DEBATING MALAY HISTORY
By Salim Osman
SOME Malaysian roads have been named after him. Even a popular brand of coffee has his name. A medal for bravery was once created in his honour.
But legendary Malay warrior Hang Tuah never existed. He is just a myth. As were his four friends and Chinese princess Hang Li Po, who married the Sultan of Malacca in the 15th century.
'Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat and company were all mythical figures. There is no proof that they existed,' renowned historian, Emeritus Professor Khoo Kay Khim, told the Malaysian media two weeks ago.
The remarks were made during an interview on the country's history. It created quite a stir among Malaysians.
The tales of Hang Tuah are found in the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, a semi-historical record of Malay history and the Hikayat Hang Tuah, regarded as a work of fiction of the 16th century.
The Sejarah Melayu was deliberately written on royal command with the intention of recording for future generations the accounts of the deeds and customs of the Malay rulers.
But the authors went a step further by portraying Malay kings as having divine origin and suggesting that Hang Tuah personified the undivided loyalty towards the ruler.
Hang Tuah, along with his four warrior friends Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekiu, and Hang Lekir served the Sultan of Malacca in the 15th century. Hang Li Po was the Chinese princess who became the fifth wife of the Sultan.
Many scholars believe that the character of Hang Li Po was created by the authors of Sejarah Melayu to glorify the Malacca sultan and his ties with the Chinese Emperor. There has been no record of her existence in the Ming Chronicles of the Ming Dynasty.
It is natural for those who learnt about the exploits of the warrior in schools in the 1970s and 1980s, to feel betrayed by the historian's remarks that Hang Tuah never existed. It leads Malaysians to wonder if there were other elements in Malaysian history which were myths too and had never existed.
Malaysians in general have been made to believe that the warrior was a historical figure during the height of the Malacca sultanate. Even the national museum in Kuala Lumpur has a bronze mural and other paraphernalia of Hang Tuah in its collection. Lending credence to the belief is the preservation of road names and a well said to have been built by Hang Tuah. There is even a grave said to be that of the warrior, and a village claiming to be his birth place in Malacca, where some villagers claim they are his descendants.
The legend of Hang Tuah has also been immortalised in films, as in the 1957 movie Hang Tuah with Malay entertainment icon P. Ramlee playing the title role, and in the 2004 Puteri Gunung Ledang with singer-songwriter M. Nasir as Hang Tuah.
Similar reverence has been shown in Indonesia where some roads, universities and a naval frigate were named after the famous warrior, as the character was also popular in classical Indonesian literature.
Whether or not Hang Tuah is a fact or fiction, the tales of the warrior are politically important for Umno, leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional, and other Malay rightwing groups today, as they have been in feudal societies of yore.
The stories of Hang Tuah and other tales in Malay history and literature have been used by Umno and other Malay nationalists as proof of the 'Malayness' of Malaysian history, buttressing their claim that the country is Malay.
Hang Tuah's famous quote 'Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia', or 'Malays will never vanish from the earth', has been the rallying cry of Umno to galvanise Malay support behind the party.
Malaysian academic Farish Noor, in his Facebook posting, observed that for decades the Hang Tuah myth was used 'as a vehicle for all sorts of nefarious and dubious ideological ends: as a testament to ethnic majoritarianism, as a primordial claim to land and belonging, as a means to proclaim ethnic dominance'.
The Hang Tuah story is also important because it runs deep in the national consciousness of many Malays who view the figure as a legendary warrior in Malay history.
The man and his friend Hang Jebat are seen as symbols of heroism and patriotism worth emulating by Malays today. Among royal circles, Hang Tuah represents Malay loyalty and deference to the rulers. Such loyalty strengthens the institution of Malay monarchy.
In a country where politics is always seen in racial terms, a seemingly innocuous suggestion that Hang Tuah is just a myth will be met by a spirited defence of the legend by Malay groups.
In fact, these groups had already been up in arms over a suggestion some years ago that the warrior could not have been Malay. Those casting doubt on his ancestry had pointed out that Hang Tuah shared the same surname as the Chinese princess, and that he practised a form of martial arts which Malays of his time had never seen before.
The suggestion was dismissed. This only shows one thing - the legend of Hang Tuah could well be more fiction than fact. But many Malays, including some academics, remain steadfast in their belief of their legend. For at stake is not only a historical fact; but notions of identity and nationality.