DESCRIBING the contributions of Abdullah Abdul Kadir, popularly known as Munshi Abdullah, is not an easy task as the Munshi (Arab for "Teacher'') was a controversial figure. Some consider his zeal for attacking the Malay aristocracy a manifestation of his conversion to the West while others praise him for being a "defender of Malay literature and culture.''
It is, however, undeniable that the works of Munshi Abdullah mark a threshold in Malay thoughts and ideas. He is a millennium marker because he, more than any writer of his time, brought the idea of "modern'' to Malay literature.
Munshi Abdullah (1796 to 1854) was born in the famed port-city of Malacca, the centre of Malay civilization, almost three centuries after the Portuguese captured the city in 1511. Since then, wars had been waged to wrest control of the city from the Portuguese, who finally capitulated to the Dutch in 1641.
By the time Munshi Abdullah was playing outside his Malaccan home, the British had taken over and were demolishing the former Portuguese fortress, the A'Formosa, and destroying the port of the city in order to cripple competition for its newly-founded (in 1786) port of Penang.
The aggression of the colonial forces and their convergence in Malacca made a deep impression on the mind of the young Abdullah. Though he recounts his childhood fondly, it is obvious that he had come to realise that something had to be done to elevate the status of the Malays in the face of colonialism.
Abdullah, having the advantage of parents who knew the importance of education his father was so strict the boy said he would rather face a tiger than attend language lessons with him! became an excellent translator and commentator for the British, Malacca's new colonial masters.
Abdullah eventually worked his way up the colonial administration ladder and earned a position in the office of Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of the port of Singapore. Being devoted to the British statesman, the Munshi describes Raffles as a "thoughtful man (who) was very good at paying due respect to people in a friendly manner.''
Abdullah witnessed not only the founding of Singapore in 1819, but also vividly captured the "transactions'' of procuring the island from Tengku Long, whom Abdullah records "was still afraid, thinking that Mr Raffles was deceiving him and wanted to take him off into captivity in India.''
What Abdullah felt most strongly about was the loss of "our literatures.'' In the famed Hikayat Abdullah, Abdullah laments: I do not remember how many hundreds of these texts there were. Almost, it seemed, the whole of Malay literature of the ages, property of our forefathers, was sold and taken away from all over the country.
"Because these things had money value they were sold and it did not occur to people at the time that this might be unwise, leaving them not a single book to read in their own language.''
Among those who took away manuscripts was Raffles. "Mr Raffles,'' the Munshi wrote, "was an avid collector of old Malay manuscripts.'' All Raffles' manuscripts, though, were lost at sea when his ship sank off Bencoolen, a port on Sumatera island, Abdullah recounts with much sadness.
It is not too far-fetched to suggest that Abdullah set out on his literary career to "recover'' what was lost, plundered and stolen from the Malay world. His most famous work, the Hikayat Abdullah, written from the first person perspective, is both a provocative and interesting testament to his times.
In it Abdullah stresses the importance of education, describes the procedures of the colonial administrators and debunks the fallacy that Malays are incapable of self-determination.
From a literary perspective, the Munshi's works mark the modernisation of Malay literature. Malay scholars as distinguished as Za'ba considered Abdullah the "father of modernism'' in Malay writing. Writing from a realistic perspective, Abdullah liberated Malay literature from being bound up in myth and legends. His adoption of the personal pronoun aku meaning "I,'' gave the individual in Malaya a sense of personal identity that was not dependent on the raja.
Some have considered Abdullah's criticism of the kerajaan (government) as a sign of his Anglophile persuasions, but Anthony Milner, in his book The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya, argues that on one level Abdullah's criticism of the Malay rulers is inextricably linked with the Munshi's understanding of economics. Abdullah like Scottish social philosopher and political economist Adam Smith (author of An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) Milner says, espouses a social philosophy that privileges the individual in the sphere of the economic state of his society.
Thus the Munshi, in Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah, condemns the Malay rulers for the state of the Malay people. Abdullah strongly believed that if the Malay was given a chance to work, accumulate wealth and was provided with a stable government, he would one day stand as tall as his colonial masters.
But perhaps the greatest contribution of the Munshi to modern Malaysia is his perception of race. Abdullah was one of the earliest writers to perceive the Malays as a bangsa (race) and not as a kingdom or a religion.
His depiction of economic life, his discussion of the individual as aku (I) and akal (reason), gave Malays an alternative view of themselves.
His views on education and economics as a means of liberating mind and body from the tyranny of both colonialism and bad rulers should still be heeded as we celebrate our 42nd year of independence.
Abdullah's place in multiracial Malaysia is as secure as his position in the Malay literary canon, for he is constantly reminding us to be vigilant in the face of colonialism.
In fact, it might not be too incredulous to position the Munshi beside Mahatma Gandhi of India or Franz Fanon of Algeria, thinkers and warriors who struggled to give the colonised a sense of self, an independent mind and an alternative self-perception.
Abdullah's philosophy of the individual as an economic being is perhaps as relevant now as in the colonial era. Before the next millennium approaches, it might be a good idea to take the time to ponder the ideas that Abdullah advocated in his works one of the most resounding being "our present situation is the result of the privileges of our masters.''
Neil Khor Jin Keong is a research assistant at Universiti Malaya; his research interests, apart from a postcolonial inquiry, has led him to the fields of business history, modern drama and American literature.
Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years.
Next week: Malay trade after the fall of Malacca
- The times they were a-changin (P. Ramlee)
- For the workers (V.T. Sambanthan)
- A leader and a gentleman (Tunku Abdul Rahman)
- My Tok, the Bapa Malaysia (Tunku Abdul Rahman)
- A benchmark for integrity (Tan Siew Sin)
- Plague fighter extraordinaire (Wu Lien-Teh)
- A man well remembered (Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim)
- An education advocate (Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim)
- Symbol of a new generation (Raja Zainal Raja Sulaiman)
- Tun Tan's legacy (Tan Cheng Lock)