Romeo vaults over a wall, enters the Capulet family garden, and hears his new-found love standing at a window bemoaning the fact that their families hate each other. “`Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” Juliet says abstractly, her young friend still unseen below. She continues with the famous lines, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Just as in Shakespeare’s famous drama, the names of people and places all over the world can be fraught with meanings. Sometimes names can signify power relationships, issues of control, and concepts of identity. The naming of the traditional Orang Asli (original people) of Malaysia is a good example. And sometimes personal names can be vehicles for discrimination, as Juliet realized in the play and as individual Orang Asli still experience at times to this day.

Alice M. Nah recently analyzed issues related to the process of naming in an article that focuses on the Orang Asli of Malaysia. The article shows how the country classifies all of the Orang Asli living in Peninsular Malaysia for the purposes of identifying, controlling, and incorporating them into Malay society. Supposedly the Orang Asli fall into three groups that immigrated to the Malay Peninsula in different waves of immigration: the Negritos first, consisting of the Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mendriq, and Batek societies; followed by the Senoi, consisting of the Temiar, Semai, Semoq Beri, Chewong, Jahut, and Mah Meri societies; and finally the Proto-Malays consisting of the Temuan, Selemai, Jakun, Orang Kanak, Orang Kuala, and Orang Seletar societies.

Nah grounds her analysis of the naming process in the history of Malaysia. Not long after World War II, when a communist guerilla movement flourished in the mountains of the Malay Peninsula with the support of some of the aboriginal societies, the British colonial government figured out that they had better learn something about the aborigines. One of their major problems was establishing names for the different groups. Some of the societies had multiple names—one used by the Malays, another used by neighboring peoples, and a third used by themselves. Some attempted to hide their group names from outsiders.

The problems were complex. Some Orang Asli do not use group names; others argue there is a need for further divisions, with more sub-categories. Obviously, the children of inter-group marriages fall outside the boxes designated by the government classification scheme. Nonetheless, the government population tables still show exact numbers for each group without any room for ambiguities.

In 1966 the government of independent Malaysia decided to substitute the term “Orang Asli,” meaning “original people,” for the older term “aborigines.” The government felt that Orang Asli was a much less pejorative term—less freighted with implications of primitiveness and backwardness than “aborigine.” Since then, the term “Orang Asli” has been accepted by the societies themselves, particularly when they need to unite and lobby for a common goal.

However, in 1983 the Malaysian government’s Orang Asli agency, the JHEOA, declared that it intended to convert the original people to Islam, which has provoked a continuing outcry. Once they become Muslims, the reasoning goes, they will no longer be Orang Asli—they will become Malays. Conversion will amalgamate them into Malay society and erase their existence as a people with a separate identity.

The state also controls the naming of individuals, a practice started by the colonial government during the communist insurgency which required everyone to carry state-issued identity cards. Many of the Orang Asli did not comply with the registration laws. The state of Perak drew up special procedures to register the Orang Asli which gathered such details as name, age, sex, father’s name, and estimated age. The state government issued each person a metal disk, a “dog tag,” with a name and an identification number stamped on it.

But imposing personal names on people proved to be a problem for the government as much as imposing names on societies. Some people changed their names at different stages of their lives, some refused to give out their names, and some claimed they did not even have personal names. These issues disappeared once people realized they could not be admitted to hospitals, secure contracts, enroll in schools, or register for various types of programs without having names. Most Orang Asli now apparently carefully register their children as the state requires.

But choosing names for children that signify they are Orang Asli and not Muslim Malays remains very important to many of them. The typical Orang Asli person, as required by state regulations, has a given name, a connective term, and the given name of the father. For the Orang Asli, these names have to be chosen carefully to avoid suspicions of being Muslim—presuming the parents want to retain their Orang Asli identity. The Malaysian terms anak lelaki (A/L) “son of”, anak perempuan (A/P) “daughter of”, or simply anak, “child of”, can be used by parents when they name their children instead of the more clearly Muslim Malay connectives bin (son of) or binti (daughter of).

These issues might seem picayune by outsiders, but they have real meaning in the context of Malaysian society. An Orang Asli woman, seen without a head covering and eating on a street during Ramadan, might be severely upbraided by the authorities. Why is she eating during Ramadam? Why is she not wearing the required head scarf? The name on her identity card, with anak as a connective, shows that she is not Muslim and helps her escape further harassment.

If Romeo and Juliet were set in contemporary Malaysia rather than Renaissance Verona, would Tybalt, a Capulet in Act One, react to the presence of Romeo Montague by hassling him about his name rather than by reaching for his rapier?

Nah, Alice M. 2006. “Names as Sites of Identity Construction, Negotiation, and Resistance: Signifying Orang Asli in Postcolonial Malaysia.” In Race, Ethnicity, and the State in Malaysia and Singapore, edited by Lian Kwen Fee, p. 33-60. Leiden and Boston: Brill