Most of us are familiar with Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir, the Peranakan Muslim whose ideas have been described as among the most revolutionary during the 19th century. But his own position and status in society was a problematic one. Being a Peranakan Muslim who was also a British colonial subject meant that he was seen as suspect by everyone both then and now.
However it must be remembered that Munshi Abdullah was first and foremost a modern colonial subject. He was a functionary within the apparatus of modern colonial-capitalism. Employed as a language-teacher and a translator by British company officials, his relationship with his colonial patrons was fundamentally a contractual one.
This modern professional lifestyle instilled in Abdullah an instrumentalist and pragmatic attitude. Contrary to what many of his critics have said of him, Abdullah's main concern was directed towards the Malay-Muslims of his society, and more importantly the need to reform their society and culture which was then deeply immersed in the values and practices of feudalism.
Abdullah's sustained critique of Malay feudal culture can be found in his writings, Hikayat Abdullah Munshi and his Kisah Pelayaran ke Timur . In Kisah Pelayaran , Abdullah paints a sordid and miserable picture of life in the Malay kingdoms of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan which were then governed according to feudal norms and traditions which he regarded as antiquated and corrupt.
Distracted by their dreams of long-lost glory and splendour, the rulers of the Malay kerajaans had failed to check the ever-advancing power and influence of the Western powers that were consolidating their hold all around them.
While the process of decay was taking its toll, the Malay rulers were preoccupied with their own dynastic struggles and their attempts to win the coveted honour of being the sole inheritors of the Malaccan dynasty, the memory of which had long since passed from the public imagination and which was being kept alive only in the pages of the numerous hikayats and silsilahs that were being written by dutiful court scribes in the numerous petty kerajaans of the peninsula.
Beyond the walls of the istanas though, piracy and civil wars were tearing apart the socio-political fabric of the Malay world and further stagnating the development of the country.
It was during his stay in Kelantan that Abdullah found himself in the camp of the Raja Bendahara (who was one of the warring princes involved in the Kelantan civil war). Raja Bendahara and his troops were engaged in a long drawn-out siege of the fortress of Raja Banggul, who was one of the other contenders for the throne after the death of Sultan Muhammad I.
While he stayed at the camp, Abdullah observed the process of Malay feudal warfare from close-up. Every day, the troops of Raja Bendahara would shoot their muskets and lob a few shells into the fortress of Raja Banggul.
Raja Banggul would then reply with a few volleys from his own guns. By midday both sides were tired and hungry, so they would stop for lunch. The fighting would then be resumed around noon for an hour or two, after which it was time for tea. A ceasefire was called and both sides would retire to their lines and resume the conflict the next day. And the siege went on and on and on.
Abdullah was appalled by the total lack of discipline, co-ordination and purpose in this apparently pointless conflict. If Raja Banggul and Raja Bendahara really wanted to have the throne, why didn't they just fight it out in the open like real soldiers, he asked?
If Raja Bendahara really wanted to dislodge Raja Banggul, why didn't he just order a tunnel to be dug under the fortress and blow it to smithereens with a mine?
"Ah, if I were to do that, then I might kill some of the people in Raja Banggul's camp. You know, we know each other and our soldiers know each other. It would be impolite and improper to start a bloodbath where both sides would suffer losses," was Raja Bendahara's reply.
Abdullah shook his head in disbelief, and left the camp with a sense of confusion and disgust.
The endless siege of Raja Bendahara against Raja Banggul was, for Abdullah, a fitting metaphor for the state of affairs under feudal rule where appearances mattered more than the resolution of political conflicts. Years of feudal rule had robbed the people of their will and rational agency, leaving them at the mercy of a ruling elite whose sense of noblesse oblige meant that courtly protocols mattered more than ethics or principles.
Furthermore Abdullah noted that such an unstable environment that was ruled according to the whim of the ruling elite alone left no room for the creation of an autonomous society free from the power and influence of the kerajaan .
Abdullah observed that in Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan there was hardly any economic activity at all. The market places of Pahang and Terengganu were bare of goods and those that were to be found were either expensive or of poor quality.
In Kelantan economic activity had stopped altogether thanks to the civil war. Abdullah noted that the Malay kingdoms were producing goods of great value (spices, gold, tin, cloth) and exchanging them for worthless goods such as opium and weapons instead.
In Kelantan he found that what the rulers wanted most of all were weapons and gunpowder, or better still the formula for making gunpowder themselves.
The feudal political culture of the Malay kingdoms had made it practically impossible for an open and free society to emerge there. It ensured that the ruling elite had every right and opportunity to terrorise and plunder their own people at will, as Abdullah observed:
"Apabila Raja-Raja itu menghendaki baik anak-anak perempuan atau barang suatu benda raayat-nya, di-ambil-nya sahaja dengan tiada menjadi sa-suatu kesusahan atau takut kepada Allah...
"Jikalau anak (Raja) itu lagi kechil, di-carikan-nya anak-anak perempuan yang kechil menjadi kawan-nya bermain, dan tatkala sudah besar anak (Raja) itu di-sediakan-nya gundek, dan di-beri-nya keris akan dia, maka orang-orang negeri pun memberi hormat dan takut akan-nya sebab anak Raja, maka barang kehendak-nya di-perbuat-nya-lah ke-atas raayat, maka sekalian raayat itu pun tiada-lah menegah-nya. Maka bapa-nya itu pun melawan anak-nya bermain judi dan menyabong; maka ia tiada wang, di-beri-nya wang..."
This rapacious feudal culture also ended up devouring those who practised it themselves. As Abdullah noted, in the end it was the rulers and their kingdoms that suffered thanks to the excesses of the feudal elite:
"Ada pun di-jadikan Allah Raja-Raja itu sebab hendak memeliharakan segala manusia, dan menyuroh-kan ia berbuat baik, dan melarang-kan ia berbuat jahat; maka jikalau Raja-Raja atau anak-anak Raja itu juga membuat jahat dan membinasakan manusia, apa-lah kelak kesudahan-nya? Bukan-kah kebinasaan dan chelaka itu datang ke'atas Raja itu dan ke'atas negeri-nya dan rakyat-nya?"
The net result was that the Malays, suffering under the oppression of their rulers were victimised by the kerajaan culture of apathy, fatalism and blind obedience which held them captive to their own customs and practices:
" ... segala ra'ayat yang dalam negeri itu, masing-masing kedudokan-nya itu seperti abdi juga ada-nya, sebab segala mereka itu menurut adat yang jahat-jahat dan bodoh itu. Maka jikalau sa-kali pun ia hendak melepaskan adat-adat itu, tidak berani ia..."
Unable to lift themselves out of their stagnant condition, the Malays could only wait in vain for a just ruler to arrive who would govern them righteously and once again breathe a spirit of hope and regeneration into their lives. However, this was unlikely to happen thanks to the venality and wilful ignorance of the rulers themselves, as Abdullah painfully observed.
Abdullah was thus the first to see the Malay dilemma from a comprehensive and holistic point of view. But in the rapidly changing Malay world of the mid-19th century, Abdullah's voice could not be heard.
By the time the Malay masses had begun to heed Abdullah's warnings, nearly a century had passed and the 20th century was upon them.
Today we live in a post-colonial Malaysia which claims the right to be recognised as an independent developing country able to hold its head up high among the rest. Yet the culture and values of feudalism are alive and well in the neo-feudal political culture we have developed for ourselves.
While conservative Malay leaders continue to talk of Malay and Malaysian unity and harmony, we have witnessed successive internecine struggles being fought out in the political arena around us.
Like feudal warlords and robber-barons who smiled as they kept their kris es behind their backs, modern-day Malaysian politicians have proven to be just as perfidious as their feudal counterparts. They smile, shake hands, even kiss each other in public before delivering the mortal blow behind the scenes.
What is worse, even those who claim to want to reform this feudal culture have themselves become victims of it. As the culture of bribery, intimidation and offering social titles continue to take root in our society (there are now more Dato's, Datuks, Tan Sris and Tuns than even during the Malaccan dynasty) we can only ask ourselves if the lessons from the era of Munshi Abdullah have been learnt. The answer, sadly, has to be no.