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Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Languages of South East Asia at SOAS: Malay

The Malays are the largest ethnic group (c. 53%) among the approximately 18 million inhabitants of Malaysia (whose territory comprises the Malayan Peninsula and the northern quarter of the island of Borneo), the biggest minorities being those of Chinese (c. 35%) and Indian (c.11%) origin. Several million other people whose native language and culture are Malay live in Indonesia, especially along the east coast of Sumatra and much of the coastline of Borneo. The Malay language, through its importance in trade and the propagation of Islam, spread from its home on the Malacca Straits all over the archipelago and is now the national language not only of Malaysia, but also of Indonesia and Brunei. It is also one of the official languages of Singapore. Malay in its various forms thus unites almost 200 million people into the fifth largest language community in the world.

Malay studies at SOAS have long focussed on traditional Malay literature as found in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. These works, in various genres, originated from both court and village society between the 14th century and the 19th, and have been handed down orally and in manuscript form (written in a Perso-Arabic script called Jawi). In their variety they reflect their different regional origins and the various kinds of cultural influence that have affected the Malay world, and form a valuable source of knowledge of Malay culture.

In the 20th century a new literature has developed in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei which offers an equally fascinating picture of contemporary society and culture. The quite distinct development of the literatures of Malaysia and Brunei from that of the contemporary literature of Indonesia adds to its interest.

Undergraduate courses on traditional Malay literature, which include the study of Malay manuscript texts written in Jawi, are intended to give historical depth to the study of those with a major in Indonesian in mind. On the postgraduate level, supervision and tuition in both traditional Malay as well as modern literature in Malay are available.

To find out more, try some of these books:
  • Guide to Malaysia by Hans Hoefer, Star Black, and Harold Stephens: 1974, (reprinted several times), Singapore, Apa Productions, 315 pp.
  • The Malays, a cultural history by R. O. Winstedt, revised and enlarged by Tham Seong Chee: 1981, Singapore, Graham Brash, 221 pp.
  • Modern Malay literary culture by Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir: 1987, Singapore, ISEAS Research Notes and Discussion Paper No. 62, 78 pp.
  • The study of traditional Malay Literature by Ismail Hussein: 1974, Kuala Lumpur, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 75 pp.
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