Can you explain a bit about the Keris?
The keris has a long history in South East Asia. It is seen as a symbol of bravery, valor and knowledge. Its heritage is not just as a weapon but it also has cultural value as a beautiful artpiece. We can see it used, for example, during Malay adat-adat istiadat… even during weddings. For the aristocrats, to have a keris by their side showed high status. They don’t use it to go around killing people or peel pineapples; it was more a cultural thing.
Are there similar symbols in other cultures?
There is the kirpan for our Sikh brothers. Even Guru Granth Sahib carried a kirpan. Another similar emblem is the swords carried by Europeans, a symbol of valor rather than a weapon of destruction. A lot of people think that the keris is a weapon, used to kill. I don’t think traditionally the Malays carried it around as a weapon poking people all the time, and I don’t think they use it to peel apples, or fruits or whatever. It is more something they carried as a symbol of status, a beautiful artifact.
What about how the keris is seen as a symbol of political power in certain events in the past years?
The issue is how we use the image of the keris - what we say when we use it, that is the issue. Honestly, I don’t see it as a problem. To me, if someone wants to carry a keris and say ‘in the name of keris’, its alright, but I see it as a paganistic act.
In some instances, they use it more as a symbol of saying, ‘I will defend our valour – not just my race, but the country’. If this is the case, I see it as a non-issue.
What is the real issue?
The issue is that here in Malaysia when someone does something like that, it is seen as, ‘I am going to wield this keris to hurt someone’ – it becomes a symbol of attack. That’s not a good idea. So the problem is what people say when they use the symbol of the keris, not the keris in itself.
After the bad publicity and negative connotations, should we still use the keris as a symbol of anything?
I tell you what the problem is - many Malaysians don’t know that there are not many keris makers left in Malaysia. I’ve heard that there’s only one keris maker left, somewhere in Kelantan or Terengganu. Most of the keris we have here are imported from Indonesia. And here we are arguing about the keris and all that.
The real issue is that we have this beautiful cultural art piece and we should strive to preserve it. It is a good heritage of Indo-Aryan connection here for us, not just in Malaya but also for the rest of South East Asia.
What is the cultural value of the keris?
A long time ago, this region was called Nusantara, the Malay land - South East Asia. If you go to Borobudur in Java…you’ll find that keris actually has a very strong Hindu influence. Its called Ngeris there - it means ‘to stab’, in Javanese. It’s bears the idea of passion, chivalry and national pride. You can see all the stories of Lord Durga carrying either a keris or a version of pre-modern keris. It is part of the history of South East Asia. Instead of saying we shouldn’t use the keris anymore, we should actually embrace it as a cultural heritage.
Is the keris a good symbol as a rally point?
I see the way it has been used by some Malay leaders in recent years is as a symbol to urge the Malay mind to move forward. If this is their intention then I don’t see the keris as the best symbol to use. I see the keris as a good symbol, but not the best option as it can easily be misunderstood. Just to put it plainly, its not something we would pass to a young child or youth, even if it was just symbolic, made of plastic.
What is the alternative to the keris as a symbol?
I’m suggesting – and I’ve been suggesting this for the last many years – we should use a book. Hold up a book. If we still want the symbol of the keris based on its cultural value, then we can print an image of the keris on the book.
I think it’ll be nice to have Malay leaders hold a book up and say, ‘we use this because books bear knowledge’. That will be a gesture that is more powerful. At the end of the day, we need to realize that knowledge wins. I mean, with solid knowledge, we can probably make a keris with lasers on it.
A book is definitely a better idea. The Malays are generally Muslim, and the first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the Quran is ‘read’. And obviously that is stronger than holding a keris. Reading is a big thing in all Malaysian traditions. 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’.
And among Hindus, they have a practice of holding books with honor, kissing it. Our traditions really place reading in high importance, but it is not something we practice enough.
What will be the advantages of using a book as a symbol?
There is a strong connection between books and our tradition. If we say to young Malaysians overall, not just Malay Malaysians, we say, the knowledge that you can get from a book is how we are going to move forward as a people – its more real, more practical … and you can give a kid a book, you cannot give a kid a keris.
I see that it can be a real practical catalyst. If we really cultivate this idea, more parents will stay home and instead of watching TV for two hours every night, they may sit down and study with their children, check on their progress in school. I see that as the way forward. If some still see the keris as a unique symbol, they can print it as a symbol, but it is books they should carry.
How can we start pushing this idea of books as a symbol of progress?
Our country has its historical base from a feudalistic environment, so obviously our people are still very leader conscious. I would like to say that everybody should start it with themselves, but in this country that might not work. I see this also in business organizations. If the boss plays golf, everybody will also play golf. If the boss is a karaoke singer, everybody will sing karaoke. Now if the boss carries a book, everybody will start carrying a book.
Similarly in this case, I see that our political leaders should start first, of course starting with the Prime Minister. But not just politicians, people who are in arts, even sportspeople, must push for reading, because you learn about the body, about muscles and methods… you learn so many things from books.
I don’t know if our politicians read this blog - the Prime Minister, or Ibrahim Ali who carried a keris and caused a big fuss. If Ibrahim Ali, who considers himself a champion of the Malays, truly loves his people, he will tell them to read books, not carry a keris.
And if you do that, then trust God, because God says ‘Read’. In fact the Quranic verse is very interesting, it says, ‘read in the name of your God, who teaches you what you knew not’. It says that those who stop reading and stop finding out, they are arrogant. The Quran says, if you think you know enough, you are arrogant.
And books can be used as an emblem for all Malaysians from different backgrounds as well?
Correct. A research done by The Economist magazine many years ago found that there is a pyramid where quality of life correlates with how many books and the quality of books people read. It was a widespread research, not just in a first world country like America, but also countries like Malaysia. And they found out that the people at the top internationally, people like Warren Buffet and CEOs of multinationals, read about fifty books per year – an average of one book a week.
If you go through the pyramid to the lower strata, are the people who do less and less reading. At the bottom stratum are people who read, but they read things like ‘kisah kubur terbakar,’ all those funny kinds of books. So if we look at this research, it will definitely be better to use books as a symbol. There are no negative connotations, you don’t take a book and go fight a war…you use it to do good stuff.
Isn’t the education system doing this?
Well, education system is one thing. But reading should be a larger lifestyle even beyond that. Honestly I was a very bad student, I didn’t study a lot…but I was reading a lot. In university I clocked almost four hundred books in four years. And they were not the books I was supposed to read for the exams. So we cannot put it down to just education system. It’s a day to day habit, it’s a culture we must cultivate. Reading is so important. We need to really make sure that our people make reading a culture. And our leaders, not just the leaders from the Barisan side, leaders like Anwar Ibrahim, Ustaz Hadi and Lim Guan Eng, all of them should say -let’s go and read. This is above politics.
How can Malaysians cultivate reading as an icon of progress?
Books and reading are so easy to do. I sell this to parents in my training programs – parents should block between 7.30 – 9.30 p.m. at night for reading. The TV people will not like me for saying this but I believe in this time, families should not do anything else but read. On weekends they should go for reading trips maybe, and read as much as possible. I’m not saying read and do nothing else - I’m just saying, use what you have… you don’t have to wait for the government. Instead of buying gold stuff for yourself, buy more books for your children.