Gurindam 12 Fasal 1

Gurindam Raja Ali Haji terjemahan translation

This is the gurindam of the first issue.raja_ali_haji2

Whosoever to his faith holds not
Is a man whose name will be forgot.

Whosoever understands these four
Truly stands among the knowers.

Whosoever has knowledge of The One,
Command, forbid: he will not turn.

Whosoever has knowledge of self
Has knowledge of Allah, azza wa jal.

Whosoever has knowledge of the life of this earth
Knows it is deception of no true worth.

Whosoever has knowledge of the Afterlife
Knows this world is profitless strife.


Ini gurindam pasal yang pertama

Barang siapa tiada memegang agama,
sekali-kali tiada boleh dibilangkan nama.

Barang siapa mengenal yang empat,
maka ia itulah orang ma’rifat

Barang siapa mengenal Allah,
suruh dan tegahnya tiada ia menyalah.

Barang siapa mengenal diri,
maka telah mengenal akan Tuhan yang bahari.

Barang siapa mengenal dunia,
tahulah ia barang yang terpedaya.

Barang siapa mengenal akhirat,
tahulah ia dunia mudarat.


Gurindam Dua Belas is a Malay poem written in rhyming couplets with free meter. It has 12 parts, each dealing with a different pasal, or issue. It was composed by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873), an intellectual of the Riau-Lingga court best known for his history Tuhfat al-Nafis (the Precious Gift).  I’ll be posting my translations pasal by pasal.

Cot Melukut

Cot melukut
Berambang gantang.
Mana tikus ‘nyorok?
Celah kangkang!

A popular nursery rhyme for youngsters. Begin by poking the bottom of the kid’s foot, then race up their leg to tickle the inner thigh. Conceptually similar to the American “This Little Piggy Went To Market”, the Malay version has the advantage of being certified Halal by JAKIM. It translates as:

Broken grains of rice
Scattered ’round the measure’s edge.
Where hide the mice?
Between your legs!

Gantang, translated as “measure” here, is an old Malay unit of measurement roughly equal to a gallon in volume, holding around 6 lbs of dry rice. For a hapless American, dealing with metric is bad enough. When you balik kampung and talk to the orang tua, matters get more complicated. Cupak, kati, ela, batu: the weights and measures from at least four different systems are still in use by my mother-in-law, if no one else.

Local measurements have traveled abroad as well: tael is the English word for a unit of weight or currency used by Chinese traders, derived from the Malay tahil. The value of the unit, and its use, comes from China. It acquired the Malay name from trading with the archipelago, and from there it spread to English.

I’m still trying to find out what a hun/hoon is. It appears to be a Chinese unit of length smaller than an inch and bigger than a… smidgen? pinch? millimeter? Any input appreciated!

UPDATE: Brother Musa informs me that a hun is indeed a Chinese unit equal to 3/16 of an inch. Thank you!

Other Malay contributions to English
Other Malay nursery rhymes translated

The Year in Chickens

The last two weeks saw a number of milestones pass for me.  20 years as a muslim. 10 years in Malaysia. 10 years running this website.  6 years of keeping chickens!

In Malaysia, my first personal encounter with chickens beyond the dinner table was over 12 years back, when a  neighbor’s rooster attacked my firstborn son, drawing blood.  Incredibly, the same rooster did it again to my toddler daughter three years later.

hen_shadowSomehow, that didn’t stop me.  The tiny and attractive ayam serama that are commonly raised here were cute and non-threatening enough (as opposed to ayam laga,  fighting cocks, a phrase used metaphorically for young thugs) that I got a pair  to raise in the backyard.    Before long, I had chicks, hatching them in a flower pot full of dracaena, in my kitchen no less.  They were great fun, and the children loved them.  They were educational too: you can learn a lot from a chicken.

But then disaster struck.  First came the cats.  Then came the biawaks.  Giant monitor lizards living under your foundation and terrorizing your flock are bad enough.  But when a reticulated python crept into the coop and crushed Juliet to death, I was just about ready to give up.  Only Romeo my original rooster managed to survive, after nearly a year of chicken rearing.  I decided to suspend the chicken project till conditions improved.  Romeo was alone.

When we put an additThe addition goes upion on the house in 2007, Romeo moved with us to the rental down the block for six months.  When we returned to the wreckage in 2008, Romeo lived a solitary existence for years, nearly feral, often deciding not to return to the coop in the evening and sleeping rough on some perch or another overnight.  Only in the last year did I finally feel the time was right to find Romeo a new spouse.  The backyard has grown up, providing shade, cover and interest.  A brick and mortar wall around the perimeter keeps a lot of the critters out. The swampy scrub jungle in the adjacent lot has been cleared and filled, awaiting development. A more friendly environment for chickens in every respect.

And so, dear readers, I am happy to announce that Halia the Hen has joined Romeo the Rooster, and in a very short time indeed they have between the two of them produced three generations, 10 chicks that have all survived to adulthood, including a very fine and promising young rooster named Jack.  That’s him at the top of the story.  He’ll rule the roost one day.  With Jack is Jill, and then there are Turmeric, Fennel, Cumin and I can’t remember the rest.  Only KakYang can keep them all straight.

The flock are free range in our backyard now, living on a forage diet generously supplemented with cracked corn and table scraps.  KakYang takes particular interest in them.  She has redomesticated Romeo who last month, for the first time ever, ate grain out of the palm of her hand.


Relatedly, after all these years, I only just now put two and two together and realized that the name of these chickens is actually another word that Malay has contributed to the English language.  These chickens are bantams, meaning semi-arboreal small-sized chickens.  The word comes from the ancient city of Bantem (or Banten) on the island of Java in Indonesia.  As it turns out, chickens are thought to have first been domesticated in the Malay Archipelago, or it may be that chickens have been domesticated by humans separately on more than one occasion, mostly around Southeast Asia.  It’s complicated.  Either way, these small, clever, gorgeous chickens – bantams – are another Malay loan-word to English.  Bantamweight boxers, Bantam Books publishers: indebted to Bahasa Melayu.

So nice I have to say it twice

Reduplication is the name linguists give to the doubling up of words.  It doesn’t happen all that much in English, aside from making adjectives more intense, as in Star Wars (“Long long ago in a galaxy far far away”), or baby talk (dumdum, poopoo), or when apologizing to Miss Jackson (for ever-ever?).

Bahasa Malaysia, on the other hand, is the undisputed king of reduplication.  Any sort of word can be doubled, and doing so changes the word in all kinds of ways.  People learning BM run into this right away, since the reply for terima kasih (thank you) is sama-sama (same to you), from the word sama meaning same.  Like English, it can be used to intensify, so banyak (many) becomes banyak-banyak (a whole lot).  It can expand or play on the original meaning, so main means play and main-main means to fool around; orang is a person, orang-orang is a scarecrow. But reduplication can also transform words into something very very different.  Kuda means horse, but kuda-kuda is the distinctive low bent-knee starting posture for Pencak Silat.  Obor means torch, but obor-obor is a jellyfish!
It is such a common feature of the language that it is often written with a “2” for the second instance, like sama2 or kuda2.  I was sure that was a modern innovation, text-speak like LOL and GR8, until I was reading a kitab kuning in jawi and found it there too!

So what happens when a highly reduplicative language like BM starts borrowing words by the truckload from a not-very-reduplicative language like English?  You could fill a small dictionary with all the English words brought directly into Malay unchanged.  More rare are the words that are digested and reworked for local use (and I hope to post on those sooner or later).  But so far I have only come across a few English words that have been brought into BM and transformed by doubling up. Here they are:
Together-gether:  from together, obviously, but with meanings ranging from togetherness in the sense of harmony or unity, to coupling-up or cuddling.
Ileq-ileq:  from relax, but meaning more like hang out, chill, take it easy. In town now we have the Ileq-Ileq Cafe, and in fact that’s where I first heard it.  Visit them down at Taman Budaya next time you’re in the area.
Any body-body heard of any more?  Leave a comment please!

The Yard: Cekur Udang Gamit

Cekur in flower

There is a Malay nursery rhyme that goes like this:

Cekur udang gamit

Minta cekur bagi kunyit

Mothers will often sing this to small babies while holding their wrist, to which the baby will respond by opening and closing their fist. It is very cute. I don’t know how my wife managed to teach our kids at the age of just a few months. They pick it up very easily almost like it is some kind of reflex.

The rhyme means:

Cekur shrimp waving

Ask for cekur, give turmeric

Great, so that makes about as much sense as nursery rhymes can be expected to make. But what on earth is cekur, you ask? Maybe you’re not all that sure what turmeric is either, for that matter.
Cekur in flower  Turmeric/kunyit  Ginger/halia
[Click for larger images]

Well, turmeric, curcuma longa/domestica, kunyit in Malay, is a spice in the same family as ginger, zingiber officianale, halia in Malay, but with smaller rhizomes (not a root, technically). The rhizomes are orange-yellow and can be used fresh or in powdered form in a lot of asian cooking, especially curries. The leaf can also be used, chopped up as an herb or as a wrapping for baking or roasting fish. My turmeric is a sad specimen. It is forever being victimized by leaf-rolling caterpillars.

Now cekur, kaempfera galanga, probably, is a much rarer plant without a proper English name that I know of. Let’s just call it chekur. It is seldom used for cooking but is prized for medicinal purposes, including post-partum care. It is ground into a paste and applied as a poultice to the stomach to aid the uterus in shrinking and to tone the stomach. [You will be notified when my cekur herbal supplement MLM is ready to launch – ed.] I’ve written a bit more on malay post-partum treatment previously. Finding cekur for sale is not easy. There is only one man selling it in all the veggie markets in Kuching, and sometimes he’s out of stock, so I made sure to plant some of what we bought last time around. It has done splendidly, spreading all over and even flowering, which is unusual for some of these rhizomaceous types.

That guy down at the Gambier bus yard also sells benglay (sp?), which is a smaller and uglier rhizome even than cekur. It is an even more obscure gingerish plant. My wife had never heard the name before much less seen it till moving to Sarawak. Our local midwife allowed that it could be used in place of cekur if needs be, but it smells very bad when made into a poultice. If I wind up visiting that guy again after the baby comes, I’ll buy a bit just to photograph it. Which is likely since we went through kilos of cekur last time around, and I doubt if I’ve got quite that much here in the yard.

Hau tu spik Malaysian

A billboard in Klang for the new Port.
A billboard in Klang for the new Port.
Malaysia is constantly grappling with the role of English in the country and in the Malaysian language, Bahasa Malaysia. On the one hand, fluency in English is highly prized. The government’s latest initiative to improve English skills is that Math and Science courses will now be taught in English medium. On the other hand, English vocabulary is flooding into BM, which bothers many, especially when it displaces perfectly good BM equivalents. The newest Blog on my roll is MacVaysia, an English teacher in Rawang. He writes a lot about the language situation here, BM and English and …Manglish. Here’s an excerpt of some of his thoughts on the subject:

So what’s the fuss about? Well, the people raising the alarm are concerned not about English in Malaysia, but about English in Malay. They are alarmed by the large number of English words that are in common use in the Malay language. RTM has even banned some Malay songs that contain English lyrics, and the newspapers frequently contain letters from people upset by the use of English words in Malay TV and radio broadcasts. It is true that the average conversation between Malays will likely contain several English words, or at least words that are derived from English. Here’s a very short list of some common words:… Read the whole thing here.

There’s no such thing as a pure language, as he points out. English vocabulary is half Latin. BM had equal parts Arabic and Sanskrit before the flood of English. When I first visited Malaysia, I didn’t know any BM. But between my rudimentary Arabic vocabulary and my father’s Hindi, we could decipher a good deal of what we saw. So I don’t find anything inherently wrong with English entering now. It’s just a little too rapid, and perhaps a little too eagerly adopted. I submit for your consideration this photo I took a while back while driving through Klang. It’s a billboard for the new shipping port set up to challenge Singapore. Any non-Malaysians want to hazard a guess about what it says? Yu tu ken spik Malaysian… [Click the picture for a larger image.]

Malay Contributions to English, pt. 5

Unusual purple fruit with nerf bristles
Unusual purple fruit with nerf bristles

Though I’ve been here in Kuching over a year now, I’ve barely been outside of the city. Partly because of that, I had the impression that all the “real” nature was to be found far into the uplands. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I visited Semenggoh just a half an hour’s drive from our house. Semenggoh is a state park with an Orangutan rehabilitation center attached to it. “Apes in rehab?!”, you’re thinking, “what are they, on crack?”

Orangutans brachiating through the jungle
Orangutans brachiating through the jungle

Ahem. No, these are orangutans who have been orphaned in the wild or were illegal pets or so forth, and are now being retaught how to live in the jungle. They are fed twice a day by rangers who leave big piles of fruit on an elevated platform, and the orangutans come brachiating in out of the jungle for the free food. It was an amazing thing to see animals this way, freely moving around in their own habitat. We were on the other side of a small ravine from the feeding platform, but some of the orangutans had brachiated on over, and were literally overhead, some 20 or 30 feet up in the trees above us. They didn’t swing from vine to vine like tarzan either, they would swing to small trees which would bend over under their weight till they could grab another one. The largest male in the group, who had a black leathery face and chest and must have weighed half a ton, misjudged a tree and it bent all the way to the ground, dumping him rather ungracefully. My son and daughter had a blast, with my daughter asking me the very next day when we could go back to visit the “orang rambutan”.

Gathering food from the feeding platform
Gathering food from the feeding platform

Which brings me to our fifth Malay contribution to English: Orangutan comes from two malay words, Orang meaning man or people and hutan meaning jungle. So, people of the jungle. I have heard though that the name was only given to the creatures by the British. Maybe someone out there can confirm or deny that? There is a local Sarawakian name for them too, but I can’t remember what it is.
[Update: Orangutans are called Mawas in Malay and Kuyat locally, according to comments received below. -Ed.]

A gibbon swings around the visitor center
A gibbon swings around the visitor center

Well, we had so much fun that we went back last week, this time with my father (that would be Gregory) and uncle, who were visiting for a few days. We didn’t have as much luck though: no orangutans. But we did see a very lively gibbon, a few crocs, and an unusual tree dropping that I must conclude is a fruit but is pretty enough to be a flower. It kind of resembles the terap, except petite and decorative, so maybe it is an Artocarpus of some kind.
[Update: The fruit is Anthocephalus sp., a member of the Rubiaceae, eaten by gibbons. TQ, Iqbal.]