Munshi Abdullah – Exemplar of a Free Mind


M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

Malay society has no shortage of formal leaders. First we have the hereditary leaders, from the sultan down to his various lowly chieftains including the local datuk lembaga (lord admiral). This pattern of leadership has a long history in our society.

Then came the religious leaders, of more recent vantage, introduced in the 15th Century with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. More recently and fast gaining a pivotal role, are political leaders.

With modern political institutions, especially democratic ones, we should expect a more frequent emergence of fresh leaders. This is not necessarily so. China is far from being a democratic society yet its People Congress gets more infusion of fresh talents with each party’s election. Compare that to the United States Congress, the self-declared exemplar of representative government. You are more likely to get a new member of the old Soviet Politburo than you are to get a new member of US Congress.

UMNO, the premier Malay political organization, is on par with the old Soviet Politburo in nurturing new talent.

Despite modernity, both hereditary and religious leaders still have a strong hold on Malays.

The problem with both types of leadership is that they are by nature conservative; each successor maintaining and replicating the pattern set by his predecessor. With hereditary rulers, this could be the matter of genetics or familial upbringing. With religious leaders, the pattern of training or learning. It is the rare student who would deviate from his teacher’s path to blaze a new trail. This is especially so with the Islamic tradition of learning where the emphasis is on taqlid (to follow or to imitate).

Stated more succinctly, do not expect much innovation or expressions of free-mindedness from such leaders.

Human society however, is complex. One does not need to have a formal role as leader, or be anointed as one, to have an impact on society. Often such de novo leaders, unburdened by tradition or expectations, exhibit remarkable free-mindedness and can be transformative.

One such leader in Malay society was Munshi Abdullah. Today he is held in low esteem and dismissed as a brown Mat Salleh (an epithet for Englishman) by our revisionist historians and self-proclaimed champions of Ketuanan Melayu. They even ridicule his “impure” Malay heritage.

These present-day Malay nationalists, still trapped in the relics of their old anti-colonial mental prison, are perturbed that Abdullah’s free-mindedness let him collaborate with the colonialists. Abdullah even translated the bible! Today he would have been labeled a murtad (apostate) and sent to a re-education camp – Islamic style. Worse, he could be imprisoned without trial for an indeterminate period. Imagine the loss!

Bless the old colonial English for letting Abdullah be who he was. Mushi Abdullah should also thank his lucky stars that he was born during colonial times and not in today’s Malaysia.

To the free-minded Abdullah, working with the colonialists of his time meant the opportunity to expand his intellectual horizon and learn of the advances of the West. Most of all he wanted to understand what made the British tick. He did not ignore but instead nurtured his innate human nature of being curious and inquisitive.

When the British invited him to visit a colonial warship for example, he was not a mere casual visitor. He recorded his experiences, complete with drawings of the contraption, and then challenged his readers to wonder what was it about British minds that made them invent such awesome machines. If the miracle of steel did not astound the visitor, ponder the fact that the British could even make it float!

Today, more than a century and a half after his death, we are still benefiting from Abdullah’s writings and wisdom. We do not remember who the sultan was at Abdullah’s time, but we remember Abdullah through his written words.

Today we sent many of our leaders and also would-be leaders abroad, a few to the great universities of the world. What do they bring back?

Abdullah’s free-mindedness enabled him to appreciate the advancements of the British, as with their warships and books. He was not at all embarrassed to acknowledge that his own people were far behind. To Abdullah, there was nothing to be ashamed about that; he looked upon it as an opportunity to learn from and catch up with them. Far from shunning the British he worked closely with them, leading many today to contemptuously dismiss him as a colonial hired hand.

Yes, he was handsomely compensated for teaching our language to the English, but he was also providing a valuable service them. Now those colonials could better communicate with and understand our people.

Abdullah learned much from the British. No, he did not learn how to forge steel or make it float, but he learned something much more profound. He saw how those colonials communicated with each other, their style of writing, and their penchant for documenting their experiences. Abdullah too began doing that, writing about his travels and experiences. And he did it in the style of the British – direct, factual, and with the minimal of formalities. With that, Abdullah transformed Malay literature.

Up until then Malay writings, as with our letters to the sultans and high officials, were heavy on formalities, with rigid highly stylized forms of salutations that would fill the entire page and often obscure the message. Abdullah initiated the direct and factual style of writing, emulating the British.

As for Malay literature, up until his time it had been nothing more than the stylized repeating of phrases and proverbs, facts liberally mixed with imagination and conjecture, and written in the indirect third person as in the various Hikayats. Abdullah was the first to write directly and with a personal (first person) perspective, as with his Hikayat Abdullah.

Such are the powers of those with a free mind; they brazenly pave new paths so others may follow. What our Malay community needs now is not a new culture, another “mental revolution,” or even greater mindless assertions of Ketuanan Melayu but more of those individuals with free minds as exemplified by Munshi Abdullah, especially among our leaders.

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013.

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