Untangling myth and reality from Malaysia's history

Besides the “startling” news about the origins of the human race, another stir over the history of Malaysia was raised last week when eminent Malaysian historian Professor Khoo Kay Khim declared that some of the characters and stories in Malaysia’s national historical narrative were probably mythical or did not actually exist. Among those figures was the warrior Hang Tuah and the Chinese princess Hang Li Po.

Sculpture of Hang Tuah at the Malaysian National History Museum, wikicommons image
Sculpture of Hang Tuah at the Malaysian National History Museum, wikicommons image


Malaysia’s history books are due for a revamp in 2014, and Professor Khoo sits on the review committee. Malaysia’s historical narrative tends to emphasise (even begin with) the role of the Malacca Sultanate, founded in the 15th century. The history of the Malacca Sultanate is based largely on the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu, but more formally the Silla-leteh-al-salatin or Sulalatu’l-Salatina – the Geneaology of Sultans), a literary text that appears to have been written after the fall of Malacca, and has numerous variants although generally following the same narrative.

Because it is written as a genealogy, some caution must be exercised when attempting to read the annals like a historical text. After all, the first part of the Malay Annals reads like a fantasy, recounting the lineage of the kings from Alexander the Great, the magical appearance of three princes at a mountain outside Palembang (Indonesia), and how one of these princes eventually came to found a city in Temasek (present-day Singapore). Already we might read these events as a literary device to legitimising the rule of the sultans by ascribing them to divine or mystical origins. Stripped from its fantastic elements, it might note the historical events of how Malacca was founded by a prince from Palembang, who first set up a settlement in Singapore, before moving to Malacca (the common interpretation today).

The second section of the Malay Annals deals with the founding of the Malacca and the events until the fall of the sultanate to the Portuguese. Here we read about the exploits of Hang Tuah, the admiral who is the most famous of all the Malay warriors, and Hang Li Po, a princess of China who marries one of the sultans of Malacca. A well in the World Heritage Site in Malacca has been associated with Hang Li Po, while Hang Tuah has an important role in Malay consciousness because it was he who famously proclaimed that the “Malays would never be wiped off the face of the earth”. These stories have become very much a part of the narrative that is taught to schoolchildren in Malaysia today.

Because of the way the Malay Annals is written (as a genealogy to highlight the reign and achievements of kings), its publication history (even the earliest version seems to have been written after the fall of Malacca) and its many versions (some scholars suggest the variations reflect differences in where the story was told to localise the text), it is unwise to accept the Malay Annals as a straight historical account. Hence the stories of people like Hang Li Po and Hang Tuah must be evaluated as whether they were actual, factual personalities, or if they were used analogies for military encounters and political alliances. It should be noted that Hang Tuah is also the main character for another piece of Malay literature, the Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Tale of Hang Tuah), but again for the same reasons it is difficult to differentiate the legendary aspects from the factual – almost like Arthurian lore. Professor Khoo asserts that with the lack of evidence, such figures should be relegated as myth and have no place in the history books. See:

  • BFM, 16 January 2012: Pendatang, Loyal Citizen Part 1: Early years of Chinese settlement (The radio interview that started it all)
  • The Star, 16 January 2012: Prof Khoo: No record of the existance of Princess Hang Li Po; its a myth
  • Free Malaysia Today, 16 January 2012: ‘Hang Li Po, Hang Tuah did not exist’
  • The Star, 17 January 2012: History books to stick to facts
  • The Star, 18 January 2012: Don: Even mythical objects found in history textbooks
  • The Star, 19 January 2012: Prove me wrong, Khoo tells detractors

Of course, this revision/revalation/upturning of history does not go down well, with many expressing disagreement and confusion over the respected scholar’s comments. It should be noted that despite assertions to the opposite, none of the detractors have provided any proof of the existence of these figures:

  • Malaysiakini, 18 January 2012: Suddenly what was history is now fiction
  • Free Malaysia Today, 18 January 2012: ‘It’s okay if Hang Tuah did not exist’
  • The Star, 19 January 2012: Shocked that Hang Tuah may be mythical
  • Bernama, via The Star, 20 January 2012: Prominent archaeologist convinced Hang Tuah not a mythtoday.com/2012/01/21/another-expert-backs-khoo-on-li-po-and-tuah/”>Another expert backs Khoo on Li Po and Tu
    ah
  • The Star, 22 January 2012: Is Hang Tuah fact or fiction?

Once again, the increasing ethnonationalism in Malaysia adds a political undertone in this story, much like last week’s story about the proto-Malays and the origins of the human race. The official history of Malaysia, as taught to schoolchildren, is seen to be heavily skewed towards the ethnic Malay population and under-represents the other minority groups. Professor Khoo, while a very respected scholarly figure in Malaysian society, is from the ethnic Chinese minority. Khoo has also said that the “main agenda for the [review] committee is to instil a sense of patriotism (among students)”. The education minister on the other hand, is thought to be a Malay supremacist, and part of his plans for the revision of the history syllabus is to make the subject compulsory at the high school level.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

2 thoughts on “Untangling myth and reality from Malaysia's history”

  1. Menurut Andaya (2002), Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat dan Hang Kasturi adalah pemimpin ulung kaum Orang Asli. Kekuasaan Orang Asli dalam pemerintahan Melaka serta kerajaan-kerajaan melayu yang lain mengalami kemerosotan dengan kematian ketiga-tiga tokoh ini. Pendapat ini dipetik dari Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula, Macmillan, London 1906 karangan Skeat, W.William and C.O. Blagden. Andaya juga memetik pendapat Juli Edo, seorang ahli antropologi dari etnik Semai yang mengatakan bahawa Hang Tuah dan Hang Jebat adalah Orang Asli. Hang Tuah ialah Orang Jakun (Winsdtedt, 1935). Hang Tuah dan keluarganya berpindah ke Hulu Perak selepas kematian Hang Jebat.

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