kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Heritage: Malay Manuscripts: Our national treasures

To uncover the wealth in our heritage, several steps must be taken, including encouraging a new generation of Jawi script scholars, writes Ninot Aziz

NEVER has the interest in ancient Malay Manuscripts been as high as in recent months.

In April and May this year, three important events on Malay Manuscripts took place. In April, an international workshop: Traces Of Two Great Epics, The Ramayana And The Mahabhrata In Javanese And Malay Literature, was organised by the Nalanda Sriwijaya Centre at ISEAS, Singapore.

Professor Willem van der Molen from Leiden University discusses The Malay Manuscripts at the conference in Singapore.
A set of writing instruments used in the past displayed at the National Library in Kuala Lumpur.
One of the displays at the International Exhibition of Malay Manuscripts at the National Library.
The Hikayat Hang Tuah was completed in 1865.

Last month, the National Library of Malaysia held an international conference, followed by the International Exhibition Of Malay Manuscripts in Kuala Lumpur. It was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and attended by the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz.

At the Singapore event, Dr Hadijah Rahmat of Nanyang University, Singapore, asked how we could engage the younger generation to revive interest in Malay Manuscripts to which Professor Stuart Robson of Monash University had this to say: “To do that, the manuscripts themselves must be part of our cultural identity, part of who we are, our perception of self.”

I gasped with delight. When discussing the Malay Manuscripts, I have often highlighted that according to the National Cultural Policy 1971, the national culture must, firstly, be based on the indigenous (Bumi and Malay) culture; secondly, suitable elements from the other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture; and thirdly, that Islam is an important component in the moulding of national culture.

From this argument, it is significant that the Malay Manuscripts, being the vestibule of ancient Malay thought and knowledge, be an important part of developing reference points of national culture — an intrinsic part of who we are.


This international workshop was the result of the hard work of Professor Ding Choo Ming, a Fellow at UKM’s Institut Alam Tamadun Melayu Antarabangsa (ATMA) and a Visiting Fellow at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS).

Dr Ding has an illustrious career in the study of Malay literature and as such, he is able to bring together a range of experts from all over the world to share ideas and the latest research.

In Singapore, we were in the presence of leading scholars on the subject who have dedicated their lives to this cause. Notable presenters included Dr Harry G. Aveling of Monash University, Dr Gijsbert Koster of the Department of Oriental Languages and Culture, University of the Minho, Portugal and Dr Willem van der Molen from Leiden University — giants in the world of Malay Manuscripts.

There were 18 papers presented over two days in the beautiful resort-like campus of the Nalanda Sriwijaya Centre.

In my paper, Rise of Kingdoms in Nusantara as traced by the Malay Hikayat, I argued that the Malay Hikayat often recorded historical events. Sometimes, there is no connectivity between these events. Mythological elements were often used to denote the ancient past as they give an indication of time — that is, a long, long time ago. They were also used to fill the gaps, with references to stories of other cultures and epics — Greek and Chinese, Ramayana, and even the Mahabhrata.

These added variety to an already rich literature but hardly constituted as the main ingredient. References to other world legends give a certain international and cosmopolitan flavour indeed and take on added strength when we see the references replicated in various hikayat, for instance, the strong resemblance in the opening chapters of Sejarah Melayu, Hikayat Hang Tuah and Hikayat Malim Deman.

However, this is like spice added to an already wholesome meal.

Our heritage of knowledge preserved through the manuscripts is rich and the foray of other cultures to the Malay world did happen in the distant past. The coming of Islam in the 13th Centure did not obliterate this influence as it became part of daily and royal rituals in a society that was rich and confident enough to accept fusion with other cultures. These references survived despite an obvious and all-embracing conversion to Islam during the Malacca Sultanate.

Listening to all the speakers at the conference as they revealed the precious beauty of Abimanyu Gugur, Rama dan Sinta and The Death of Salya — this banquet of romances is reason enough to continue to explore the Malay Manuscripts and study the coded secrets through reading, through deep appreciation and wonder at their beauty and splendour. Nevertheless, the beauty of our folklore and fables is not the only legacy the manuscripts hold within their pages.


At this conference, there was much discussion of how romance and folklore in Malay Manuscripts had overshadowed the more learned content and knowledge contained within the manuscripts. This was partly due to the fact that the romances were among the few manuscripts that were romanised, whilst the manuscripts that discussed complex topics like astronomy, weaponry, religion, law and governance, and others like divination or dream interpretation, were left untouched for centuries. Many are still in the original Jawi text.

Thus the beautiful illuminated texts from the 13th to early 20th centuries took on the responsibility of safekeeping our heritage and ancient knowledge throughout the ages, almost totally obscured by the passage of time. We know today that these are among the most tangible and the oldest records of the Malay civilisation.

I’ve often wondered why western historians like W.O. Widstedt chose to romanise only the Hikayat and folklore for a wider audience, including our own people. Was it by design or simply a matter of interest?

In the same vein, there were great works by Islamic scholars from the 9th to 15th century that spurred a whole gamut of sciences like the work of Ibn Sina, Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn Al-Haytham. But only the lore of A Thousand And One Nights Arabian Tales through Sir Richard Burton’s translation and the Rubbaiyat of Omar Khayyam through that of Edward FitzGerald, both in the 19th Century, received worldwide attention. Perhaps, only folklore and fables got western interest.

Or, was it because when colonial conquerors needed to control vast empires, they simply did not want the world to realise that there are many other great kingdoms and nations which promoted the pursuit of knowledge and science — the building stones of great civilisations?

Like the Malay world. Or Arabic, Indian and Chinese. And yet, ironically, to a large degree, today we owe the safe-keeping of these priceless manuscripts to them. Many original manuscripts are kept in the most sacred, highly regarded world institutions like University of Cambridge, The British Library, Leiden University, Holland, Library of Congress & the Houghton Library, Harvard University, the Vatican City Library and the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg name a few.

All 23 presenters at the conference emphasised that the Malay manuscripts are of national importance and a crucial piece of our heritage. The stage needs to be set for two things: One, unravelling the knowledge and wisdom preserved in the Malay Manuscripts and, two, recognising the manuscripts themselves as priceless national treasures.

Tan Sri Rais Yatim, in his keynote address, said the younger generation needs to know about the civilisation of this land. “For this, a new emphasis on the Jawi script must be made because, as we speak, there are dwindling numbers of Jawi readers and scholars. We also learn that the Jawi-script Utusan Melayu is now only online, a blow to the preservation of the Jawi script efforts and study of Malay Manuscripts.

It’s now a challenge to government and to us to fight for the survival of our national heritage. Since the 19th Century, the manuscripts have travelled all over the world while studies took place mainly in the west.

This needs to change. More vigorous research, better facilities, even the setting up of a dedicated Centre for Malay Manuscripts, much like the Museum of Islamic Art, could propel the Malay manuscripts into world-wide popularity and study.

Most of all, the Malay Manuscripts can lead the way to a winning mindset, one of artistic appreciation and illumination, a civilisation based on a continuous quest for knowledge. NINOT AZIZ - NST Lifestyle 22 JUNE 2014 @ 8:03 AM
Tags: heritage

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