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Raja adil disembah, raja zalim tak bisa disanggah


On 25th November 2023, the hosts of Keluar Sekejap (a podcast I recommend to all) – Khairy Jamaludin (KJ) and Shahril Hamdan – appeared at the George Town Literary Festival (I watched this episode because it took place in Penang) for a panel titled ‘World View’ KJ & SH, Buku dan Penulisan Kegemaran, Idea Dalam Politik where they spoke about, as the title suggests, their worldview, their favourite books and writings, as well as the role of ideas in politics.

In this short write-up, I’d like to briefly explore the remarks made by KJ from around minute thirty-three to minute thirty-four. For context, KJ was at that point talking about the two books that influenced his thinking on political philosophy, especially with regard to individual rights and group solidarity: the English philosopher and father of classical liberalism John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and the Arab sociologist, philosopher, and historian Ibn Khaldun’s The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History

What I intend to analyse here is KJ’s comments concerning Locke’s political philosophy, especially his social contract theory. KJ explains that at the heart of Locke’s theory is that government is based on consent but the governed retains the right to rebel in the case that the former violates the contract by, for instance, not respecting and looking after the rights of the latter. KJ further goes on to claim that the social contract and the principle of consent is not merely something Western; it also forms the basis of the monarchical Malay polity. KJ deems that this is reflected in the Malay proverb raja adil disembah, raja zalim disanggah (a fair king is a king to obey, a tyrant king is a king to fight against) i.e., justice is a precondition of and goes in tandem with obedience; rebellion is thus allowed when justice is not upheld. He supports this argument by pointing to the mythical encounter between Sang Sapurba and Demang Lebar Daun, the first royal ruler of the Malays and a descendant of Iskandar Dzu’l-Karnain (Alexander the Great) found in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) – the foundational text of the Malay civilisation. 

My contention here is that KJ misread – or rather read into the text (what in hermeneutics is called eisegesis, as opposed to exegesis – something like to extract from or to read out of the text). Instead, Chandra Muzaffar’s analysis in his book Protector1 provides a more accurate reading. Let us first reproduce the text that details the mythical encounter that was referred to by KJ – so the reader himself can decide:

‘If your Highness desires your humble servant’s daughter, then you must your Majesty make a covenant with your humble servant, whereupon your humble servant will offer her for your Majesty’s acceptance’. And Sang Sapurba asked, ‘What is this undertaking that you would have of me?’ Demang Lebar Daun answered, ‘Your Highness, the descendants of your humble servant shall be the subjects of your Majesty’s throne, but they must be well treated by your descendants. If they offend, they shall not, however grave be their offence, be disgraced or reviled with evil words, if their offence is grave, let them be put to death, if that is by Muhammadan law’.

And the king replied, ‘I agree to give the undertaking for which you ask: but I in turn require an undertaking from you Sir’. And when Demang Lebar Daun asked what the undertaking was, the king answered, ‘that your descendants shall never for the rest of time be disloyal to my descendants, even if my descendants oppress them and behave evilly’. And Demand Lebar Daun said, ‘Very well your Highness. But if your descendants depart from the terms of pact, then so will mine’. And Sang Sapurba replied, ‘Very well, I agree, I agree to that covenant’. Whereupon both of them took a solemn oath to the effect that whoever departed from the terms of the pact, let his house be overturned by Almighty God so that the roof be land on the ground and its pillars be inverted. And that’s why it has been granted by Almighty God to Malay rulers that they shall never put their subjects to shame and that those subjects however gravely they offend shall never be bound of hanged or disgraced with evil words. If any ruler puts a single one of his subjects to shame that shall be a sign that his kingdom will be destroyed by Almighty God. Similarly, it has been granted by Almighty God to Malay subjects that they shall never be disloyal or treacherous to their rulers, even if their rulers behave evilly or inflict injustice upon them.

Indeed, we might see in this passage something analogous to the Lockean social contract: subjects are loyal to the king so long as he does not put them to shame. However, as Muzaffar points out, not only it is not clear what constitutes ‘shame’ (‘never be bound or hanged or disgraced with evil words’) but also that there is nothing in the pact between Sang Sapurba and Demang Lebar Daun to indicate that rebellion is justified if a subject is put to shame. The most that is allowed by the pact is the withdrawal of loyalty which, it must be noted, is not the same as acting disloyally. Despite this, “Malay romances and histories are full of episodes where the slightest hint of rebellious act or attitude, even from subject who have been humiliated and put to shame, are condemned and subsequently punished with extreme severity by both man and God” (Muzaffar, 2022, p. 6).

KJ evoked the mythical encounter between Sangsa Purba and Demang Lebar Daun found in the Sejarah Melayu and saw in it a local, indigenous Malay equivalent of Locke’s social contract theory based on the principle of consent and concluded that the right to rebel against an unjust ruler is not simply a Western notion. However, Muzaffar’s more accurate reading shows that the right to rebel is neither inherent nor explicit in the encounter but rather something that KJ projected into it. Perhaps a modified version of the proverb KJ cited would be more proper: raja adil disembah, raja zalim tak bisa disanggah (a fair king is a king to obey, a tyrant king is a king that cannot be fought against).

God willing, in a future article, I shall write about how Locke’s social contract theory is problematic and further detail the Malay concept and practice of loyalty as analysed by Muzaffar in his very interesting book. 

And God knows best. 

Summary. In this article, I use Khairy Jamaluddin’s comments on Locke’s political theory as a way to expose readers to studies that have been done on Malay political culture, that is to say, to understand Malay society from a Malay point of view


 1 Muzaffar, C. (2022). Protector: An Analysis of the Concept and Practice of Loyalty in Leader-Led Relationships Within Malay Society. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.