Hang Tuah as an Icon for Malaysia

Last November, Prime Minister Najib Razak launched a new national ambition that sets aside the Vision 2020 programme initiated almost 20 years ago by his newfound nemesis, former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad.

This new plan looks to year 2050, meaning it provides 33 more years for us to reach the set targets. The prime minister calls it TN50. When TN50 was launched, the Ministry of Higher Education made a short presentation of the imagined state of the Malays in 2050.

The iconic character in that imagination was given the name Firdaus Imtiaz. He is fluent in five languages, and has been a hafiz (Quranic memoriser) since he was 13 years old. He graduated with a triple major in Mathematics, Accounting and Syariah from Universiti Islam Malaysia. A globetrotter, Firdaus is a well-travelled man who flies around in his private Honda SU2050 jet. As CEO of SU Corporation, a syariah-based company, Firdaus travelled to New York, the business capital of the world superpower, to purchase a corporate office beside Trump Tower in Central Park.

To me, this was a stunning caricature in many ways!

Honestly, why do we need to wait another 33 years to realise such an ideal?

Oddly enough though, if we examine old Malay literature, imagining a Malay icon is not anything new.

In the early eighteenth century, about a generation after the Dutch-Johor alliance attacked Portuguese-ruled Melaka and conquered it, the author of Hikayat Hang Tuah imagined his protagonist, Hang Tuah, son of Hang Mahmud and Dang Merdu, as follows:

Hang Tuah was fluent in 12 languages, and a hafiz by the age of 10. He had completed training with three grandmasters (mahaguru) – Aria Putera, Sang Persanta Nala and Syeikh Mansur. Hang Tuah was a globetrotter, a well-travelled man who went around the world in the sultan’s junk, Mendam Berahi (Suppressed Passion). As the laksamana (admiral) of the Melaka Malay Sultanate, Hang Tuah travelled to Istanbul, the superpower capital of that time, to purchase 800 cannon from the Ottoman Sultan.

See the similarities?

Whether Hang Tuah existed or not, I leave to expert historians. In my opinion, the story of Hang Tuah, to quote Kassim Ahmad, represented the “ambition and aspiration of the Malay race”. In other words, Hang Tuah was the ideal Malay in the imagination of our ancestors.

The question now is, has nothing happened in the last 300 years?

It is now 2017; why do we still have to wait another 33 years to achieve less-than-half of the Hang Tuah ideal, now rebranded in Arabic, “Firdaus Imtiaz” by the government?

But where have the last 300 years gone?

Our Lost 300 Years

The Malays are the majority in this land. This is an undeniable reality.

Yet, 300 years after the writing of Hikayat Hang Tuah, 60 years after Merdeka, and 71 years after the birth of the largest Malay political party ever, the still-ruling Umno, the Malay psyche is presumed to still be entertaining an ancient ideal, but wrongly interpreted. Umno is clearly trying to do this in calling for the community to produce “Firdaus Imtiaz” by 2050.

The encouraging of such a psyche is also noticed in the frequent calls for “Malay unity” – albeit under leaders accused of corruption and abuse of power and implicated in global financial scandals.

What this opportunistic use of an age-old imagination as a future goal in effect does is erode the confidence of Malay society as a whole. It does not build up belief in itself. Malay unity understood in this strange way is not a show of strength but rather of an assumed deep- seated insecurity.

Hang Tuah not only dared to befriend people from other races, he was also willing to learn from them. Learning from other cultures and civilisations did not make him less Malay, but it was precisely because of his willingness to learn from others that Hang Tuah became the great Malay hero we all revere.

It speaks to Malay anxiety in order to prolong it. It acts as an obstinate distraction and strengthens the peace-time siege mentality that serves certain politicians. As with Don Quixote, imaginary enemies and monsters appear in every nook and every cranny – now the Chinese, then the Christians; now the DAP, then the CIA, and then the Communists...the list goes on and on.

But let’s look more closely at Hang Tuah. Is he being reincarnated correctly?

In Hikayat Hang Tuah, the great laksamana was not afraid of mingling in a pluralistic society. More than just mingling, Hang Tuah’s exemplary character endeared him to the many elders he met, be they Chinese, Indian, Arab or Europeans – so much so that they took him in as their adopted son. Yes, Hang Tuah did have a Chinese father, if only an adopted one.

What has happened over the last 300 years?

Today, there are extremists who warn Malays not to read books from other races or religions and not to go to their schools, and they even called for the closing down of Chinese and Tamil schools. They believe that the Malays have nothing to learn and should not learn from other races for fear of becoming confused – or worse, apostate.

How far we have fallen from the standards of Laksamana Hang Tuah.

The Hang Tuah whom we typically read about is a warrior who was skilled in the Malay martial arts, silat. Yet in Hikayat Hang Tuah, the greatness of the laksamana was not in his silat prowess alone; he was a skilled problem solver, a capable leader who brought fame to the Melaka Sultanate with his diplomatic skills in handling Patani (in Siam), Vijayanagar (in India), Ming China, Rome (actually Constantinople) and other great empires and kingdoms of his time.

There is even one rarely told story 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 instead use a rare precious shell from Brunei.

Where have the last 300 years gone?

Lessons from Hang Tuah

Hang Tuah not only dared to befriend people from other races, he was also willing to learn from them. Learning from other cultures and civilisations did not make him less Malay, but it was precisely because of his willingness to learn from others that Hang Tuah became the great Malay hero we all revere.

How else could Hang Tuah speak 12 languages – including Chinese and Tamil – and develop a deep understanding of the socio-cultural and political dynamics of other civilisations if he had heeded the cries of “Hidup Melayu” now used to instigate fear and sow insecurity among Malays vis-a-vis other races.

The century before Portugal besieged Melaka, the Western world was wallowing in a period known as the Dark Ages. The great Greek traditions embodied by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle were already lost in the West due to the Catholic Church’s suspicion of “pagan philosophies”, and to its decree against them

As the light of knowledge dimmed in the West, the ray of wisdom continued to shine in the Islamic world. Treatises in Greek, Chinese and Sanskrit were absorbed by Muslim scholars led by their patron-rulers. Bait al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, was established in Baghdad as an international centre for learning, encouraging the exploration of a wide variety of knowledge.

And then, if not for the courage of some Christian scholars who fought against the tyranny of religious superstition to read the works of Islamic thinkers such as Al-Farabi, Ibn Khaldun, Al-Kindi, and thus restore Greek philosophy to the West, Western civilisation may not have emerged from their Dark Ages at all.

My point is really this:

At a time when our country is facing the toughest challenges to its pluralism, we have with us a deep tradition that reaches into centuries past. We have a model of a great Malay(sian) who was not afraid of pluralism and multiculturalism. In fact, he celebrated them, and in the end, instead of becoming less of a Malay or a lesser Malay, Hang Tuah became the supreme hero in Malay history.

Perhaps, we will do better to rediscover the historic Hang Tuah than to embrace that futuristic Firdaus Imtiaz whom Umno cannot even imagine would have learnt to speak Chinese and Tamil, the language of his immediate neighbours, despite being fluent in five languages. Obviously, a persistent insecurity is being sadly imagined even into future aspirations. So sad.

Steven Sim Chee Keong is MP for Bukit Mertajam. He is also on the board of directors of the Penang Institute.

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