SPICES and missionaries in search of souls would not lend meaning if not intertwined with the Malay language. The language was a lingua franca for the whole of the archipelago — an essential business tool for merchants, missionaries and the savant.
In that spirit, the Malay Concordance Project (MCP) based at the Australian National University (ANU) is a treasure, manifesting Malay intellectual history and the world of Malay writing in the Malay World. It not only helps scholars share and use resources for the study of classical Malay literature, but also provides subjects relating to things culturally and intellectually Malay, the wealth of which can only be fathomed when one explores and navigates it huge corpus.
The MCP features a growing corpus of Malay texts, which according to the latest estimate, comprises 165 texts, and 5.8 million words, including 140,000 verses. All texts are searchable online bringing us to the contexts in which the words are used, where particular terms or names occur in the texts and the patterns of morphology and syntax.
Geography-wise, it covers the Malay Archipelago and the Malay Peninsular. The spatial and temporal spread is overwhelming in which it not only provides Malay expressions with regard to language, but also the many voices from the fluidity of land and water manifesting the Malay psyche and responses to the foreigner — beginning with the Feringgi/Peringgi/Feranggi, as evidenced from the various text ranging from 1380 to 1870.
The collection ranges from the classical and pre-modern Malay to the vernacular newspaper texts. Most of these earlier texts are in the Jawi script. But come the 20th century, the Malay and Indonesian Arabic script has been largely displaced by Roman spelling. Modern editions of classical Malay texts are now published in Roman script, thus making it accessible to the modern reader.
And because the Roman spellings are complete phonemically, the MCP includes texts based on Roman transcriptions of manuscript material.
It is a haven for researchers. The texts are listed both alphabetically and chronologically, and one may search individual texts, categories of texts or the entire collection for words and phrases. The data time period is from 1302 to 1953.
The texts range from Batu Bersurat Terengganu (1302-1388), Hikayat Bayan Budiman (1371), Hikayat Amir Hamzah (earlier than 1380) in the 1300s, to Undang-Undang Melaka (1450-1750) in the 1400s; and Hikayat Indraputera (earlier than 1600) and Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain (earlier than 1600). The 1600s texts include Hikayat Sang Boma (1600), Spraek ende Woord-Boek (1603), Indonesia letters in the Public Record Office (1605-1680), Hikayat Aceh (about 1625), Cerita Kutai (1625) and Sejarah Melayu (about 1612).
Texts in the 1700s include Asal bangsa Jin dan Dewa-Dewa (about 1700), Hikayat Hang Tuah (about 1700), Hikayat Sang Bima (about 1710), Misa Melayu (about 1780), Hikayat Nakhoda Muda (1788) and Warkah Sumatra Barat (1793-1795).
The 1800s saw a proliferation of texts, perhaps more familiar to many of us, at least in name. They include Syair Siti Zubadah Perang Cina (about 1800), Hikayat Negeri Johor (about 1810), Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala (1811), Syair Sultan Maulana (about 1815), Warkah Brunei (1819-1822), Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (about 1821), Silsilah Melayu dan Bugis (1865), Carita Bangka (1861), Hikayat Nakhoda Asik (about 1870) and Cerita Patani dan Kelantan (1876).
MCP includes the various writings of Abdullah Munshi, namely Syair2 Karangan Abdullah (1828-1848), Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (1938), Hikayat Abdullah bin ‘Abdul Kadir (1842), Ceretera2 Karangan Abdullah (1843, 1851) and Pelayaran Abdullah ke Mekah (1854).
For those into the study of early Malay newspapers and journalism, one finds the texts from Cerita Jenaka (earlier than 1908), al-Imam (1906-1908), Majalah Guru (1930-1935), Warta Malaya (1931-1935) and Majlis (1932-1935). There is also the Vernacular Newspaper - Editorials (1887-1940).
The MCP may not have been realised if not for the initiative of the late ANU scholar Dr Ian Proudfoot. He was a student of Malay printing and Malay Studies. His more important articles on early Malay printing were published in the University of Malaya library journal Kekal Abadi.
But Proudfoot’s magisterial world, instrumental in lending him to the consciousness of researchers and scholars of Malay writing is Early Malay Printed Books: a provisional account of materials published in the Singapore-Malaysia area up to 1920, noting holdings in major public collections, published by the Academy of Malay Studies and Perpustakaan Universiti Malaya in 1993. It was known to many as the “hard cover blue book” of some 858 pages. It is a landmark study in analysing intellectual shifts in early Malay society at points of technological, social and ideological change.
But we must return to the MCP — of which Proudfoot’s earlier works were instrumental in its conception, but arguably overshadowed by MCP’s significance. The MCP is a master tool that tells us what, who, when and where, and how of the Malay texts, from the literary, to the historical and theological, and sociological of the Malay budi over the expanse of the geography of the Malay archipelago and over some 700 years.
Proudfoot certainly has deep knowledge of Malay literature, a profound understanding of the methods and modes of its written transmission over the centuries, to have developed the systems and search methods in the face of overwhelming complexity.
In his own words written in 1991, a concordance is a particular way of displaying the form of a text. It is provides a basis upon which various interpretations can be conveniently built. Proudfoot’s contribution to Malay scholarship is immense. One, as Datuk Dr Annabelle Teh Gallop put it, that it enables the compilation of a body of reference in the course of one evening which might otherwise have taken a scholar a lifetime to collect.
I have been using the concordance for sometime now. In her tribute to Proudfoot, Gallop (2013) head of the Southeast Asia Section of the British Library, a contributor to MCP, and a scholar of Malay letters, spoke of his modesty. This is reflected in the front page of the MCP, which bears no clue to its authorship. I suppose resonating the “unknown” author of classical Malay texts. The name “Proudfoot”, as Gallop described it, is “simply tucked alphabetically into the list of contributors of texts”.
But what I have noticed, and quite disturbingly too, and expressed by Gallop, that “for many years, the front page of the MCP carried the message ‘Any problems, contact me’, with a link to Ian’s email address. I was moved beyond measure when I realised soon after his death that the message was no longer there, and that Ian must have removed it shortly before he died.
“Like a good captain, Ian had first set the rudder and put everything in order, before leaving his ship to sail without him,” leaving the treasure in the bahtera to take its own course in the ocean of Malay writing.
The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org