M. Bakri Musa
14th Nov 2015
Why do you stay in prison when the door is wide open?
Jalal ad Din Rumi (1207-73)
The path we chose in pursuing independence represented the best elements of our culture. We followed the right leaders and they in turn adopted the right strategy, one of co-operation and negotiation. That was our nature, to be bertolak ansur (give and take); posturing and confrontation were just not our style.
Our leaders’ timing too was perfect as Britain had grown weary of her colonies. We were also lucky in that we were dealing with the British. Had it been the Chinese, well, consider the fate of the Tibetans and Uighurs. Had it been the Russians, look at Ukraine and Chechnya.
Today revisionist historians belittle the valiant efforts of our fathers of independence. Let me set these latter-day interpreters of events straight. Had we opted for Burhanuddin Al Helmy or Chin Peng, the nation’s history and the fate of our people would be far different today.
In times of crises or profound changes, we have to be extra cautious in whom we choose to lead us, or stated differently, in whom we should follow. It is during such times that we have to exercise our critical faculties and be extra vigilant in choosing our leaders. Malaysia is in such a state today. We have a leader in Najib Razak who is severely-challenged with respect to honesty, integrity, and competency. Profligacy he has in abundance.
Those enlightened leaders who guided us peacefully to independence should inspire us. As for our earlier heroes who shepherded us to Islam, there is little written about them as our culture had just transited into the written word. In lieu of that I have highlighted the heroes from our legends. One is Hang Tuah, a figure high in the palace hierarchy; the other, an ordinary citizen, Hang Nadim. They may or may not be based on historical characters but they nonetheless serve a useful purpose to remind us of the power of a free mind.
In Sulalatus Salatin (Malay Annals) there is the story of Temasek (old Singapore) being regularly plagued by schools of flying fish. Hundreds fell victim to this scourge, impaled by the fish’s sharp snouts. All efforts at combating this piscine intrusion proved unsuccessful. Then a young boy suggested to the sultan to plant a row of bananas along the shoreline. That way, Hang Nadim told the sultan, when the flying fish darted onshore, their snouts would be impaled on the plants’ soft stems.
The scheme worked wonderfully well, and the pleased sultan decided to honor the clever young man. The sultan’s advisors however, had second thoughts. If that youth could dream up such a brilliant scheme at a very young age, they convinced the sultan, what else would he think of later as an adult? Sensing a future threat, the sultan had Hang Nadim beheaded. Imagine!
That young man certainly had a free mind. He could, to borrow a cliché, think outside the box. He was also not at all shy in telling his sultan on what to do. In a deeply feudal society as Malay society was then (still is), that took great courage.
That boy however, paid dearly for his courage and free-mindedness. Tragic as that was for him and his family, the far greater tragedy was borne by society. Executing the young man not only deprived that society of its bright star but also sent a clear message that it did not pay – in fact downright dangerous – to be innovative and original. Such a society could never aspire to greatness. That was a steep price to pay, just to protect the exalted positions of the sultan’s selfish and shortsighted advisors.
If you kill off your bright talents, a generation or two later you will have a society of dumbbells. When the Mongols invaded the Muslim heartland, the first thing they did was to kill off the intellectuals and luminaries. That was the most effective and efficacious way to decapitate that society and culture.
Hang Nadim’s treatment reminded me of the ancient Mayan practice of sacrificing their beautiful virgins to their Gods. A few generations later, all the newborns in that society were ugly, as the beautiful potential mothers had been killed.
The legend of Hang Nadim reflects more on society than on him. Every society is blessed with its share of Hang Nadims. What it does with the blessings would in large measure determine its fate.
Consider the European aristocracies’ practice of taking in gifted citizens under its patronage. The Romanov Dynasty nurtured the best Russian artists, composers and writers. Granted, the arts were often used as political instruments and artists were continually divided between devotion to their craft and to their royal patrons, but at least those creative citizens received royal support and recognition.
Imagine if the sultan had taken Hang Nadim under his patronage. He would blossom, exploring other bright ideas and expanding on his banana plantation scheme. There could be a flourishing fresh-fruit industry as well as a fish-processing plant. The fish waste would be excellent fertilizer for the rice fields. Imagine, three industries spawned and the attendant jobs for the sultan’s subjects, quite apart from ensuring their safety, just from one bright idea!
If the sultan had gone beyond and married the young man to one of the princesses, that would ensure future members of the royal family would have something between their ears, We would then be more likely to get sultans who could choose smarter advisers and make wiser decisions.
The far greater reward would not be on the young man or the future average intelligence of the royal family but on society. Other bright young men and women would now be inspired to pursue their own creative and innovative ideas in the hope of getting similar royal recognition. Pretty soon the royal court would be full of these bright kids and the sultan would have the best advice. Both he and his kingdom would prosper.
Today many lament Najib’s dysfunctional leadership. Conveniently forgotten is that the mistake on Najib was made a generation earlier. Who was responsible in UMNO and in the country to have let this flawed character rise up so high?
Bukhari al-Jauhari’s seminal Taj-us Salatin (Crown Jewel of Sultans) outlined the rules governing the relationship between the ruled and their rulers. Both are answerable to a higher authority. Consequently the ruler is to govern in a just manner in accordance to divine dictates. Bukhari went beyond; it is the duty of rulers to have just, pious, honest, and knowledgeable advisors in carrying out the functions of governance.
The king must “selalu rindukan sahabat akan orang yang bererpengetahuan … ” (constantly yearn for the friendship of those most knowledgeable).
Rulers cannot simply lament the poor advice they get or the inadequacies of their advisors, as Raja Nazrin of Perak tried recently in an address to a university community. Rulers must take responsibility; they cannot simply blame their advisors. They must go beyond and diligently seek counsel from those who are competent and honest. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of royal duties, at which point citizens would no longer owe any loyalty to the ruler.
Two points about Taj-us Salatin; first, it was written in early 17th Century when Malay society was steeped in its feudal ways. It took great courage and a free mind to write such a treatise. Unfortunately we do not know much about this heroic writer, except through his works.
The second is that the volume predated Hobbes’ Leviathan, another opus on the same subject, by over half a century. So far reaching were Bukhari’s ideas that earlier colonials concluded that Taj-us Salatin could not possibly be an original but mere translation, possibly from some Middle Eastern sources, as no native could possibly possess the intellectual wherewithal to undertake such serious philosophical work. To claim it as otherwise would defy the colonials’ narrative of the “dumb lazy” natives. The colonials scoured the Middle East looking for the original. They are still looking. Those colonial minds had been closed long before they landed on Malay soil.
Shifting from political philosophy to classical literature, in Hikayat Hang Tuah we have the two protagonists. One, Hang Tuah, is the hero and eponymous legend. Even the name is auspicious–Tuah, the blessed one. In contrast, his nemesis Hang Jebat rhymes with yang jahat, the sinister one.
The legend begins with the pair in childhood, together with another three, bonding as brothers. Later they became hulubalangs (knights) for the sultan, in the manner of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, minus the equality implied by the round table. Hang Tuah, being numero uno, took his loyalty to the sultan to extremes, even lying on his behalf to deceive a young princess. Soon however, palace intrigue took over and Tuah was charged with treason and sentenced to death.
The sultan replaced Tuah with Jebat. On discovering the grave injustice perpetrated on his dear friend, Jebat relentlessly pursued the guilty parties. Threatened by Jebat’s aggressive crusade, the sultan summoned his chief minister for help. He suggested the sultan recall Hang Tuah whom the minister had secretly protected. Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan despite the earlier death sentence, returned.
The climax had the two childhood buddies battling it out in a duel, with Tuah killing Jebat.
The conventional wisdom has Tuah the hero (as suggested by the title), ready to defend the sultan, right or wrong. The free-minded contemporary thinker Kassim Ahmad, partial to the antihero sentiments of his youth, concluded otherwise. Far from being the hero, Tuah is the archetypical palace sycophant willing to kill his dear friend in order to regain the sultan’s favor, even that of an unjust sultan. Jebat is the genuine hero who sacrificed his life to right a gross injustice. Tuah is loyal to the person of the sultan, Jebat to the principle of justice.
Today Malaysia is again blighted with a leader who exceeds the Melaka sultan of yore in his many deficiencies. Like that sultan, Najib extols sycophancy over competency among his ministers. And again like Melaka of yore, we are cursed with a glut of Hang Tuahs ever willing to humor Najib. What we desperately need are our Hang Jebats and Hang Nadims.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.