Who was right – Hang Tuah or Hang Jebat? Which one is the true hero?
This was a question posed to a journalist when he was called to Police Headquarters for a scare session in 1987, in the wake of Operation Lalang after more than 100 Malaysians had been arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and several newspapers suspended.
He was asked it by the then Director of Special Branch, Abdul Rahim Nor, the same guy who went on to become Inspector-General of Police and gave Anwar Ibrahim a black eye in 1998 while the then deputy prime minister was being held in a police lock-up.
At the time, gripped by the fear that Operation Lalang had inflicted on the entire country, the journalist being questioned was cowed by Rahim; the answer he gave was a lame “I don’t know”.
If it had been me, I would probably have thrown caution to the wind and honestly told the IGP what I thought.
To me, there is no question as to who was right, who is the true hero. I set much store by friendship. After family, friends are the most important people on earth. I believe that if anyone tries to harm your friend, you should stand up against that person and protect the innocent. That’s what Jebat did for Tuah.
But Tuah did not quite appreciate that. To him, Jebat committed treason because he went against the Sultan. Tuah was so clouded by his loyalty to the Sultan that he lost sight of the nobility of his friend’s act. I cannot see how such blind obedience can be admirable. It shows lack of thinking, and a hopelessly feudalistic mindset. Tuah behaved like an automaton, a slave to the whims of his lord. Even when the Sultan had committed wrong, Tuah must do his bidding.
Loyalty is definitely a virtue. Hence loyalty to friendship is something to cherish. But blind loyalty is something else. By the same token, that loyalty to friendship cannot be blind either. For instance, if you saw your friend murder someone, you’d be morally obliged to stand witness against him.
Tuah himself had, in the first place, done no wrong. It was the Sultan who did him wrong by ordering his execution merely on the rumour that he had been involved in an illicit affair with a palace dayang(lady-in-waiting) And this, without offering him a chance to defend himself, not even a hearing.
To do that to a loyal servant, indeed a fellow human being, is to show a total lack of feeling. Worse, a total lack of morals. How can such a sultan rule fairly and wisely?
Is Jebat therefore wrong to revolt against him?
You line up Tuah and the Sultan side by side and what do you get? An unthinking fellow standing up for an unfeeling, immoral fellow. From my foolish perspective, that adds up to a couple of goons. And yet Tuah must suppress his feelings for his friend, the friend who stood up for him, by challenging him to a duel and eventually killing him. This is beyond the understanding of the heart and the mind.
Yes, if one could speak up for Tuah, one could say he was doing his duty, his duty to the Sultan, his duty to the State if you prefer. That duty overrides any feeling of friendship. That duty overrides whatever wrong the State has done to him. He must suppress the grievous hurt the Sultan caused him in wrongly condemning him to death. He must re-establish order because Jebat has run amok and brought anarchy to Malacca. He is the State’s great hope.
Yes, Malay society was sold on that argument for centuries, holding up Tuah as the hero. Until Ali Aziz brought out his radio play Tragedi Hang Jebat in 1958 and made Jebat a sympathetic protagonist. It was later renamed Hang Jebat Menderhaka and presented as a staged play.
The following year, scholar Kassim Ahmad wrote an academic thesis for his Bachelor’s degree that shocked conservatives with his radical reading of the Malay classic Hikayat Hang Tuah. He challenged the orthodox Malay idea of authority – and royalty. He argued that Jebat was the true hero who defended honour and principles whereas Tuah was merely a palace lackey who prospered from the Sultan’s largesse.
The thesis, published in 1964 as Perwatakan Hikayat Hang Tuah, is certainly a seminal work of Malay studies. M. Bakri Musa author of The Malay Dilemma Revisited and Liberating the Malay Mind, says, “If enough Malays read it, it might very well revolutionize our society.”
Continuing the theme of Jebat as hero, Hussain Haniff made a film in 1961 entitled Hang Jebat, based on Ali Aziz’s script. Some critics consider the film a classic. I have seen it myself and been impressed by its questioning of feudalism, its cinematography, its scripting and the intensity of Nordin Ahmad’s performance as Jebat.
That same year, poet-playwright Usman Awang offered his own revisionist view in his play Matinya Seorang Pahlawan, which presents Jebat as a sensitive warrior who opposes the Sultan’s injustice and denounces Tuah’s blind loyalty. “But believe my words, Tuah,” he tells his friend, “that in generations to come … others will deplore your unquestioned allegiance.”
Other dramatic incarnations followed – like Dinsman’s absurdist Jebat (1973); Johan Jaaffar’sKotaku Oh Kotaku (1975), which portrays Jebat as a warrior for the urban poor; Hatta Azad Khan’sjebat (1982), which also champions the underprivileged.
In fiction, Jebat comes across as the voice of truth in Fatimah Busu’s 1985 short story, ‘Al-Isra’.
It’s not surprising that poets and playwrights saw the truth about Jebat and Tuah long before the rest of society did. But then you can always trust the artists in any society to have the clearer vision and the right perspective.
Then life began to imitate art when in 1993, then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad took on the sultans to remove their legal immunity. This was a landmark manoeuvre to curb the abuses of royalty, some of which were criminal. An intense stand-off resulted between Mahathir’s government and the recalcitrant royals, but in the end Mahathir won. He came to be identified as a Jebat, and thenceforth it became acceptable to be one on a wider scale.
But still, tradition dies hard. There are not many people who would name their sons Jebat. They would name them Mahathir, Saddam and even Osama, but they would mostly fight shy of the man they still consider deep in their hearts to be a traitor. As for Tuah, he is still a hero.
I, however, named my son Jebat without hesitation. It’s a strong, masculine name suitable for a male. I like it very much. But most of all, I hold dear what it stands for. The one thing that many people overlook or seldom acknowledge. His loyalty to friendship.
I recall when my son was hardly a toddler, in the early ’90s, the owner of the house I was renting came to visit and I introduced him to my pride and joy. He was an army general, a broad-minded man. But he took me by surprise when he suddenly pointed at my son and exclaimed, albeit with a smile, “Jebat, when you grow up, don’t you be a traitor!”
Jebat gave him a quizzical look that seemed to say, “Hey, dude, I’m just learning to walk. Gimme a break.”
Perhaps the general was just joking. Or perhaps he completely missed the point of the Tuah-Jebat dilemma. Jebat was not a traitor. Anyone who fights against the injustice of a ruler cannot be a traitor. Above all, Jebat was a man of compassion. He fought to defend his friend’s honour.
So, which would you rather revere? A true friend or a servile yes-man?
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book Can We Save Malaysia, Please! ** This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Penang Monthly. Yahoo Malaysia News 07 October 2014