Nurture Our Hang Jebats
M. Bakri Musa
[An abridged version appeared in the Sun Weekend, July 23, 2005]
A culture cannot aspire for greatness if it treats its thinkers and intellectuals with callous disregard. In any other culture, a talent like Kassim Ahmad would be amply rewarded, his achievements widely acknowledged. Yet the best that Malaysia could offer her shining star was a high school teaching position. This was at a time when the number of Malays pursuing graduate work was miniscule. Kassim had taught at the School of Oritental and African Studies, London. Worse, he was once detained under the ISA for daring to espouse his political views.
I first came to know of Kassim Ahamd through his writings while in secondary school way back in the 1950s. His novel and radical interpretation of the Malay classic, Hikayat Hang Tuah, shook the way I – and Malays generally – looked at our traditions and culture.
The traditional thinking was that the hero was Hang Tuah, hence the title. He personified the ideals of a Malay hero, someone loyal to the sultan. Even his name portends great things. Tuah means exceptional, a worthy name for a hero. His protagonist, Hang Jebat, was the traitor who dared challenge the sultan. Even his name rhymes with jahat (rascal), an apt name for a purported villain.
Then came Kassim’s Perwatakan Hikayat Hang Tuah. (The Characters in Hang Tuah). It would have remained an obscure academic exercise except for the fact that Dewan Bahasa was desperate to publish works in Malay. It had to resort to publishing student’s theses!
Kassim frontally challenged the orthodox Malay thinking on authority, and royalty in particular. According to Kassim, the real hero is not Hang Tuah, rather the hitherto presumed renegade, Hang Jebat. To Kassim, Tuah is the typical palace sycophant who willingly sells his body and soul to the sultan, a loyalty conveniently reinforced by whatever largesse the sultan could bestow.
Jebat is the rugged individualist, not awed by those who wield power. His loyalty is to institutions, not individuals. To Kassim, Jebat is the true hero, not the prodigal son Tuah.
It is a conflict of commitment to principles and institutions represented by Jebat, versus personal loyalty as presented by Tuah. It is this universal conflict, concretized in the setting of a traditional feudal society, that makes Hikayat Hang Tuah such a powerful and enduring piece of literature.
The impact of Kassim's Perwatakan is such that a generation later, when the journalist Rehman Rashid was interrogated by the police for possible detention under the Internal Security Act, they demanded to know from him who the real hero was, Hang Tuah or Hang Jebat. Rehman shrewdly replied, "HangTuah!" which may have accounted for his release!
Kassim’s Perwatakan is one of my most valued possessions, its frayed edges and yellowed pages notwithstanding. I wish somebody would reissue it using modern spelling and syntax, and then distribute it to schools and libraries. If enough Malays read it, it might very well revolutionize our society.
Recently in a social gathering attended by a number of bright young Malay students studying in Ameirca, I inquired whether they had heard of Kassim Ahmad. None had, although they all had read Hikayat Hang Tuah. When I discussed Kassim’s radical character analysis, they were all stunned. Over half a century later, Kassim is still prying open bright young Malay minds and sparking their intellect.
The account of his incarceration, Universiti Kedua (Second University), makes painful reading. A poignant passage describes the guards, under the guise of friendship, taking away for “safekeeping” Kassim’s painfully written manuscript for a new novel. They then proceeded to destroy it in front of his eyes. Such cruelty! The spite of the guards was exceeded only by their ignorance. At a time when published works in Malay literature were sparse, this was an unbelievable act of utter stupidity, if not a crime against our culture.
When reading Universiti Kedua, I could hardly contain my rage against the authorities for their cruelty to this man. I felt great sorrow for Kassim, but far greater sorrow for my own race. A culture that treats its intellectuals with such cruelty cannot aspire for greatness.
The Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer suffered through the same humiliation while in prison, but he was unfazed. He committed his novel to memory by retelling it repeatedly to his fellow inmates. When freed, he quickly published his Pulau Buru quartet, as well as his memoirs, Nyanyian Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy) to international acclaim. Kassim however, never quite recovered, and the world of Malay literature lost forever Zaman Pencaroba (Era of Crisis).
Kassim’s ability to shake the collective Malay psyche remains undiminished. In 1986, he released his Hadis: Satu Penilian Semula (Hadith: A Reevaluation). I asked my parents to get me a copy right away. True to form, before he could get my copy, the authorities banned the book! Fortunately, an English translation soon became readily available.
My parents warned me about Kassim, and his supposed anti-hadith stand. Later on my vist home, I apprised my parents of what Kassim wrote. To my surprise, they agreed with Kassim! I wonder how many Malays (includinghte censors) who accused Kassimof being anti-hadith have actually read his book.
A few brave souls saw fit to honor Kassim. Universiti Kebangsaan conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Letters. A courageous editor praised Kassim as Intellektual Melayu Terakhir (The Last Malay Intellectual), a tribute to him but a sad commentary on Malay society.
Rustam Sani, then Profesor of Sociology at the university, gave a very generous and heartfelt public oration for the occasion. As expected, Rustam did not last long with the university.
Kassim is still writing, the Hang Jebat in him still raging. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Kassim essays can now be widely distributed (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com), totally bypassing the Hang Tuahs in the editorial suites.