The Malay origin: Tracing back the lineage of the old Brunei


IN STUDYING history, one sometimes wonders where we came from. Brunei or whatever it was called in the ancient times was already in Chinese records more than 1,400 years ago. How did Brunei begin?

Most history books began with the founding of the country by the Alak Betatar brothers and the founding of the Brunei Islamic Malay Sultanate by the 14th century. However, from the Chinese records, we know that an older Brunei was in existence as far back as 800 years before the founding of Brunei by Sultan Muhammad Shah, Brunei's first Sultan. Who were the Bruneians in those days?

The answer to that question is — alas — hidden in the mists of time. However, anthropologists are able to trace the origin of the Malay race. Perhaps one day from here, someone may be able to research further on the origin of the old Brunei.

What has been agreed upon after years of research on the origin of the Malays is that the majority of anthropologists were able to trace the home of the Malay race to the northwestern part of Yunnan in China. These tribal proto-Malays were seafaring people.

These Malays came from Yunnan and the Formosa Island (today's Taiwan) through to the Philippines and settled on the coastal Borneo before expanding into Sumatra and the other Malay Peninsula as a result of their trading and seafaring way of life.

These sea-tribes, played a major part in the making of the great Malay empires of Malacca and Johor. The present-day Malays of the Peninsula and the coastal of the Malay Archipelago are described anthropologically as deutro-Malays and are the descendants of the tribal proto-Malays mixed with modern Indian, Thai, Arab and Chinese blood.

The study of language indicated the movements of the Malay people as they progressed from Formosa to the rest of Southeast Asia and even to the Eastern Pacific Oceanic islands.

In 1999, a colloquium organised by the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation of the University Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia) on the origins of the Malay language focused on the possibility of Borneo as the Homeland of the Malays. The most important papers of the colloquium were later published in a book entitled "Borneo and the Homeland of the Malays" by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Malaysia (Malaysia Language and Literature Bureau) in 2006.

There were four articles in the book. The introductory essay written by Professor James Collins presented the idea of the language homelands. The other three essays were written by Professor Bellwood, who wrote about the archaeological arguments regarding the Malay homeland; Professor Blust, who noted the need to take into account the Chamic languages, another Austronesian language closely related to the Malay or Malayic languages; and Professor Nothofer, who argued that some of the Malayic languages in the islands to the south east of Borneo were once housed in Borneo.

To use languages as the main indicator of the movement of people have long been practised. Linguistic paleontology as it is known was used for the Proto-Indo-European history, the Proto-Finno-Ugric, Proto-Uto-Aztecan and many other languages and similarly for the Malay language of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian. Although in the early 19th century and the early 20th century, there were still other theories with regard to the Malay origins but by the end of the 20th century, Professor Collins was of the opinion that the Borneo island as the homeland of the Malays can be "taken by most of the leading specialists in Austronesian archaeology and comparative linguistics".

Professor Blust similarly argues that even though official Malay history began in Sumatra, Malay pre-history began in Borneo. The use of Malay had been found in three south Sumatran inscriptions as far back as the 7th century. Even though no other evidence had been found, it is also possible that the same language was spoken in the other parts of Malays Peninsula and on Borneo Island.

From linguistic and archaeological evidence, the Malay language evolved from the Austronesian language about 3,000BC. The Austronesian-speaking people on Formosa migrated to form small Neolithic settlements in the Philippines, bringing skills of domesticating farm animals. The ancestor language of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian branched into the Formosan language which stayed in Taiwan today and is still used by the 14 surviving languages there and the Malayo-Polynesian language in the Philippines.

It is likely that the Malayo-Polynesian speaking people moved slowly through the long stretch of the Philippines islands heading south towards Mindanao. At Mindanao, the language split where some of the people heading migrating towards Sulu went to Borneo. At this point, the language further split into the Western Malayo-Polynesian spoken by the peoples of Borneo and the rest of Southeast Asia and into Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, which went eastwards and ended up with the languages of the peoples of Irian Jaya and the Oceanic languages.

Even though linguistically the Malay language can be traced to the split at Borneo island, we do not know for certain how it became prominent.

For a language to have evolved and be diffused and used widely, there must have been other factors, including the possibility of a large or powerful authority or trading policy which existed around 200BC.

!It can be further argued that such a kingdom could have existed and eventually moved to Sumatra to begin the next phase of the Malay history, thus the existence of the various Malay Sultanates in Sumatra and Peninsula Malaysia led to the expansion and use of the Malay language. But in Borneo, even though the growth was not as rapid, historic evidence of Malay in Kutai, East Kalimantan of around the same time period also indicated that Malays also expanded on Borneo Island.

What is most interesting to note is how the history of Brunei can be fitted into all of these.

The Golden Legacy column is the longest running column on Brunei Times. The writer runs a website on Brunei at

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