FMT LETTER: From Anas Zubedy, via e-mail
What does the keris symbolise?
The keris has an extensive historical legacy in Southeast Asia. Culturally, it symbolises heroism, bravery and valour. As an artpiece it represents beauty and refinement. It is used in ceremonial attire, for example, during Malay adat-adat istiadat like weddings and other ceremonies.
For the aristocrats, wearing a keris was a symbol of high status. Until today, our Sultans and Agong wear the keris as part of their royal garb and a good example is in the pertabalan ceremonies of our Yang diPertuan Agong, where we can see how the keris is worn and used as part of the regalities.
Are there similar symbols in other cultures?
A similar symbol is the kirpan of our Sikh brothers. The usage of the kirpan to inspire Sikhs in daily living was indicated in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scripture. Another similar emblem is the European sword, which is also seen today as a symbol of virtue and honour, as well as the samurai sword
To say any of these items are simply weapons, used to destroy and kill, is not only a misconception but would be rather offensive. Rather, the keris, like the kirpan and the sword, are traditionally and culturally rich as a symbol of virtue, valour, and prestige.
What is the cultural value of the keris?
The keris is indigenous to the Southeast Asia region, or what was long time ago called Nusantara – the Malay archipelago. The earliest evidence of the keris can be traced back to Vietnam circa 300BC. If you go to Borobudur in Java, there are some famous renderings of the keris. There you will find that the keris actually has very strong Hindu influence. It is called ‘ngeris’ there, meaning ‘to stab’ in Javanese. In the depictions of Goddess Durga, she is shown either carrying a keris or a pre-modern version of keris.
In times of peace, the keris is used as part of ceremonial attire as a symbol of refinement and prestige. It is artistically crafted with precious stones and intricate carving and it would be passed down as an heirloom from generation to generation.
Why has the keris been surrounded by some controversy?
There have been some misconceptions about the keris because of how it has been used in some occasions. In the past years, some individuals have raised the keris in a seeming act of instigation. To me, they seemed to be trying to stir up the spirit of defending virtue – not just of one race, but of the nation. But when someone holds up a keris and says something like ‘in the name of the keris’, I personally think that if anything, it is paganistic.
The real problem here is not the keris in itself – it is what people say when they raise the keris as a symbol. The issue is that here in Malaysia when someone raises a keris with words that are perceived as threatening, it is seen as an act of provocation. Held in this light, the keris is taken as a symbol of aggression. In a diverse society like ours, we need to be more cautious of how we use our cultural symbols so that it is not easily misinterpreted.
How should we see the keris now?
Before we discuss about the keris, let me highlight something important that people may not know – the art of making the keris in Malaysia is dying. When we talk about the keris, the real and more important problem is that the very tradition of the keris is at stake.
There are not many keris makers left in Malaysia and we could be on our way to losing this beautiful craft. We should strive to preserve this dwindling heritage of Indo-Aryan legacy, indigenous not just to South East Asia, but also to us. Our focus should be to appreciate the historical and cultural value of it and keep it alive as a cultural heritage.
Should the keris still be used as a symbol today?
In the present context, the keris is used as a symbol by some Malay leaders as a way to urge the Malays to advance. While based on its traditional significance I do see the keris as iconic, I do not think it is the best symbol we can use. It is too easily misinterpreted and it is not appropriate in general situations. It is not something we would pass to children – even as a symbol, even if it was made of plastic.
What is an alternative symbol that can be used?
I have suggested for many years that instead of the keris, we use books. To rally people to advance together, to rise up in mind and spirit, books will be a great emblem. It will be a step forward if community leaders, in the same way that they raised the keris before, started to hold up books. If we still would like to keep the keris for its symbolic representation, we could print a depiction of the keris on a book.
As a symbol it is clear and not easily misrepresented. Books carry the idea of knowledge and understanding; and seeking knowledge is a value not just understood by only one community, but a shared value for all communities in Malaysia.
The Malay-Muslims know very well that the first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the Quran is ‘Read’. This divine word will obviously be more compelling and even more meaningful to the Malays than the representation of the keris.
As for the Chinese, Confucius says:
‘if you’re planning for a year, sow rice;
if you’re planning for a decade, plant trees;
if you’re planning for a lifetime, educate people’.
The Hindus have a practice of holding and kissing books out of respect. There is a strong connection between books and our spiritual and cultural traditions. With books, we can instill in Malaysians a sense of the importance of knowledge. We can say then – knowledge is what we need to awaken our minds and our spirits to move forward. This is more effective and more practical.
What are the benefits of using books as a symbol?
If we really cultivate books as a symbol and make it our national culture, it will not just remain a symbol but a real catalyst for development. We can encourage children to read; parents to read with their children, study or do homework together for two hours every night instead of watching television. Reading will be a culture that will change our society.
How can reading change us?
A research done by The Economist many years ago found that quality of life correlates with the number of books and the quality of books people read. It was a widespread research, not just in a first world country like America, but also including nations like Malaysia.
This correlation was represented in the form of a pyramid – the people at the top strata internationally were people like Warren Buffet and CEOs of multinationals who read about fifty books per year. This is an average of one book a week. As we go down the lower strata, the data showed people who do less and less reading.
At the bottom stratum are people who do read, but what they read are rubbish magazines, books with trivial content, or those who only read the newspapers. Books sharpen our minds – this is how we want to advocate people to rise with books as a symbol of advancement.
How can we start promoting this idea of books as a symbol of progress?
It is essential for Malaysians to start with themselves, individually and in their homes; however in reality this might not work. Our society has remnants from a feudalistic past, so our people are still highly conscious of hierarchy and change
often needs to happen top-down. I see the same trend in business organisations – if the boss plays golf, employees will pick it up and soon it becomes a culture for those in the company. If the boss likes singing karaoke, there is a high chance the rest of the company will follow. Now if the boss is seen to value reading and encourages his or her staff to read, there are higher chances for the rest of the company to start a reading culture too.
Similarly, our political leaders must model it first, starting with our Prime Minister, our cabinet ministers, and our members of Parliament. But beyond just politics, we need leaders in all areas to start promoting reading habits – business leaders, headmasters and school teachers, those in arts, sportspeople, celebrities, etc. Only then can we make reading into a national culture.
For the community leaders who chose to raise the keris symbolically – my suggestion is if you really love your people, raise a book rather than a keris; get them to read. And if you do that, trust God, because God sent down the message – ‘Read’. In fact the Quranic verse has an interesting twist, it is written:
“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth, Createth
man from a clot. Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who teacheth by the pen, Teacheth man that
which he knew not. Nay, but verily man is rebellious
That he thinketh himself independent! Lo! unto thy
Lord is the return.” – Quran 96:1-7
It does not just say to ‘Read’, it says if one thinks that he or she knows enough, it is rebellious.
What needs to be done?
As it is now, we Malaysians do not yet have a culture of reading. We still see reading as an act confined to schools and education. We need to take measures to bring reading outside of school walls and make it a larger lifestyle and day to day culture. We need to change attitudes to see reading not just as academic, but as a way to gain knowledge and be equipped as a person in various areas of life.
To make it into national culture, it should start with our community leaders, not just from Barisan Nasional but from Pakatan Rakyat – Prime Minister Najib, Anwar Ibrahim, Ustaz Hadi and Lim Guan Eng and their parties. This is above politics.
In business organisations and in the government sector, reading should be set as one of the Key Performance Indicators. Reading targets need to be set on a monthly or quarterly basis, and as any KPI, reading habits can be monitored and measured.
At home, parents must become the role model to inspire their children to read. Prepare a home environment that encourages reading. Set aside money and time for it – I always suggest to parents to allocate two hours every weeknight to read with their children.
On weekends and public holidays, bring your family somewhere nice together for reading trips. The next time you want to buy something for someone, choose to buy them books. A good way to encourage reading in communities and neighbourhoods is to set up book clubs to read and reflect on the books together.
These are simple, small ideas but they will go a long way. The idea is that we do not have to wait for the government or schools to start things for us; we can start from where we are with what we have. And when we do this, remember that this is how our people will move forward, with books as our guiding symbol, and reading as our way of life.
Instead of the keris, hold up a book and let us ask Malaysians to read, read and read. Yes, let’s keep the keris as our symbol but let us use books as our weapon.