Rather, various parties hastened to debunk Khoo’s theory by contributing their own assertions of why they believed that Hang Tuah and his friends existed. Malaysian Archaeologists’ Association president Datuk Professor Emeritus Dr Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman opined that even though the exact era in which Hang Tuah is thought to exist is not really known, that the 15th century tomb attributed to him did not have a specific name on it, and that Hang Tuah and his friends might be mythical figures, this did not mean that studies concerning them could not still continue.
In some ways, although coming from opposing camps, Nik Hassan’s opinion partly echoes Khoo’s, who said that Hang Tuah and company could still be studied, but as mythical figures rather than historical ones. The issue has arisen from work being done by the Education Ministry’s History Review Committee, of which Khoo is a member. The panel was appointed to analyse and review the History curriculum. Khoo opined that school History textbooks should be rewritten so that they contained historical facts and not myths or legends, and that hearsay should not be presented as historical fact.
Although the matter may take some while to resolve, the Hang Tuah debacle is a perfect platform upon which to test how much we value history; more specifically, whether we dare to risk possibly having to give up our sentimental memories for the sake of pursuing and obtaining an accurate and authentic history. From the intellectual perspective, there should be no question that we should pursue the truth.
And, Islamic scholarly culture places the highest value on academic honesty; the complex and technical mechanism for authenticating hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) are the clearest example of the importance of accurate referencing — a single questionable link in the chain of authenticity automatically excludes a hadith from being declared sahih (authentic). Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Muslim philosopher and historiographer, was widely respected for establishing mechanisms by which to authenticate history. In teaching schoolchildren History therefore, we should strive to cultivate in them a scholarly culture that places a premium on honesty and accuracy.
Question: Can you tell us how this issue first came about?
Answer: During a talk at a local university, I posed a question to the audience.I asked why in our country today we tend to play up mythical figures instead of people who really contributed a lot to our country.
Very often, when I ask people who was the first Malay to be absorbed into the civil service, they will say they don’t know. Nobody remembers who was the first Malay doctor, too, for example. Many of these real role models are forgotten. Western society remembers its historical figures and separates legend and history. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said here.
Question: There has been tremendous hue and cry from the public after you said that Hang Tuah may have been a myth. Many people disagree with you. How do you feel about this? What caused you to speak up?
Answer: Hang Tuah was made popular through the Bangsawan theatre during the pre-war era. There is no doubt that he was very popular. But at the end of the day, what do you want to learn about in school as part of history? Myth or fact?
It is a bit upsetting that around Kuala Lumpur, you can find streets named after Hang Jebat and Hang Tuah but not named after real historical figures of the past. There is a street name Jalan Maharajalela, but was it named after the man accused of murdering J.W.W. Birch? That man’s name was Maharajalela Pandak Lam. Maharajalela was just an honorific title.
We all know Jalan Raja Chulan, but do we know who Raja Chulan was? The whole point is there is a lot of history that people don’t know about.
Question: You are an academic, but you now have to deal with a very politically charged topic. How are you handling all this?
Answer: Times have changed. Once, our society was very particular about the truth, and whenever people make statements, they have to be able to back up their statement with facts. Today, you can say anything you like in public. You can read the writing of bloggers online and they say anything they like.
In the academic field, you are not allowed to do that . When someone writes a thesis, he is not allowed to say anything he likes. He has to back up his statement with facts. Unfortunately, some people have begun to attack me.
I even learnt that someone asked (Malay rights group) Perkasa to report to the police that I insulted royalty, which is rather absurd really.
The great tradition underlying the Malay monarchy was how they could trace their lineage back to Iskandar Dzulkarnain (Alexander the Great). Hang Tuah was just a “Laksamana” and had nothing to do with royalty.
This is also the first time I’m being attacked by Dr Syed Husin Ali, but he is not a historian . He was never trained in history.
Question: The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), which is the primary record of history during the Malacca Sultanate, did mention Hang Tuah. How accurate is it in recording history?
Answer: The Sejarah Melayu is not precise historiography. It is a historical document if you want to know how people used to think in those days. But we cannot confirm how much of it is fact, and how much of it is pure fable. It does not record dates, and has characters that we cannot confirm existed.
For example, it does not tell us when Malacca was first founded or when a ruler ascended the throne or passed away. We have no knowledge when Hang Jebat died. History cannot be like that. It has to be very precise.
On the other hand, Ming records from China are very precise. They recorded the names of the first ruler, second ruler of Malacca, along with the dates of their reign. These facts were recorded at that particular time, and not some time after the incident.
We know from these records that in 1414, Megat Iskandar Shah came to China to report the death of his father, Parameswara. China had close ties and protected Malacca at the time. It is recorded that their first envoy to Malacca left in 1403 and arrived there in 1404. Ming Dynasty records are the best documents on history.
Question: In Ming records, was Hang Li Po ever mentioned?
Answer: Hang Li Po was not mentioned in the Ming records. Sejarah Melayu is not considered historiography. It is a literary text. Hang Tuah was never mentioned in the Ming records.
Question: What does Hang — as in Hang Tuah or Hang Li Po — signify? Is it an honorary title?
Answer: This still can’t be concluded from our current body of knowledge.
Question: Could Hang Tuah and his band of men have been Chinese like some people claim?
Answer: How can we justify that Kasturi is a Chinese name when it’s a common Indian name?
Question: If Hang Tuah did not exist, then why is there a tomb that supposedly holds his body in Malacca? Malacca state recognises this as Hang Tuah’s tomb.
Answer: How come there is a tomb when he did not come back from the mountain (Gunung Ledang)? How come they accept part of the story and not accept the other part?
Question: Malacca State Museums Department Director Datuk Khamis Abas said Hang Tuah was a legendary Malay warrior and this was proven in the research. What do you have to say about this?
Answer: He used the word “legendary”, right?
Question: Heroes like Hang Tuah, King Arthur, Robin Hood or even Braveheart, despite doubts over their historical integrity, have a tremendous impact in uplifting a nation’s spirit. Do you feel bad about deconstructing a national hero?
Answer: From the time I started studying history seriously in 1956, we never talked about legends. We were always trying our best to find primary sources to write the history of Malaya.
Today, we have great bodies of knowledge at our disposal. There are hundreds of theses written by university students. Most of them are unpublished and in our libraries. Good articles can also be found in contemporary newspapers.
You have to be diligent in going through these sources. We do not encourage historians to sit on a comfortable chair and imagine things. If you are a man of letters, then you can do as you like.
Question: What other historical figures or facts in Malaysia are myths as well?
Answer: Not many. But at one time there was a big controversy about whether Mat Kilau was still living. We have British contemporary records that showed he died a long time ago. Then I heard stories, which could not be confirmed, that said this man was actually a Bangsawan actor from Singapore.
Question: What direction will the new history curriculum take after this?
Answer: It’s not ready yet. They are still discussing it. They have actually dropped him from the school textbooks for some time. In the last four, five years, we have not seen him in school textbooks.
Question: What other heroes have we forgotten but could be part of the school syllabus?
Answer: Panglima Awang. He was taken to Portugal from Malacca and actually sailed with Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet. When they came back to Malacca, he had completed the journey around the world. He was the first man to sail around the world.
This is a real hero and his story is proven and recorded in history. It’s worthwhile to bring this back to the school syllabus. Another example is the first Malay doctor, Dr Abdul Latiff Abdul Razak, from Selangor. In the old P. Ramlee films, you might notice that the doctor is always named Dr Latiff.
Question: As a work of literature, do you think Hang Tuah the hero was a good role model?
Answer: When Tuah lost his weapon, Jebat allowed him to pick it up again. When Jebat lost his weapon, Tuah took advantage. If you want to teach nilai murni (good values), who is the real hero? But, at the end of the day, it is up to society to decide, not me.
Of course, for the Malay Muslims, the Quran will give you the right answer for every situation. Still, Hang Tuah had his good values. But while praising him, it is important that we don’t neglect the real Malaysian heroes of history.
If you have a hero, then a hero must be able to cope with any kind of questions society may ask. Surely, the younger generation, with a scientific mind, must ask many things. You cannot tell them, don’t worry about whether he is real, just accept these values that we put across to you.
Question: Our people have been very poor recorders of history in the past. Do you think something drastic needs to be done so that we not only record history but correctly interpret it in the future?
Answer: History in this country has been so neglected. Our history is a jumble that has not been properly verified by professional and well- trained historians. Our schools must educate the children properly about history. Children must know about their own society as well as country.
Malay history tends to be mixed together with fables. English and even Chinese history had tendencies to build up epics as well. But once they entered the modern age, science and technology became important. It is crucial that young people looked logically and critically at things. A lot of questions need to be answered.
You cannot give answers based on fables. The young people, when they lose confidence, won’t respect their own society.
Question: How do we verify the facts of history?
Answer: We always have to rely on empirical evidence. You can speculate whatever you like, but at the end of the day, you have to admit that it is purely speculation.
In the past, they did not make a distinction between legend and myth when they recorded history. You also have to consider the fact that these hikayat were discovered very much later.
They were not available to the public in those days. One of the first people to collect Malay manuscripts was Sir Stamford Raffles when he came to Singapore in 1819. If you take Sejarah Melayu, there are no less than about 20 versions.
Question: Dr Kassim Ahmad (left) said that Hang Tuah must have been based on some real person. What is your opinion on this?
Answer: We have no evidence of any kind. That’s the whole trouble. The modern study of history is almost considered a science — you must have proof — without proof how do you draw the conclusions?
Question: As a historian since the 1950s, do you think Malaysians appreciate history?
Answer: It is only beginning to be taught in the universities. Universiti Malaya was founded in 1949. The history department was very strong and very concerned about writing history from a Malayan perspective.
Before that, our history concentrated on what British officials did, and neglected the locals. The department of history began to write the first Malayan-centric history.
Question: There are some people who don’t care whether Hang Tuah existed or not. They just want someone who represents their value sets and aspirations. What would you say to them?
Answer: If we are concerned about studying the values of that period, then it’s a different discipline.
For example, it is very important that Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah be part of Malay classical literature because they teach the value sets, but we should not confuse them with history.