In the cosmopolitan entrepôt of 15th century Malacca, a city on the west coast of today’s Malaysia, a Malay warrior slew his closest – yet increasingly seditious – friend, to emphasize his own loyalty to the Sultan.
Some 500 years later, this story of Hang Tuah – immortalised in his Hikayat Hang Tuah – is causing intellectual, political and ethnic unease in contemporary Malaysia. Having been celebrated in film and taught in schools as the locus of Muslim-Malay mores, the warrior’s story was categorically refuted in January by Professor Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim, historian and Chancellor of KDU University College, as nothing more than a myth.
All Historians Now
In the last year, the Malaysian education system has undergone major review. In April the National Education Dialogue was created to gather perspectives from all levels of society on how to improve teaching and learning. Encouraged by the Minister of Education, and in conjunction with UNESCO, this dialogue aims to cultivate a new generation of globally competitive Malaysians.
In the midst of discussions, History, a subject pursued by a very small minority, is enjoying heightened attention. In May 2011, the Ministry of Education declared that it should be a “must-pass” subject in secondary schools from 2013, while scholars and NGOs concurrently launched a campaign for “A Truly Malaysian History”. Its spokesman, Dr Lim Tek Ghee, Director of the Centre of Policy Initiatives, called for immediate actions to “ensure a broad and balanced perspective of major civilisations and events”, for “accurate historical facts of Malaysia’s historical development” and for the “fair recognition to the contribution of all communities”.
All this seems reasonable. Nonetheless it raises questions about the inclusion in school textbooks of the Hang Tuah story – a melange of fact and fiction, suffused with the supernatural, and hitherto intrinsic to Malay, but not national Malaysian, identity.
As soon as Professor Khoo aired his views, Facebook and Twitter erupted in furious debates. One tweet pointed out how Chinese-sounding Tuah’s name is. Another questioned the written record of Adam and Eve. Academics, such as the National Laureate, Dr Muhammad Salleh, retaliated with assertions that Tuah was an irrefutably historical figure, appearing 128 times in six chapters in the Malay Annals.
Meanwhile, a group claiming to be the Hang Tuah’s descendants announced that only they knew the ‘real account’ of the famed admiral, based on ownership of an ancient Jawi script passed though the generations.
Nation and Narration
After independence in 1957, there was a struggle for post-imperial control in the new Malaysia. The Malays, under the auspices of (UMNO), have been the dominant political body of the last 40 years, with bumiputera status since the 1970s (after the racial riots of 1969). As “sons of the soil”, they have enjoyed advantages in education and politics, to the chagrin of other ethnic groups.
The myth of Hang Tuah, along with his maxim, “Malays will never vanish from the face of the earth”, had since gained rising resonance. Though the story has provided a moral reference point, teaching humility and bravery. On a darker level, it has fuelled nationalist convictions.
Following the country’s Islamisation in the 1980s under Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Hang Tuah story became ever more sacrosanct in national history teaching. The process of Islamisation – consolidating links with the wider Islamic world, solidifying the predominance of Muslim values in public life, and improving the economic position of the Malays (while, for example, curbing the establishment of non-Muslim places of worship) – provoked the reassertion of racial identity. Paradoxically it emulated the model of colonial Malaya, when the British sought to separate the Malays, Chinese and Indians into distinct groups to cement their own authority.
Even amid recent Bersih (literally, ‘clean’) demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur in April, where Malaysians of all races demanded electoral reform, the Hang Tuah story was invoked. The opinion of Mohammad Salim, a 51-year old fish breeder from Lingga has been particularly highlighted in the local press. Like other Malays living on the island, he endorsed the race “advancement” efforts of Mahathir and of the present Prime Minister Najib. Salim envies his privileged fellow Malays on the paeninsula, and tells them to take strength from Tuah’s words, rather than engaging in public protest.
Nationalist Symbols Reconsidered
Does it matter if this warrior – who incidentally doubled as a globe-trotting diplomat – was real or not? The only truth is that no-one knows for sure. What is most fascinating is Hang Tuah’s place in the national psyche, not in his Tanjung Kling Mausoleum. In this way, Dr Noor has again suggested that the vociferously partisan are missing the point: as a universal figure only recently claimed by one group for political purposes, Hang Tuah deserves to rise above petty squabbles.
Perhaps a positive consequence of the brouhaha surrounding Hang Tuah has been the stimulation of “scholarly” discussion, as a New Straits Times editorial suggested. After all, this is what history should be about. Hang Tuah does not need to be consigned to the historical dustbin. Rather, the warrior’s symbolism should be incorporated in myriad identities – a reflection of Malaysia’s richly diverse culture.
What this case underlines is the need for healthy scepticism – and, fundamentally, the need for society to allow myth to coexist with history. All nations need symbols. But in illuminating the power of history, the Hang Tuah debate ultimately reveals the necessity of dialogue – especially in the quest for educational reform.