Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi – also known as Munshi Abdullah, Abdullah Munshi, and Abdullah Abdul Kadir – is a name known to hopefully most, if not all, Singaporeans. Or it should be, for his visage was amongst the four figures that joined the Raffles statue by the Singapore River as part of the Singapore Bicentennial’s recognition and celebration of the “multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious people, with richly diverse backgrounds” who have played important roles in the early development of the country1. Apart from the likeness rendered in white fibreglass or from the social studies textbook illustrations depicting a songkok-adorning, moustachioed man with a studying gaze that is almost amused, of the person itself, we might know him to be of Jawi Peranakan heritage. We might know that he was a learned man whose gifts with languages led to him being appointed by Raffles to be his secretary and interpreter, as well as Malay language tutor2. We might also know him through his most famous work, Hikayat Abdullah, in which he gives us glimpses into what Singapore was like in the past through his vivid descriptions and observations of places, people, events and practices. However, what of the man himself, his personal sorrows, laments and triumphs, the craft, and depths of his writing in a transitory period between feudalism and imperialism, his place in the ever-flow of time and history, not just Singapore’s but also that of Southeast Asia and most notably the Malay world? This is what Hadijah Rahmat, Associate Professor and Head of the Asian Languages and Cultures Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), had set out to do in the two books, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi: His Voyages, Legacies and Modernity, Volume 1 and Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi: His Voyages, Legacies and Colonial History, Volume 2. The two massive tomes are a result of more than 25 years of study focused on the writings of and literature surrounding the figure and consist of various papers that the author has presented and published, either in international journals or chapters in books. The first volume presents an in-depth study of Abdullah’s writings and his writings in relation to other texts produced before and during his time. In the second volume, Hadijah focuses on the contexts surrounding Munshi’s life, which includes the impacts of Christian missionaries’ journey into the Malay World, the issues, structures, and politics that arise during Abdullah’s time and are mentioned in his writings, as well as the legacies that he has left in Singapore. This review will only focus on the first volume of the series.
MUNSHI ABDULLAH — EARLY MALAY EDUCATION, THE MAN, HIS LIFE AND WORK
Hadijah begins this first volume by giving us some background on Abdullah’s early life: his birth and the miracle surrounding it with him being the first of five children to his mother to survive to adulthood, his family and thus his Arab (Uthmani)-Tamil heritage, his childhood and early education, his entrepreneurial spirit seen in the way he makes, draws and sells kites to the village children, and the language abilities that he developed to eventually earn him the title of Munshi when he helps his uncle teach and write Quranic texts to the sepoys of Melaka Fort3. The first chapter also gives a broad overview of his occupations and the work that he did for significant colonial figures and institutions, namely Raffles, the London Mission Society (LMS) – from whom Abdullah learned how to operate the printing press which would come to move the nature of Malay writing from one of patronage under the feudal system and into a more commercially-driven one during the colonial period – and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). It also gives us insights into his movements throughout his life, his marriages and family, before concluding with his last will that he penned at the end of his rather short life.
This first chapter is followed by an eye-opening one that reflects on the main form of formal education that a Malay/Muslim child would receive during Abdullah’s time, which is Quranic studies, or mengaji Quran. Hadijah highlights the importance of this form of education among the Malay/Muslims during the time and, in relation to Abdullah, how it will come to provide the traditional building blocks for Abdullah’s own craft of writing. What is particularly striking about this chapter is that it also lists the common punishments inflicted upon the students who misbehave and/or are disobedient, most of which come very close to torture methods, e.g. the hanging with feet off the ground, being tied to a post, and having one’s fingers squeezed by a rattan fingers squeezer4. Today’s readers might recognise or have even been inflicted with the Sengkang (or Singgang), best known today as the Ketuk Ketampi, where the child must hold their ears and is told to stand up and squat repeatedly. Thankfully, however, these forms of corporal punishment are no longer widely practised today.
The following chapters go into an in-depth study of Abdullah’s writings, ranging from collaborative works such as the bilingual Malay-English magazine titled Bustan Arifin, translations of classical Malay texts such as Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Panca Tanderan (from a Tamil language adaptation of the ancient Sanskrit text, the Panchatantra), translations of statutes, textbooks and Christian texts including the Bible for which he received much criticism both during his time and in the present day, as well as various original works such as his poetry, most notably Syair Kampong Gelam Terbakar, an impressive extended verse in which Abdullah gives an unflinching portrayal of different named characters and the various native communities, and hikayats, autobiographical accounts of his life and journeys which also served as his avenue to describe his observations, reflect and ultimately, educate.
The later chapters of the volume touch on the marks that Abdullah has left on our present-day society particularly in the literary works that have been inspired by him, the social thoughts on Abdullah, as well as the reception towards his writings through different periods of Singapore’s history, Malay scholarship and developments in formal education (e.g., from vernacular education to national standard education). The volume ends with a transcript of an audio recording of Hadijah’s interview on Munshi Abdullah as part of the National Museum of Singapore’s permanent exhibition on the figure.
“ALWAYS HISTORICISE!”5: ABDULLAH IN CONTEXT
In chapter 17, titled, From Priest to Islamic Reformer: The Social Thoughts on Munshi Abdullah, Hadijah gives an overview of opinions from key scholars on Abdullah ranging from “narrow-minded sycophant” who has internalised imperialist views of the native population, “brave trailblazer” who is also capable of making truthful observations that reflect a desire to see his society progress, “national hero, pioneer” and “religious reformer”6. Contentions are even made regarding his ethnicity and whether he can be considered a Malay, and by extension a Malay pioneer, if he is of Jawi Peranakan heritage. Throughout the volume, Hadijah consistently pinpoints the criticism that Abdullah and his writing face, particularly in the decades and centuries following his death, and encourages the reader to think about Abdullah and his writings within the context. As such, throughout the volume, she provides us with snapshots of the political, technological, and ideological developments that are taking place during Abdullah’s time and which will influence his own writings and perceptions, as well as the way his works are perceived.
Hadijah shows how Abdullah’s portrayals of the native population are often unflattering, showing them to be lacking agency and integrity as seen in the syair about the Kampong Gelam fire, and possessing irrational beliefs and cultural practices. In several of his writings, it is shown that Abdullah would often contrast the irrationality and backwardness of the native population with the western efficiency, agency, and innovation. However, Hadijah cautions readers against making easy connections and assumptions without the idea and/or findings within the appropriate contexts. As such, at various points in the book, there are sections expounding ideas and developments in a range of disciplines, e.g. the introduction of the printing press to the Malay World and how it changed the way information was produced and disseminated and the power that it invariably gave to the imperial authorities in controlling what is taught in schools, the concept of modernity and the shifting idea of authorship in literature, just to name a few. Even in presenting the opinions and perceptions of later scholars regarding Abdullah’s work and attitudes, Hadjiah contextualises these ideas through distinct paradigm shifts in the history of Singapore and the Malay World.
In fact, it can be said that the volume itself is an exercise in historicity, taking the reader through each thought and relevant period with no small amount of academic rigour. Through this, Hadijah seems to be emphasising that one exists and writes or produces content as part of a larger structure or framework, and that there can be no work produced in the present without some connection to the past – developing off existing ideas, even challenging them, and adapting them.
The way the ideas are structured in the volume does have the effect of impeding one’s reading. Furthermore, as the volume comprises journal and conference papers, and chapters that have been published in other texts, the information presented can feel rather repetitive. This is not a book that one can exactly read from cover to cover in a smooth and seamless manner, especially if one is new to the genre of academic writing. However, it is a good compendium on the figure of Munshi Abdullah and a good road-marked starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about him and even about the times in which he lived and worked. Apart from being a factual and straightforward read full of expository, archival and scholarly information about and surrounding Munshi Abdullah, researchers looking for the unspoken, unrepresented and implied will have plenty to find and think about in this volume and the next.
This is truly a labour of effort and unflinching love by the author, and at points when reading it, one cannot help but find parallels in our own modern existence as a Malay/Muslim community in Singapore, where we often find ourselves in a larger space or institution that do not necessarily make us feel seen or included. What then? Do we assimilate or resist? Do we adapt and work within the boundaries that we are presented with? Do we make space for ourselves and how? At what point do our love and care for our community turn into resentment when we have tried and failed to make things better?
There are no answers to these questions now it seems. For now, there is only the study, in the lamplight, paper close to eye, the words of the copied manuscript written and awaiting illumination. ⬛
1 Sang Nila Utama, pioneers join Stamford Raffles along Singapore River. CNA. 2019, January 4. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-bicentennialriver-statues-raffles-history-pioneers-11086338
2 Cornelius-Takahama, V. Munshi Abdullah. Singapore Infopedia – Personalities. National Library Board. 2019. Retrieved from: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_503_2004-12-27.html
3 Rahmat, H. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi: His Voyages, Legacies and Modernity, Volume 1. Singapore: World Scientific. 2021. pp. 3-17
4 Ibid, pp. 40-45
5 Jameson, F. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. New York: Cornell University Press. 1981. p. 9
6 Rahmat, H. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi: His Voyages, Legacies and Modernity, Volume 1. Singapore: World Scientific. 2021. pp. 403-479
Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a writer and literary arts educator in Singapore. She graduated with a PhD in English Literature from Nanyang Technological University. Her thesis looked at the conceptualisation of marginality through the medium of literacy, creation and revisionism. The creative portion of that thesis has since been published as the novel, The Gatekeeper, which won her the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016. She is currently working on a new novel and enjoys quiet pursuits such as reading, penmanship and stamp-collecting.