Significance of the Malay house September 3, 2019 – Posted in: In The News, Reviews

August 11, 2014

SOME weeks back, I was interviewed for an article on the phenomenon ofbalik kampung, whichritualistically happens towards the end of Ramadan to celebrate the first day of the month of Syawal — what we call Hari Raya Aidilfitri or just Hari Raya.

One of the things I said was that the event represents returning to our primordial being, back to our origins, a perfect bliss embodied in the ramifications of therumah— therumah ibu(mother’s house),rumah keluarga(family house) orrumah gadang(the Minangkabau ancestral house).

I grew up in Tanjong, or that part of Tanjong, with its semi-urban area of Air Itam, Penang.

In the early days, one approached Air Itam from Dato’ Keramat Road, one of the main arteries jutting from the then Simpang Enam (where Komtar now stands).

There are pockets of kampung along Air Itam road leading to Penang Hill — Kampung Baru, Kampung Tengah and Kampung Melayu.

But in the 1950s and 1960s, there were no padi fields or buffaloes. Some cattle grazing space and coconut trees. Air Itam was an estate — pepper and rubber.

But Malay kampung houses were present — in various forms — many of which can be categorised as embodying Penang Malay architecture (not necessarily the Jawi Pekan form) set against a modern kampung environment.

As I reminisce on the Malay houses in Air Itam, its fate is unknown to me at the time of writing.

At the back of my mind is Tenas Effendy’sRumah:An Ode to the Malay House(2014). The wisdom inRumahis pertinent to us moderns in more ways imaginable.

Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid (or Lat) gave me a strong impression of the Malay house in the years I was readingKeluarga Si MamatinBerita Harianin the 1960s and 1970s depicting Malay kampung life.

In his foreword, Lat reminded us that we came from the Malay kampung house (at least most Malays do), “born and raised in surroundings steeped in Malay customs and traditions”.

Published by Areca books and by architect Datuk Dr Ken Yeang, the Malay house was given a new lease of life when he, several years ago, came across‘Rumah’ in a book of poems — rhymed sayings — by Riau-based connoisseur of Malay arts and culture, Tenas Effendy,

Acquiring an instant affinity for it, Ken subsequently held the poems to be a vital and meaningful piece of writing for several reasons.

I find that the reasons are equally vital to know and comprehend, especially for those who are conscious of interactions between man and nature.

And naturally for many who have left their “rumah”, now their abode has evolved and resonates thezeitgeistof cubism and the Bauhaus.

The Malay house, according to Ken Yeang, is a cultural artifact, reminding us of a traditional way of life that is rapidly disappearing.

Popular culture still evokes the Malay house — P. Ramlee’s films in the 1950s and 1960s depicting the Malay landscape and the modern Malay television dramas. And definitely, Lat’sKampung Boy.

Many today are not fully conversant with the ethos and values of the kampung.

The poem by Tenas Effendy certainly articulates the significance of the Malay house as a cultural icon as in:

Yang bertiang dan bertangga,
Beratap penampang hujan penyanga panas,
Berdinding penghambat angin dan tempias,
Berselasar dan berpelantar,
Beruang besar berbilik dalam,
Berpenanggah dan bertepian.


That which has pillars and stairs,
With roofs to hinder the rain
And deflect the heat,
With walls to thwart the winds and sprays,
With verandahs and raised open platforms,
With generous spaces and inner chambers,
With sculleries and bathing spaces.

The ecology consciousness in Ken Yeang regards the Malay house as an intuitive precedent to today’s “high-tech double-skin façade in high-rise towers”.

The abode is appropriate for the humid equatorial climate, with raised floors and floor boards paced slightly apart to allow ventilation.

The Malay house is a marvel in the organisation of space. It would be inappropriate to ask the number of rooms it has.

The serambi (front terrace) — rarely articulated these days in our daily speech, serves as the transitional interstitial zone between the inside and the outside — a crucial interactive space between the dwellers, the village community and their immediate environment.

We do not have such a sense in the modern house.

I must congratulate Ken Yeang and Areca Books; and Khoo Salma Nasution, Abdur-Razzaq Lubis and Raja Abdul Razak bin Raja Musa for a fine introduction to Rumah, to Ahmad Harun for his richly water colour illustrations, and to Raimy Che-Ross, as always, for his elegant translation of the ungkapan of Pak Tenas.

*Professor A Murad Merican teaches at the Department of Management and Humanities, Universiti Teknologi Petronas. A keen observer of Malaysia’s history, heritage and intellectual life, he is also an essayist and a newspaper columnist.

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