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Singapore American · December 2017

Tales of the Malay World: Manuscripts and early books currently on exhibition at the National Library Singapore By Dr. Vidya Schalk


magnificent illuminated manuscript currently on display at the National Library is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Who was the mysterious author? Was he Persian? Was he from Johore or perhaps from Bukhara? Was he an advisor to the Kings? No one knows for sure, but his work Taj al-Salatin (The Crown of Kings) (Fig. 1), written around 1603 CE, is one of the finest. The manuscript is a literary classic that spells out the duties and responsibilities of a ruler, the role of the court and the laws to restrict a king’s powers. This manuscript is believed to have been composed in Aceh, translated into Javanese and carefully studied in their courts. Oral storytelling has always been a source of happiness, knowledge and even moral courage. Tales of valor, stories of lands far away, adventures of warriors and enduring stories of love, loyalty and bravery were not meant to be enjoyed as a solitary experience, but narrated or read aloud to an audience as a shared experience. The Malay world was no different. Located at the crossroads of cultures where maritime trade brought people from China, India and the Arab lands in contact with Southeast Asians, it also brought the richness of all these cultures and sparked lively adaptations of beloved stories and epics from these places, which the storytellers eventually made their own and compiled into manuscripts. The Tales of the Malay World: Manuscripts and Early Books exhibition at the National Library Singapore showcases a wonderful selection of old Malay manuscripts, including women authors and early printed books from the 18th to early 20th century. Many of these materials are from the Singapore National Library’s Rare Material Collection, displayed along with collections from The British Library, the Royal Asiatic Society and the University of Leiden Library. The oldest item is a manuscript copied around 1710 in Ambon called the Sayir Perang Mengkasar (Poem of the Makassar War) that describes the war over the spice trade between the Dutch East India Company and the state of Makassar, a thriving cosmopolitan entrepot in South Sulawesi. The exhibition is a veritable feast for the eyes. Some have illustrations or decorations (drawings and colors) or are illuminated (with metallic paints like gold, silver) and some just have text. The illuminated manuscripts are a sight to behold and the vibrant colors are stunning. Almost all the manuscripts in the exhibition are in Jawi, the modified Arabic script used to write the Malay language. The literary texts that have survived encompass a range of traditions, including fantastical adventures of kings and heroes and magical stories. In addition, there are court chronicles that trace the genealogy of ruling families written as narrative prose (hikayat), along with narrative romantic poetry (sayir) and religious texts (kitab). The opulent Hikayat Isma Yatin narrates the story of Isma Yatin, a prodigy who goes on to become the king’s trusted adviser and Prime Minister; it features stories of the king and a beautiful princess with descriptions that transport the listener into a world of splendor of palaces and beauty. The rhythm of poetry written in perfect symmetry across two columns is beautifully laid out in the popular Sayir Ken Tambuhan (Fig. 2), a romantic poem describing the love story of Ken Tambuhan and Prince Inu Kertapati, based on the very popular Panji tales from Java. On display with its own special stand is an ornate and regal illuminated letter from Sultan Syarif Kasim, the ruler of Pontianak in western Kalimantan, to Sir Stamford Raffles. In 1811, Raffles was based in Melaka and was preparing for the British invasion of Java; he sent letters to the local sultanates to garner their support. In his reply to Raffles, Sultan Kasim in return requests for the British to support him against their “common” enemy the Sultan of Sambas, ending the royal letter by informing Raffles that he would be sending him two Malay manuscripts as gifts for his collection. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, European officials and scholars needed to have a better understanding of the language and the culture in order to administer the region. This set off a frenzy of manuscript collection in the Malay Archipelago and it was noted, even then, that there was a dearth of written manuscripts, mostly because they were either held in royal courts or owned by the elites or storytellers. There was little need for many of the literary texts to be written down since they were orally performed for an audience. It has been estimated that the number of Malay manuscripts in existence around the world is very low at just 10,000, thus making these collections highly valuable in terms of their cultural value and historic significance. Singapore became an important printing center in the region in the mid-19th century. The National Library Collection of rare books contains one of the most impressive Malay works printed in the Straits Settlements during this time – the Hikayat Abdullah (Stories of Abdullah) by Munshi Abdullah (Fig. 3). Published in 1849 in collaboration with Protestant missionary, Rev. Benjamin Keasberry, this work is an autobiography that records the socio-political landscape of Singapore, Melaka and the Riau-Lingga of the early 19th century. Abdullah was a scholar and translator; he was known as the “father of Malay printing” and was the first non-European to have his works published in Malay. Of the most enduring works in Malay literature are three works that deserve special mention. Sulalat al-Salatin or Genealogy of Kings (also known as Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals) is considered one of the most important works that describes the rise and fall of the Malaccan Sultanate. This complex work is not just a royal genealogy but also discusses Malay statecraft and the cosmopolitan nature of early Melaka society and includes stories about the founding of Singapore. On display is also the oldest extant copy of Hikayat Hang Tuah dating back to 1758, a very popular story about Hang Tuah, a brilliant military commander, wise counsellor and sophisticated diplomat who travels to many faraway places during the golden period of the Malaccan sultanate. The mousedeer stories or Hikayat Pelandok are delightful tales of a very small animal that succeeds in outwitting much larger animals through his wit and charm. These and many more are on display at the National Library until February 25, 2018. Details about this free exhibition and guided tours are detailed here: tales-of-the-malay-world-manuscripts-and-early-books/ Prior to coming to Singapore Dr. Vidya Schalk worked as a Cancer Biologist Research Scientist at Oregon State University. Since coming to Singapore she has taken the opportunity to indulge in her passion for history and travel. She is currently an active volunteer docent at the National Gallery, Asian Civilisations Museum, National Museum and STPI.

Fig. 1: Taj al-Salatin, copied by Muhammad bin Umar Syaikh Farid 4 Zulhijah 1239 (31 July 1824), Penang On loan from The British Library

Fig. 2: Sayir Ken Tambuhan Probably 19th century On loan from Leiden University Library, Cod.Or 1965

Fig. 3: Hikayat Abdullah, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir 1849, Singapore Collection of National Library of Singapore, B03014389F Photos courtesy of National Library Singapore

Tales of the Malay World - Malay Manuscripts Exhibition at National Library (NLB) Singapore _Vidya S  

Malay Manuscripts Tales of the Malay World National Library Singapore, British Library, Leiden collection Published in SAN December 2017 Vid...

Tales of the Malay World - Malay Manuscripts Exhibition at National Library (NLB) Singapore _Vidya S  

Malay Manuscripts Tales of the Malay World National Library Singapore, British Library, Leiden collection Published in SAN December 2017 Vid...