The Relevance of Pre-modern Malay Political Theory

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Syed Farid Alatas

There is much for us to learn from pre-modern Malay political theory as far as contemporary governance in Malaysia is concerned. An example of a work that is from the pre-modern Malay world is the Taj al-Salatin. This belongs to the nasihat (counsel-for-kings) genre, or what was known in the European tradition as “mirrors for princes”, and which was influenced by Persian works of the same genre.

The Malay nasihat writings were likely derived from the Persian tradition of the “mirrors for princes”. The Taj al-Salatin, therefore, is an example of a Malay “mirror for princes” and is said to have been composed around 1603 in Aceh. What is interesting about this work is that it has an anti-feudal orientation. This is a crucial element of pre-modern Malay political theory that remains relevant to contemporary politics and governance, to the extent that we are still afflicted by the feudal mentality.

Works in the classical Islamic tradition that have as their focus kingship and governance generally fall under three categories. First, there are works that are of a more normative nature, discussing the traits and characteristics, duties and responsibilities of ideal rulers — the nasihat al-muluk or counsel-for-kings genre, the most well known of which are of Persian origin.

Classical examples are the writings of Nizam al-Mulk in The Book of Government or Rules for Kings and Al-Ghazali’s Book of Counsel for Kings: Nasihat Al-Muluk. These were written in the 11th and 12th centuries respectively.

Second, there are works that are more descriptive in nature that seek to record accounts of the deeds, customs and practices of rulers. An example is the 16th century Malay classic, the Sulalat al-Salatin.

Third, those works that function as administrative manuals. An example is Mirza Rafi‘a’s Dastur Al-Muluk, written in the 18th century.

What is of interest to us is the nasihat genre. This genre of literature refers to works that define proper conduct for rulers, its aims and justification, and the correct and efficient organization of rule. These nasihat were not so much concerned with the legal aspects of rule, and their writers were not confined to Islamic jurisprudence and tended to draw upon pre-Islamic traditions such as the Persian Sassanian manuals of court etiquette.

The nasihat works of Nizam al-Mulk and Al-Ghazzali were written within particular historical contexts and respond to the major issues of the times, but they are also founded on universal values of justice. Therefore, they remain relevant to contemporary issues of governance.

The Taj al-Salatin

The Malay Taj al-Salatin or Crown of Kings follows the Persian-influenced genre of the nasihat literature. It is a Malay literary classic and is considered to be the most important of Persian-influenced nasihat literature to have been produced in the Malay world.

The Taj al-Salatin consists of an exordium or introduction and four sections that are divided into 24 pasal or chapters. The first section — consisting of four chapters — deals with self-cognition, cognition of God, the nature of the world and death.

The second section — comprising five chapters — deals with the dignity of kings, justice and tyranny. The third section — divided into four chapters — discusses the officials of the court such as viziers, scribes, messengers and courtiers.

The fourth and final section is the longest, consisting of 11 chapters. It discusses a variety of topics, each covered in one or two chapters. These include themes such as the upbringing of children, generosity and kindness, reason, the conditions of royal power, the science of physiognomy and the relationship between subjects and kings.

Anti-feudal Theme

Malaysian scholars Shaharuddin Maaruf and Farish Noor have recognised the counter-feudal attitude found in the Taj al-Salatin.

Shaharuddin points out that there are two opposing traditions in Malay society, that is, the feudal and Islamic traditions. The opposition is rooted in the past but is still present in contemporary Malay society, even after the disappearance of feudalism as a political system. In other words, Malay feudal values have survived the feudal system, a point made much earlier by Syed Hussein Alatas in his “Feudalism in Malaysian Society: A Study in Historical Continuity” (Civilisations 18, 4, 1968).

Feudal values — as listed by Shaharuddin (“Some Theoretical Problems Concerning Tradition and Modernization among the Malays of Southeast Asia”, Seminar papers, Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore, 2002/2003) — include a servile attitude towards authority and the acceptance of arbitrary notions of power, the emphasis on grandeur and an opulent lifestyle, and the indifference to social justice. These feudal values are not only held to contradict the spirit and outlook of modernization but also clash with the fundamental values of Islam.

The values of Islam, as Shaharuddin notes, promote a more rational and egalitarian conception of authority, believe in limiting and stress the need for ethical integrity and honesty in public office. Shaharuddin’s argument is that both feudal and Islamic values exist in a conflicting relationship in Malay tradition. The question of progress in the modern era greatly depends on the outcome of such a conflict, that is, “on which value system gains the upper hand in the conflict”.

The opposition to feudal values in Malay Islamic tradition can be seen in the Taj al-Salatin. As Farish put it, “In many pro-feudal texts, loyalty is demanded and expected from the rakyat as the right of the ruler. The Taj al-Salatin, however, demands the loyalty of all subjects to the supreme power of omniscient and omnipotent God, thus distracting both loyalty and attention from the rajas themselves (“Blind Loyalty”, The Nut Graph, Feb 10, 2009, www.thenutgraph.com/blind-loyalty)”.

Shaharuddin’s study on Malay literature as social history looks at the opposition between the feudal and Islamic traditions in terms of a conflict between Malay feudalism and Malay humanism. The Taj al-Salatin clearly represents an anti-feudal position.

The introduction to the Taj al-Salatin begins with the invocation, “All praises for Allah, Lord of all the universe and that there is nothing in His kingdom in union with Him or which judges”. According to Shaharuddin, Malay humanism draws on the Islamic notion of the sovereignty of God, the source of universal values against feudal notions of arbitrary power and divine kingship.

Against the feudal, hierarchical view of society that perpetuated an unbridgeable gap between the ruling class and the masses, the Taj al-Salatin assures all that “every act of theirs is not futile and is beneficial because the world is a place of dwelling for all human beings in which to accomplish something significant and the world is a place to achieve a noble cause and the world is the basis of all the altruistic strivings for those with understanding”.

On the other hand, for those without understanding, the world was merely a playground for pleasure, idling and a futile life. Here, the Taj al-Salatin stresses the distinction between those who know (mengenal) and do not know the world (dunia). It is this distinction that is significant rather than the feudalistic class distinction between the rulers and the masses.

These are extremely important lessons for us. Although we live under a constitutional monarchy today, where traditional feudal powers no longer rule, the feudal mentality still exists among some of the political elite as well as the rakyat in general. There tends to be a servile attitude towards authority, even if that authority is wrong or unjust. There also seems to be a great love for an opulent lifestyle and ostentatious living.

All this happens while growing inequality and injustices take place in society. If we are to be true to Malay tradition, we must all — the government and the people alike — heed the nasihat of the Taj al-Salatin.

Sumber: The Edge

 

 

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