William Shakespeare – a figure so far away from us here in Singapore, and yet we are well familiar with his works: Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to name a few.
Similarly, Islamic scholar Imam Al-Ghazali, though not a literary figure, has produced works that are so renowned, such as Ihya Ulumud-Din, Tahafut al-Falasifah, and Al-Kimiya’ as-Sa’adah or more commonly known as The Alchemy of Happiness, that they are often referred to as authoritative religious texts for Muslims around the world.
There have been many classical texts produced in lands so far from this island that have managed to make their way here and become prominent among the community. But what about texts from the region? Were there no local scholars or literati within the Nusantara? Or were their works eclipsed by other more noteworthy texts?
The absence of classical Malay texts in mainstream discourse does not mean that there was no intellectual fervour in this region. Rather, the region saw a slew of texts, but these texts were sidelined and marginalised in favour of others from different parts of the world. This article highlights the relevance of Malay classical texts in examining or studying the world today.
When Singapore celebrated the Singapore Bicentennial last year, marking the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles 200 years ago, there were many debates surrounding the historical roots of Singapore and the lack of acknowledgement of the island’s civilisational past other than it being a ‘fishing village’.
If we were to take into consideration classical Malay texts in examining this narrative, it is myopic to claim that Singapore was indeed a sleepy fishing village in the 1800s. Sulalatus Salatin (Genealogy of Kings) written by Tun Sri Lanang in the 16th century painted a rather different picture of Singapore during pre-colonial times, at the earliest.
The Malay Annals, as pointed out by several scholars, showed that Singapore was well-connected to the region. It was a cosmopolitan society and had relations with other parts of the world, such as the Majapahit Kingdom (which eventually led to the downfall of Singapore and the opening of Malacca), Kingdom of Siam and even China.
With the inputs from the Malay Annals in the larger discourse on the history of pre-colonial Singapore, it gives a more balanced approach and a richer perspective. Though there are already works which acknowledge the presence of Singapore from the earlier period, it is ever important to raise classical Malay texts not only as a form of historical evidence but as responses to the developments in history.
One of such texts which can be used to analyse the responses of the local community to colonialism back then is a collection of syair (traditional Malay poetry) by an individual known as Tuan Simi.
The responses towards colonialism in Singapore were captured in Tuan Simi’s Syair Potong Gaji, which described the working conditions under colonial capitalism.
In the syair, Tuan Simi narrated:
Gaji yang dipotong kerja-kerja ditambah
tempat pekerjaan ditukar dipindah
di manakah hati sekalian tak gundah
kerja yang bertiga seorang sudah
The pay is cut but the workload is increased
the workplaces keep changing
how can the heart not be sad?
work that is meant for three is now done by one
Sampai hatinya sungguh perintah sekarang
memberi kecewa pada sekalian orang
berlainan sekali dulu dan sekarang
How could they, the elites of today
causing disappointment to everyone
how different (things are) then and now
*Translated by author
The grievances laid out by Tuan Simi were not something unusual or far-fetched. In fact, the working conditions under colonial capitalism were deplorable and had an ever-lasting impact on the colonised for generations to come.
From these two works alone, one can easily point out the importance of classical Malay texts in understanding the dynamics of Singapore’s history. First, to debunk the notion of Singapore being a “fishing village”. The study of classical texts such as Sejarah Melayu fosters the idea that Singapore was cosmopolitan and in a well-connected position in the region prior to Raffles’ arrival. Secondly, syair such as Tuan Simi’s documented the voices of dissent against the colonial authority. However, the use of classical Malay texts is not just limited to the study of history. These texts are also useful in the study and understanding of religious ideas and political development in the region.
GOVERNANCE, ETHICS AND MORALITY
While classical Malay texts may provide a glimpse into the historical window in this region, it is equally important to note that their relevance is not just within the domains of history. Classical Malay texts, too, contain ethical and moral reminders that are applicable in today’s context.
These moral and ethical reminders are in the form of rules, principles and stories pertaining to governance and the relationship between the ruler and the subjects.
A good example of a text that is filled with ethical and moral principles for the ruling elite is Tajus Salatin, or the Crown of Kings, written in 1603 in the Sultanate of Aceh by Bukhari al-Jauhari.
The manuscript contained a total of 24 chapters surrounding the ways of governance that are filled with stories and advice. The chapters go from the call for man to know himself (Peri manusia mengenal dirinya supaya mengetahui ia mulanya itu daripada ada dan adanya itu betapa), and then to knowing God (Peri mengenal tuhan yang ia menjadikan alam dan Adam dan lain daripada itu) . It even covers the specific roles of different individuals within the court circle (Peri pekerjaan segala penyurat itu, peri pekerjaan segala penyuruh itu, peri pekerjaan segala pegawai raja itu) and the relations with the citizens (rakyat), Muslim or non-Muslim (Peri segala rakyat yang kafir dengan raja Islam itu). It is evident that Tajus Salatin concerns itself with matters of governance and ethical principles.
Syed Farid Alatas mentioned that the text was filled with Malay humanistic values that was long in existent even before the Western conception of human rights was devised. Hence, Tajus Salatin gives a localised perspective on governance and rights, that can be complemented by studies from other parts of the world, giving it life and relevance in today’s context.
According to Azizuddin, he commented that classical texts including Tajus Salatin “preach good government and attack royal injustice. They urge the rulers to govern with the advice of their ministers and to care for the welfare of their subjects. They uphold the rights of their subjects to resist oppression, corruption and injustice.”
Much closer to home, Raja Ali Haji of Pulau Penyengat of the Riau Archipelago, wrote Gurindam Dua Belas, or the Twelve Aphorisms, in explaining the ethical principles and moral standards of a Sultan. Take for example Fasal Dua Belas of the Gurindam which mentioned:
Raja muafakat dengan menteri,
Seperti kebun berpagarkan duri.
Betul hati kepada raja,
Tanda jadi sebarang kerja.
Hukum ‘adil atas rakyat,
Tanda raja beroleh ‘inayat.
Ruler working together with the minister,
Like a garden protected by thorns.
Intentions are in line with the ruler,
A sign for matters to run smoothly.
Just laws enacted onto the citizens,
A sign that the ruler is bestowed with kindness.
This portion of the text shows the relationship between the ruler and minister. In this instance, Raja Ali Haji pointed out the traits needed of each of these individuals – a just ruler to ensure his or her mandate is supported by the people, and a minister who has a symbiotic relationship with him.
These texts are not from the West. These texts are not considered to be ‘scientific’ in any manner. However, it is important to note that these texts presented a form of political theory but in the context of the region. Moreover, the very existence of these texts shows a form of legitimacy to the ruler’s power as Walker notes:
“Malay rulers not only sought to preclude their subjects from acquiring wealth independently of the court, they emphasized the importance of lineage and the possession of sacred regalia to royal legitimacy. The creation and promulgation of court texts was essential to this latter process, expounding the ruler’s claims and becoming themselves sacred, legitimizing possessions.” 
Hence, not only were these texts integral in understanding the moral, ethical, and political principles held by rulers (and by some extent the rakyat) at that time, they are also important as a sign of power and legitimacy.
Nonetheless, when appreciating these texts, either from a historical standpoint or from a political, ethical, and moral perspective, it is important not to glorify the texts wholly without looking at its social conditions.
THE TYRANNY OF ROMANTICISED WRITINGS
While it is important to highlight the intellectual achievement of the Malays in the past, it is equally important to pick and choose the relevant ideas that should be celebrated, or even emulated, in the current world today.
Shaharuddin Maaruf, in his book, Concept of Hero in the Malay Society, elaborated at length on the feudal elements that exist within the writings of classical Malay texts, which are currently reflected in the Malay(sian) society.
These feudal traits, as Alatas cited Shaharuddin, include:
“(1) a servile attitude towards authority and the acceptance of arbitrary notions of power; (2) the undermining of the positive aspects of individualism and, therefore, a lack of respect for the human personality; (3) a lack of respect for the rule of law; (4) no distinction between the public domain and personal domains of life; (5) an emphasis on grandeur and an opulent lifestyle; (6) indifference to social justice; (7) acceptance of unfair privileges for those in position and power; (8) an obsession with power, authority and privilege for their own sake; (9) an undervaluing of rationalism and the philosophical spirit, and encouragement of myths that serve the interests of those in power; and (10) an emphasis on leisure and indulgence of the senses and the simultaneous undervaluing of work.”
If the study of classical Malay texts is to just exacerbate these traits spelled out by Shaharuddin, then it defeats the purpose of studying these texts for the future.
In his writings, Shaharuddin pointed towards the salient features of feudalism espoused in the classical texts to the working of politics in the Malay world today. From his reading of the political climate in Malaysia, the traits feudalism is entrenched – the unquestioning loyalty to the political elites, mimicking Hang Tuah’s undying support for the Sultan. It can then be assumed that these are the features that are highly regarded within the community.
Certainly, these ideas are existent in Malay texts and the onus is upon us to sieve through and pick the humanistic ideas that lead to progress in the community.
CLASSICAL TEXTS OF THE FUTURE
As we can see, the classical Malay texts presented in this article are just the tip of the iceberg. Now we see the relevance of classical Malay texts in the current context. As a refresher, Malay texts did not only show the pompous nature of the Sultans, or myths and legends that are out of this world, but it also carried stories of the lived realities, frustrations of the people, as well as the rules and ethics of governance.
Thus, with the rich historical, social, and religious values, the question is, how then do we normalise the use of classical Malay texts in studying or analysing the society today?
While language and accessibility to classical texts remain key barriers for these texts to be widely used in mainstream discourse, what is more important is the effects of historical amnesia among the Malay community.
According to Azhar Ibrahim, historical amnesia is “the result of the obliteration, relegation and denigration of historical memory and consciousness”. The effects of this historical amnesia will then generate a society which has “a general disinterest in history; the relegation or undervaluing of history; and the mutilation or underdeveloped historical discourse in the academia or the dominant discourse”.
This is the reason why classical Malay texts need to be appreciated and used in mainstream social, historical, and even political discourse. With these texts taking a backseat and disappearing from the social imagination of the community, the community will eventually lose a sense of identity, belonging and be historically unaware of the context we are currently in. ⬛
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Muhammad Faris Alfiq Mohd Afandi is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He specialises in the discourse on Islam in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, sociology of Islamic law, and political Islam. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Malay Studies from the National University of Singapore (NUS).