minute to remain with their families in Sri Lanka.

There is no better way to sum up these events than by reproducing verbatim an account from the 1865 biography of J.T. Thompson, government surveyor of Singapore, that chronicles the sad tale of a Peninsular Malay recruit to Sri Lanka.

"Oamut was a true Malay; and, I was more in contact with him than with any other person for a whole year, I will describe him as well as I am able. ..Oamut might stand about five feet four inches. He dressed in the usual manner of Malaya, viz., in the sarong (olaid), salvar (trousers), and baju (coat). On his head he wore a Bugis handkerchief; and on his feet he wore sandals. By his aide was a kris, with which he never parted for a moment. At a distance he might have been taken for a Scottish highlander; when near, his copper-coloured skin, black twinkling eyes, Mongolian physiognomy, proved that he was a Malay. He was independent in his tone, but respectful in his manners; and, during my long intercourse with him, he neither betrayed a tincture of low breeding, nor a sign of loose and improper thoughts.

"Indeed his sense was delicate and keen: his ideas had a tone of high standard. He was unmindful of money or any other object than what was necessary to maintain himself and family. He gradually commanded my friendship. I felt I could not but respect him. His conversation was intelligent on the affairs of the surrounding states, his information was deep in the characteristics of his own race; and his descriptions of past and passing events interesting and instructive. Yet he could neither read nor write - a defect he bewailed with much sorrow. His age might have been forty-seven to fifty. In our many rambles and rides together, he used to relate the history of his own life; and as an illustration of these social incidents I will put down what I can remember.

"...He was born near Bukit Tingah, on the Juru river; he once pointed out to me the remnant of his father's coconut grove, standing in the midst of a plain of lalang (high grass) close to the mangrove jungle. Now only three trees served as a mark of the spot - circumstance which drew a sigh from the Malay; for these melancholy remembrances brought back the memory of a doting father and fond mother, as he knew them in his sunshine of childhood. But he soon turned aside: grave thoughts crossed his brow; for time had dispersed the members of that family, and scattered them to and fro.

"Oamut was a wild young man, and wanted to see the world; so, in a moment of unguardedness, he was caught in the meshes of an enlisting sergeant of the Ceylon Rifle Corps. Dosed with narcotics, and before seeing either father or mother, he was carried on board a ship bound for a long foreign service."

"'It is not wonderful,' said Oamut to me, 'that an amok takes place; for the bereft and frenzied youths see the land of their love still in view and are maddened at the parting.' An amok did not occur on this occasion; Oamut was borne off; and he landed safely in Ceylon, was drilled and stiffened into the shape of a British soldier. He was also sent to school, but could never learn the difference between a and b; he however progressed so far in English as to speak it, parrot-like; but what he said was better understood by himself than by his white friends.
"While in Ceylon he assisted in the reduction of the hill tribes [a reference to 1848 Kandy rebellion]; and on one occasion stuck by his wounded captain for three days. He concealed him in the jungle, and bore him out in safety.

"This gave Oamut a step; but he was bodo (unlearned), so could not be made a sergeant. He served for twenty-seven years, after which he yearned to return to his native land. He got his discharge without pension (the reason for this I could never satisfactorily learn). So he returned penniless to Polo Pinang to find father and mother, sisters and brothers, gone. The very posts of his father's house had rotted away."
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