For many Melayu writers, for many writers concerned with the question of Melayu itself, Hang Tuah and the four musketeers are figures that still demand to be confronted, either negatively or positively.
And I believe that The Great Malay Novel – if such a notion makes sense anymore – must, on some level, speak of the country’s political and historical lineage from the eras of the Melayu Sultanates, a lineage that, in turn, cannot help but channel the Hang Tuah figure and the hikayat that bears his name.
A few months ago, I was with a friend at Central Market in Kuala Lumpur, looking for a souvenir to buy for a shared acquaintance. Bored, cheeky and, obviously, a reader of psychology, my friend snickered and said that the finely crafted keris daggers that we were pretending to admire were none other than phalluses.
"And Tamingsari," he said in a solemn Orson-Wellesian voice, as if reciting from a book, "serves as the legend’s totemic object, the fetish that is the source of respect and invincibility."
There was nothing new in his remark – he admitted this. Such psychoanalytical interpretations are too easy – all symbols and significations are phallic, says Jacques Lacan – and usually say less about the objects themselves than about the speaker’s attitude towards them.
Still, my friend and I wasted the rest of the evening at the food court upstairs, eating lunch and amusing ourselves with further naive Freudisms, such as trying to explain the meaning behind the dagger’s shortness (perhaps, therefore, a different undercurrent behind Melayu sexuality and masculinity, i.e. "It’s not how long it is, but how skilful you are at wielding it"?), speculating whether Hang Jebat’s rebellion was the result of his death drive, or wondering whether his devotion to Hang Tuah was the manifestation of a latent homosexuality.
The souvenir that we bought later didn’t take much thought to select: complete with a clock and thermometer at the base, a pewter statuette of the Petronas Twin Towers.
Two thumbs up, my friend said. Or two phalluses.
Reflecting on this scene, another idea: in the same way Tamingsari is for Hang Tuah, the image of Tuah is for me. For it must be confessed – it would be useless to deny it now – that my fixation with the epic was none other than a fetishisation that came out of the complex that I have from being Melayu, a complex, I am also sure, shared by a majority of Melayu today.
I use the concept of the fetish-object so that I could invoke a matrix of meanings:
The anthropological fetish: Hang Tuah as the locus point (among the rakyat) to which all Melayu "culture", power and allure must return, as the alpha-male capable of the greatest mental and physical feats, the knight-cum-scholar-cum-monk who personifies the Melayu paradigm in all its esoteric ceremonies, beliefs, loyalties and secrets.
The Marxist fetish: Hang Tuah as a commodity, as cultural and symbolic capital.
The Freudian fetish: my Hang Tuah obsession as something "deviant" (I simplify things, I know).
And, finally, the Zizekian fetish: Hang Tuah as the "security blanket" that is held in order to be able to succeed in contemporary reality, the reality of urbanisation, globalisation, liberalisation (whatever it means), and multiculturalism.
Neither the ability to believe nor disbelieve – this is what I mean by the Melayu complex. With the changes that have been taking place in the country since independence, ties to the old, to tradition and "culture", have lessened, and it has become difficult for today’s Melayu to believe in them wholeheartedly.
For when we study the hagiography of Hang Tuah today, we cannot help but hasten towards the point that transforms his image into something so utterly extreme that is almost terrifying. His obedience seems ridiculous to some of us, but it is this very absurdity that draws us to him.
Jebat’s rebellion was mad. But, today, in the so-called age of liberal democracy, when everything is a matter of choice, there was a greater madness to Tuah’s faith: the madness of "duty" itself and the madness of "being reasonable". He is the impossible in all its allure and nostalgia.
We hold on to his image just so that we know that the possibility of faith still exists. Even if we don’t believe in tradition, Tuah believes it on our behalf.
Or rather, our belief or jealousy towards his belief believes it for us.
Sourced from The Sun 20 Feb, 2008