Beauty of the Malay language: Merdeka Award winner preserves its rich heritage


Datuk Dr Annabel Teh Gallop won the Merdeka Award 2022 for “Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia”. She was recognised for her outstanding contribution in scholarly research, curation, archiving and preservation of ancient Malay letters and manuscripts, Malay seals and documents. – Photos: DATUK DR ANNABEL TEH GALLOP

Datuk Dr Annabel Teh Gallop won the Merdeka Award 2022 for “Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia”.

The 61-year-old was recognised for her outstanding contribution in scholarly research, curation, archiving and preservation of ancient Malay letters and manuscripts, Malay seals and documents, which has led to the understanding of the Malay language as the language of trade and diplomacy throughout the Malay Archipelago, and the illumination of the rich heritage of the Malay world.

With her mother in London in 2016.With her mother in London in 2016.Born in England to an English father and Malaysian mother from Kedah, and raised in Brunei, Gallop is the Head of the South-East Asia section in the Asian and African Collections at the British Library in London, England, where she currently lives.

The Malay section, which is part of the South-East Asia section, features about 10,000 printed books, magazines and newspapers, and 120 handwritten manuscripts in Malay and Jawi.

“My late father Christopher Hugh Gallop was British but my mother Teh Siok Lay, now 89, is Malaysian and still holds on proudly to her Malaysian citizenship. However, my only option was to be a British citizen so that’s why I’m based in London, and in fact, it was in London, during my Masters in Malay and Indonesian studies at SOAS, London University, that I learned to read and write Jawi,” she says, adding that #SayaJugaAnakMalaysia is a hashtag that suits her well.

According to Gallop, being based in London gives her a wider perspective of the whole region, especially relating to Malay “which historically spans so many different countries”.

Gallop reveals that it was her late father who inspired her deep interest in Malay studies.

“He loved the Malay world, and spoke excellent Malay during his work as a school principal and school inspector in Brunei.

Gallop and her parents meet Tunku Panglima Besar Intan of Kedah.Gallop and her parents meet Tunku Panglima Besar Intan of Kedah.

“When my parents retired to Penang, my father did his Masters in Malay literature, specialising in the work of the Brunei novelist Muslim Burmat, and graduating with his Masters at the age of 70!” she says.

Gallop’s interest in South-East Asia, Indonesian and Malay studies grew further during her first solo trip to Indonesia at 17.

While in Indonesia, she taught English for seven months and learnt to speak Indonesian fluently.

“That time led to me increase my fluency in Bahasa Malaysia, although I’ve to frequently remember to say ‘boleh’ instead of ‘bisa’ (the Indonesian version),” she laughs.

At the Warisan Warkah Melayu exhibition at the National Library in 1994.At the Warisan Warkah Melayu exhibition at the National Library in 1994.

Art of Quran

Gallop’s latest field of research and interest is the art of the Quran in South-East Asia.

“While I’m not a scholar of the text itself, I’ve studied the material and artistic aspects of Quran manuscripts, including their paper, bindings, and decoration.

“They’re so beautiful and have hardly been studied. In fact, I’ve found that the finest Qurans were produced in Terengganu.

“They’re the only Quran manuscripts in South-East Asia that have reached the same level of technical excellence as what you might find in the Ottoman world, and they’re absolutely exquisite in terms of calligraphy and illumination,” she says.

“While the text of the Quran, in Arabic, is the same all over the Islamic world, from Turkey to Malaysia, the materials and visual appearance of Quran manuscripts, and their styles of calligraphy and binding, are very different depending of the area of origin,” she explains.

Gallop (second right) at the Spice Of Life exhibition (2007) held in Liverpool because of its huge Malay community, including Malay sailors who settled down there. Photos: Annabel Teh GallopGallop (second right) at the Spice Of Life exhibition (2007) held in Liverpool because of its huge Malay community, including Malay sailors who settled down there. Photos: Annabel Teh Gallop

Of seals and letters

Gallop is also known for her publication Malay Seals From The Islamic World Of South-East Asia (2019).

“It’s a catalogue of over 2000 Malay seals from South-East Asia, spanning four centuries (from 16th to early 20th century).

They were sourced from over 70 public institutions and 60 private collections worldwide.

“The seals reveal the inter-connectedness of every corner of the Malay world – from Aceh, Indonesia; to Mindanao, Philippines; Pattani, Thailand; and Johor, Malaysia,” she says.

One of Gallop’s most important discoveries about Malay manuscripts is the finer nuances of the seals used in ancient documents.

“Aside from providing the name, date and place where the document was written, the position of the seals reveals the relationship between the sender and receiver. The placement of the seals is also determined by the social standing of the writer and recipient.

In 1994, Gallop worked with the National Archives in Malaysia on “The Legacy of the Malay Letter”, an exhibition of 100 letters from the 16th century.

“The manuscripts showed that Francis Light, the English captain who founded Penang, once wrote to the Sultan of Kedah, signing himself off as ‘Hamba yang sehina-hina hamba’ (The lowest of your lowest servant),” she reveals.

Digitisation and accessibility

In KL with author Ninot Aziz whose novel she had a cameo role in, and National Library director Datuk Nafisah in 2017.In KL with author Ninot Aziz whose novel she had a cameo role in, and National Library director Datuk Nafisah in 2017.Dr Gallop has been digitising traditional Malay documents to make them more easily available to anyone interested in learning more.

“Technology and digitisation has helped people all over the world to access these manuscripts more easily,” she adds.

Gallop believes the work they’ve done is relevant and meaningful for the new generation of Malaysians.

“There’s a lot for Malaysians to be proud of. We’re heirs of a rich tradition of writing and intellectual thought.”

Gallop says she felt surprised, amazed and humbled to be chosen for the Merdeka award.

“It’s my hope that this award will make more realise the importance of history and the historical awareness of heritage, as well as the historical sources and writings/manuscripts in the broader domain,” she says.

During her free time, Gallop enjoys reading novels and going on vacation with her family.

In fact, Gallop even has a cameo in a novel. She appears as herself in Kirana: Dreams After The Rose by Malaysian author Ninot Aziz.


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