Learning from Hang Tuah


There is value to be found in the legendary story of a Malay warrior who was a model of courage, loyalty – and progressive cosmopolitanism.

WHILE the Internet makes incredible leaps in the amount of horizon-widening content available at greater and greater speeds, the world, funnily enough, is shrinking down to a small town in terms of bigotry and racist tendencies.

Instead of facilitating the building of cosmopolitan citizenry of the world, the Internet and social media seem to be making people more narrow-minded than ever before.

The killing of innocents in the name of religion and race attests to the idea that a person’s race and religious adherence is a construct limited to his or her group only.

Our education systems seem to miss the importance of cosmopolitanism, not only for global harmony but for economic prosperity and environmental sustainability.

In this country of 40 ethnic groups, each group seems lost in its own world of beliefs, faith and narratives to the exclusion of others.

There are even groups attempting to exert their own value system and faith over others, which could cause racial and religious conflicts.

In my column this week, I wish to draw attention to the mythical character of Hang Tuah by discussing a rarely known aspect of the character and the social, political and religious contexts of his life.

According to old stories, Hang Tuah was a cosmopolitan man and he “existed” in a Malay world that had many civilisations, as exemplified through the many languages, religions and cultures of his time within Nusantara, or the Malay Archipelago.

There are several important lessons that we can draw from that world for the social, spiritual and political constructs of today.

In the Kassim Ahmad version of Hikayat Hang Tuah (published by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1964), we hear the story of how the young Hang Tuah formulated his early education curriculum himself:

“Bermula Hang Tuah pun besarlah; tahu-lah ia akan hal ibu bapa-nya itu. Maka Hang Mahmud pun diserahkan anaknya mengaji kepada sa-orang lebai. Telah beberapa lamanya Hang Tuah mengaji Quran, maka pengajian-nya tamatlah. Maka Hang Tuah mengaji nahu pula. Telah sudah tamat pengajiannya, maka ia berkata kepada bapanya, ‘Ayo bapaku, pada bichara hamba, hendak mengaji pula pada lebai (India) pula, supaya hamba tahu pula bahasanya’. Maka kata Hang Mahmud, ‘Benarlah seperti bicara anakku itu’. Maka Hang Tuah pun mengaji-lah dengan lebai (India)... Maka Hang Tuah pun berkata pada bapa-nya hendak mengaji dengan lebai Siam... maka Hang Tuah pun mengaji pula pada sa-orang lebai China... Maka Hang Tuah pun mengaji pula pada lebai Jawa... Kalkian sa-telah habis-lah rata diketahuinya dua belas bahasa itu, maka Hang Tuah pun pulang-lah ka-rumahnya bersama-sama dengan ibu bapanya menchari makan sa-hari hari.”

A rough translation in brief: After learning to recite the Quran and studying Arabic, Hang Tuah asked permission from his father to study the Indian language from an Indian scholar.

Subsequently, he studied with Siamese, Chinese and Javanese scholars. All in all, he learned 12 different languages.

Why did the author make his hero a person who can speak 12 different languages?

To me, it is clear that he was trying to set up Hang Tuah as a Renaissance man, the model of an educated warrior who could best serve the monarch of the day.

The second thing that stands out to me is that Hang Tuah’s world is obviously enriched by the languages, histories, cultural narratives and belief systems of so many different peoples.

Through the remnants of the Majapahit and Sri Vijaya empires, history has shown that the Indians were a superpower.

We see that Siam was a regional power as attested to by the “Bunga Emas”, or tribute, Malay rulers of old paid to its rulers. We see China as a great maritime and political superpower. The Javanese that may have been the dominant culture of the Indonesian islands are listed as an exclusive and important group.

And Kassim listed a glossary of Malay words taken from nine different languages at that time.

The third thing that I would like to draw upon was that Hang Tuah learned all the languages from a “lebai”. In the present Malay language of any dialect, a lebai is a religious teacher or person who knows how to recite the Quran well and also teach Islamic religious rituals to children. Thus, we can assume that all the lebai of the different languages that Hang Tuah learns from are also religious teachers.

JRR Tolkien, author of the famed The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books, was a professor of language.

When he set about inventing the famously well-structured fictitious languages for his books, he found that languages had no meaning without a knowledge of culture, the stories that form the social and spiritual constructs and history of a people. Learning a language entails an understanding of the people and their civilisation and not just words and letters.

Why is this story important? It surprises me that there are political leaders of modern nations who preach the narrative of a dominant race and a dominant religion, supposedly to provide stability in a country. I do not think that the author of Hang Tuah would agree with that narrative as the world is made up of many civilisations and the key to harmony is to understand and appreciate all, or as much of them as we can.

Keeping ourselves solely within our own race and religious identity is contrary to the idea of building a rich and prosperous nation.

Perhaps our leaders could find value in the legendary story of a Malay warrior who was a model of courage, loyalty and progressive cosmopolitanism.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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