Malaysian History & Legend; facts & fallacies; myths, heroes or zeroes?

Let Hang Tuah legend live on

On The Beat By Wong Chun Wai, The Star

Like Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes in England, Hang Tuah could be cleverly promoted as a tourist attraction in Malacca.

THE current debate over whether the legendary warrior Hang Tuah actually existed or is merely a figment of imagination should be taken positively. At least there is a renewed interest in history, a subject many Malaysians regard as boring.

Our students have bad memories of studying History, which will be a compulsory subject in schools, because of unimaginative and uninspiring teachers who turned their classes into tedious note-taking exercises.

They did not inspire their students with stories of how we could learn from the past and how relevant history is to us. History is not about forcing students to just memorise dates and signing of treaties.

History is about his story, and teachers should respond with lively accounts, even personal trivia, of the personalities involved to spice up their classes.

With a short remark, Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim restarted a debate on the existence of Hang Tuah, who is said to have lived during the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah in 15th century Malacca. Hang Tuah is believed to be the greatest of all of the sultan’s admirals and was described as a ferocious fighter.

a lot about our history that we don’t know aboutProf Emeritus Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim says there’s a lot about our history that we don’t know about.

Certainly, he has been and is still held in the highest regard in Malaysian Malay culture, and so when our eminent historian said he did not exist, many Malaysians felt let down, even cheated.

Many remember learning in school that Hang Tuah was a hero with a steadfast sense of loyalty who readily sacrificed his friendship with his best friend Hang Jebat after the latter rebelled against the Sultan.

Furthermore, we are also being told that Princess Hang Li Po, who was supposedly married to Sultan Mansur Shah, is probably fictitious as well.

But to be fair to Prof Khoo, he is not the first historian to dispute the existence of Hang Tuah or Hang Li Po. It has long been the subject of conjecture at university level. At school level, however, students seemed to be just happy to swallow what their teachers taught them.

The conventional method of teaching history could be the reason for this, but lack of critical thinking in our education system is another factor. Most students rely entirely on notes given to them and they don’t do their own research on the subject.

Teachers could address this shortcoming by, for example, stating specifically that Hang Tuah is a subject of myth and legend at the start of lessons. Students should also be informed that the location of his tomb, if it exists, remains in dispute.

In the case of Hang Li Po, her existence has long been disputed since she was never recorded in the chronicles of the ruling Ming dynasty. Others say that if she ever existed, she was probably a very beautiful maid in the imperial house who was picked to assume the role of a princess, which is said to be a common practice.

But we should not let the legend of Hang Tuah be forgotten. He should remain a symbol of morality, loyalty, bravery and humility – principles that are enduring.

In fact, Hang Tuah has not even been promoted or marketed as well as other figures of fiction like Sherlock Holmes, the detective created by Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The London-based “consulting detective” has now made it into several movies, including two contemporary versions, besides being in the books and TV productions.

Holmes’ fictional home address, 221B, Baker Street, has been turned into a museum under government protection for its “historical and architectural” importance. Never mind if he’s not real; Sherlock Holmes is being so well marketed that there is even a statue of him outside the Baker Street tube station.

Most of us would also know of the legendary Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, what with the penchant among film and TV producers to feature heroes, be they real or fictional. In English folklore, Robin Hood, known for “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor”, was described as living in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, a county in England.

Cashing in on Robin Hood’s heroism, Nottinghamshire has aggressively promoted Sherwood Forest as a tourist attraction and there is even a Robin Hood airport and the Robin Hood statue.

So what if Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and the Loch Ness monster are all not real? The locals are certainly benefiting tremendously from tourist money earned from spinning tales of these legends.

In Malacca, however, it is easier to get a T-shirt printed with Che Guevera’s iconic face than one with Hang Tuah’s. Never mind if the face of Hang Tuah resembles M. Nasir or P. Ramlee. Where can tourists buy replicas of the magical Taming Sari, the keris used by Hang Tuah? And where is the path that tourists can take to the Hang Li Po trail up Bukit Cina, a site supposedly given to the entourage who accompanied her from China?

There should be a statue of Hang Tuah where tourists can pose for photographs which they can take home to remind them of the legend. There should even be a museum in Malacca to pay tribute to him, and where re-runs of the Hang Tuah movies could be screened.

So, instead of just whining and feeling depressed over Prof Khoo’s thesis, we should ask ourselves why we have not cleverly promoted Hang Tuah and the other legendary figures in Malacca. Keep the legend alive.

Don’t twist history facts

STPM History reference books should be scrutinised by relevant history experts to ensure that facts are correct.

Our STPM Tamadun Islam reference books touch on Islamic history in China but some of the facts in the books must not be accepted at face value for some of the statements have been made without quoting any credible source.

There are some writers who have quoted non-Malaysian authors from the 20th century who had little knowledge about China’s history but merely based it on their fantasised ideas and twisted facts derived perhaps from their own assumptions.

The writers who touched on the topic have been an embarrassment to those in the academic fraternity as they had based their facts from what they had obtained from the old authors. For instance, the STPM books claim that the Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang (old spelling Chu Yuan-chang) was a Muslim, when in fact, he was not.

Historical evidence proves that Zhu Yuanzhang (also known as Ming Taizu, or the Emperor Hongwu) was once a Buddhist monk before he founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

When the tomb of Zhu Yuanzhang’s father (located in present Fengyang, Anhui Province, China) was upgraded, a tablet was erected, and on it the emperor had written about certain events and his reasons for becoming a Buddhist monk.

On a manuscript written personally by him titled Red Dream, Zhu Yuanzhang had described how he sought Buddha’s guidance on his next move when the Huangjue Monastery was set on fire by corrupt troops during the war-torn period. The Buddhist monks had also risked execution by the troops.

Zhu Yuanzhang’s personal writings found in a mosque in Nanjing praising Islam showed the Chinese emperor’s religious tolerance. This should not be interpreted to mean that he was a Muslim.

It must be remembered that Zhu Yuanzhang had, on no less than 30 written accounts, personally heaped praises on Buddhism and Taoism.

Other primary sources linking Zhu Yuanzhang to Buddhism can be found in Ming Taizu Shilu, Juan 1, which was the first part of Ming Shilu (Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty). The documents were actually compiled facts from contemporary records in Zhu Yuanzhang’s reign, a year after his death in 1398.

The final version of Ming Taizu Shilu was completed in 1418 and sanctioned by Zhu Yuanzhang’s son Zhu Di (Emperor Yongle).

For the sake of keeping history as it is, it is important that STPM history book writers quote facts based on primary and secondary sources who are reliable, otherwise such facts may be seen to be twisted and biased.

Via e-mail

Don’t ignore real heroes of history

New Straits Times

Tan Sri Prof Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim provoked a storm of controversy when he said that there was no evidence that legendary warrior Hang Tuah ever existed. Malaysian Archaeologists Association president Datuk Prof Emeritus Dr Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman has refuted this claim, saying the tomb of Hang Tuah in Malacca proves the legendary warrior’s existence. Literary figure Dr Kassim Ahmad, who compiled the Hikayat Hang Tuah, also stressed that Hang Tuah was a real person. So did he exist or not? Arman Ahmad sits down with Khoo to find out

Question:  Can you tell us how this issue first came about?

Answer: During a talk at a local university, I posed a question to the audience.

I asked why in our country today we tend to play up mythical figures instead of people who really contributed a lot to our country.

Very often, when I ask people who was the first Malay to be absorbed into the civil service, they will say they don’t know.

Nobody remembers who was the first Malay doctor, too, for example. Many of these real role models are forgotten.

Western society remembers its historical figures and separates legend and history. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said here.

Question:  There has been tremendous hue and cry from the public after you said that Hang Tuah may have been a myth. Many people disagree with you. How do you feel about this? What caused you to speak up?

Answer: Hang Tuah was made popular through the Bangsawan theatre during the pre-war era. There is no doubt that he was very popular. But at the end of the day, what do you want to learn about in school as part of history? Myth or fact?

It is a bit upsetting that around Kuala Lumpur, you can find streets named after Hang Jebat and Hang Tuah but not named after real historical figures of the past.

There is a street name Jalan Maharajalela, but was it named after the man accused of murdering J.W.W. Birch?  That man’s name was Maharajalela Pandak Lam. Maharajalela was just an honorific title.

We all know Jalan Raja Chulan, but do we know who Raja Chulan was?

The whole point is there is a lot of history that people don’t know about.

Question:  You are an academic, but you now have to deal with a very politically charged topic. How are you handling all this?

Answer:  Times have changed. Once, our society was very particular about the truth, and whenever people make statements, they have to be able to back up their statement with facts. Today, you can say anything you like in public. You can read the writing  of bloggers online and they say anything they like.

In the academic field, you are not allowed to do that . When someone writes a thesis, he is not allowed to say anything he likes. He has to back up his statement with facts. Unfortunately, some people have begun to attack me.

I even learnt that someone asked (Malay rights group) Perkasa to report to the police that I insulted royalty, which is rather absurd really.

The great tradition underlying the Malay monarchy was how they could trace their lineage back to Iskandar Dzulkarnain (Alexander the Great). Hang Tuah was just a “Laksamana” and had nothing to do with royalty.

This is also the first time I’m being attacked by Dr Syed Husin Ali, but he is not a historian . He was never trained in history.

Question: The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), which is the primary record of history during the Malacca Sultanate, did mention Hang Tuah. How accurate is it in recording history?

Answer: The Sejarah Melayu is not precise historiography.

It is a historical document if you want to know how people used to think in those days. But we cannot confirm how much of it is fact, and how much of it is pure fable. It does not record dates, and has characters that we cannot confirm existed.

For example, it does not tell us when Malacca was first founded or when a ruler ascended the throne or passed away. We have no knowledge when Hang Jebat died. History cannot be like that. It has to be very precise.

On the other hand, Ming records from China are very precise. They recorded the names of the first ruler, second ruler of Malacca, along with the dates of their reign. These facts were recorded at that particular time, and not some time after the incident.

We know from these records that in 1414, Megat Iskandar Shah came to China to report the death of his father, Parameswara. China had close ties and protected Malacca at the time. It is recorded that their first envoy to Malacca left in 1403 and arrived there in 1404.

Ming Dynasty records are the best documents on history.

Question:  In Ming records, was Hang Li Po ever mentioned?

Answer:  Hang Li Po was not mentioned in the Ming records. Sejarah Melayu is not considered historiography. It is a literary text. Hang Tuah was never mentioned in the Ming records.

Question:  What does Hang — as in Hang Tuah or Hang Li Po  — signify? Is it an honorary title?

Answer:  This still can’t be concluded from our current body of knowledge.

Question:  Could Hang Tuah and his band of men have been Chinese like some people claim?

Answer:  How can we justify that Kasturi is a Chinese name when it’s a common Indian name?

Question:  If Hang Tuah did not exist, then why is there a tomb that supposedly holds his body in Malacca?  Malacca state recognises this as Hang Tuah’s tomb.

Answer:  How come there is a tomb  when he did not come back from the mountain (Gunung Ledang)? How come they accept part of the story and not accept the other part?

Question:  Malacca State Museums Department director Datuk Khamis Abas said Hang Tuah was a legendary Malay warrior and this was proven in the research. What do you have to say about this?

Answer:  He used the word “legendary”, right?

Question:  Heroes like Hang Tuah, King Arthur, Robin Hood or even Braveheart, despite doubts over their historical integrity, have a tremendous impact in uplifting a nation’s spirit. Do you feel bad about deconstructing a national hero?

Answer:   From the time I started studying history seriously in 1956, we never talked about legends.

We were always trying our best to find primary sources to write the history of Malaya.

Today, we have great bodies of knowledge at our disposal. There are hundreds of theses written by university students. Most of them are unpublished and in our libraries. Good articles can also be found in contemporary newspapers.

You have to be diligent in going through these sources. We do not encourage historians to sit on a comfortable chair and imagine things. If you are a man of letters, then you can do as you like.

Question:  What other historical figures or facts in Malaysia are myths as well?

Answer:  Not many. But at one time there was a big controversy about whether Mat Kilau was still living.

We have British contemporary records that showed he died a long time ago. Then I heard stories, which could not be confirmed, that said this man was actually a Bangsawan actor from Singapore.

Question:  What direction will the new history curriculum take after this?

Answer:  It’s not ready yet. They are still discussing it. They have actually dropped him from the school textbooks for some time.

In the last four, five years, we have not seen him in school textbooks.

Question:  What other heroes have we forgotten but could be part of the school syllabus?

Answer:  Panglima Awang. He was taken to Portugal from Malacca and actually sailed with Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet. When they came back to Malacca, he had completed the journey around the world. He was the first man to sail around the world.

This is a real hero and his story is proven and recorded in history. It’s worthwhile to bring this back to the school syllabus.

Another example is the first Malay doctor, Dr Abdul Latiff Abdul Razak,  from Selangor. In the old P. Ramlee films, you might notice that the doctor is always named Dr Latiff.

Question: As a work of literature, do you think Hang Tuah the hero was a good role model?

Answer:  When Tuah lost his weapon, Jebat allowed him to pick it up again. When Jebat lost his weapon, Tuah took advantage.

If you want to teach nilai murni (good values),  who is the real hero?

But, at the end of the day, it is up to society to decide, not me.

Of course, for the Malay Muslims,  the Quran will give you the right answer for every situation.

Still, Hang Tuah had his good values. But while praising him, it is important that we don’t neglect the real Malaysian heroes of history.

If you have a hero, then a hero must be able to cope with any kind of questions society may ask.

Surely, the younger generation, with a scientific mind, must ask many things. You cannot tell them, don’t worry about whether he is real, just accept these values that we put across to you.

Question:  Our people have been very poor recorders of history in the past. Do you think something drastic needs to be done so that we not only record history but correctly interpret it in the future?

Answer:  History in this country has been so neglected. Our history is a jumble   that has not been properly verified by professional and well- trained historians.

Our schools must educate the children properly about history. Children must know about their own society as well as country.

Malay history tends to be mixed together with fables. English and even Chinese history had tendencies to build up epics as well.

But once they entered the modern age, science and technology became important. It is crucial that young people looked logically and critically at things. A lot of questions need to be answered.

You cannot give answers based on fables. The young people, when they lose confidence, won’t respect their own society.

Question:  How do we verify the facts of history?

Answer:  We always have to rely on empirical evidence. You can speculate whatever you like, but at the end of the day, you have to admit that it is purely speculation.

In the past, they did not make a distinction between legend and myth when they recorded history. You also have to consider the fact that these hikayat were discovered very much later.

They were not available to the public in those days. One of the first people to collect Malay manuscripts was Sir Stamford Raffles when he came to Singapore in 1819.

If you take Sejarah Melayu, there are no less than about 20 versions.

Question:  Dr Kassim Ahmad said that Hang Tuah must have been based on some real person. What is your opinion on this?

Answer:  We have no evidence of any kind. That’s the whole trouble. The modern study of history is almost considered a science — you must have proof — without proof how do you draw the conclusions?

Question:  As a historian since the 1950s, do you think Malaysians appreciate history?

Answer:  It is only beginning to be taught in the universities. Universiti Malaya was founded in 1949. The history department was very strong and very concerned about writing history from a Malayan perspective.

Before that, our history concentrated on what British officials did, and neglected the locals. The department of history began to write the first Malayan-centric history.

Question:  There are some people who don’t care whether Hang Tuah existed or not. They just want someone who represents their value sets and aspirations. What would you say to them?

Answer:  If we are concerned about studying the values of that period, then it’s a different discipline.

For example, it is very important that Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah be part of Malay classical literature because they teach the value sets, but we should not confuse them with history.

Sources of history

ALLOW me to comment on Dr Firdaus Hanafiah’s remarks on the importance of oral sources in the writing of history.

It is strange that he does not realise that he is entering a domain which may not be very clear to him if he is not a trained historian.

It has always been the tradition in the past to explain to young first-year history students the difference between oral sources and written sources.

Where written documentary evidence is available, oral sources must be used sparingly and, more important still, critically.

But if written sources are not available, then oral sources can be used with caution.

Dr Firdaus seems to have the impression that the existence of the kerajaan in the history of Peninsular Malaysia is dependent on the veracity of the Hang Tuah-Hang Jebat fable.

He is obviously unaware that long ago, the importance of the kerajaan (meaning “monarchy” rather than “government”) was fully acknowledged by the British; and the Malays were, at the same time, acknowledged as “the subjects of the Rulers”, hence, they occupied a special position in the country.

Other residents of the Malay Peninsula were not eligible to become citizens until the establishment of the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

When the British first decided to intervene in the administration of the Malay monarchies in order mainly to protect the interests of “British subjects” (most of them Straits Chinese) who had large-scale commercial interests in the Malay states, they did not annex the Malay kingdoms but signed treaties with the Rulers and they promised to protect the Malay states.

W. Ormsby-Gore of the Colonial Office visited the Malay states in 1927. In his report the following year, he said, when referring to the Malay states: “They were, they are, and they must remain Malay states. These states were, when our co-operation in government was first invited, Mohamedan monarchies and such they are today.

“We have neither the right nor the desire to vary the system of government.”

The British reiterated their stand at the 1931 Durbar (Conference of Rulers) held at Sri Menanti in 1931.

Following the Durbar, the slogan “Malaya for the Malays” was popularised.

As mentioned earlier, from the British point of view, the existence of the Peninsular Malay civilisation was based on the existence of the kerajaan.

They never spoke of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat; and no Malay kerajaan existing today falls back on the Hang Tuah-Hang Jebat fable as the foundation of its daulat.

What has been emphasised, since the beginning, was that when the two earliest kingdoms (Kedah and Malacca) were founded, the daulat (legitimacy) in each case was derived from Alexander the Great. This has been the Great Tradition.

Reliable written (indeed contemporary sources) for the history of the Malay Peninsula are still available, though not necessarily within the country.

The most important are probably the Ming Records, still preserved in China. They are contemporary records and go back to the days when Malacca had close relations with China, which sent its first envoy (Ying Ching) to Malacca in 1403.

Even if one wants to know what Parameswara ate when he visited China a few years later, the menu is available.

Then there are also Portuguese sources and, possibly Thai sources too since Thailand or Siam once had a great deal of influence on the Malay Peninsula.

But the Thai sources have been neglected. What we really need today are diligent scholars (not people with powerful imagination) who will plough through reliable sources to obtain correct information about our history.

People who have not done first-hand research should not argue with those who have.

History is based on empirical evidence. If the evidence is inadequate, a historian may speculate but he has to admit that it is speculation and not logical conclusion.

As an example, the British officials, at one time, liked to refer to the Malay chieftains as “pirates”.

Can Dr Firdaus answer them based on oral sources?

Indeed, the proper way to answer them is not to scold them but to prove them wrong by referring to the British legal definition of “piracy” at that time. The answer is there in British records.

However, my main concern is not whether the kerajaan of Malacca was real or not. Given the huge amount of documentary evidence available, it would be a waste of time to turn that into an issue for debate.

But does the average Malaysian know what written sources are available for the history of the Malay Peninsula between the 16th and the 19th centuries?

PROF KHOO KAY KIM, Kuala Lumpur.

Related posts:

4 Responses to “Malaysian History & Legend; facts & fallacies; myths, heroes or zeroes?”

  1. rightways Says:

    History is our mirror from the past and progress for future. You are blinded as the history will be repeated again and again if you don’t learn the truths from the history. Worse still if the facts in history are twisted to glorify for political purposes.


  2. rightways Says:

    A damn good shot by Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Khoo:

    “” There’s a lot about our history that we don’t know about.
    Nobody remembers who was the first Malay doctor, too, for example. Many of these real role models are forgotten.
    Western society remembers its historical figures and separates legend and history. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said here.
    Today, you can say anything you like in public. You can read the writing of bloggers online and they say anything they like.
    In the academic field, you are not allowed to do that . When someone writes a thesis, he is not allowed to say anything he likes. He has to back up his statement with facts. Unfortunately, some people have begun to attack me.
    I even learnt that someone asked (Malay rights group) Perkasa to report to the police that I insulted royalty, which is rather absurd really.
    The great tradition underlying the Malay monarchy was how they could trace their lineage back to Iskandar Dzulkarnain (Alexander the Great). Hang Tuah was just a “Laksamana” and had nothing to do with royalty.
    This is also the first time I’m being attacked by Dr Syed Husin Ali, but he is not a historian . He was never trained in history…””


  3. rightways Says:

    Many are ignorant of the best and most reliable sources of recording history from China covering 4710 years.



    […] Malaysian History & Legend; facts & fallacies; myths, heroes or zeroes? ( […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: