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The Melaka Empire

The Tuah Legend

Almost every Malaysian schoolchild would know the folk story of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. Hang Tuah is the most illustrious Malay hero in Melaka, leader of a closely-knit band of Melaka's finest warriors - Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekiu, Hang Lekir and Hang Jebat - a veritable Five Musketeers of Malay history. But Hang Tuah is slandered by his enemies and the Sultan unthinkingly orders him to be put to death. Fortunately for our hero, the wise Bendahara takes Hang Tuah into hiding. Hang Jebat, in anguish at the injustice done to his friend, goes in a rampage at the royal palace and the Sultan is forced to flee for his life. The Sultan laments that Hang Tuah wasa the only warrior who could ever defeat this traitor, upon which the bendahara saves the day by producing Hang Tuah before his royal person.

The keris owned by Hang Tuah was called Taming Sari(above). It was special in that it was made of twenty types of iron - supposedly metal left over from the forging of the bolts of the Ka'aba. It was said that Taming Sari could do Hang Tuah's fighting for him - if Hang Tuah were menaced or in any way endangered, the keris would leap out of its sheath all by itself, fly through the air and attack the assailant, moving in the air whichever way the assailant dodged or turned, until it hit its mark. The whole of the 'sampir' and 'batang' are covered in gold leaf, making it a 'keris gabus' or 'keris terapang'.

It still exists today and is part of the regalia of DYMM Sultan Azlan Shah, Sultan Perak Darul Ridzuan 

Hang Tuah is pardoned by the repentant Sultan and despatched to kill the traitor. Hang Jebat's joy at seeing his dearest friend brought to life turns to despair when his friend lunges at him with a kris, declaring his loyalty to the Sultan and hatred for traitors. In the ensuing clash, Hang Jebat is killed, still declaring his love for a dear friend, while Hang Tuah sadly laments to his dying friend that loyalty to Sultan and duty comes before everything.

This romantic version of the story, as reproduced in the Malay literary classic Hikayat Hang Tuah, has always begged the question among Malays: who was right? Hang Tuah, because he remained loyal to his Sultan and killed a traitor, even though he was his closes friend. Or Hang Jebat, who was willing to die fighting against injustice and in defence of his friend?

Purely historical sources (Sejarah Melayu, Pires,et al, as opposed to the Hikayat myths and romances) attribute the rebellious behaviour to Hang Kasturi rather than Jebat. By all historical accounts, the famous final conflict was is in fact between Tuah and Kasturi. Unlike the popular folk legend, the quarrel was not over Jebat taking revenge upon the Sultan's injustice towards Tuah - Kasturi was actually just fooling around with of the Sultan's concubines and went beserk. And, by the Sejarah Melayu accounts certainly, there was little friendship exhibited in their final encounter.

Historical fact aside, the Tuah-Jebat legend is interesting in that it reveals a paradox in the Malay psyche, and this paradox goes as far back as the social contract and covenant that is found in verse 56 of the Sejarah Melayu made between Sang Utama Sri Tri Buana (the Palembang ruler from whom all Malay royalty claims descent) and Demang Lebar Daun (his minister, representing the rakyat) . 

Demang Lebar Daun promised that "the descendants of your humble servants shall be the subjects of your majesty's throne, but they must be well-treated by your descendants. If they offend, they shall not, however grave their offence, be disgraced or reviled with evil words: if their offence is grave, let them be out to death, if that is in accordance with Muslim law". To which Sang Utama replied " I agree to give the undertaking for which you ask, but I in turn require an undertaking from you ... that your descendants shall never for the rest of time be disloyal to my descendants, oppress them and behave in an evil way to them." To which Demang Lebar Daun agreed " ... but if your descendants depart from the terms of the pact, then so will mine.. subjects shall never be disloyal or treacherous to their rulers, even iftheir rulers behave cruelly and immorally ... and if any ruler puts a single one of his subjects to shame, that shall be a sign that his kingdom shall be destroyed by Almighty God.

Standards were therefore set for centuries to come. On the one hand, subjects owed absolute loyalty to the ruler - no matter how badly he behaved. On the other hand, the ruler must be the protector of the people. And if one breached the contract, the other could as well.

Tuah represented that absolute loyalty - and the streak of loyalty to the ruler that ran deep in the Malay psyche. If there are three things that were important to the Malay of old, it is loyalty to ruler, religion and 'adat', and the accompanying sets of values that come with them.

Jebat, on the other hand, represented that consequence of breaching that fragile covenant - the conflict within the Malay mind that seeks expression in that uniquely Malay word - 'amok', a rupture of the bonds that bind him.

It is, of course, very appealing to think of Tuah as the ultimate champion of Malay loyalty, chivalry and obedience to tradition, and Jebat as a hero of the people fighting injustice and cruelty. Realistically thought, their actions were far from idealistic. Tuah took loyalty to the point of blind servility. According to the Hikayat Hang Tuah, even before the incident where the Sultan had ordered his execution, there was an occassion where Tuah was actually exiled by the Sultan to Inderapura. There Tuah took it upon himself to kidnap Tun Teja Menggala, the Bendahara's daughter, knowing that the Sultan lusted after her. Through bribes and deceptions, he succeeded in bringing Tun Teja to Melaka and presented her to his ruler. The Sultan was so pleased, he pardoned Tuah and promoted him to the rank of Laksmana, granting him three river districts as well. His loyalty to his Sultan evidently superseded any ethical considerations.

To think of Jebat as an idealistic champion of justice is also not completely accurate. He certainly took over the mantle of Laksmana from Tuah with a great deal of relish. He dutifully read Hikayats to the Sultan. When someone lamented that Hang Tuah was needed to defend Melaka, he angrily replied "Why do you say so? Was Hang Tuah the only warrior? It looks as if he is not around ... so I will take his place." He even feels powerful enough to have amourous relationships with the Sultan's concubines, which was what finally drove the Sultan to order his death. It was not a premeditated, conscious decision by Jebat to fight injustice and avenge his friend - he had misbehaved and now had to accept death or defy the Sultan. And just as Tuah indirectly defied the Sultan by going into hiding, so did Jebat by open rebellion. Jebat going amok killing thousands of innocent people after he was wounded by Tuah certainly is no indication that he was a champion of the people.

In both cases - one unconsciously, and one quite consciously - they broke the sacred covenant made centuries before between Sang Utama Sri Tri Buana and Demang Lebar Daun.

Click here to lsten to Hang Tuah's dilemma (in MP3 format, from the film Hang Tuah)

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