IT’S that time of the year again, when the jalur are gemilanging, and the heart fills with the spirit of independence. Malaysian channels and streaming sites will be overflowing with videos and movies reminding us about the spirit of 1957 when we declared independence from the British colonists.
One of them is the hit local movie Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan (Mat Kilau: Rise of the Warrior), which collected more than RM96mil at the box office in 40 days, since its June 23, 2022, release – as it was produced on a budget of RM8mil, this makes it the highest grossing Malaysian film of all time.
It is a historical action film that plays fast with the action – and unfortunately even faster and much looser with the facts.
For me, I have never considered the historical Mat Kilau as a man who united the rakyat against the evil imperialist British. My understanding was that the disruption caused by the British was less about bullying the locals and more about how their deals with one Sultan upended the previous societal order and upset a lot of locals in the process.
An online article by historian Ranjit Singh Malhi notes that after the Sultan of Pahang appointed JP Rodger as British Resident of the state, the Malay chiefs were no longer allowed to collect tolls and taxes in their districts and were instead given allowances. Another change was an attempt to end slavery by not allowing the chiefs to recruit new slaves.
Datuk Bahaman, the Orang Kaya of Semantan, Pahang, was not satisfied with the new arrangements, and asked for his monthly allowance to be increased from $70 to $500. When his request was denied, it led to a sequence of events which ended with an ambush against a British force of Malay and Sikh police officers in 1891. Local chieftain Mat Kilau then joined in with more attacks in 1892.
This is lumped together as the Pahang uprising of 1891-1895, However, Ranjit says that the uprisings “only gained the maximum support of about 700-800 Malays”.
I suppose one man’s freedom fighter is another’s rebellious element, and even if their numbers were small, perhaps these people still truly believed they were fighting for a greater good and for the rakyat. In essence, it’s about the idea of uniting against a common foreign foe against the odds.
But this doesn’t explain a misplaced historical fact in the movie which lumps together a Chinese merchant named Goh Hui with the wrong side. In the movie, he is a greedy merchant who works with the British, participates in their atrocities, and is eventually killed by the heroes.
However, Faisal Tehrani, a Fellow with the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, uses a multitude of sources to say that although Goh Hui was a real Chinese merchant, he was killed in 1888, some five years before the timeline in which the movie is set. His death happened under mysterious circumstances, setting into motion a sequence of events with far-reaching consequences.
Goh was stabbed near the Pahang palace in Pekan, with some casting suspicion on the head of the palace guard. To make matters worse, soon after his death, Sultan Ahmad of Pahang was said to have fallen in love with the merchant’s wife. This widow then appealed to the British to help resolve this issue (who were themselves not happy that British subjects, or at least those meant to be under British protection, were being murdered so close to the palace anyway).
As the British investigated deeper, and with a scandal seemingly looming close, the Sultan of Pahang was persuaded by the Sultan of Johor to make some concessions to keep the peace. Sultan Ahmad told the British that he would manage the investigation on his own, but could the British send somebody to help him administrate other affairs of the state?
Eventually, in late 1888, a British Resident was appointed in Pahang, the same JP Rodger who would later interfere in the affairs of the Malay chiefs.
To me, this story of murder, unrequited love and political power struggles is far more interesting than one about a silat warrior encouraging others to fight against the "brutal" colonialist oppressor (especially since the latter takes more liberties with the facts), but I suppose each to his/her own.
What perhaps irks me more is that fiction in a popular box office hit soon becomes fact in the minds of audiences. The story of modern Malaysia is rich in complexity, with a wide array of groups that each tried in its own way to build a community consistent with its own beliefs and needs.
Perhaps even worse is the narrative that the nation’s freedom was built on blood (or at least the threat of it), when reality is so far apart from this.
There were more atrocities and lives lost in the two-decade long fight against the communists, while Konfrantasi against the Indonesians (1963-1966) arguably was a bigger fight, but this time of Malay against fellow Malay.
It wasn’t an unsheathed keris on the field of battle that wrote Malaysia’s history, but persistent negotiation in meeting rooms or across dinner tables that eventually won the day. I believe that we as a nation are better for it – even if it doesn’t make for a great action movie.
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.