Malaysiakini Letter

Keris now a symbol of national, not Malay, sovereignty

Neil Khor
Published:  |  Modified:

I refer to the Malaysiakini report Hisham apologises for keris act .

There is nothing wrong with the keris as a Malaysian national symbol. HRH the Agong raises it and kisses it when accepting his appointment as the nation's supreme ruler. Used in that context, the symbolism behind the keris is clear. It is a symbol of the Agong's ‘ ketuanan ’ just as the crown is a symbol of Britain's Queen Elizabeth's. Civil servants, including the Prime Minister, makes an oath of allegiance and loyalty to that ‘ Ketuanan ’.

The keris , when used by the Malay rulers, signify their protection over the country and its constitution. One must read the federal constitution carefully to understand the role of the rulers. The Agong's role is to safeguard the rights of all Malaysians. Thus when the Agong raises the keris and kisses it upon his ascension to the throne, he is upholding the sanctity of his office, his ‘ ketuanan ’ or right to protect the constitution as well as other matters.

At the same time, the keris has an older significance especially to the Malay community. It is almost sacred to the Malays. I remember watching documentaries about keris -making on RTM as a child. It is both beautiful and, if used against another, dangerous. It brings us back to a time when such an instrument was part of the Malay warrior's identity.

Being from a family of traders and civil servants, it is quite hard to identify with the keris . It must be equally hard for those who do not share in a background in commerce to appreciate the symbolism behind the abacus. But both, the keris and the abacus, have their symbolic meaning in our multiracial society.

In other words, there is really nothing wrong with the keris . However who wields it and in what context does matter. When Umno Youth leader Hishamuddin Hussein wielded the keris as a gimmick during Umno annual assemblies he was not doing anything new. Previous Umno leaders have done the same thing.

What was different was the context. At a time when Umno controlled nearly half of all parliamentary seats and the BN had a 90% majority, it was rather strange that Hishamuddin should wave the keris and demand for more ‘ Ketuanan ’.

In this case, the Umno Youth leader hoped to benefit from the symbolism of the keris . But, there is a right place and time for everything. In this case, Hishamuddin may be a prince of Umno but not of Malaysia.

Umno's keris- waving reveals two things that have direct consequences for the party today. Firstly, it shows that Umno does not differentiate itself as a political party and the party that has won the elections and thus entrusted with governance. This is important because it makes a mockery of the people's will and the whole concept of elections. The keris in such a context harks back to the feudal age where might is right. With 107 parliamentary seats under its control at that time, Umno came across as extreme and on the brink of becoming uncontrollable.

Secondly, keris kissing at a time when there were outstanding inter-ethnic and inter-religious misunderstanding became a symbol of arrogance. Here, the symbolic role of the Agong was directly usurped. If an Umno leaders raises the keris and kisses it as a sign of ‘Ketuanan Umno’, what does it mean when the Agong does it?

In Umno's case, the keris was un-stitched from its national context and used as a symbol of ‘Ketuanan’. If so, does the Umno-led government only want to protect the rights of Umno members at the expense of the rest of us?

Now that the elections have reduced Umno's parliamentary dominance by some 30 seats, its leaders are rushing to disassociate itself from the keris . What they should do is to step back from tempering with the symbolic meaning of the keris , restore its sanctity as part of the regalia of HRH the Agong and thus reassure all Malaysians that the keris does not belong to Umno but to all Malaysians.

This is the price Malays pay for having their culture incorporated as the basis of Malaysian national culture. Their language is no longer just Bahasa Melayu but Bahasa Malaysia. Similarly, the keris is more than just a symbol of the Malay community's warrior past - it is now a symbol of national sovereignty. There is nothing wrong in raising the keris and kissing it. But future leaders might want to choose the right place and the right time to do it.

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