Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Thesis That Shook Malay Minds

(Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah)

It is symbolic that on this anniversary of Malaysia’s merdeka that I should be posting on the Internet the thesis that shook the thinking of Malays and liberated their minds. I will be doing so in installments of that are easily readable on one surfing of the webpage.

Kassim Ahmad’s Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah began as an academic exercise. It was an honor’s thesis in partial fulfillment for the Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Malay Studies at the University of Malaya, Singapore. Kassim Ahmad ended up shaking the very foundation of Malay society. Not many academic or other writings can claim to have such an impact!

Kassim’s brilliant insight makes Malays alter fundamentally our views of our sultans and society. We now can clearly differentiate between loyalties to principles versus personalities.

As a free, civilized and law-abiding society, we remain true to our values and principles. Leaders come and go, but our values remain firm. Those who deviate from our values do not deserve our loyalty. That is the essence of Kassim’s message.

Sultans, like fashion, change with the seasons, but the enduring values of our society remain true, to guide and save us.

Personal loyalties are also notably fickle. We can buy those loyalties; each of us has our price. Some can be had with mere wealth, others by fancy titles or simple flattery. Only the price varies.

The problem with bought loyalty is that others can offer a much better price. This can lead to the downfall of society.

The British bought Malay sultans by giving them the impression that they were on par with His Majesty. Just to be sure, the British also gave those sultans impressive royal titles and the perfunctory visit to Buckingham Palace, full of pomp and ceremony of course. Oh yes, there were also the meager royal allowances and the occasional Roll Royces. With those, the British effectively controlled those kampong potentates and successfully colonized Malaysia. Malay sultans’ loyalty was to their British lord and not the rakyats. In effect, the sultans had betrayed their loyalty to Malay society.

Following Kassim’s thesis, remaining blindly loyal to the sultans would mean pledging our loyalty to the British. Those who rebelled against the sultans for betraying society would then be our heroes, not the sultans. These heroes were loyal to the values and principles of our society.

Kassim’s ideas are truly revolutionary. He did not know this, but Kassim is a genuine reformer or reformis, as we say in today’s Malay. He was one long before that bastardized English word entered our lexicon. Unlike today’s “reformers,” whose antics and ugly demonstrations caused nothing but endless traffic jams and disruptions of businesses, the reform initiated by Kassim is more enduring.

A century from now, our grandchildren would have forgotten today’s leaders and sultans, but thanks to Kassim’s genius, the debate on who is worthy of emulation, Hang Tuah or Hang Jebat, will still be vigorously pursued. That is the lasting tribute to Kassim Ahmad.

I cannot compare Kassim’s thesis to Martin Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses that he posted on the church doors of Medieval Europe. Luther frontally challenged the excesses of the entrenched Catholic establishment and started a new church to lead his reformation; Kassim let his words do the challenging.

Even though he was doing a degree in Malay Studies, Kassim Ahmad wrote his thesis in English. It would have remained an obscure academic exercise known only to the few Malays literate in that language except that the newly established Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Literary and Language Agency) was desperate to publish works in Malay and thus translated his dissertation.

My first introduction to this seminal work was in my Malay class during high school. Our regular teacher, a Malay-educated individual, was sick and his substitute was our geography teacher, himself Malay, who had taught us in English. His literacy in that language enabled him to read Kassim’s thesis and thereby passed on the wisdom to us. I do not remember anything he taught me in geography, but in that one substitute class, he ignited a spark in me.

I am honored and privileged that Kassim has entrusted me to disseminate his writings. With his kind permission, I have created a website for him to serve as an electronic repository for his essays and books. In future, I will also post the Malay translation (Perwatakan Hikayat Hang Tuah) with its modern Malay spelling.

My future projects include posting Kassim’s Hadis: Satu Penilaian Baru in its original Malay. Currently there is a link to the entire translation in English on Kassim’s website.

I believe very strongly that Kassim’s views deserve a wider audience. That is my mission. It is also my modest contribution to and acknowledgment of this great intellectual in our midst. It is symbolically appropriate that I start the project today, on Malaysia’s 58th anniversary of independence. Kassim’s ideas opened my mind; they liberated me and gave me my intellectual merdeka. I hope they will do the same for you.

Please visit Kassim’s website at:

The installment begins in a few days. Happy reading!

M. Bakri Musa

August 31, 2005

No comments: