In the 1500s, Minangkabau males engaged in voluntary migration, called merantau, across the Straits of Malacca.They landed in today’s Negeri Sembilan state and founded settlements all over the region. These settlers intermarried with the local population and brought with them the culture of the Minangkabau, or Adat Perpatih, which governs laws, political organisation, traditions and social systems.
One of the most known features of this adat is the matrilineal society, in which women are the owners of land and property. Family possessions are passed down from mother to daughter. Men, on the other hand are encouraged to leave their village to far off lands seeking fame and fortune, which might explain the migration across the straits. However, they are still tied closely to their homeland, many return home experienced and contribute to the running of the family or negeri (hometown) where they sit on the council of leaders.
Those that decided to stay on in Negeri Sembilan also formed their own villages and clans with similar councils of leaders, known as the datuk-datuk penghulu luak. They were still tied to their homeland, evident in the 1760s when a group of these datuk-datuk penghulus travelled to the seat of the Minangkabau king in West Sumatra to request for a ruler. The king sent his son, a young prince by the name of Raja Melewar who became the first king of Negeri Sembilan.
His title was the Yamtuan Besar (equivalent to King) Raja Melewar. He set his royal capital at Seri Menanti, 14km away from modern day Seremban, where it is still used as the seat of the Yamtuan Besar today. He was succeeded by members of the same royal line, a monarchy that still exists to this day.
The unique feature of Negeri Sembilan is that it is an elective monarchy, according to the Adat Perpatih of the Minangkabau. Unlike the other nine Malay States with a king (known as a Sultan) whose selection is hereditary, the Yamtuan Besar is elected by the datuk-datuk penghulus from a pool of potential princes in the royal line. Yes, the same Minangkabau chieftains of the tribes who went to search for the first ruler choose the king. This council today is made up of four undangs (district lords) in the modern day luaks (districts) of Sungai Ujong, Rembau, Jelebu and Johol. These undangs are descended from noble Minangkabau families matrilineally, and have historically been the rulers of their clans.
Then I realised how Negeri Sembilan (literal translation is “9 lands”) got its name. What I thought referred to the 9th out of 13 Malaysian states actually refers to the 9 original luaks of Negeri Sembilan. Today the state comprises 7 administrative districts, though the council of 4 undangs of the luaks still exist, performing ceremonial duties and the important task of selecting the next Yamtuan Besar.
I visited Negeri Sembilan over a weekend, and the Minangkabau influence is proudly showcased everywhere. In the main city of Seremban, overhead bridges had the distincitve curved roof structure that mimicked the shape of a bull’s horns. Even the local KFC fast food restaurant was in a standalone building designed like a traditional Minang house. In the nearby villages out in the countryside, homes still bear traditional Minangkabau roofs.
The grandest Minangkabau building is the Old Palace at the royal capital Seri Menanti. It is an impressive four storey building built in 1903 constructed without any nails. The palace is today used as a museum featuring the history and regalia of the royal family. Within Seri Menanti town, there is also the royal mausoleum, a mosque and the new Royal Palace, where the current Yamtuan Besar resides.
If you are ever in Negeri Sembilan and wish to learn more about the fascinating Minangkabau of Malaysia, you should also visit the State Museum Complex. Located in Seremban, the museum offers a look into the culture and history of the Minangkabau. The main building, a grand recreation of a Minangkabau royal home, houses everything from weapons to royal ornament. There is even a section on prehistoric Negeri Sembilan.
Istana Lama Seri Menanti : The four-storeyed old royal palace
A view of the State Museum’s Minangkabau roofs, looking out of a window of a traditional home.
A modern interpretation of a Minangkabau home
- Peletz, Michael G (1988). A Share of the Harvest : Kinship, Property, and Social History Among the Malays of Rembau. Berkeley, U. of California Press
Negeri Sembilan Youths and Adat Perpatih. Retrieved December 25, 2013, from http://www.themalaysianinsider.com