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A visible force in history

Millennium markers - The Early Kingdom

THE Malay Annals or the Sejarah Melayu, as it is more popularly known, is a collection of stories that recorded events during the time of the Malacca Sultanate. It has become a major source of information about the social, political and economic goings-on of the time.

However, it is a narrative, most likely written from the male perspective, accounting for the apparent absence of women in relation to the representation of the large number of males in the Malay Annals. This essay attempts to redress this.

In reading the Malay Annals, which is said to have been composed between the 15th and 16th centuries, the picture which emerges is that of a male-dominated Malay world. (Some scholars date the Malay Annals to 1536 and comment that it underwent some changes under the instructions of Sultan Abdullah Maayah Shah in 1612).

The few females who are mentioned are not described in a positive light by our present-day standards. They are portrayed as being submissive and having very little to say about their own fate.

However, if we view the various events from another angle, we may be able to see a totally different and possibly positive view of women. One famous woman character that can be studied for information on the society and the position of women of her time is Tun Teja.

Tun Teja Ratna Menggala or Tun Teja as she is known, was the daughter of the Bendahara of Pahang. Her beauty was unsurpassed, her manners refined beyond comparison.

The Sejarah Melayu records: "Terlalu baik parasnya, dalam Tanah Pahang se-orang pun tiada samanya pada zaman itu, pada barang lakunya sedap manis tiada berbagai."

Although it is her beauty that had spread afar, it was her capability and skill that had captured people's imagination, to the extent that they are willing to swear by it:

Tun Teja Ratna Menggala,

Pandai membelah lada sulah.

Jika tuan tiada percaya,

Marilah bersumpah--kalamullah

Tun Teja Ratna Menggala,

Skilful in splitting pepper.

If you don't believe me,

I swear on the writings of Allah (the Quran)

This definitely is a hyperbolic expression--an exaggeration. But what is more important is the fact that there is a sense of respect accorded to the lady in question. She has been described as extremely beautiful, and the comparison used to highlight her exquisite manners was one of Tun Teja splitting a pepper grain. An alternative perspective would stress the opposite, that is, her skill rather than her beauty.

The Sultan of Malacca, Sultan Mahmud Shah, (1477-1511) had heard of Tun Teja and her beauty, and sent his representative, Seriwa Raja, to install Sultan Abdul Jamil of Pahang as ruler after his father's death. Seriwa Raja came back to Malacca confirming the great beauty of Tun Teja. She was, however, already betrothed to Sultan Abdul Jamil, and "sekadar lagi bertangguh musim datang akan bekerja" (only waiting for the next season to hold the wedding).

A model on the actual Malacca Sultanate Palace

The sultan's overwhelming desire to have Tun Teja as his queen compelled him to try to woo her to Malacca at whatever cost. Sultan Mahmud Shah then offered rewards to whoever can persuade Tun Teja away from the Sultan of Pahang. Hang Nadim offered to do it. With the help of Nakhoda Saidi Ahmad and an old pelulut (masseuse), he managed to spirit Tun Teja away from her home.

In one account, Tun Teja was reported to have initially openly rejected Hang Nadim's offer to take her to Malacca to be the permaisuri. The masseuse at first tried to soft-talk Tun Teja into agreeing to go to Malacca with Hang Nadim. The carrot dangled in front of her was that she "... nescaya diperisterinya oleh Raja Melaka, karena baginda tiada beristeri. Jikalau tuan kelak diperisteri oleh Raja Pahang, bermadulah tuan dengan Raja Perempuan Pahang; jikalau tuan jadi isteri oleh Raja Melaka, tiada dapat tiada menyembah kelak Raja Perempuan Pahang." (... will be queen of Malacca, because the Sultan of Malacca has no wife. If you were to marry the Raja of Pahang, you would only be a second wife after the Raja Perempuan Pahang; if you are queen to the Raja of Malacca, at the very least, you will be sovereign over the Raja Perempuan Pahang.)

But Tun Teja's rejoinder to this was "baik juga negeriku daripada negeri orang" (better my own country than other people's). Obviously she had been brought up not to sacrifice moral and religious values for material wealth and position.

Her Muslim upbringing also tells her not to go against her parents' wishes, much worse, the sultan's, for to do so would be considered derhaka (rude and rebellious). In many ways, this indicates the close relationship that Tun Teja, and girls in general, had with the family.

Seeing that soft-talk could not persuade Tun Teja, the masseuse then secretly used the special ointment provided by Hang Nadim on her, after which Tun Teja agreed to everything suggested by the old masseuse. In other words, Tun Teja was tricked into going to Malacca.

The Sejarah Melayu recorded that Sultan Abdul Jamil, upon learning about the disappearance of Tun Teja, immediately ordered a chase. His ships caught up with Nakhoda Saidi Ahmad's junk at Pulau Keban. A fierce battle ensued in which Hang Nadim's skill in archery overwhelmed the sultan's men, and the latter retreated, enabling the junk to sail away to Malacca.

In Malacca, the sultan was overjoyed. Both Hang Nadim and Nakhoda Saidi Ahmad were duly rewarded. The sultan wasted no time in marrying Tun Teja: "Maka Tun Teja dikahwini oleh Sultan Mahmud Shah, terlalu kasih baginda akan dia." (So Sultan Mahmud Shah married Tun Teja; he loved her so much.)

The above incidents tell us about the position of women in society in addition to insights into the Muslim way of life that existed then. What is relevant here is, records in the Sejarah Melayu and other classical accounts are rich sources of information about the social etiquette, moral values, and politics, particularly of the Malay community of early Malaysia.

Male written accounts would naturally emphasize those qualities deemed important to them. Nonetheless, a closer scrutiny rewards us with a different scenario. We can pick out other attributes such as Tun Teja's skills and capabilities, noble values and attitudes, not so prominent in the male narrative.

As we move into the next millennium, we can ask ourselves: what would be the picture if a woman added her version? Whether history, if retold as herstory, would open up a reality that has been missing from available written history. Perhaps it might provide a fuller portrayal of women's values, attitudes, roles and influence, beyond the snippets we found in the male presentation of Tun Teja.

Despite the scant attention accorded to women in the Sejarah Melayu, from a careful re-reading of the same text, with a different mindset, namely a more gender sensitive perspective, we can bring to light a more balanced interpretation of the Malay Annals.

In the next millennium, women should become visible in the records of history from further investigations of available texts.

* Siti Rohaini Kassim is a lecturer at the Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Malaya. Her area of interest include stylistic and discourse analysis, and post-colonial literature.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years.

Notes: MILLENNIUM MARKERS : 1000 - 2000.

Notes: STF- To mark National Women's Day this Wednesday, SITI ROHAINI KASSIM takes a closer look at a famous woman character in the Malay Annals - the legendary Tun Teja. The indomitable daughter of the Bendahara of Pahang offers a totally different view of women in the days of the Malacca Sultanate.


This article was first published by The Star

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