This book is a collection of lectures about Malay history. It is written by Dr. Farish A Noor, a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He has been a radio essayist for BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service; travels widely to do field research; collects antiques as his hobby and has a waistline that has not expanded since the age of 19.
Among the contents of the book is the transcultural origins of the keris and how it was turned into an Ethno-Nationalist Marker, Four thousand years of feudal politics from Majapahit to Putrajaya, The construction of race politics from colonial era to the present, revisiting the sexuality in Southeast Asia in the Hikayat Panji Semirang, and the most interesting of all, Hang Tuah the pacifist.
On the whole, this book is a fascinating read. Trust me, local history has never been more interesting. The book triggers your brain into being critical of what we perceive, reveals shocking secrets of our ancestors, and visits the unconventional history which ours teachers never told us about, the book is written in simple language and punched with some cynicism and a dash of sarcasm, but never the less containing academic vigor that one would expect from a university course. It looks at our history in the context of the present day, making it pertinent and contemporary. It forces us to question years of indoctrination about just who we are and why we are the way we are.
My personal favourite in the book is Hang Tuah the Pacifist. It unveils the second half of the Hikayat Hang Tuah which is rarely spoken of. In the first half of the hikayat we encounter the Tuah whom most Malaysians are familiar with: the warrior in service of his king, who does the bidding of his ruler with no questions asked and his epic duel against Jebat. Now the second half of Hikayat Hang Tuah depicts Tuah as the emissary of Melaka to foreign lands. For example his visit to Indian Empire of Bijaya Nagaram where he conversed in the (no offence intended) Keling tounge with the Nagaram King.
Maka titah Kisna Rayan: “Hai Laksamana, kau ini Peranakan apa?”
Maka sembah Laksamana, “ya tuanku shah alam, patek ini peranakan Melayu, tapi patek dari kechil-kechil ke Majapahit, maka patek berlajar mengaji bahasa Keling dari pada sa-orang Lebai; maka oleh itu patek mengerti sedikit bahasa Keling itu”.
Impressed by Tuah’s linguistic skills and open character, the Nagaram ruler warmed up to the Melakan ambassador immediately, treating him as a member of the royal household in Bijaya Nagaram. He was later appointed as the Nagaram ambassador to China. The book elaborates the tale of how Tuah got a glimpse of the Chinese Emperor by asking for stir fried, uncut Kankong for his meal. The Chinese bentara’s were just about to behead our hero noticing his cunning ingenuity, when the emperor intervened:
Maka titah raja: “Hai, bentara aku, jangan ia engkau penggal. Ia-lah seorang bijaksana yang ingin membuat kebaikan pada tuan-nya; sukar menchari hamba dan hulubalang saperti Laksamana ini.
. The book continues to unveil the encounter of Tuah and the seven Samurai’s of Ayudhaya (Siam), Tuah’s pilgrimage to Arabia, his encounter with the Turkish Sultan and his near death experience which affected him deeply. In the second part of the Hikayat, Tuah’s character serves as a narrative vehicle for the exploration of selfhood and identity. Its remarkable to read how Tuah was able to stand outside his ethnic, religious and political frontiers and understand cultural practices and norms that were not his own. In the end Tuah was not just a Malay, he became a wise man who forsakes power for wisdom and enlightenment. He became a free man, his own man, a conscious rational agent who is independent and liberated. The book portrays the Hikayat as a call upon us to accept and celebrate difference and alterity instead, and to step out of ourselves to recognize the other within.
Reading this book has challenged me to think more critically, it has inspired me to deconstruct and analyze matters from a neutral point of view, to continue learning, to further appreciate the fineness of our culture of our past and our future. It has taught me to understand how perception is built, how facts are manipulated, how truth always prevails, and how moral is more then just a code of conduct. It has taught me to research beyond what meets the eye, beyond what perception paints, to be prudent in my course and to think beyond the obvious. I think all this values has assisted me not only in my course of work, but life as a whole, and I would like to share this experience with all of you here.
I recommend this book to those who are interested in understanding our past, our present and building our future, for those who have a taste for the naked truth, for those who enjoy academic arguments, for those who have always had that little something for their history teachers. Finally before I end my review I would like to quote Professor Dr Azmi Sharom’s preface to the book.
Academic freedom is a prerequisite of academic excellence. In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the case of Sweezy v New Hampshire (1957):
To impose any straightjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges abd universities would imperil the future of the nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolute.
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