Monday, February 15, 2016

Jebat and Certain Feudal Matters

Jebat vs Tuah
During the Malay Literature Week held in London in September 1992, Usman Awang’s play Matinya Seorang Pahlawan (Death of a Warrior), about the amok-rebellion of the notorious Hang Jebat (a celebrated amok-rebel in traditional Malay literature, who defied his sultan for unjustly condemning his brother warrior, Hang Tuah, to death), was staged. The production was in the original language, but an English translation of the play, published on the occasion of the Literary Week, was made available for the non-Malay-speaking audience.
Those Englishmen who happened to have blundered into the theatre where Jebat’s amok-rebellion was staged, and got a copy of the English version of the play, must have recently wondered about the Malay mind. By “recently” I mean in the wake of the news about Douglas Gomez and the Sultan of Johor which I hear was splashed in all the major papers in Britain. I hope the British Press also reported that Gomez didn’t take the alleged royal assault lying down; that the man who had the guts to speak up about the fate of hockey in Johor, for which he was allegedly assaulted by His Royal Highness, also had the guts to go to a police station and do what any self-respecting citizen of a democratic state would or should do.

Sultan Iskandar of Johor (1932-2010)
I hope the British Press noted that not all Malaysians are wimps. By lodging a police report against someone hitherto thought untouchable, Gomez has made history. Never mind that the poor fellow, his face all badly bruised, had to wait for signals from the right quarters before he dared to lodge a report; the fact that the report was lodged is the significant thing. And don’t forget that by doing so, Gomez most probably put himself and his family in danger. A taboo has been broken, and hopefully this historic moment will lead to the removal of the last vestiges of feudalism that still cling to our political system. From the way all the newspapers have been going on and the things that some leading Ministers have been saying about the Gomez affair, you would think a “revolution,” a mental one at least, had taken place. The floodgates to long-suppressed sentiments have certainly been opened. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many members of the rakyat (people), of all races and faiths, who feel secretly envious of Gomez and the royal treatment he was alleged to have experienced at Istana Bukit Serene (The Sultan’s palace). It’s not often that one has the chance to lodge a police report that will go down in history. If you can’t be a Hang Jebat, a Hang Gomez will do. Who knows, a thousand little Gomezes might just one day make a mighty Jebat.
I think the time is right for us to talk about old Jebat again. Jebat as the archetypal rebel in Malay literature and the changing perceptions of him in the imagination of the Malays – that will be the same theme of my sermon today. For a long time Hang Jebat was a much-maligned name. in the feudal mind of the Malays he was the epitome of treason and violence. The text which gave rise to this negative image of Jebat is the classical romance Hikayat Hang Tuah (probably written in the 16th and 17th Century). In one form or another the Hikayat must have been a favourite text for recital both in courts and kampungs, for the reading aloud of hikayats was very much a feature of the essentially oral culture of the ancient Malays. Thus the negative image of Hang Jebat was imprinted for generations on the minds of the Malays.
In the Sixties there emerged a number of writers with more or less liberated consciousness who were impelled to reinterpret or rewrite the myth of Hang Jebat and turn the wild warrior into a rebel hero. I say “myth” because the figure of Jebat from the Hikayat held over the centuries acquired the status and resonance of a myth. But the Jebat of Hikayat Hang Tuah is based on what is genrally believed to be a historical person. Jebat is one of the five famous warriors of Malacca in the part-historical, part-legendary classic Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). But the curious thing about this account of the five “Hangs” (Kasturi, Leir and Lekiu, apart from Tuah and Jebat) is what it wasn’t Jebat who committed the act of amok or “treason”; it was Hang Kasturi. There have been a number of theories to explain the discrepancy: one of them suggests that Kasturi and Jebat were originally the same person who later got his identity spilt in two. Quite an intriguing speculation, that; I suppose the Malays can use it to claim that some unknown Malay genius anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theory of the split ego by a few centuries.
I’m more intrigued by the fact that both the names Jebat and Kasturi have to do with smell: jebat (from Persian and Arabic zabad or zubad) means that the strong musky perfume known as civet – thus musang jebat, the civet cat; kasturi or kesturi (the sour lime; citrust acida), bunga kesturi (the scorpion orchid), and also musang kesturi (civet cat, again). Musang jebat and musang kesturi – same animal; that should support the idea that Jebat and Kasturi were originally one person. I find the musky odour linking Jebat and Kasturi intriguing; musk is universally associated with passion and sexuality because of its reputed power as an aphrodisiac. It’s also interesting that the names of the two warriors are linked to the same animal, one with a powerfully distinct smell. The idea of a powerful smell suggested by his name reminds me of Jebat’s resounding line from Hikayat Hang Tuah about his name becoming famous through the ages because of his act of defiance against the sultan. In other words, the odour of the blood, sacrificial blood if you like, spilled by Jebat would haunt the Malay mind for generations. The odorous name of Jebat also reminds me of my favourite scene in HHT (Hikayat Hang Tuah): of Jebat reciting a hikayat, his voice so bewitching that the Sultan falls asleep in his lap and the maids of the palace literally lust after him.
I have always thought that the Jebat of HHT is more of hedonist-anarchist than a purposeful political rebel. I disagree with Kassim Ahmad’s 1960’s reading of this Jebat as a rebel against the feudal order, a prophet of modern Malay nationalism, even a democrat of sorts. I think the then-leftist Kassim’s interpretation is a case of ideological wishful thinking which does violence to the text. Although it’s true that the immediate motive for Jebat’s amok is revenge for the unjustly condemned Tuah, and that the alleged act of “treason” is the defiance of an unjust and irrational sultan, it can only be called a rebellion in a limited sense. And that sense doesn’t quite include the political in the strict meaning of what word. Jebat’s act is a highly individual gesture in the name of friendship, not of the oppressed rakyat. How could it be in the name of the rakyat when hundreds of innocent people (bystanders and the women of the place) are butchered by him in his amok frenzy? And he is boastful of his butchery, too, confident that it will make his name infamous for generations to come.
Although Usman Awang’s play also makes Jebat a rebel hero, a martyr for justice (keadilan), his is a legitimate refashioning of the myth of Jebat. Legitimate because it is a play, a work of creative imagination, not an academic thesis which Kassim’s little book is. But even Usman’s Jebat is in one basic way not very different from that of HHT. Although in his simple but tightly constructed play he focuses on Jebat as a sort of political rebel, and makes his hero truly human and humane (for example in his relation with the Sultan’s favourite concubine, Dang Wangi, who he has made his own), Usman’s Jebat still echoes a crucial line of the original Jebat, a line that boasts his butchery and determination to take as many innocent lives as he can with him.

The Hikayat Jebat says: “Sepala-pala jahat jangan kepalang; kuperbuat sungguh-sungguh.” (If I am really to do evil, I won’t do it half-heartedly.) Usman’s Jebat says “Buat baik berpada-pada, kalau jahat, jahat sekali.” (If you want to do good, don’t overdo it, or do it within reason; if you want to do evil, do it thoroughly.) Usman’s line is in fact a reversal of a well known pantun: “Orang daik memacu kuda/ Kuda dipacu deras sekali/ Buat baik berpada-pada, kalau jahat, jahat sekali.” (The second couplet means: “Do good within reason/ And don’t do any evil at all.”)
But Kassim’s ideologically slanted interpretation of HHT and Usman’s recreation of the Jebat myth aside, it has to be said that the original Jebat of the hikayat is a figure of tremendous importance in the slow process of the mental liberation of the Malays. In other words Jebat’s rare act of defiance was ultimately liberating. The blood he spilled was sacrificial blood. We have to realize that given the social and spiritual milieu of the old sultanate, in which the sultan was a demi-god whose daulat (a mysterious sacred kingly power) was so forbidding that any act of defiance, however mixed or ambiguous in motives and nature, was an event of immense importance. Defying the daulat is called durhaka (treason), a word with connotations as cripplingly powerful as daulat. The idea of durhaka was, and perhaps still is, so unthinkable to the Malay mind that Jebat, who was so consumed by sakit hati (brooding angry feelings, an amok symptom) because of the Sultan’s unjust treatment of the loyal Tuah, was driven to run amok.

Amok, yes! It’s a much misunderstood phenomenon, amok is. Commonly seen as an insane motiveless frenzy, it in fact has, deep down, its own, peculiar rationality. Often a man runs amok (women don’t; they latah instead because of some perceived insult to his dignity and sense of manhood, or even the dignity of someone very dear to him. I imagine when the amok is in the grip of his sakit hati, of its brooding sinister stillness, all kinds of defiant images must be criss-crossing his tortured mind. Jebat in his sakit hati must have gone through sometime like that. And that Adam fellow too, perhaps. Remember Private Adam? The poor guy who ran amok with a rifle in Chow Kit Road a few years ago? Adam, yes! His name too has a mythic, archetypal resonance. Like Jebat.

16 December 1992

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