Malaysia: The world where world civilisations meet

Hikayat Hang Tuah recorded an incident where the ruler of Melaka instructed Hang Tuah to attack and conquer Patani.

The story was set against the backdrop of a Malay Kingdom of Melaka already at its glorious peak. In fact, the king’s decree above was not to be the Laksamana’s main mission. His main task was to go to the kingdom of Ayutthaya to buy war elephants. The instruction to attack Pattani was, so to speak, a side job. Such was the strength of Melaka at that time, a trade mission could double up as a war armada.

However, this rather straightforward story was given an unexpected and interesting twist by the author:

Hang Tuah who long has been characterized to us as one with blind loyalty for the king, actually objected to the king’s decree.

Instead, Hang Tuah recommended the diplomatic route to deal with Patani. The Hikayat then chronicled how on his way to Ayutthaya, Hang Tuah visited Patani, not as a conqueror but as a diplomat.

In fact, to this day, the people of Pattani are proud guardians of a water well purportedly of Hang Tuah, as a proof to the plot twist above.

The faustian choice forced on us as a nation

This year, we celebrate the 58th anniversary of the founding of Malaysia. Yet more than half a century later, Malaysians in all honesty are still searching for a model to live together as a rainbow nation.

For too long, we have been given the faustian choice of what it means to be a nation, encapsulated by two worldviews often forced onto us.

The first is the idea that our relationship in this kaleidoscopic Malaysian society is fatalistically characterised by events in the past 50-60 years as if this wonderful land rich with heritage has no history beyond the last five decades spanning into centuries and millennia.

Those who hold to this view continually define our social relationships by what happened on May 13, during the Japanese occupation, the Communist insurgency, colonisation, etc. I am not saying these events gave us no useful lessons, but the fact is, our national identity cannot be merely reduced to this short though immediate period of our history because our multicultural interaction had taken place in this space for centuries.

More importantly, nation building cannot be limited to simply consideration of a nation’s crises and darkest moments of conflicts but also it’s glory wrought by confederation and cooperation of its people.

The second worldview on the other hand, is one which believes we are facing a clash of civilisations and ultimately, there can only be one victor emerging from this conflict. In other words, the “Other”; the other races, the other cultures, the other religions, the other political or social tribes have to be subdued if not annihilated altogether. In such a worldview, our relationship with each other is zero-sum; you win I lose, or vice versa.

From this sort of siege thinking, so-oft arose the familiar wolf cries that one’s identity – whether religion, language or tradition – is under threat from the Other in this clash of civilisations. Thus also came the call for “perpaduan” (unity), “kita perlu bersatu” (we must be united) but only in the narrow form of being united among those of the same skin colour or religious or political belief, in order to fight other groupings. Within such a worldview, it is not only unthinkable to have genuine intercultural interactions, it is also anathema to learn from other cultures because of the misconstrued superiority complex and the cultural jingoism which belittles the Other. Thus we see groups which feared the learning of Jawi, those who could not bear to see crucifixes in their neighbourhood and the likes.

A third way: lessons on living together from our Malay ancestors

I began this article with a story from Hikayat Hang Tuah because I am convinced the records of our ancestors in this blessed land where civilisations met and mingled can teach us much about living together.

Logically, if we have lived together for centuries, and the best parts of our civilisation emerged when different civilisations of the world interacted in peaceful collaboration, the formula of nation-building can be found by looking behind us into the long annals of our own history.

This is not a debate about whether Hang Tuah existed (although I have my own views on this). To me, Hikayat Hang Tuah is not merely a memoir of a Malay superhero as we have come to understand the idea of a memoir. Rather it is a record of the history of civilisational ideas and values, the civilisation of our Malay ancestors.

As such, we actually have a choice to reject the faustian offer between the two worldviews above to take a third way, which in fact is a more ancient and old way.

The history of the Malay world and the Bornean island demonstrated to us that when civilisations meet, they need not necessarily end in a clash. Instead, there is opportunity for collaboration and cooperation which will produce new ideas, inventions or even new cultures which in turn enrich the old ones. In the sum of things, we become stronger together.

Yes, our modern history of the past 50-60 years has to be appreciated – the good and the bad; and yes, even within this period, there are many positive elements which can be lessons for our nation building. However, we must not forget, much less erase, the long history of this land as if our country has no deeper roots.

If in the feudal age, the Hikayat recorded for us the story of Hang Tuah objecting to the king’s instruction to attack Patani, then clearly, this anomaly of behaviour is a plot twist which demands our attention: the meeting of civilisations need not end in the clash of civilisations.

Why did the unnamed author of Hikayat Hang Tuah carefully engineered a character of a Malay superhero who can speak 12 languages, well-versed in international diplomacy, demonstrated intelligence in economy and trades, engineering, war strategy, psychology, governance (and of course martial art)?

One thing for sure, the author did not hide the source of his Malay polymath’s amazing breadth of knowledge. The Hikayat recorded that Hang Tuah learnt from Malay teachers, Javanese teachers, the Chinese, Arabs, Indians and all sorts of people and travelers porting at the cosmopolitan ancient Melaka.

Plurality became a strength and the meeting of civilisations birthed greater excellence.

In the Indian court of Vijayanagar, Hang Tuah told the great king Kisna Rayan that he learnt the Vijayanagar language in Majapahit when the impressed king enquired about his fluency. Intercultural exchanges produced the strength of Melaka.

When they first set foot in China, Hang Tuah was able to explain the Ming court protocols as well as describe peculiar Chinese cultural practices to his fellow Malay travelers. When asked how did he know all these being first-time visitors like themselves (in a much pre-Google world), Hang Tuah said: “my Chinese god-father (“ayah angkat”) in Melaka taught me”.

The great Malay superhero, the Malay par excellence had a Chinese god-father!

In this aspect, our ancestors, or more specifically, the Malay ancestors in the 17th or 18th century had proven 20th century Western scholars wrong: The meeting of civilisations need not end in the clash of civilisation. Perhaps in the final analysis, there is only clash of ignorance as warned by the late Palestinian thinker, Edward Said.

Steven Sim is MP for Bukit Mertajam.

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