Sustaining a Malay Lankan Identity: A Magnum Opus on Their Heritage

A young medical student Tuan Careem hopes that his book ‘Persaudaraan’ (brotherhood) will help rekindle an interest in Malay culture among the youth of his community.  When he was young, he spent many days in bed recovering from bouts of asthma. While many would cite similar experiences as a reason why they did not succeed in later life, young Tuan Careem does just the opposite. “I used to get sick a lot when I was small so I would have to spend a lot of time at home. My parents took me to the library and let me borrow books to keep me occupied, but unfortunately for them I read the books at an inconveniently fast rate,” grins 24-year-old Tuan.

Tuan Careem addressing the audience at the launch of his book. Pix by Amila Gamage

His voracious appetite for books and reading might perhaps be the reason why he is able to successfully study Medicine and also write a book. ‘Persaudaraan’ (brotherhood), his 720-page book on Malay life in Sri Lanka was launched last year. The first edition came out in 2016, all of 456 pages. This second revised edition is 254 pages longer, with many additional details included.

The book traces the history of the Malays from the time they arrived in Sri Lanka to the present day, explaining the many aspects of Malay lifestyle and culture including fashion, music and drama.

Tuan started writing at age 16, first penning articles to newspapers about ethnic minorities, with a particular focus on the Malays of Sri Lanka. After writing numerous articles about the Malays, at the suggestion of others he was prompted to write a book on Malay history. In this he was guided by his mentor Deshamanya Tissa Devendra. After the first book was published, he continued writing articles on Malay history, which he then decided to publish with the help of Dr. Peter B. R. Carey (an Oxford University professor), who instructed him on the correct procedure to follow when writing an anthropological tome. Tuan explains that he visited the National Archives, contacted local universities and obtained the help of many people in writing this book.

His grandmother instilled in him the importance of preserving culture, heritage and other values of the Malay Community, he says. It is through her that he learned to speak Malay, and he regrets that this knowledge is not being instilled in Malays of the present generation. “Malays today learn Sinhala or Tamil and English so that they can communicate and study in school but no one seems interested in learning Malay. Very few Malay youngsters today know how to speak more than a few words of Malay,” he remarks sadly, adding that the culture of Malays in Sri Lanka is in danger of dying out completely in the future.

The history learnt in school does not focus enough on certain aspects of our past, comments Tuan. “We have historical amnesia – we learn about the Kings of Sri Lanka but do not learn about minorities and so many other aspects,” he comments, adding that it is unfortunate that the history syllabus does not include much information about the endangered minorities in the country. “There is a race of Tamil Veddhas who have died out completely but no-one focuses on things like that. These are also important aspects of our history,” he remarks. He hopes that his book will provide important insights into one aspect of Sri Lankan history – Malay history and the role of Malays in Sri Lankan society from past to present.

Above all, Tuan’s main hope is that his book helps spark an interest in Malay culture among the youth of his community. “I’ve added so many aspects so that Malay youth can choose to read about something. If the other aspects of my book are boring, why not read about the fashion or the music? Even if they don’t read my book they can still find about these things,” he says. The need to educate Malay youth on their heritage is one of the main reasons why he decided to take on the arduous task of publishing a book while engaging in the rigorous work required to study medicine.

“Despite being a medical student, I spend time on the weekends to preserve my culture and save it from becoming extinct,” he says.

Persaudaraan – Malay Life in Sri Lanka by Tuan M. Zameer Careem has been published by S. Godage and Brothers (Pvt) Ltd and is priced at Rs. 3750.

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Hanifi Hussin: “Review: A new perception on Lankan Malays,” Sunday Observer

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