Salaam dear Reader,
Walk into the History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore and you will see manuscript pages of the Sejarah Melayu in Jawi script. The Sejarah Melayu is given pride of place in the museum because, among other things, it includes the origin story of Singapura.
The Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, originally titled in Arabic Sulalat al-Salatin or Genealogy of Kings (yes, this work may be referred to by two names in three languages), was written sometime between the 15th and 16th centuries.
For anyone seeking to understand (or rediscover) Malay identity, the Sejarah Melayu is required reading
Widely attributed to the eminent Bendahara Tun Seri Lanang (1565–1659) of the Malay court, the Sejarah Melayu is arguably the most important Malay text in existence. It outlines the origin of the Malay kings, explains the social compact between ruler and people (the daulat), traces the early spread of Islam in the Nusantara, and recounts the rise and fall of the fortunes of the Malays. Along the way, there are stories that have become embedded in Malay psyche.
Stories such as the aforementioned founding of Singapura by Sang Nila Utama, the exploits of Badang the strongman, the precocious genius of Hang Nadim, the establishment of Melaka as the seat of Malay empire, the adventures of the ever-loyal Hang Tuah and his friends, the enigmatic Princess of Gunung Ledang, and even the fall of Melaka at the hands of the Portuguese in 1511.
But the Sejarah Melayu does a bit more than recount ancient stories because to read the text is to conjure premodern conceptions of honour, valour, loyalty, and justice. Moreover, underpinning all these stories are more fundamental values that Malays hold dear such as sopan santun (a kind of gentle civility) and budi pekerti (moral character).
For anyone seeking to understand (or rediscover) Malay identity, the Sejarah Melayu is required reading. But for too long we have had to endure opaque colonial translations written well over a century ago. So this new translation by Sasterawan Negara Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh in (very readable) English is welcome.
For us living in contemporary Singapore, we sometimes forget that this island played a central, pivotal role in the development of Malay identity; one cannot tell the story of the Malays without a discussion about Temasek and Singapura. Perhaps this new translation of the Sejarah Melayu will remind us that we are not marooned and cut off from the deep culture and heritage of the wider Malay world. We are very much a part of it.
May we be of the people of sopan santun.