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The Malays

Munshi Abdullah's Malay Dilemma

Born Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir in Melaka in 1796, Munshi Abdullah is hailed by many as one of the Malay world's great men of letters. He led Malay literature from the world of heroic myth, fantasy and feudal exploits into what R O Winstedt described as "a realism that ... is in accord with the genius of a race of extroverts." Abdullah became the first modern Malay journalist, his autobiography Hikayat Abdullah featuring detailed, vivid descriptions of the ordinary lives of the people of the Malay peninsula and a native's eyewitness accounts of British administration and rule in the turbulent first half of nineteenth century.

Of Arab and Tamil descent, contemporary British government surveyor J T Thomson described Abdullah as having 'the vigour and pride of the Arab, the perseverance and subtlety of the Hindoo - in language and national sympathy only was he a Malay." His detractors criticize him as being an insufferable Anglophile, enamoured of the 'modern' ways of the English, while deriding the lifestyle of his fellow Malays, in particular the tyranny of their feudal rulers, their superstitions and their lack of interest in education. These themes are indeed evident in the passage below, which is described as 'Volume II' of the Hikayat and was printed as a short epilogue to the main work.

When I had finished the first volume of this book, for some little time I gave myself up to thought because I felt that the period of my lifetime had witnessed so many wonderful changes and new things which our grand-parents had never seen. Such events provided me with much food for meditation. I viewed with particular disfavour the lives led by the Malays and the circumstances of those with whom I had been acquainted. I had observed their conduct, behaviour and habits from my youth up to, the present time and had found that, as time went on, so far from becoming more intelligent they became more and more stupid. I considered the matter carefully in my mind and came to the conclusion that there were several reasons for this state of affairs, but that the main one was the inhumanity and the repressive tyranny of the Malay rulers, especially towards their own subjects. The point had been reached at which their hearts had become like soil which no longer receives its nourishment, and wherein therefore nothing at all can grow. Industry, intelligence and learning cannot flourish among them and they are simply like trees in the jungle falling which ever way the wind blows. I noticed that they were always railed by men of other races, small fry whose only value is to provide food for the big fry.

I have mentioned the injustices of the rajas because it is always the custom of the Malay ruler to despise his subjects, as. though he thought of them as animals. Whenever a common man meets his ruler he is obliged to squat on the ground in the mud and filth. If the ruler desires the daughters or chattels of ordinary folk he just seizes them, with no sort of fear of Allah and without sparing a thought for the poor people. The laws and punishments which lie imposes on his subjects depend solely on his own private whim. Those who find favour with him he treats kindly, and the wicked behaviour of his own kith and kin at the expense of the common people he condones and hides. He keeps hundreds of debt slaves, men who have brought ruin to the common folk, murdering people with no more compunction than killing an ant. The rulers make no attempt to protect their subjects, only themselves.

All this has happened because the people have been lacking in education. They may wish to acquire knowledge but they do not possess the right tools, so that the results look clumsy in the eyes of men. And any efforts they make serves only to compromise their reputation because it invites the spiteful attentions, of other people.

Another factor is the inability of the Malay rulers to look after their children when young. They allow them to do anything they like, give in to their every wish, and pay no attention to instructing them in the humanities, in modesty or a sense of shame, or in the elements of culture and courteous behaviour. All they do is to find small girls as playmates for their children when they are young and as their mistresses when they are older. They give then a keris, and the people of the country stand wholesome respect and awe of the rulers' children, not daring to refuse them anything. Fathers compete with their children in gambling and cock-fighting, giving them money if they require it. If the father smokes opium so does his child, and the older the child grows the more scandalous does his behaviour become. Then only does the father wish to stop him because of the hateful things which people are saying about him. But so far from his own father being able to stop him not even ten of his elders and betters can make any impression on the child. Then at last is the country with its people consumed in the fire of such wickedness. As the Malay proverb says: "If the bamboo shoot be not cut when it is young, what is the good of it when it is large and tough?" and also "A small fire is-our friend, a large one our foe."

Many are the places and lands which have been destroyed by the depredations of the young scions of the ruling house, whose rapacious hands can no longer be tolerated by the people. Other races, the English, the Indians, the Arabs or the Chinese, do not conduct themselves or behave in the manner I have described. Only the Malays. Among all these other races the ruler's children are expected to be well educated and very intelligent. Their parents compel them to study under threat of punishment, and to avoid contamination with evil things n any form, so that their good example may be emulated by their subjects who look to them for guidance. I am indeed amazed. If our rulers themselves are ignorant and uneducated how can they rule their people and administer their countries? And if they are wicked how can they expect to make their people good? If the Malay rulers do not keep their own children under control but allow them to prey upon the common people, how can they themselves exercise their authority over the people? The wicked children of the rulers are like wild tigers who after the death of their fathers will despoil the servants of Allah. As I understand it the object of a fence is to prevent animals from entering and destroying the garden. But if the fence itself proceeds to destroy the garden what will be its final state? Allah has created rulers that they may cherish mankind. He has ordered them to do good and forbidden them to do evil. If they or their children oppress and harm the people what will become of them in the end? Will not they, their countries and their peoples alike, face ruin and disaster?

As it is, under Malay rule ordinary folk cannot lift up their heads and enjoy themselves, and dare not show any originality for it is forbidden by the ruler. Wishing possibly to build themselves finely decorated houses of stone, they are afraid to do so. They are afraid to wear fine clothing, shoes and umbrellas in case these are taboo. They are afraid even to keep fine clothing in their houses because it is said that such things are the perquisites only of royalty. Rich men especially live in perpetual fear and are fortunate if their only losses are their belongings. For indeed their very lives are in danger. Means are found whereby such men may be penalised and mulcted of their belongings. If a man is reluctant to lend any of his most cherished possessions, it is accounted a serious offence. And once he has given them up they are lost forever. He will never see them again. A beautiful young girl in his house is like a raging poison, for it is quite certain that the ruler will take her as one of his wives with or without her guardian's permission. This practice more than any other arouses the hatred of the servants of Allah. I heard of one courageous man who refused to part with his daughter. The ruler ordered him to be murdered on some pretext, and then took the child away. All such acts as these are forbidden by Allah and His Prophet and incur the censure of mankind throughout the world. There is only one being who looks with favour upon them; the Devil, the enemy of Allah, who, in company with all his followers will be consumed in the eternal flames of hell.

Another failing commonly found among the Malays is their inability to change or modernise their ideas or to produce anything new. They utterly refuse to abandon superstitions of the past. It is not their religion which compels them to stick to valueless customs, which make them more and more stupid and ridiculous in the eyes of other races. It would be no crime to give up these ignorant practices which bring them no gain, and which only their innate conservatism compels them to retain on the grounds that they have inherited them from their forefathers. If it is our duty to follow the customs of our ancestors, then will it not equally be the duty of our descendants to follow ours? And would you yourself claim to be perfect; just in all your actions and an expert in all branches of knowledge and learning? I cannot believe for a moment that You would dare to claim this. And if you say to me "Let me always remain in my present way of life" I would reply "Have you ever heard about the ancient history of the English, about a time when they were ten times more ignorant than you are at this moment. They wore animal skins, lived in mud huts, daubed their arms and legs with blue paint, walked about with dishevelled hair, made human offices to their heathen gods, and indulged in all sorts of other barbarous practices. But as time went on their children substituted new customs for these superstitions, until they progressed to the state in which you find them today, I know not whether by accident or design. See for yourself the civilisation of the English to-day. Are they clever or ignorant? If you say that your present customs are good ones and do not need to be changed, then the English should return to painting their limbs blue and to discarding their present forms of clothing in favour of animal skins. They should smash up their houses and live again in mud huts. They should abolish steam-power and return to dugouts and canoes, throw away their compasses and limit their journeys by water to the shallows and rivers. Do you really wish to retain your ignorant practices as a heritage for your descendants until the end of time? Do you really believe that conditions in which you live at present are a fitting inheritance for your children, a way of life worth their while to follow? I do not for a moment believe that you really maintain this, for you yourself realise your own shortcomings. But what are you going to do? For you persist in following the customs, however bad, of your ancestors. It is your fond hope, I know, that come what may your children will be wise and rich and good. But if now you sow in them the seeds of ignorance and sloth, how can they become wise and industrious? For as a man sows so shall he reap. If the seed is good the plant will be good; but if bad, bad.

Man has been created by Allah as a sentient being, capable of thinking, of using his intelligence and moral judgement. Is it not fitting that we should make use of these faculties? We should exercise our powers of discrimination, holding on to the things which profit us and shunning those which bring evil. But such ideas are sadly lacking in the mentality of the Malays, who do not use their minds but are content to pursue the pleasures of the moment and to copy forever the customs of their ancestors, If we ask them "Why is it that you live in such dreadful ignorance, and why do you refuse to learn wisdom and how to use your intelligence?", they will reply "What can we do? We are poor people and this is how we have to live." But their poverty of mind is the result of their lack of education, which is itself due to their unwillingness to learn. There are many factors which prevent them from studying and working hard. First, their elders never did so in the past and they themselves are therefore reluctant to start. Second, their rulers and officials and other people of high rank never do so, so neither do they,. Third, they are ashamed to be the first among many to start a new fashion. That is why everyone persists in doing what his neighbour does, without using his own common sense. The longer they do this the worse their position becomes. So far from advancing they slip backwards, and their minds, instead of becoming keener, grow duller and duller. Their wits, having no whetstone on which to be sharpened, are devoured by rust until they are quite useless for any purpose whatever. Finally they become like a piece of land trodden under foot by mankind in its march along the path of progress.

Great is my astonishment to see the conditions under which the Malay people live. They do things which no other race in the world would ever do. Has any other race in the world so far forgotten its own language as to have no place at all where that language is taught? Only the Malays, I notice, take no interest in their own language. Because their forefathers did not study Malay, they dare not start now. Amazing indeed! For every day they speak Malay in all their dealings with each other they use Malay, letters sent from one country to another are written in Malay. But they do not wish to learn the language itself. I doubt whether one man in a hundred understands the language, and even if there are as many it is not by dint of diligent study but by slavishly copying other people's ways. If anyone questions them about the use of a certain word, its origin, or why it is employed in a particular place, they are speechless with surprise for they have never had a teacher, being content merely to imitate others. Is it right that hundreds, nay thousands of men should grow up not knowing how to read or write or do simple sums? It makes them look ridiculous in the eyes of other races who cheat them over measurements and weights and computations, and in general wherever writing is involved.

Other races of this world have become civilised and powerful because of their ability, to read and write and understand their own language, which they value highly; for instance the Arabs, the English, the Chinese and the Indians. All these people pay close attention to their own language, whose vocabulary and richness of expression is thereby increased as time goes on. Truly it is language which civilises man and improves his knowledge and understanding, directing all his energies and raising the level of his own culture besides importing it to others. By means of language alone can the secrets of the human mind be revealed. A great nation necessarily has a fine language, in which all matters pertaining to this world and the next can be given expression. Such a nation has words to describe activities and to evoke any kind of concept, It can regulate its life through the medium of language, affording an opportunity for men to gain untold wealth, honour and power. And such a language is of the greatest benefit to them in this world and the next. Is it not worth your while to pay some attention to it? If you could have asked the Malays of old times, "Are you sufficiently educated now, and would you be glad to see your children grow up in the way I have described", they would, I feel sure reply "No." And they would be very sorry that they had taken no interest in matters of such importance and benefit to them.

Is it wrong for children of the present generation to study branches of knowledge which were quite unknown to their forefathers? On the contrary, the sudden lapse of the descendants of wise and learned people, of good character, into ignorance and sin - that, I consider, is what is really wrong and discreditable. A young tiger that turns into a kitten deserves our scorn, but the kitten which becomes a tiger is admired and receives the acclamation of all, and lucky indeed are those who enjoy, such good fortune. But I find everyone behaving as if he were entirely contented with his lot in life and disinclined to improve it by any kind of education. His attitude of mind is that of the frog beneath the coconut shell who thinks that the shell is the sky. It is a most serious misapprehension, for the Malays themselves do realise their own shortcomings and ignorance. But because they are afraid to tamper with the customs of their fathers they continue to waste their time in idleness. With their own eyes they have seen many new and wonderful ideas, the works of man which are a source of amazement as well as of profit and advantage to us all, and yet they are unwilling to benefit by them.

If indeed they are aware how dull-witted and lacking in education they are, what should be the most suitable time for them to make a change for the better? Surely while they are still young? For this is the time when their minds can be trained and developed. A tree whose branches grow and multiply when it is young, spreading out far from the trunk, will likely bear much fruit when it is fully grown. Human beings are like that tree. People who receive any kind of education when they are young will assuredly reap the benefit when they are older. Yet I notice that the people I have mentioned display not the slightest anxiety for their children, letting them do exactly as they fancy. They indulge in petty mischief and cover themselves with mud playing up and down the lanes. In my opinion the children cannot be blamed, for they see and copy the example set by their parents. The parents know how to bear children but not how to educate them, and their final state is like the tree with poisoned branches, anyone partaking of its fruit becoming ill and afterwards regretting his action. I have given only a brief account of these matters. But it is my greatest hope that these people will take to heart the advice I have offered them.

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