Hang Tuah and the Keris Which Heals the Wound it Caused

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The story of Hang Tuah fascinates me. But to the question of whether he existed or not, I do not have an answer. However, that does not at all affect my interest in Hang Tuah.

Did the monkey Hanuman in Ramayana or the monkey Sun Wu Kong in Xi You Ji exist? Well, even if they are mere fiction, these stories have lessons and values already etched into our communal psyche.

In his foreword to Hikayat Hang Tuah, Dr Kassim Ahmad wrote:

“These questions of whether Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat really existed, whether these stories actually took place and so on, are the wrong questions to ask. Hikayat Hang Tuah is a Malay epic. Its pages tell of the great ambitions of the Malay people. It records the genealogy of this people, from their inception to advancement, on to its golden age and to its tragedies. The main character, Hang Tuah, is the embodiment of that people, their ambitions, abilities, and attitude towards life…”1

As such, Hikayat Hang Tuah is not as much a biography as a record of the Malay civilisation’s history of ideas.

Whenever asked whether Hang Tuah is a mere myth, I am fond of quoting the words of the character, Shima, in the movie XX Ray 2, where she simply says, “Hang Tuah existed and will always exist in the Malay soul.”

Hang Tuah as Symbol of Umno’s Struggle

For a long time now, Hang Tuah has been appropriated by Umno as a symbol of its struggle. He is cast as the Malay archetype approved by Umno: a conservative soldierwarrior, skilled in the Malay martial art of silat, and deeply immersed in Malay culture typified by portrayals of him donning traditional Malay costume complete with a majestic tanjak, the headgear.

But what is more important for Umno is Hang Tuah’s unshakeable loyalty to his king – we have seen how in Umno’s worldview, loyalty has shifted, at least by agency, from the king to the party as the protector of the Malay race. Even if Umno is imperfect, like Sultan Mansur Shah in the story of Hang Tuah, to the extent of being unjust, the Malays will not be disloyal to their patron-protector.

Such a notion of Hang Tuah is reincarnated again and again in Umno’s universe, with leaders dressing up in traditional Malay warrior garb complete with the tanjak and keris. This consolidates the so-called Hang Tuah saying, “Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia”2 – a quote not found in the Hikayat Hang Tuah, nor in Sulalatus Salatin (the Malay Annals).

In fact, the keris features prominently in Umno’s worldview. It is said that because of Umno’s insistence to add the keris to the Sang Saka Merah Putih, the ancient banner of the Nusantara kingdom, delegates from Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) refused to endorse the flag at the second Umno General Assembly in Ipoh in June 1946.3

In 1987, at the height of inter-ethnic tension stemming from the debate on Chinese language and education, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who was then Umno Youth Chief, led the Youth wing to rally at the TPCA Stadium in Kampung Baru. At the gathering, the group hoisted keris and banners showing blood-soaked keris.4 It was alleged that Najib even called for the keris to be bathed in Chinese blood. He later denied that he ever uttered those words.

Almost two decades after the incident, Najib’s cousin, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, as Umno Youth Chief brandished a keris at the Umno general assembly in 2005 calling for the protection of Malay supremacy. It became a tradition for Hishammuddin over the next four years until 2009 to parade the keris, “Panca Warisan”, at Umno general assemblies.

One Umno delegate went a step further during the 2006 Umno assembly, asking, “Datuk Hisham has unsheathed his keris, waved his keris, kissed his keris. We want to ask Datuk Hisham: when is he going to use it?”

Khairy Jamaluddin, who took over from Hishammudin as Umno Youth Chief in 2009, admitted that the latter’s keris-wielding antics were among the factors that cost Umno and BN their non-Malay votes.5

Three Important Lessons from Hang Tuah

Driven by an unceasing urge to understand the epitome of Malay personhood, I decided to read through the dense Hikayat Hang Tuah. At about 146,000 words, it is the longest classical Malay saga and the primary source of the Hang Tuah legend. Written in the eighteenth century when the Melaka Sultanate was no more, its author told the epic tale of Hang Tuah, a laksamana (admiral) during the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah in the fifteenth century.

Is Hang Tuah of the Hikayat the same conservative Malay icon of Umno’s Ketuanan Melayu ideology? As I explored the pages of the epic, I was happy to discover – or rather rediscover – the Hang Tuah of the ancient Malay imagination – one unbounded by the confines of Umno’s conservative mould.

I want to outline three important lessons that I learned from reading the ancient Malay epic.

Lesson One: Hang Tuah was not a Bigot; He Celebrated Diversity and Benefited from it

Firstly, on race. Obsessed as we are about race, I think one of the most frequent discussions surrounding Hang Tuah is about his race. There are theories about Hang Tuah being a Chinese – as if it is sweet revenge if the icon of Ketuanan Melayu was ultimately not a Malay but a Chinese, identifiable with the minority race today bullied by a race ideology.

The Hikayat, however, was clear on Hang Tuah’s parentage: his parents were Hang Mahmud and Dang Merdu, who lived at Sungai Duyung and later moved to Bentan for economic reasons. He was definitely not part of the Ming princess Hang Li Po’s clan, who was given in marriage to Sultan Mansur Shah.;6

However, it is highly possible that Hang Tuah was of mixed heritage. During his exile to Inderapura on the order of the Sultan of Melaka, Hang Tuah was entertained by royal musicians there who told him that their music was not authentic Malay music and that they were “mixed blood” (kacukan), unlike the Malays in Melaka. In his reply, Hang Tuah said that even the Malays in Melaka were not pure Malays but were mixed with Javanese from Majapahit. In fact, when invited to dance a while later in the story, Hang Tuah said that being of mixed Malay-Javanese heritage, he was not very apt at dancing.

Hang Tuah was obviously not obsessed with racial purity. After all, he may have been mixed himself. But what is interesting is, his Malay identity did not stop him from learning and even adopting the culture and ways of life of other ethnic groups. On one of his diplomatic travels to the Indian subcontinent, Hang Tuah impressed the ruler of Vijayanagar kingdom so much with his command of the language spoken there that the ruler had to ask him to clarify if he was of Indian heritage.

As we have seen earlier, Hang Tuah was able to speak many languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Siamese and Tamil. He embraced the diversity of the ancient Melaka society and took advantage of the learning opportunities it offered.

When sent to China, Hang Tuah was able to advise his companions to observe the culture and peculiarities of the Chinese kingdom. He then explained that he learned these from his foster father, an elderly Chinese man who lived in Melaka.

Yes, he had a Chinese foster father!

Hang Tuah Mausoleum in Melaka.

All these would not be possible if Hang Tuah was a Ketuanan Melayu bigot. No – rather, Hang Tuah was a cosmopolitan Malay who took advantage of and adapted to the pluralistic society he lived in. In other words, he opened himself to learning from the diverse cultures around him. It was precisely such knowledge that empowered him to become the revered hero we have come to know.

Lesson Two: Hang Tuah was not a Mere Fighter and Palace Guard, He was Committed to Learning and was a Global Citizen

Secondly, Hang Tuah was never merely a boxer and a loyal palace guard, as Umno has relegated him to be today. In the Hikayat, Hang Tuah’s greatness was not in his silat prowess alone. In fact, half of the Hikayat tells the stories of his adventures in assisting the Sultan to solve state crises, taking part in trade missions, engaging in diplomatic affairs, leading the Sultan’s navy into battle, etc.

Once, he was tasked by the Sultan to identify new countries at which to enthrone the ruler’s two young princes. Hang Tuah together with the bendahara (prime minister) surveyed the geography of the surrounding states and finally constructed royal citadels in Lingga and Bentan for the princes.

In fact, there is one rarely told story from the Hikayat where Hang Tuah rescued the kingdom of Patani from a currency crisis by recommending Pra Chau, the king, to drop its fragile and easily obtained currency and use a rare precious shell from Brunei instead.

Hang Tuah was committed to education, perhaps from the early influence of his parents who though were hawkers were very much concerned with their son’s education from a very young age. In fact, one of the reasons they moved to Bentan was because there were no pious teachers (mu’alim) to teach their “mischievous” son in their village. In Bentan, Hang Tuah himself became interested in learning. After completing his Quranic and language studies, he requested to learn Tamil, and then Siamese, followed by Chinese and Javanese until he mastered 12 languages altogether.

As young boys, Hang Tuah and his friends travelled to Bukit Panchalusa to learn from the hermit Sang Aria Putera. Not contented with their learning, the five friends later sought out Sang Aria Putera’s elder brother, Sang Persata Nala at Mount Wirana. When he was exiled to Hulu Melaka, Hang Tuah became the disciple of the pious Sheikh Mansur. Hang Tuah knew the importance of education. He thirsted for knowledge, not for blood, unlike the Ketuanan Melayu conservative boxer figure he is reduced to today.

Hang Tuah of the Hikayat was a skilled problem solver, an administrator, a city builder, an adventurer who travelled far and wide all over Asia, Arabia, Africa and even to parts of Europe. He brought fame to the Melaka Sultanate with his diplomatic skills in handling Patani (in Siam), Vijayanagar (in India), the great Ming in China, the magnificent Ottoman Empire in Europe and other empires and kingdoms of his time.

Lesson Three: If Hang Tuah were Alive Today, He Would Fight Kleptocracy

Thirdly, on the legendary duel between Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. This is an episode on which I want to spend some time since it has become the material for Malay philosophical debates on the relationship between the government and the people. Umno’s Hang Tuah, as we have seen, is one who is loyal to the government – no matter the circumstances. The National Museum has the following entry for Hang Tuah: “Until today his name is mentioned, not only as that of a dashing warrior, but also as the name of a man who was completely devoted to his Ruler and prepared to sacrifice everything for him.”

Dr Shaharuddin Maaruf in his research thesis titled “Concept of a Hero in Malay Society” described Hang Tuah’s life philosophy as “influenced by his blind and absolute loyalty to his master.”7

No wonder there are some who see Hang Jebat as the revolutionary hero who dared defy a wicked king.

Who can forget the dramatic speech of Hang Jebat, played by the late Ahmad Mahmud, before going off to avenge the death of Hang Tuah: “One day, when someone asks why did Jebat commit treason, surely the people would answer: because the king was unjust!”

These interpretations however do not do justice to the Hang Tuah of the Hikayat.

I want to, instead, offer a dialectical interpretation – one which places the behaviour of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat in the context of their times, taking into consideration the background story leading to the fateful duel as well as the weltanschauung of that age.

Firstly, Sultan Mansur Shah, the ruler of Melaka during Hang Tuah’s era, was not a tyrannical king we imagined him to be. According to the Portuguese chronicler, Tomé Pires, “Mamsursa (Mansur Shah) ... reigned wisely over his kingdom, taking counsel of the old men, for virtuous government in matters of justice and the preservation of the country; he gathered people together … He was peaceful to the merchants and a man of goodwill … [was praised as] a better king than all his predecessors … and a fervent lover of justice.”

Secondly, and this has been expounded by many commentators, Jebat’s treason was not merely due to loyalty to his friend or because of the pursuit of justice as portrayed in the classic black-and-white film featuring Nordin Ahmad as Hang Jebat. In the Hikayat, during the Tuah- Jebat duel, Hang Jebat himself confessed to carrying out mindless mass killings, so much so that “for forty days the people of Melaka buried their dead…”

Thirdly, and most importantly, Hang Tuah’s loyalty to the king must be evaluated within the values of the worldview of his era.

It was a time when the king was considered the divine foundation of society. Kings descended from paradise, and was sent by God to rule as well as to guide mankind. As such, the fate of a people is inextricably tied to the fate of their sovereign.

In the Hikayat, it was said that “those who saw the king, saw Allah Ta’ala Himself ” and “the king shall represent the presence of Allah Ta’ala in this world”.

So important was a sovereign that Parmadewan, an elderly merchant from India, decided to spend away his fortune in search of a prince to rule the Indian subcontinent. When Parmadewan came face to face with the Sultan of Melaka, he exclaimed, “Such is a country with a sovereign, it is governed in excellence. But India, despite its vast land and large population, cannot be considered a great country for want of a king.”

The king therefore was the bedrock of stability and virtue without which society would descend into chaos and unrest. It is not difficult to imagine the euphoria of the people of Melaka when, lamenting over Hang Jebat’s treachery, suddenly saw that Hang Tuah was alive: “All the people of the kingdom was overjoyed, they came to pay homage to the Laksamana, and every one of them said of him, ‘we shall live this time, we are now spared from Jebat, for you, our father who was dead is alive!’”

A silat match. Hang Tuah was skilled in the Malay martial art of silat.

It is thus not fair for us to judge the actions of Hang Tuah as having a “blind loyalty and absolute loyalty to his master” by invoking the framework of modern government. A man of his time, Hang Tuah was limited by the prevalent worldviews, and his actions reflected their values as such.

We should instead see Hang Tuah as being committed to defending the stability and virtue in his universe. He acted against Hang Jebat to restore harmony and, in doing so, protected the well-being of the people in Melaka.

Today, we no longer believe in the concept of divine kingship. In its stead, we now have democracy and a constitutional monarchy. As such, the pillars of national stability have shifted to the principles of democracy – that is, accountability, freedom of speech, good governance, participatory politics and etc. It is no longer the divine king who decides the fate of our society, but the people themselves who are the bedrock of democracy.

Based on this analysis, if Hang Tuah were alive today, what would his position towards the government be?

Would he be the conservative icon constructed by Umno who will defend the ruling regime, right or wrong? Would he render blind and absolute loyalty to Umno, the self-proclaimed protector of the Malay race?

I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Hang Tuah of the Hikayat, if alive today, would fiercely defend democracy against any seeking to destroy it. He would be willing to set aside all personal interests to defend and protect the well-being of Malaysia and Malaysians.

His legendary keris Taming Sari would be unsheathed not to be bathed in Chinese blood or Malay blood, but to fight corruption, cronyism, abuse of power and any other elements that threaten our democracy.

And if I am allowed to imagine a little further, Hang Tuah might even have been a member of DAP, PKR, Amanah or PPBM. Why? Because he would refuse to conspire with those who are corroding the interests of the people.

Even if Hang Tuah were a member of Umno, I am convinced that he would not hesitate one single bit to challenge and cut ties with its treacherous leaders who betrayed the people and plundered in the name of “Ketuanan Melayu”.

If we imagine that Hang Tuah, the Malay warrior par excellence, would render blind and absolute loyalty to the government no matter how corrupt and wicked it is, we are, alas, blind to history and to the philosophy of Laksamana Hang Tuah.

In fact, in one incident, Hang Tuah refused to obey the Sultan when the latter wanted him to kill the royal prince Sang Jaya Nantaka, who was falsely accused of treason.

If Hang Tuah were alive today, he would never conspire with the kleptocrats who plunder the country and rob the people. He would fight them with his life.

Recovering and Rediscovering Hang Tuah for our Times

Today, Hang Tuah and his keris are coopted by Umno as archetypes of Ketuanan Melayu. But as we can clearly see from the Hikayat, Hang Tuah did not fit into Umno’s conservative mould. He was a confident Malay, unbounded by the anxiety of colonialism and dependency on any patronprotector; he did not fear the Chinese, but he embraced diversity and was empowered through his willingness to learn from other cultures; he was not merely a street fighter or a boxer ever ready to engage in fist fights and violence; he was honoured not only for his martial art but in fact more for his diplomacy, his knowledge and his intelligence.

Most importantly, Hang Tuah was not one who would collude with a corrupt and wicked government, because he was committed to protecting the interests of the country and the people.

Among progressives, Hang Tuah is not a very popular figure because of Umno’s reconstruction of his legend. But what we need to do today is not to cast away Hang Tuah just because Umno has hijacked him all this while. Rather, we need to recover and rediscover this person, mythological or not. We must not allow Umno to reduce such a complex personality into its ideological hero to serve the ruling party’s narrow political purpose.

Similarly, Farish Noor, writing about the keris, lamented how it was a “universal object… of multiple complex meaning” being reduced “to such a simple ideological symbol [to] serve the ends of politics”8

The great Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, was set in the Arthurian universe of knights and kings and witches and magical weapons. In the story, the king of the Holy Grail, Amfortas, was wounded by his own spear because he had succumbed to the temptation of the dark kingdom. It took the innocent Parsifal to recover the spear from the evil Klingsor and use it to heal Amfortas’ wound.

Perhaps in a strange way, like Parsifal’s spear, Hang Tuah’s keris is precisely what we need today to heal the wound caused.

This is an excerpt from the book Being Malaysia, by Steven Sim, available for purchase from Penang Institute. For more information, call +604 228 3306 or email enquiry@penanginstitute.org.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and a member of Penang Institute’s Board of Directors.
1 Kassim Ahmad. Hikayat Hang Tuah. Selangor: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1966. All henceforth references to the Hikayat is from this version.

2Literally, “Malays shall not disappear from this world”.

3 Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka. Dir. Fahmi Reza. Perf. Lim Kean Chye, Yahya Nassim, Hasim Said, Zainuddin Andika, Majid Salleh. Pusat Komas, 2007. Documentary. (Interview with Yahya Nassim, former chairman of PKMM Selangor and the party’s national assistant treasurer in the documentary film.)

4 Syed Husin Ali. The Malays: Their Problems and Future. Selangor: The Other Press, 2008. 50. Print.

5 “Khairy: Keris antara punca BN kalah.” Malaysiakini. Mkini Dotcom, 18 Apr. 2008. Web.

6This is one of the many theories surrounding Hang Tuah, mainly because both characters seemed to share the “Chinese surname”, Hang.

7 Shaharuddin Maaruf. Konsep Wira Dalam Masyarakat Melayu. Selangor: SIRD, 2014. 27. Print.

8Farish A. Noor. “Pity the Poor Keris: How a Universal Symbol became a tool for Racial Politics.” The Other Malaysia. 27 Nov. 2006. Web.a>



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