by AH Zainal


Revisionism in History has become quite fashionable in recent times. Perhaps this phenomenon is to be expected in the Information Age; more so with the prevalence of sophisticated electronic telecommunications that convey ideas and opinions across the planet at the speed of light. As events that shape history are constantly reassessed according to the prevailing contemporary viewpoints that shift with the sands of time, perhaps it is opportune that we re-visit a chapter in the annals of Malay history and re-examine that same chapter with the intention of trying to gain a better understanding of the Malay mindset both of the past and of the present.

The chapter worthy of this re-examination exercise is the tragedy of the Jebat Rebellion. This story is perhaps the most famous in the annals of Malay history; it has been written about, debated, discussed and argued endlessly without reaching any definitive conclusions. The source of this angst is the paradox of a victim of injustice undoing justice itself. This victim is none other than the most illustrious warrior-admiral, Hang Tuah. What makes this story exceptionally memorable is that twist of irony too delicious to be fictitious. Tuah, victim of a palatial conspiracy, redeemed himself to his sovereign lord by killing his ex-lieutenant Hang Jebat, whom, sought justice for Tuah by way of a one-man insurrection.

Previous evaluations of this story generally focus on the two principal characters: the protagonist and the antagonist. The question of whom is who shifts with each swing of the revisionist’s pendulum. Is Tuah, despite his warrior cunning, incapable of common sense thereby reducing himself to an automaton, and Tuah, the manifestation of loyalty, that definitive trait of the Malays, ultimately rewarded by fate? Or is Jebat, despite his prowess, second only to Tuah, the naive victim of a complicated skullduggery; the implication here is that the pursuit of justice itself in an act of naiveté, an exercise in futility within the framework of Malay society then?

To address these questions is an exercise in futility also. In this essay, Tuah is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. His role is minor, like that of an extra in a movie set if you will, because his actions did not affect the storyline save for one event: he killed Jebat. That was possible only with the magical Kris Taming Sari, so it can be argued that the real killer of Jebat is the Taming Sari and not Tuah whom, by his own admission, cannot kill Jebat without it.

The importance of Tuah here is that he understood his role in the Malaccan Sultanate. True, he was the Admiral, but he was fundamentally a soldier in the service of his sovereign. Soldiers must be prepared to die in the line of duty; they act on the orders of the commander-in-chief or more accurately, at the behest of the sovereign lord. If your lord requires your death, then as a soldier, you are expected to lay down your life dutifully and without question. Tuah cannot be faulted for being a soldier. In the feudal society of Malacca, the right to rule includes the power over life and death, and this right is divinely exclusive to the Sultan. Soldiers obey orders; they are not supposed to think. People who obey cannot be considered as primary figures in any society; they are, in fact, extensions of the State.

Jebat, on the other hand, cannot be hailed as a hero either because he did the exact same thing as the gullible Sultan: he acted without consideration to the consequences of his actions. In other words, he reacted. Or over-reacted, if you like.

Jebat saw the Sultan as a man, not as an office. He failed to realize that once he had usurped and replaced the Sultan, he had to assume the role and perform the duties incumbent upon a Sultan. He did not rule, govern, administer, or even pay attention to the affairs of the state. What did Hang Jebat do once he removed the Sultan from the palace? First, he went on a senseless rampage and murdered everyone he thought to be accomplices in the plot to kill Tuah. This he easily achieved through his awesome fighting skills and the invincibility granted by the Taming Sari. Then, he delighted in princely pleasures, frolicking with the concubines and enjoyed himself thoroughly (and the concubines too, no doubt). He indulged in the benefits of power but ignored the responsibilities that come with it.

But after all that, did he set up a legal system that will prevent a repeat of injustice by mere slander? Did he attempt to re-establish order in society, form a new ruling council of chieftains (Bendahara, Temenggong, Laksamana, Shahbandar et al), formalize a system of public education, incorporate Islamic Jurisprudence in law even, in order to demonstrate that he will make a better ruler than his predecessor? Why not pardon Tuah posthumously and give absolution to the ‘late’ warrior-admiral as the new Sultan? At the very least, couldn’t he have sought Tuah’s grave to pay his last respects, before or after his rebellion? Sadly, the answers to the questions posed are no-s. This guy did not even bother to check, he simply took the word that Tuah was dead! Suffice to say that he was as gullible as the Sultan. If they each had a billion ringgit, they’d both be poor men!

Jebat did nothing to prove his worth; his sole concern was to remove the despotic Sultan who ordered his friend’s death. This Jebat fellow was not entirely brainless, but clearly he could not think very far. Can you fault him, though? After all, he was a soldier and soldiers were not trained to think; they were trained to follow orders. A major problem with this approach is that it becomes a blame game: Whom do you blame, Tuah or Jebat? Well, the answer depends on the angle you choose to look from.

If there is a villain in this story, try considering the Bendahara (Prime Minister) Tun Perak instead. The sagacious Bendahara knew instantly that the accusations leveled against Tuah were a complete falsehood, yet in his capacity as the Prime Minister, he acceded to the Sultan’s order and had Tuah ‘executed’ thus setting in motion the chain of events that make up this tragic story.

If justice were the crux of this story, then the Bendahara would have been the real bad guy. In spite of his wisdom, influence and position, Bendahara Tun Perak, statesman extraordinaire, arguably the person truly responsible for the rise of Malacca as a regional superpower (in those days), couldn’t he have advised the Sultan to think first before acting foolishly? Couldn’t he, in the least, reminded the Sultan of Tuah’s services as a mitigating factor and persuade the Sultan to allow Tuah to stand in his own defense?

Instead Tun Perak chose to acquiesce, preferring to save the Sultan’s face in the mistaken belief that the Sultan having to rescind an order would be even more detrimental than acting rightly like any good ruler should. Even so, what if Tun Perak, for argument’s sake, is indeed the real bad guy in this story? What would this line of thinking achieve? Nothing, save for we have another villain to finger. However, the objective of this essay is not to lay blame, but to understand the Malay psyche and social milieu that existed in those times, which ultimately led to the demise of the Malaccan Sultanate. For this, we need to look at the aftermath of this story.

And the aftermath of this story is simply this: No one learned anything from it. Not the Sultan, not Tun Perak, not even Tuah or Jebat. No mention of any changes or improvements to the governance of the sultanate took place after the end of this story. There was no new system of jurisprudence implemented to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy. Islam, despite being the dominant religion, played no role in the state; it was still limited to rituals and prayers. After the Sultan was reinstalled, it was business as usual for everyone. Which is the most damning indictment that can be delivered to this story: that there is absence of critical thinking and self-examination in the Malay mindset during those times.

This story has become legend; it confirmed the Malay mindset in validating the right to rule together with all its attendant responsibilities to be manifest in the personage of the Sultan. The right to rule stems from the mystical concept of the ‘Daulat’ that can be translated as the divine right of kings. The Malay word ‘Daulat’ is all encompassing; it contains the qualities necessary to make a good ruler, i.e. wisdom, vision, compassion, kindness etcetera but most important of all, the ‘Daulat’ has one unique aspect built into it and that is if the ‘Daulat’ is placed in the correct person, then the land of Malacca and all its citizens will flourish and prosper. Therefore in order to preserve the prosperity of Malacca, the concept of the ‘Daulat’ cannot be tinkered with.

This leads to an inevitable conclusion: the preference of Malay society of that time is to maintain the status quo, even though it has been proven to be defective. The system can somehow correct itself, thus proving its own righteousness. This resilience to change is endemic of all Asian cultures, not just the Malays. Asians, including Malays, are inwardly focused, and this attitude inhibits the birth of new frontiers of knowledge namely science, mathematics, law, and especially literacy (lest we forget, Malay tradition is oral, not written). There was no need to improve society, and by association, no need to improve oneself as individuals, because the belief in the ‘Daulat’ of the Rulers and the ‘Bumi Keramat’(Blessed Earth) of Malacca work together hand-in-glove making good living for all under the sun is so ingrained in the mindset of the Malays then.

And when confronted with the might of European expeditionary forces bent on conquest, the Malays of Malacca were easily swept aside, straight into the dustbin of history. The glory of Malacca was built on a social contract between the rulers and their subjects had a limited life span due to its own inherent weaknesses. Empires rise and fall, and Malacca was no exception. The survivability of any nation rests in its ability to adapt to changes, and the Malays must change if they have to survive the challenges that lie in store for them. Critical thinking, self-examination and accountability are qualities that are requisites in the wake of an ever-changing world. To survive, even flourish, we must recognize that learning from mistakes take high priority over laying blame to where it should.

Are any of the arguments put forth in this essay relevant today? Well, if we look at ourselves, or more importantly, if we listen to what we say, we might realize that fundamentally we haven’t changed at all since that Annus Horriblis of 1511. Phrases like “ Saya serahkan perkara ini kepada kebijaksanaan YAB Presiden” or “Terpulanglah kepada YAB Perdana Menteri untuk memutuskannya” and “ Ini tertakluk kepada Ketua, biarlah dia tetapkan perkara ini” echo loud and clear from the hallowed halls of Parliament to the meeting halls of Division & Branch meetings. Why, even in government departments we hear the same thing: “Ini bukan atas kuasa saya, ini bergantung kepada Tuan Pengarah” or “Sila rujuk perkara ini ke Jabatan lain, ianya bukan kerja Jabatan ini”. The practice of passing the buck goes back hundreds of years in Malay society.

It is not the intention of this essay to incite a rebellion, but rather to persuade a revolution in thinking. After all, even the best amongst us are human, complete with weaknesses and prone to err. The Sultans of Malacca were human too, and in the case of Sultan Mansur Shah, he proved to be more human than most. Crucial to our survivability is first, the willingness to admit mistakes and failures, second: to understand their causes, and third: to have to the courage to rectify them.

Janus, the Roman deity, is a unique figure in Pre-Christian Roman mythology. He has two faces: one can look to the past and the other can look to the future, but his body is eternally locked in the present. While being two-faced is characteristic of most politicians, not just Malay politicians, in looking to the past, we should understand the present since the present is the result of what had happened in the past. Unlike Janus, we do not have the ability to see the future, but we can learn from the past and measure them against the values of the present to guide us when we have to make the choices that determine our future. This is the key to our survival since we have nowhere else to go but to go forward.

AH ZainalKuala Lumpur, June 24, 2005.


The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and the author’s alone. The author maintains all intellectual and proprietary rights to his work. This essay may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the author’s written expressed consent.

Published in: on May 20, 2007 at 15:16  Comments (4)