Sunday, October 16, 2005

Installment #13

Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah



To judge Tuah’s character is not as easy as it first appears. Definitely he is a good man. He possesses many typically fine qualities: he is loyal, brave, generous, clever. Yet a man can be all these and still lack something human that can make his name evoke powerful emotional responses in fellow human beings. Tuah is such a man. There is something sinister about his sense of absolute loyalty to his master. It is well-nigh blind. It brings him into the most tragic conflict of his life. It brings him into a head-o clash with his greatest friend. Yet did he regret it? There is no evidence and, judging from our understanding of his character, he could not have regretted it. To remove Jebat who had sinned against his master (whatever the reasons), was his sacred, almost religious, task. He had no doubt in his mind that Jebat, by his rebellion, had committed a crime against God. (1) Even if it had been he himself who was guilty of the crime, he would have gladly surrendered his life. (2)

It is true that he made one conciliatory gesture. He told Jebat that he would certainly appeal for him had the crime been of a lesser magnitude. (3) But of what use and significance is such a gesture? It needs not take Hang Tuah to appeal on such term. It is exactly that we should expect him to be able to do something much more far-reaching.

At any rate, what justification had Tuah to adopt an inflexible attitude? It is historically true that absolute loyalty to one’s master was the overriding feudal principle. But when it comes to such a concrete case as this and when it involves more than just the killing of a human being – for the killing of Jebat was truly the killing of a great human principle – then the situation demands a closer analysis. (4)

Jebat was guilty of high treason – that is the classical – feudal charge. How far, then, does this charge embody the objective historical concept of the times? The Sultan, the Bendahara and those directly under the Raja employ (except Jebat, of course) can safely be marked off as believers and defenders of the feudal principle; they would certainly uphold the charge. But for all their power, the handful of people do not, and cannot, objectively represent the general feeling and consciousness of their age.

Have we, however, have any evidence of that? It seems extraordinary – and it surely speaks volumes for his hikayat – that there should be any, even a shred of it. (5) The common people, so far as they appear in the book, certainly do not take the attitude that Tuah does towards Jebat. They are quite detached. (6) This is understandable, for how can these simple folk be moved by such an abstract concept of feudal loyalty? They probably cannot even understand it. (7) For those groups whose very living depends on the continuance of the feudal institutions, the concept is real and meaningful. So, generally they are prepared to fight in order to preserve it, whether or not they are conscious of the significance of such an action.

But the attachment of the ordinary people to the idea is artificial. If, then, they expressed the desire to see Jebat removed (8), it is not because they saw the necessity of preserving it. They were concerned with the more concrete consideration that Jebat’s rebellion was causing them trouble (9). But this trouble had not arisen merely from Jebat’s personal desire to avenge an innocent friend. Its roots lie deeper; whether any of the characters involved realized it or not is a different matter and quite beside the point. In this discussion. The important thing is to recognise that this trouble issues objectively from a deep-rooted social conflict. In this conflict Jebat represents, on the highest level, the new democratic idea, while Tuah represents, on the highest level, the traditional absolutist one. These ideas are brought to a clash by a certain combination of circumstances – the jealousy of the courtiers towards Tuah, the sultan’s unscrupulous judgement issuing form his position of absolute authority and Jebat’s revolutionary character and his attachment to Tuah. These circumstances certainly do not point to Jebat s the criminal. In fact, there is no criminal to speak of. People are caught in a clash of ideas. The only person who can be said to be guilty is the Sultan because he had acted in a most irresponsible and rash manner. But the Sultan acted so, essentially because of the feudal conception that he was not responsible to nobody. It is the feudal conception that is at fault. Therefore if the rebellion could be perceived in those ideological terms, in its total scheme of the idea-conflict, there should be no doubt, then, that the uncommitted groups (to which the unnamed characters whose remarks we have quoted must have belonged) would view it with sympathy.

If the attitude of the uncommitted majority towards Jebat rebellion is indifferent, as we have seen (and there is a possibility of its turning sympathetic, as we have argued), then Tuah’s position becomes equivocal. Though he may have been accepted for centuries as the hero of his people, and one who embodied and expressed the sum-total of their attitudes and aspirations, viewed objectively, his heroism is qualified. For he lags behind, rather than leads, the thought of the times as expressed here by his great protagonist Jebat. We cannot, therefore, uphold him, as this story implicitly does, as the highest and best classical representative of Malay aspirations and endeavour.

What is he then? Against the wider social background of this epic he emerges as a fighting conservative. However, his conservatism is not a reflection of his own vested interest. Reared as he has been under the shadow of the Sultan’s palace, his conservative outlook undoubtedly is the true, if unconscious, reflection of the feudal mentality. At any rate, the attitude is honest and sincere, sanctioned above all by his own religious conviction. He appears to believe in the divine right of kings. The ruler is, to him, “ganti Allah didalam dunia ini.” (10) This is, of course, the Malay version of the Muslim concept: “alKhalifatu zilful-Lahi alf-ardi”. (11) There is scarcely anything wrong with this concept, to be sure. But once in Tuah’s feudal mind, it becomes inverted to read: “the raja is God on earth.”

Tuah is thus not only a conservative but also a man who devotes the finest in him towards a dubious cause. He fights magnificently, but nevertheless blindly, to preserve an illogical order. For that order, therefore, he is the champion and hero. And his triumph over Jebat, on the wider social plane, constitutes a triumph of that order, a triumph in short, of conservatism, if not of reaction. (12) It is most probably for this reason, for the reason that he champions the conservative cause, that his heroic stature seems to diminish with years.


(1) He told Jebat: “…Adapun pekerjaan durhaka pada tuan mu berapa dosanya pada Allah….” (pp. 334-5).

(2) On both occasions when the Bendahara communicated to him the royal decree of death on him, his immediate reaction was surrender. He considered this as his final expression of loyalty. (Cf. pp. 179 and 305).

(3) “Jika lain daripada dosa ini tiada engkau mati, barang tipu dayaku, ku perlepaskan juk engkau ….” (p. 338)

(4) After all, the Bendahara’s attitude towards his concept had not been so inflexible. In fact on the latter occasion (Cf. p. 305) his decision was greatly influenced by what can be termed as “public opinion” (saolah olah jadi nama beta disebut orang).

(5) Cf. pp. 331 & 326.

(6) This can be gathered fromtheir remarks when they saw Tuah set out to fight Jebat. One said: “Alahlah kita melihat temasha akan Laksamana bertikam dengan si Jebat itu. Maka sekali ini barulah si jebat beroleh lawan sama berani dan sama tahu,kerana Laksamana pun banyak tahu-nya”; another “Si Jebat pun tahu bnayak maka ia tiada dapat dilawan orang” and yet another: “Apatah kita perhantahkan, kita lihatlah sekarang siapa mati dan siapa hidup pun bertentulah,kerana Laksamana hulubalang besar, sudah ia berchapak DuliYang Dipertuan masakan ia kembali saja.”

(7) Perhaps further light can be thrown on this matter if we compare the situation with the present-day circumstances. Even in Malaya today we cannot help noticing the typically modern preoccupation with the concept of individual freedom. But it is obvious to us that this anxiety is shared only by a few people, if a very articulate few. To the larger section of the population (farmers, fishermen and rubber-tappers), this concept is practically devoid of meaning. What has meaning for them is better crop (for the farmers) or better catch (for the fishermen) or higher wages (for the tappers). As such they are not moved by this modern idea of freedom as the folks of Tuah’s time may be said to have been unmoved by the feudal idea of loyalty. Just as the modern idea does not express the sum total of aspirations of the people of Malaya today, so may we deduce that the feudal idea did not express the sum-total of inspirations of the people of Tuah’s time. In both cases the relationship of the uncommitted majority to the idea is merely ideological, that is the relationship is maintained by both the conscious and unconscious spread until propagation of the idea through various channels.

(8) Cf. p. 326.

(9) When Tuah reappeared, they welcomed him with “Hiduplah kita sekalian lepaslah daripada si Jebat itu kerana bapa kita yang mati itu hidup pula.” (p. 325). Their use of the words ‘hidup kita’ gives no doubt whatever as to what they mean.

(10) H.H.T., p. 246.

(11) “The khalif is the shadow of God on earth.”

(12) Compared to Jebat, who, if unconsciously, embodies the new democratic spirit, Tuah is certainly a reactionary.

Installment # 14: Chapter V Conclusion

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