Well before the MM2H programme, many people have made this peninsula home, from retired colonial officers who stayed after independence, the Minangkabau of Sumatra in relatively recent times, to today’s refugees and economic migrants such as the Rohingya and Filipinos.
Centuries ago Chinese, Indian and Arab traders sailed here and left their cultural and genetic legacy. The Greek cartographer Ptolemaeus knew of the Malay Peninsula and his map of 167 AD includes Africa, the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, India, the Indian Ocean, Indochina and the Malay Peninsula. It even shows the promontory of Tanjung Tuan, a navigational feature near Port Dickson which would later be known to the Portuguese as Cabo Rachado.
My own ancestors came possibly as early as the 1400s, with the Ming Chinese Treasure fleets on their way to India and Zanzibar, and settled in Malacca to become Peranakans – Chinese creoles speaking Chinese, Malay, and later English, dressing in the fashion of the Malacca Sultanate and later in Western style.
There is a photo of a beach villa named ‘Eastbourne’ in the 1920s, with them sitting in an American open touring car – a Willys, the men in suits and bowties, the women in Peranakan kebayas and western pumps, Asiatic faces looking stiff and formal. Similar villas lined the beaches of the Malacca Strait at that time.
Before them, the sons of Malay kingdoms in the Archipelago sailed here to seek their fortune, most notably Parameswara, a scion of the Srivijaya kingdom, who founded the Malacca Sultanate on the estuary of a muddy river. Others include Bugis princes from Sulawesi, who found another muddy river near Singapore and established the Johor Sultanate, Malaysia’s most illustrious princely state.
In the north, Thai and Malay people mingled in today’s Kelantan state and neighbouring Yala and Patani provinces, alternating between Siamese and Malay rule. Today you can see a massive gilded Buddha outside Kota Bharu not far from the mosques, testimony to the ebb and flow of migrants.
Before that, the history is less clear. A Malayo-Polynesian wave of migration washed through the Archipelago to New Guinea and the Islands of the Pacific. The Malay word – prahu – cognate to the Polynesian proa, meaning a slim multi-hulled sailing vessel, shows the technological and cultural lineage.
Many anthropologists believe there was a later reverse wave from Borneo and the archipelago through the peninsula to Indochina, then back down again. This is evidenced by similarity in musical instruments – variants of the two-string lute known in Chinese as the erhu are found in Indochina with python skin sound boxes and with puffer fish skin in Malaysia.
Other similarities, in metallurgy, fire and hunting technologies such as the fire piston and blowpipes suggest this. The wave then swept down the peninsula bringing, it is believed, a lighter-skinned, straight or wavy-haired blend of people to the archipelago as well.
Malaysia’s aboriginal people were previously categorised crudely as either Proto- or Deutro-Malay, distinguished by tightly curled hair and more African-like features sometimes called Negritos compared to the more Malay looking groups.
Genetic analysis has established that the genetic distance between the Southern African Bushmen and Malaysia’s Orang Asli (original people) is very close and that they are part of the Out-of-Africa migration, which followed the coastlines of the Indian Ocean to Borneo.
But who first called Malaysia home? This can never be known but about 10,000 BCE, an early rock shelter culture, labelled the HoaBinhian, lived in Kelantan in Northern Malaysia. Gua Cha can be visited still and their descendants, called Temiar, still live in the area.