Between Preserving Heritage and Observing the Faith – The Malay Royals

Posted on February 18, 2010


One of the prevailing cultural legacies the Malays have inherited from their ancestors is the monarchical system of nine sultans who act as constitutional monarchies in their respective states. Each of the state sultans will in turn be appointed as the national monarch for a 5 year term under a unique system of rotational monarchy, which means that no Malaysian king reigns continuously, unlike in other countries such as UK’s Queen Elizabeth II or Thailand’s King Bhumipol Adulyadej.

Even if some Malaysians feel ambivalent towards the Sultan’s person, many among them, especially within the Malay community, would remain strongly supportive of the monarchy as an institution, because it remains a bastion of Malay cultural expression and is perceived as a defender of Malay political dominance. For my part, despite my obvious misgivings about the royalty, I accept their role in modern Malaysian society primarily due to the rich cultural heritage they represent.

Nonetheless, there are certain traditions which I’m uncomfortable with. Now, I’m no theologian, and nowhere near from being awarded Muslim of the Month, but I’ve always been apprehensive with those royal customs which seem to contradict the values of what is supposed to be a society anchored by Islamic principles (no, I’m not talking about the alcoholism and the wild partying). These include the use of the honorific title ‘Maha’ or Supreme, the reverential gesture of ‘sembah’, and to a much lesser extent, the proclamation of ‘Daulat Tuanku’, a term of allegiance to the ruler.

It is somewhat ironic that the institution of Malay Royalty, whose ancestors between the 12-15th centuries single-handedly commandeered the mass conversion of Malays into Islam, are also the staunchest proponents in preserving those customs that are remnants of our ancestral Hindu/Buddhist legacies.

While the Queen of the United Kingdom is addressed simply as Her Majesty by her subjects, Malaysians seem to wear as a badge of honour, our collective submissiveness in addressing the King as ‘Ke Bawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di Pertuan Agong’, translated literally as ‘Beneath the Dust Under the Radiant Feet of His Most Glorious Royal Highness’. A bit long, yes. But such is our enthusiasm to prove our subservience that we rank ourselves lower than the dust under his feet, even if only symbolically. I’m particularly troubled about employing the term ‘Maha Mulia’ to address a fellow human, because by convention, Maha is reserved exclusively for God, as in ‘Tuhan yang Maha Kaya lagi Maha Mengetahui’ (God who is Most Bountiful and Most Knowledgeable).

Pohon Sembah
The parallel drawn between a Malay ruler and the Divine is not limited to linguistics alone; it is evident also in gestures. When a subject approaches a sultan, custom dictates that he or she perform a sembah (placing the palms together, raising the hands to touch the forehead) as a sign of deference and respect. However, the gesture, both in name and origin, is a sign of worship in Hindu/Buddhist culture, employed by devotees during prayers to their respective deities. ‘Sembah’ in Malay literally means ‘to worship’, so this act is most probably a surviving remnant of pre-Islamic times when the ancient Malay kings styled themselves as demigods fit for worship. I suspect the reason this gesture is still in place today is because those giving and receiving the gesture are aware they are not actually worshipping and being worshipped, respectively. But I feel uneasy about such a servile act being made mandatory. If someone chooses to show respect towards his monarch in that way, good on them; but it shouldn’t be enforced on everyone.

In similar vein, the cry of ‘Daulat Tuanku!’ which is used along the lines of ‘Long live the king!’ is a form of reverence to assert the authority of the sultan. However, the word daulat carries connotations of both ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sacredness’ in equal measure. When we say that a sultan has ‘daulat’, it implies he not only possesses sovereignty but also supernatural powers that come from being a ruler. Such qualities were undoubtedly promulgated by the ancient monarchs themselves as a way of strengthening their lordship over the superstitious Malay subjects.

In this supposedly modern, enlightened era, we know that God alone has power over all things, and any otherworldly quality a human possesses is by the grace of the Almighty. We prostrate to no one but Him and all humans are born equal regardless of whether they are rich or poor, powerful or weak, blue blooded or red blooded. What elevates us are our deeds, not our status. Yet Malaysians, in particular the Malay community, continue to uphold these archaic cultural traditions which neither benefit nor make us stronger; on the contrary these practices only reinforce our servitude and promote the belief that some of us are superior to others by virtue of the inheritance of their birth, a wholly man-made arrangement.

Posted in: Culture, Society