The Malay Heritage Foundation

Wacana Warisan Series #05 – “SYAIR SYAIR MELAYU YANG MEMBILANG: DARI HAMZAH FANSURI KE TUAN SIMI”

In the fifth session of the Wacana Warisan Series (WWS) webinar, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim delivered a presentation on Syair-Syair Melayu yang Membilang: Dari Hamzah Fansuri ke Tuan Simi (Well-Known Malay Poetry: From Hamzah Fansuri to Tuan Simi). Dr. Azhar shared that the origins of Malay language poetry can be traced to the vast and various oral traditions that have made its presence known in the Malay Archipelago. He shared with all participants who tuned in to the webinar via Zoom, a collection of several forms of Malay poetry that existed in the early centuries (16th – 19th).

Dr. Azhar Ibrahim welcoming participants who tuned in to the webinar and setting the context of his lecture. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Saturday, 29 May 2021 – In the fifth Wacana Warisan Series (WWS) lecture, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim, an academic from the Department of Malay Studies, at the National University of Singapore and Vice-Chairman of the Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) Board, touched on the topic of Syair-Syair Melayu yang Membilang: Dari Hamzah Fansuri ke Tuan Simi (Well-Known Malay Poetry: From Hamzah Fansuri to Tuan Simi). This session was delivered in Malay during the Hari Raya month of Syawal.

Dr. Azhar kicked off the webinar by sharing a quote from Dato’ Laksamana Kelantan, who perceived Malay poetry in a negative light. There is a wide range of Malay poetry, and fantasy poetry as suggested by Dato’ Laksamana Kelantan, is just one such variation. He went on to share another quote by a respected Malaysian writer and linguist, Tan Sri Zainal Abidin Ahmad, better known as the moniker, Zaba. Zaba, who contributed immensely towards the Malay language, had a differing view and a far more positive outlook of Malay poetry. Dr. Azhar next shared the difference between syair and pantun. The latter is a form of oral literature with its mandatory rhythmic scheme of A-B-A-B within each stanza made it catchy and easy to remember. Each line comprises 4 to 6 words within 8 to 12 syllables. According to Dr. Azhar, in a pantun, each stanza also must have a ‘pembayang’ (imagery, literary expression, symbols, etc) followed by the ‘maksud’ (meaning/message). He added that poetry lives in three realms – (1) religious intellectuals – discourse, (2) relaxation in reading and entertaining, and (3) sustainability in reading fluency (oral tradition).

Dr. Azhar listing down the 3 main realms of poetry. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar further discussed the role and duty of puisi in the world of poetry. These include getting a sense of aesthetic delights, keeping track of historical journey, evaluating critical / emancipatory ideas, shadowing life realistically or impressionistically, detecting ideological / utopian buzz and finally, comparing humanist expressions. He mentioned that in the history of the archipelago, we can observe the form of poetry that has evolved and developed over time. Poetry can be found in various forms such as folk myths and storytellers, sufism / mysticism, history and traces of dynasties / kings, war and travel records, education and teaching, exile / longing for love, memoir / biography, festivals and events, Islamic teachings, moral and ethical values, riddles, administration and constitution, Christian narrative / preaching, Peranakan Chinese and lastly, matches and objections. Dr. Azhar cited Hamzah Fansuri, who was a 16th century Sumatran Sufi writer, as the first writer to pen mystical panentheistic ideas in the Malay language. He also wrote poetry in addition to his prose and considered to be the first known poet of the Malay world.

Dr. Azhar giving examples on the different types of Malay poetry. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Poetry can be found in various parts and corners of the Malay Archipelago. Syair is included in the hikayat (story), performed in Malay operatic theatres, presented as love letters as well as letters of complaint to newspaper forums. Strangely, or rather uniquely, Syair is placed in the category of traditional poetry. Hence, it is less perceived as literary as it uses a standard format schema, unlike modern poetry. However, the individual who composes or writes a Puisi is still being referred to as a poet.

Dr. Azhar shared that writing poetry is inseparable from the field of meaning contained in each word used by the author. Among the many types of meaning fields, ‘being’ is one of the most often used by Hamzah Fansuri, a poet who is famous for his work in the Sufi field, where he often uses a mixture of Arabic and Indonesian. He is a prominent Malay Sufi scholar prior and used his spiritual works to channel ideas and advice to society during his time and ideas submitted via a content analysis approach, clearly showed he recognised the human intellect and the role of language as the soul of the nation. According to Dr. Azhar, this is the main difference between Hamzah and the majority of the poets, who started their journey in the art of Malay poetry before dabbling in Islamic mystical poetry (also called Sufi poetry) which is one of the best-known forms of Islamic literature.

He then highlighted Syair Perang Mengkasar (The Rhymed Chronicle of the Makassar War), a manuscript written by Encik Amin, a Malayan man of letters, and also the Malay-Makassaresse scribe of Sultan Hasanuddin, who stayed in the kingdom of Gowa in the seventh century. It is one of the most famous works of Malay literature, written in about 1670 in Makassar, Sulawesi, and is known as the first war syair, often regarded as a model of the genre. Dr. Azhar commented that if the syair is adapted into a movie, it could be as huge as a Hollywood film because of the incredible war story. He shared that this is one of the most moving and emotional, rhyming syair which captures the essence of wars and transmits emotional legacies to succeeding generations.

The location of the Makassar Kingdom is very strategic as it is in the shipping traffic between Malak and Maluku. This is appealing to traders and attracts them to stop off at Sombaopu Port. In a short time, Makassar developed into an important post in eastern Indonesia. The Sultanate of Gowa is one of the largest and most successful kingdoms in the South Sulawesi region. This kingdom had the most famous king, Sultan Hasanuddin, who at that time restarted a war known as the Makassar War (1666-1669) against the VOC. The Dutch managed to destroy Gowa’s strongest fortress in Sombaopu on 12 June 1669, which concluded the war between Gowa and the VOC. Prince of the Bugis Kingdom, who assisted the Dutch in the Makassar War, became the ruler in South Sulawesi.

Dr. Azhar sharing the Syair Perang Mengkasar oleh Encik Amin (The Rhymed Chronicle of the Makassar War by Enche’ Amin). (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar further discussed Misa Melayu by Raja Chulan, a literary manuscript that belongs to the traditional genre of literary history. It documents Perak’s history and the genealogy of its Kings from the 17th to 18th centuries, written in a structured and chronological order. It is a hikayat that was originally compiled by Raja Chulan bin Raja Abdul Hamid, who was related to the Perak King, Sultan Iskandar Shah. Among the topics described in the Misa are: (1) How the Perak Sultanate are the descendants of Iskandar Zulkarnain (Alexander the Great of Macedonia)? (2) How the Dutch commenced trade in tin at Pengkalan Halban in Perak during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah II? (3) The involvement of Raja Chulan with the wedding of Raja Iskandar Dzulkarnain and Raja Budak Rasul and (4) The conflict between Sultan Muhammad Shah and his elder brother, Sultan Muzaffar Shah III. Dr. Azhar mentioned that this is one of the rarest manuscripts that comprise the most elaborate illustrated description of the royal palace paintings.

Next, he touched on the Syair Potong Gaji (Ballad of The Wage Cut), composed by Tuan Simi (a contemporary of Munsyi Abdullah) in the early 19th century. It is not only distinct not only for its theme but also for its place in Malay literary tradition. This Malay rhymed poem departs from traditional themes, instead shifts its attention to the economic success and predicament of indigenous trades and coolies under the grip of colonial capitalism. This somehow paves its way into providing insights into life in early Singapore. Dr. Azhar added that the poet aptly described how their pay was steadily reduced despite each man being forced to do the work of three. He draws on vivid metaphors to convey the physical agony and anguish they faced.

These are certainly not pretty verses; they are akin to dark words reaching through the page like a desperate plea, coming from individuals, the people, bereft of hope. The opening of Singapore port may have benefitted the merchants and administrators in terms of prosperity, but countless labourers suffered untold misery. Local writer, Tuan Simi, being the voice of the people, remarks bitterly how the Company, whom so many had earlier hoped would shelter them, only to bring despair instead. He was aware that colonial capitalism had upended the old order for good, and life under the kings had now clearly departed. Dr. Azhar remarked that this is perhaps one of the most critical pieces of poetry that never sees the light of day. It was consistently suppressed (and banned from distribution) as it perfectly articulates the labourers’ distress and resentment towards the inequitable colonial economic structure fronted by the British East India Company (EIC). Another Syair Dagang Berjual Beli (Poem on Buying and Selling), on loan from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, was discussed as well. The rare narrative syair, written in Malay (Jawi script) in 1830, also depicts the working and social life in early Singapore through the lens of Tuan Simi.

Dr. Azhar talks about Tuan Simi’s ‘Syair Potong Gaji’ (Ballad of the Wage Cut by Tuan Simi). (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Summing up his lecture, Dr. Azhar concluded that by sharing his own rendition of poetry which focuses on the strengthening of identity from both culture and heritage. He stressed that identity is not merely a symbolic thing but rather a sense of shared responsibility to the community as well as the nation. This is the language of identity, our pride in togetherness. While it is imperative that our ancestral heritage is preserved, we must also note the same in order to pave way for a new culture. In other words, Dr. Azhar reiterated that we must have a new heritage language going forward. He then proceeded to address several questions from the virtual audience who tuned in via Zoom. More than 20 virtual audiences tuned in to the video webinar.

Dr. Azhar sharing a list of book references with the participants. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

WWS, one of MHF’s flagship programmes, is a series of lectures that aims to encourage the development of new and alternative approaches to the understanding of Malay history, economy, politics, society, and culture. Beyond the clichés and convenient mainstream narratives, lie many lesser-known facets about the Malay community in Singapore. It is a year-long programme (each lecture runs on a monthly basis), comprising 12 sessions from January to December 2021. Participants who attend at least 10 sessions will be given a Certificate of Attendance. WWS lectures will mostly be delivered in Malay.

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