kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Hang Tuah: The man and the myth

Once a revered hero, today Hang Tuah’s legacy is marred by controversy, writes Ninotaziz

WHAT do you think of Hang Tuah? Did he exist?

There have been many conjecture and analysis, claims and suppositions made about the existence of legendary hero, Hang Tuah. On TV, Facebook and on the streets of Malacca, many ask the same question.

More importantly, what is the relevance of Hang Tuah for us today?

There was a time when Hang Tuah was as real in our mind as the greatest heroes of the world. And foremost for us, he was a Malaysian hero. Until

I don't think this is Hang Tuah

recently, he was all but erased from our subconscious. At best, the man was embroiled in a quagmire of controversy. From his strict loyalty to the Sultan to the background of his ancestry, all these become subject of debate, contention and sadly at times, derision. It is an inexplicable phenomenon that when many cultures revere their legends and heroes, many in Malaysia decide to abandon theirs. Why this is so proves to be as interesting as the question of Hang Tuah’s existence, if not more so.

There are many levels of existence.

Hang Tuah has been in the Malay psyche for centuries. That is a presence, which is often unshakeable. In our mind. In our sense of pride. In our sense of self. When someone comes along and says, “Hang Tuah was not a Malay” or “Hang Tuah never existed”, we feel a deep sense of loss. In an attempt to cover this loss, some go into denial.

Many join the bandwagon and without examining old resources, without giving deep thought, readily admit, “Yes! I am not one to believe in legends and folklore. It is true. Hang Tuah never existed.” This is a real tragedy. Why? In our denial, we miss the true value and opportunity to learn from Hang Tuah — legend or hero, and from the history of an era of significant importance to our country.

There are two main sources that featured the exploits and achievements of the man, Hang Tuah. This is not exhaustive, but certainly the most prominent. One is the Sejarah Melayu (written circa 1500 to 1611) and the other, Hikayat Hang Tuah (circa 1712 - 1758). Both are renowned works, acknowledged by Unesco on the Registrar of Memories Of The World.


In Sejarah Melayu, Hang Tuah is one of the many figures mentioned. He is an important subject of the Sultan but not the focus of Sejarah Melayu. After all, Sejarah Melayu or Sulalatus Salatin is the Book of Kings. The reason it was written was to record the rise and fall of the Malay Sultanate. It was written for record purposes, albeit in the style that regaled the kings. Certainly, only important figures, who affected the course of history — good or bad, deserved mention in Sejarah Melayu like Demang Lebar Daun, Tun Perak, Tun Perpatih Putih and of course Hang Tuah.

Firstly, a question of style and purpose. As mentioned, Sejarah Melayu is written to record memorable events. The narration was almost a verbatim recollection of incidents. Therefore, Hang Tuah did not really receive special attention, when compared to other characters in Sejarah Melayu. Those who were loyal, and disloyal equally, were mentioned and duly rewarded, or as the case may be, punished, killed and family obliterated, serving as an example to others.

This would suggest, in spite of the lack of actual dates, that Sejarah Melayu was what it had always claimed to be, a historical record. The lack of continuity from chapter to chapter certainly emphasizes its reporting, albeit narrative, nature. Hang Tuah was merely part of that historical record.


Map of Hang Tuah’s journey courtesy of Balai Kajian and Pengembangan Dunia Melayu, Jogjakarta

This is different in the case of Hikayat Hang Tuah (HHT). The epic was written in the style of Hikayat, which was primarily a work of astounding literature in classical style. It fused fact and fiction to lend credibility and aesthetic value to the book. This is similar to the popular genre of historical fiction today. Kassim Ahmad wrote in 1962: “Apakah pandangan kita terhadap Hikayat Hang Tuah hari ini? ...Ia sebuah karya sastera Melayu lama, sebuah karya yang asli ...kita tidak dapat menyangkal bahawa dalam Hikayat Hang Tuah, adakalanya perasaan kemanusiaan dan semangat kepahlawanan yang dilahirkan dan dilukiskan di dalamnya menimbulkan perasaan kagum, ghairah dan hormat di dalam sanubari kita ...Sifat-sifat inilah yang membenarkan Hikayat Hang Tuah digelar sebuah klasik.” (“What is our view of Hikayat Hang Tuah today? ... It is a classic Malay literature, a genuine masterpiece ... we cannot deny that in Hikayat Hang Tuah, the sense of the universal man and heroism are articulated so well, it is awe inspiring and draws upon us deep feelings of passion and respect ...These are the properties that allows Hikayat Hang Tuah to be classified as a classic.”)

Hikayat Hang Tuah manuscript.

In HHT, the classic starts of with the romantic beginnings of the Malay kingdom in Bukit Seguntang. It details the childhood of Hang Tuah and his early education which focused on his ability to speak 12 languages, his humble beginnings and his quest for adventure with his four friends: Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir and Hang Lekiu.

Finally, Hang Tuah’s heroic deeds brought him to the attention of the Bendahara, the — then Sultan. It is noted that in Hikayat Hang Tuah, the main aim is to create the Malay superman or hero. We will examine the need for this a bit later. What is observed is that events attributed to others in Sejarah Melayu were credited to Hang Tuah. For example, the kidnapping of Tun Teja which was credited to Hang Nadim, the wooing of Puteri Gunung Ledang to Tun Mamat in Sejarah Melayu were retold as the exploits of Hang Tuah in HHT.

The battle between Hang Tuah and Hang Kasturi in the original Sejarah Melayu was expanded to an epic struggle between the loyal Hang Tuah and righteous Hang Jebat of more than 8,000 words. A question of Hang Tuah’s all encompassing acceptance of Daulat against Hang Jebat’s right to question this authority.

In the latter part of Hikayat Hang Tuah, Hang Tuah is the elderly statesman, a diplomatic scholar and traveller. He travelled to Turkey, India and China, and of course within the region extensively. Finally, the terrible days of the Portuguese invasion and the coming of the Dutch was described in the epic.


    The legend of Hang Tuah depicted by national artist, Ismail Embong.

There is a need to examine the psyche of the Malay people and the palace during the 18th century to understand the rise of this thought. Tanah Melayu had been torn apart by the power struggles between the Portuguese and the Dutch, with the Malay Sultans striving to reclaim their land. A Malay hero was needed — which kind? Or perhaps — both kinds of heroes were what the Malay kings were looking for? It would appear clear then that while Hikayat Hang Tuah is based on the earlier records, there was a need in the 18th Century to create a hero. With this background, Hikayat Hang Tuah was reconstructed.


Nevertheless, the evidence strongly suggests that the HHT Hang Tuah was based on the real Hang Tuah and real events mentioned in the earlier Sejarah Melayu to lend credence.

Often, there are those eager to discredit the name Hang Tuah. In Sejarah Melayu, alongside Hang Tuah, there was Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir, Hang Lekiu, Hang Khelembak, Hang Ali and Hang Iskandar during the reign of Sultan Mansur and later, Hang Isa Pintas, Hang Hassan Cengang and Hang Usuh, and the popular Hang Nadim during the reign of Sultan Mahmud. As a point of contention, there were statements made that in Malay, names are not carried down the line, refuting the fact that Hang Tuah was the son of Hang Mahmud. That is not true.

The Niks, Megats, Wans and of course, the Tun, Teuku, Tengku and Raden all carried names of the family from generation to generation. This is the same with Malays in other regions, like Champa, whose names are preceded with Po. If we examine this further to study the Mon, the Malays of Indonesia, in southern Thailand, we can find many instances and examples.

This article can only hope to spur rational thinking and analysis on the subject of Hang Tuah. Again, when asked about Laksamana Hang Tuah’s existence, this writer is quick to point out that Hang Tuah has outgrown the man he was. As highlighted by both the renowned Kassim Ahmad, who painstakingly reintroduced Hikayat Hang Tuah to modern readers in the 1960s, and Prof Dr Sulastin Sutrisno of Indonesia, who wrote Hikayat Hang Tuah-Analisis Struktur dan Fungsi, Hang Tuah was an icon of the Universal Malay man.

In a world where corporate giants spend millions creating, promoting and branding their iconic celebrities, we should be proud that we have our own historical figure who epitomises the best values and wisdom of our people.

Hang Tuah was depicted as a learned scholar, diplomat, warrior of the highest level, man of principle and character as required by the times. Therefore Hang Tuah should be the perfect example of the universal man ALL Malaysians should aspire to.

Ninotaziz |, author, poet and story-teller believes that legends are the memories of our ancient civilisations. NST Life-times Sunday-life-times 13 April 2014

Tags: legend

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