Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir
[[email protected]
Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation,
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
This article seeks to highlight a counter discourse to the dominant
colonial discourse that posits European colonizers as superior
to the colonised. Applying a post-colonial framework to Ishak Hj
Muhammad's novel Putera Gunung Tahan, the analysis shows how
Ishak manipulates his story to debunk firstly the colonial discourse
of "going native" that renders as deranged colonisers who befriend
"natives" or become intimate with them. The novel instead makes
clear that Robert's insanity is caused by the simple and straightforward
application of a magic potion. Secondly, the article highlights Ishak's
contestation of the colonial discourse that represents "natives" as
weak, wild, sexually rapacious and abnormal. Ishak portrays his
protagonist, the colonised Ratu Bongsu, as clever, strong, normal
and civilied, who successfully outsmarts William, rescues Mrs.
William and marries her.
Keywords: post-colonial, colonialism,
civilizing mission, colonialist discourse.
This is a revised version of my paper entitled 'Novel Putera Gunung Tahan oleh
Ishak Haji Muhammad: Satu Bacaan Pascakolonial' read to The Fourth Academic
Discussion in Conjuction with the Language Month, Year 2004, Dewan Singgahsana,
Perkampungan Melayu, Geylang Serai, Singapura, 24 July, 2004.
Dengan menggunakan kerangka pascakolonial, makalah ini
merungkai teks Putera Gunung Tahan untuk menyerlahkan wacana
balikan yang menyanggah wacana kolonial tentang kelebihan bangsa
Eropah berbanding bangsa peribumi yang dijajah. Beberapa aspek
wacana kolonial ini ditangani. Pertama, wacana "menjadi peribumi"
iaitu apabiJa penjajah mula menyukai peribumi, maka ia (Eropah)
akan hiJang kewarasannya. Melalui watak Robert, novelis Ishak
Muhammad memalsukan wacana tersebut apabila diperlihatkan
Robert menjadi gila kerana terkena ubat pengasih. Kedua, wacana
berkaitan seksualiti yang memperagakan watak lelaki peribumi
sebagai lemah, liar, pondan dan
rakus. Novel menyanggah
representasi ini melalui watak Ratu Bongsu yang diperlihatkan
sebagai pintar, kuat, normal dan santun, yang mengalahkan penjajah
William, menyelamatkan Puan William dan memperisterikannya.
Kata kunci: pascakolonial, kolonialisme, bertamadun, kemerdekaan,
wacana kolonial, misi mentamadunkan.
The novel Putera Gunung Tahan was published in 1937, and as is
generally known, by the 1930's European colonisation had covered
more than 80% of the entire world. (Loomba, 1998: xiii). The same
decade saw Tanah Me/ayu (The Malay Land) or Malaya in the grip of
colonisation, meaning that Putera Gunung Tahan (literally, the son of
Tahan Mountain) was written in a context of the world suffused with
the catastrophes and disasters of colonisation.
When Ishak Haji Muhammad was interviewed on the Malaysian
television programme "Komentar"' on 27th June 1973, 36 years after
the publication of the said novel, he claimed that the novel was written
"specifically as a tool to fight for independence, justice and to oust the
colonialists." (Pak Sako Putera Gunung Tahan, 1973; front page). It is
generally believed that when a writer reflects upon his works written
much earlier, his reflections are inevitably coloured by nostalgia.
Without denying that nostalgia might playa part, it is, nevertheless,
significant to note that "An Author's Reminisces", a statement which
Ishak wrote on 14th February 1937 in Temerloh, and which was
attached to the novel, seems to bear out the assertions that Ishak
made on the Komentar programme. Against the background of this
observation, this article seeks to problematise Ishak's claim. To what
extent did Ishak make good his claim, and what narrative strategies
did he employ to achieve his objectives? More importantly, did he
succeed in the endeavour? Did Putera Gunung Tahan function "as
a tool to fight for independence, justice and to oust the colonialists",
as spelt out in "An Author's Reminisces" and repeated on the
"Komentar" programme 36 years later? To this end, a brief discussion
of the colonialist and post colonialist discourse, as it pertains to this
article, is in order.
An Analytical Framework:
Colonial and Post-Colonial
Since the literature on colonial discourse is widely available, it is not
the intention of this article to enumerate it in detail here. Nonetheless,
for the purpose at hand, some of its main ideas, particularly those
related to the topic under discussion, will be discussed by way of
reading Putera Gunung Tahan as a post-colonial text.
Without denying that the issue of post-colonialism is complex,
that the different experiences which colonised nations underwent are
complicated, that in understanding post colonialism numerous factors
such as class, gender and ideology need to be taken into consideration,
in addition to the risks involved in simplifying all of the above, this
article will nonetheless draw attention to a few key concepts that
underlie colonial discourse. Besides, in analyzing the text, this article
seeks to avail itself of the discourse in terms of its principles only and
not in its particularities. In general, post-colonialism revolves around
the question of the process and effects of colonisation, particularly its
effects on the history, politics, social system, values, literature and
culture of the colonised. Concomitant with this, and with reference
to colonialism, the three important aspects that are interrelated are
firstly, the appropriation or plunder of wealth and profits, secondly, the
construction or production of knowledge and thirdly, the question of
representation. It is possible to generalise that colonialism is informed
by the desire to subjugate the colonised in order to appropriate their
wealth. However, this exploitation must necessarily be executed in
such a way that the objective of pillaging does not become apparent.
Colonisation thus needs to be justified, which in turn calls for the
construction or production of knowledge, in particular such knowledge
that not only conceals the colonialist evil intent but, more importantly,
also, at the same time, justifies and validates it. This, in turn, makes
necessary certain representations of the colonised.
In order to achieve the above objective, one of the fundamental
concepts that informs colonialism is "othering" or "differentiating",
namely making the colonised "different" or "not the same as". In simple
terms, this concept calls for the colonialists (who are associated with the
Europeans) to "distance" themselves ideologically from the colonised
(namely the natives of the country colonised) so that the differences
between the two groups are highlighted, made apparent, and easily
identified. Further to this, the relative positions of the two groups are
contrasted in binary terms. By using racial difference. as a determining
factor, the colonial discourse creates what is known as "the European
self' and the "non-European other'. These two different identities facilitate
the process of representation, aimed atdifferentiating the two groups,
thereby making it both clear and effective. It was on the basis of such
racial differences that John Burke, for example, was able to prepare a
list entitled The Wild Men's Pedigree in 1758 which reads as follows:
Wild Man. Four footed, mute, hairy.
American. Copper coloured, choleric, erect. Hair black, straight,
thick; nostrils wide; face harsh; beard scanty; obstinate, content,
free. Paints himself with fine red lines. Regulated by customs.
European. Fair, sanguine, brawny; hair yellow, brown,
flowing; eyes blue; gentle, acute, inventive. Covered with
close vestments. Governed by laws.
Asiatic. Sooty, melancholic, rigid. Hair black; eyes dark; severe;
haughty, covetous. Covered with loose garments. Governed by
African. Black, phlegmatic, relaxed. Hair black, frizzled; skin silky;
nose flat, lips turmid; crafty, indolent, negligent. Annoints himself
with grease. Governed by caprice.(Loomba, A.1998:115) [emphasis
The list above presents "the non-European other" as wild, violent,
obstinate, lazy, greedy, moody, fierce, negligent and stupid, whose
life is dictated by emotions, customs, belief in the supernatural and the
like, rather than by rationality. On the other hand, "the European self' is
pictured as the opposite of "the non-European other", namely as smart,
clever, courteous and civilised, and whose life is governed by rules and
laws. In other words, "the European self' is civilised, in sharp contrast
to "the non-European other" who is represented as backward and
uncivilised. By employing this binary opposition, the colonial discourse
is able to designate as "other" the natives of the colonised country; in
short, make the colonised clearly "different [from]" or "not the same
as" the colonisers.
With the aid of the colonial infrastructure including education, reading
materials and written history, the above representations and the negative
understanding associated with them were not contested; instead they
were then disseminated and perpetuated as "knowledge". Furnished
with this discourse, colonisation was thus easily justified. Edward Said
emphasised the point clearly:
Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting
point, Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate
institution for dealing with the Orient - dealing with it by making
statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching
it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, Orientalism as a Western style for
dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient....
European culture gained its strength and identity by setting itself off
against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self
(Said, 1979:3)
By using the differentiation that clearly favours "the European self' as
its take-off point, colonisation is thus presented as a mission to civilise
a backward and undeveloped race, known in colonial discourse as a
civilising mission. In like manner, this mission is consistently referred
to in colonial discourse as the white men's burden or a responsibility
that the colonialists have no choice but to undertake. Such an attractive
discourse easily conceals the deceit underlying colonisation and its
real objective, namely to plunder and conquer new lands. Colonisation
thus assumes a benign faxade, a sacred mission free from evil intent.
Jan Mohamed Abdul R., explains it as follows:
While the covert purpose is to exploit the colony's natural resources
thoroughly and ruthlessly through the various imperialist material
practices, the overt aims, as articulated by colonialist discourse, is to
"civilise" the savage, to introduce him to all the benefits of Western
cultures. Yet the fact that this overt aim, embedded as an assumption
in all colonialist literature, is accompanied in colonialist texts by a
more vociferous insistence, indeed by a fixation, upon the savagery
and the evilness of the native, should alert us to the real function
of these texts: to justify imperial occupation and exploitation. (Jan
Mohamed, 1985:62).
Further to the above discussion, and in line with the purpose at
hand, some aspects of the discourse merit elaboration. Of importance is
the notion of "going native", which refers to transgressing the boundary
between "the European self' and "the non-European" other. When a
colonialist is attracted to, displays sympathy towards, or associates
himself with the colonised, he is said to "have gone native" or to have
crossed the boundary that separates him as a "European self' from
"the non-European" other. He is said to have regressed, and the
consequence of this regression is loss of sanity.
Seeing insanity as an inevitable consequence of "going native"
is reinforced by the literature on the human psyche and psychology.
For example, the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud likens the
progress of a child to adulthood to that of man's social development
from a primitive to a civilised human being. A primitive man (that is, a
native), like a child who has not attained maturity, acts according to his
instincts because he is incapable of thinking. This is in contrast to the
European man who is likened to a matured adult who acts according to
reason. The emphasis here is the difference between a man of instinct
(primitive/child) and a man of reason (European/aduIUmatured).1 Thus,
a colonialist who transgresses the boundary that separates him from
the colonised is guilty of "going native" and compromises his sanity,
maturity and rationality. In effect, his actions are said to be guided by
instincts rather than reason.
Equally important as a representation in colonialist discourse, and
one which will be used in the analysis of Putera Gunung Tahan, revolves
around the question of gender and sexuality. In general, colonisation is
often likened to a sex act in that both have connotations of conquest.
In colonialist representation, a continent that is colonised such as
America, for example, is often pictured as a semi nude woman awaiting
conquest and possession. Likewise, a woman's body, especially that
of a natives, is pictured as a mystery awaiting unraveling, or pleasure
to be savoured. In other words, a woman's body, and its surrender,
becomes a symbol of a virgin land that is willing to be conquered and
is available for conquest. Loomba explains it as follows:
The Biblical story of Sheeba arriving laden with gold at Solomon's
court and willingly surrendering her enormous wealth in return for
sexual gratification initiated a long tradition of stories in which the
desire of the native woman for the European man coded for the
submission of the colonized people. (Loomba, 1998: 153)
Further to the above representation, a woman's sexual behaviour
and desire is arranged hierarchically. With reference to sexual desire
and its association with civility and decorum, the European woman is
placed at the top of the hierarchy followed by the Eastern woman, with
the black-skinned woman at the bottom rung. This hierarchical placing,
it is stressed, tallies with the sexual desire of European woman which is
said to be normal compared to that of the black skinned woman which is
excessive and beyond control, whilst that of the Eastern woman strikes
a middle path between the normalcy of the European woman and the
insatiable sexuality of her black-skinned counterpart.
The Oriental or native man, on the one hand, is pictured as
effeminate or given over to homosexual tendencies, and on the other
hand, painted as savage and wild, with a high sexual desire on the
look-out for gratification. Native women thus have to be rescued from
It is interesting to point out that here racial difference is once again associated with
development of human maturity.
their savagery. More importantly, in reinforcing the colonialist discourse,
the champion who rescues the native woman from the predatory native
man is none other than the European.
No less important as a representation that is consistently employed
in colonialist discourse is the European man's intellectual superiority
in sharp contrast to the native's stupidity. As stated earlier, colonialist
discourse often avails itself of "scientific knowledge" to justify its claims.
Thus, references to the size and form of the human head, physiology,
and biological characteristics are often touted as proof of the European
man's superiority on the one hand, and the native's dim-wittedness,
on the other. In tandem with this assertion is the claim of the native's
belief in and dependence on superstition and magic, as opposed to
the European's capacity for clear thinking and rationality, both of which
enable him to master scientific knowledge and sophisticated technology
as proof of his civilised status. This is then used to argue for the propriety
of his destiny to colonise the natives, for by so doing the latter benefits
from the European's intellectual advancement. Equipped with this line of
thinking, which makes possible the construction of a certain knowledge
and representation, the colonialist discourse is reinforced as legitimate
"knowledge", and perpetuated.
In the face of such a discourse, which is touted as "knowledge",
the colonised natives strive to discredit, contest, contradict, demystify,
challenge, dispute and oppose the colonialist discourse by advancing
a counter-discourse. This counter-discourse serves as an alternative
way of thinking and perceiving, one that is based on the point of
view, understanding and perspective of the colonised. Its purpose
is to debunk the "knowledge" and representation that belittles their
position and dignity. The binary opposition that informs colonialist
discourse is critically analysed and the so-called "knowledge" exposed
as a calculated subterfuge concocted by the colonialist, and that the
derogatory characteristics attributed to the colonised are not innate
to them. The objective of this post colonialist discourse is to expose
the power structure that makes it possible for the colonialists not only
to advance, develop and perpetuate their colonialist discourse, but
more importantly, to legitimise it. Several manifestations of this counter
discourse are evident in the novel Putera Gunung Tahan, as will be
shown later.
In choosing Putera Gunung Tahan which was produced in 1937,
we are faced with an important question brought about by the word "post".
Generally, the word "post" semantically connotes "after" or "subsequent
to", and logically the term "post colonialism" refers sequentially to the
period after colonialism. In the context of this analysis, how may such
a time frame be reconciled with a text having been produced during
the heyday of British colonisation of The Malay Land? In other words,
how can Putera Gunung Tahan be said to exemplify a post-colonial
discourse when it is clearly a product of an era when The Malay
Land was still very much under colonial rule? In truth, the semantic
ramifications of the term "post" have been extensively dealt with, and
suffice it to point out here that the term "post" does not necessarily refer
to a sequential progression that emphasises a chronological "before"
and "after". Rather, it revolves around an ideology or discourse that
points to an imbalanced power structure, one in which the strong and
mighty subjugate and exploit the weak 2 .
That Ishak Haji Muhammad was aware of such an ideology, and
that Putera Gunung Tahan was coloured by this awareness, is apparent
in the document "An Author's Reminiscences" which accompanies the
novel. The document, written in Temerloh, Pahang on 14th February
emphasises, amongst other things, the following:
It [the novel] was written not for school children but for those who
can think.
The novel is not a romantic love story you often see ... or read, it is
replete with ironies and satirical innuendoes.
He who has read this novel will be made aware of his responsibilities
towards his country, race and culture, and may he from this day feel
called upon to defend his religion, cultural heritage and country
against destruction (Ishak Haji Muhammad, 1973: i)
The above assertion makes Putera Gunung Tahan an interesting
novel in that its conception and production was intentionally informed by
the said concern. Further, it was a product of an era unfamiliar with post
colonial discourse as an academic subject, unlike that of present day
community of writers and readers familiar with the colonial discourse.
Clearly, Ishak was well ahead of his time.
Textual Analysis: A Post-Colonial Perspective
An analysis of Putera Gunung Tahan brings to the fore several
arguments clearly post colonial in perspective. This article, however,
will only confine itself to two aspects in its endeavour to highlight a
counter discourse evident in the novel. The first undertakes to falsify
colonialists' representations of the colonised. This entails giving the lie
to colonialists' claims and representations of the natives as stupid, wild,
2 This can happen, for example, in a situation where a country that has gained
independence is subsequently oppressed by a native dictator. This type of situation
is referred to also as neo-colonialism.
voracious and the like. The second aspect calls for a complete reversal
of the respective representations of the natives and the colonialists
in a kind of simple swop whereby characteristics identified with the
natives are now attributed to the colonialists, and vice versa. Thus dimwitted ness , sloth, crudity and the like, touted in colonialist discourse as
innate to the colonised, are shown to belong rightly to the colonialists.
Likewise, as a counter representation, attributes such as intellectual
perspicacity, cultural polish, gentility become the preserve of the natives.
Concomitant with this, the article will examine two different narrative
strategies, namely the use of utterances that are direct, deliberate and
clear, on the one hand, and the use of irony, innuendoes, parody, satire
and the like, on the other. Such an analysis makes clear the extent to
which Ishak succeeded in his mission to turn Putera Gunung Tahan
into a tool to redeem the honour of his country and race. Ishak's efforts
must necessarily be located within the context that gave the novel its
birth, namely a country struggling in the grip of colonialism in all aspects
including political, economic, social, geographical, and more importantly,
of national dignity and honour that had been crushed and degraded.
Putera Gunung Tahan tells the story of two Englishmen who aspire
to turn the summit of Tahan mountain into a resort for the Europeans.
On their way to the peak, the two men get separated, and Robert,
who comes across a group of aborigines or "sakaI'3, is taken to their
settlement. He falls in love with an aboriginal woman and, through an old
go-between, makes known his intention to wed her. To that end, Robert
is made to fulfill certain conditions, but he dies without fulfilling them. In
the meantime, William meets Ratu Bongsu (the successor) of Tahan
mountain whose magic binoculars enables William to espy his wife's
infidelity. The novel ends with the destruction of an airplane deployed
to blow up Tahan summit, the arrival of Mrs. William from England,
William's death and Ratu Bongsu's marriage to William's widow.
As clearly spelt out in "An Author's Reminiscences", Ishak consciously
and deliberately makes use of Putera Gunung Tahan to instill among
his readers an awareness of their plight as a colonised nation and
their bounden duty and responsibility towards it. Using the technique
of an open dialogue with his readers, as well as authorial intrusion, a
technique very much in vogue at the time, Ishak is able to advise his
readers clearly and directly. An example of such a technique is the
following: "If some Malays are not hypocritical, corrupt and persecute
their leaders, it would be difficult for the enemies to win, but such,
however, is not the case!" (Ishak, 1973:4)4
3 The original terminology, is from the researched text. Subsequently this terminology
is maintained in the Malay original and without any further notations in this article.
4 Hereafter, all references to this novel are from this edition.
Furthermore, certain narrative manipulations allow the text to counter
colonialist discourse directly and unambiguously. For example, the
use of the two European characters, William and Robert, in particular
their conversations, reflections and thoughts allows Ishak to reveal the
colonialists' true intention of conquering the Malay land, as seen in
Robert's ruminations: "Every European who comes to Malaya intends
to accumulate wealth and profit rather than lead and protect the
indigenous people" (p.23 - 24). Likewise, the two characters' conversation
exposes the fact that they will be honoured and rewarded 500 pounds
should they succeed in securing the Tahan summit. Equally revealing
is William's plan: "[he] will suggest to his leader to forcibly take over
[the summit] by deploying several airplanes and dropping explosives
to kill the inhabitants" (p.81).
Further to the colonialists' evil intent, as seen above, Ishak
manipulates the narrative to uncover the Englishmen's hypocrisy when
Robert and William promise to turn the summit to a "second paradise"
(p.58) if given an opportunity to do so. In manipulating the story in this
manner, the novel achieves several objectives simultaneously, namely
it makes clear the fact that colonialism means appropriating the
wealth of the colonised, that colonialist discourse is no more than an
empty rhetoric, and that it is possible to debunk that discourse through
the proper exposure of their evil intentions, as reflected particularly
in their ruminations.
Another narrative strategy employed is the open debate between
the colonialists and the colonised. To that end, Ishak presents two pairs
of verbal combatants namely An Old Woman versus Robert, and Ratu
Bongsu versus William. In both instances the natives are portrayed as
"not taken in" by the Englishmen's claims; indeed, they make a mockery
of the colonialist discourse, as the Old Woman's rejoinder below amply
shows: "Other white men are no different. They would not defend our
country for free if there is nothing in it for them" (p.38).
Apart from employing story telling strategies that are direct,
transparent and overt, Ishak also questions the colonialist discourse
with the use of techniques that are more covert, especially satire to
which he admits in his "An Author's Reminisces".
In relation to this, critics who cite Ishak's use of satire inevitably refer
to Robert's falling for the sakai lass as an example of Ishak's mockery
of the English. Ishak is credited with exploiting this with greater success
when Robert, apart from being portrayed as wafer thin and disheveled,
is also shown as madly yearning for the sakai girl while shedding tears
and reciting the seloka (traditional Malay love verses). This is taken
to an even higher plane when Robert is pictured circling the ant hill
seven times whilst chasing the woman of his dreams as a condition of
marriage. Robert's behavior akin to that of a half lunatic is depicted as
a biting satire of the English who get easily hoodwinked by the native
despite their claim to be more intelligent and highly civilised.
Although undeniable that the above representation does indeed
ridicule the English, this paper, however, interprets Robert's bizarre
behavior from another perspective. It attempts to read Robert's behaviour
from the context of colonial discourse, especially in relation to "going
native". As outlined in the analytical framework, the colonial discourse
contends that colonialists who sympathise or associate with the native
is regarded as having transgressed the boundary that separates "the
European self' from "the other", and the outcome of this regression is
the loss of sanity. In the context of colonial discourse as seen above,
this act is significant as it strikes at a fundamental concept, namely
"othering" which makes it obligatory for "the European self' to distance
himself from the native.
When that discourse is applied to Putera Gunung Tahan, the
representation of Robert who is obsessed with the sakai girl and his
resultant conduct should be read as a validation of the colonial discourse.
Does this imply that the novel validates the discourse and not contest
it? Such an interpretation would be insupportable as "The Author's
Reminisces" clearly shows Ishak's commitment to use the novel as a tool
in his fight for his religion and country. In the real world, Ishak's position
as a respected freedom fighter is irrefutable. That being the case, is it
possible that Ishak, in reality, ends up - inadvertently - reinforcing the
colonial discourse? Or is he guilty of not "walking the talk"?
In reading the episode of Robert "going native" it is necessary
to take into consideration a number of factors, including the source
of his insanity. Does he turn insane because he "goes native" or are
there other explanations for the change? A close examination of the
novel shows Robert's arrogance and his belittling of the "love potions",
"hate potions" and other traditional medicines as ludicrous makes the
"Old Woman" turn against him, and subsequently swears that she
would use the love potions and cenuai spells to "get at him". Lengthy
preparations are then made to "get at him", and this includes getting
the Tok Batin's (the Headman) blessing, looking for the most beautiful
sakai girl, instructing her on what needs to be done, organising feasts
and gatherings, locating a suitable spot for the "chasing around the ant
hill" ceremony, covering the lass with oil so that she will not be easily
caught, culminating with the episode in which the girl and Robert climb
up a tree. In other words, elaborate preparations are made to "get at
Robert" so that he falls deeply in love with the sakai girl. Robert, thus,
does not "go native" on his own accord, but is cleverly "made" to do
It is in this context that Ishak negates the colonial discourse by
showing that it is not Robert's "going native" that results is his lunatic
behavior (as colonial discourse would claim). The colonial discourse
is, therefore, false and Robert's insanity is solid evidence of that. Ishak
then shows that the love potion has indeed been effective as evidenced
by the fact that Robert does become insane. And this insanity of Robert
which would generally be read as a ridicule of the colonialists, takes
on additional meaning or significance when Robert's insanity becomes
a subtle contradiction of the colonial discourse.
Another example often highlighted when reference is made to satire
in Putera Gunung Tahan centres around Ratu Bongsu, William and his
widow. On one level, the satire is seen in the supernatural items in the
possession of the natives, such as the wondrous bamboo binoculars
with which one can see "everything", the talking banyan tree and the
"intermediary" bird capable of delivering messages to any part of the
world. These items are a slap on the face for Robert, who, despite his
adulation for European creativity and advanced technology, ends up
using the native implements to send a letter to his superior as well as
see and hear his wife. The story-telling method that juxtaposes the
magic of the native and the science of the Europeans (as in the use
of a plane to attack Ratu Bongsu), and subsequently have European
science defeated is satire par excellence, more so when the target is
European science, sophisticated technology and superior intellect.
The most striking indictment of colonial discourse is when Ishak foils
Robert and William's plans to turn the peak of Tahan mountain into a
second fairy land, kills off the two characters and awards the ultimate
victory to the natives.
However, the conclusion of the novel, especially the marriage of
Ratu Bongsu, King of Tahan mountain, strong and in possession of
supernatural powers, to William's widow who had once been unfaithful
to her husband, and the elevation of her status to that of the Queen
of Tahan Mountain, raises questions as it appears to invalidate the
alternative discourse the novel intends to project. In his article "Putera
Gunung Tahan - Satu Karya Pascakolonial", Sohaimi A Aziz (Sohaimi,
2003;239 - 240) broaches this question, then interprets this marriage
as a rebuke of the Malay aristocracy of those years. He writes:
This marriage raises doubts in the minds of the readers. However,
on closer examination, the marriage is indeed an insinuation of the
Malay royalty and aristocracy of the times. There are those who
marry English women with the objective of upgrading their social
status amongst the elites of society. That action is censured by Ishak
through the marriage of Ratu Bongsu to William's widow. It would
probably be better and more apt for the aristocracy to marry local
women who are more honest, noble and suited to the ways of the
Eastern culture. In other words, the marriage of Ratu Bongsu to
the widow indicates that the novel does not conform to the model
of hybridity and syncreticity. Conversely it conforms to the "tension
between the colonialist and the colonised" model.
This criticism of the Malay aristocracy is untenable for a number
of reasons. Whilst not denying that the novel does make references to
betrayal by the locals, what is clear is that in employing various storytelling strategies 5 the novel clearly presents the English as the target
and recipient of the alternative discourse. And furthermore, in view
of the marriage being the closing episode, it would be the strategic
place to reinforce the message, and thus it would be difficult to accept
that Ishak would want to weaken his novel by diverting his target from
the English to the locals at such a crucial point. It is undeniable that
Malay aristocrats did marry English women with the hope of elevating
their social status, but such a reading would be too literal because the
marriage between the local and the English woman is a minor episode
compared to the total experience of colonisation which was a catastrophe
that engulfed the whole world', a phenomenon which struck at the very
basis of the lives of the colonised people including their worldview and
daily actions. In the face of this catastrophe, a more appropri.ate reading
of the text would be to view it as an attempt to expose and denounce
Similarly, Sohaimi's contention that the novel is consistent with the
"tension between the colonised and the colonist" model is questionable
as the narrative space accorded to the marriage is too minimal (at the
end of the narrative) to lend credence to his claim. In fact, considering
the descriptive nature of the story - a common enough feature of the
1930s - the tension model is hardly realised in the narrative.
Taking off from the arguments outlined above, the paper proposes
an alternative reading which locates the marriage episode within
colonial discourse, especially that which relates to sexuality. As noted
earlier, in colonial discourse colonisation is often likened to the sex act
as both connote conquest, and the women's body is pictured as the
object waiting to be conquered by the male. In Putera Gunung Tahan,
5 The story telling strategy that is referred to, is, among others, to alienate the English
characters by manipulating the narrative component of "location/setting" namely by
'leaving them stranded' in Tahan Mountain; by killing off their guide and leaving just the
two of them; by separating them such that Robert and William have to independently
face the natives; by creating a faceoff between the English characters and the native
characters on a one to one basis, namely Robert and the Old Woman and William
and Ratu Bongsu, all of which serves to highlight the colonialist character and the
experience of colonisation. This is aided by other strategies, which clearly defines
that the axis of the story, the target of the message and the moral of the story,
revolve not around the Malay dignitaries but the colonialists. In other words, what
is clear in this novel is that the actions of the Malay dignitaries who get married to
Englishwomen are not accorded the status of either the 'focus' of the message and
moral of the story, or 'the main reason' why the novel was created.
the marriage between Ratu Bongsu and William's widow can be read
as conquest, Ratu Bongsu's conquest of the European widow. This
bold and unorthodox reading represents a complete reversal since
in colonial discourse the conqueror is inevitably the European. Is the
novel sufficiently "equipped" for such a bold representation? This paper
maintains that such a reading is not implausible as the text presents
sufficient preparations, thus making such a reading justifiable.
Such a reading is possible when a number of factors related to the
production of the novel are taken into consideration. Amongst them are
the 1930s era, a period synonymous with colonial expansion; the writer
himself who is a leading nationalist; the "Authors Reminiscence" which
very directly sets forth the objective of the novel; and more importantly the
text itself which is clearly structured to contest the colonial discourse.
One aspect of colonial discourse that is clearly contested in the
closing episode is the representation of Oriental/Eastern men as
effeminate and given over to homosexual tendencies. In contradiction
to that representation, Putera Gunung Tahan depicts Ratu Bongsu as
a brave, manly and handsome man. William's widow herself attests
to this. In fact, when first informed that Ratu Bongsu had feelings for
her, the widow still dreamed of proceeding with her husband's original
objective of conquering the peak of Tahan mountain through feminine
wiles (p.96). However, once she set eyes on Ratu Bongsu, she gives up
her dreams and instantly falls for him in a "relationship the likes of which
she had never felt before" (p.96). The colonial discourse which presents
Oriental or Eastern men as savage, wild and sexually depraved is also
contested by Ishak with Ratu Bongsu appearing as a cultured male. He
waits for three years 6 before revealing his feelings, and this, too, through
a middleman who conveys the news to William's widow. Throughout the
three-year wait, Ratu Bongsu does not attempt to approach or meet the
English woman. In the closing episode, too, Ratu Bongsu's visit to her
hut is to offer her a choice of either returning to her country or staying
on in Tahan Mountain. After William's widow tells him that she intends to
stay on, Ratu Bongsu, true to his gentle nature, takes leave politely. This
again contradicts the conventional presentation of natives as wild and
sexually depraved. Further, though she is all by herself and in a vulnerable
position, Ratu Bongsu does not in any way exploit the situation to his
advantage. And subsequently, the colonial discourse which inevitably
portrays the European male as the savior of native women is reversed
6 According to the copy printed in 1937 to which both Sohaimi and I refer, Mrs.
William had been living at Tahan Mountain for three years before the final episode
happened and not for three months that Sohaimi had mentioned. There are three
references to the three year period in the copy printed in 1937, namely on pages
92, 95 and 97. The three-month period refers to the time that elapsed before Mrs.
William recovered from the trauma of the airplane accident (see page 91).
in Putera Gunung Tahan when it is Ratu Bongsu who comes to the
rescue of the white widow when her plane crashes.
With regards to the representation of the sexuality of European
women, colonial discourse generally renders them as normal as compared
to the Eastern and dark-skinned women who are said to be wild and
sexually perverse. In the episode where Ratu Bongsu meets William's
widow the novel is structured to depict the white woman rather than Ratu
Bongsu who initiates the emotional and physical relationship between
them. When Ratu Bongsu is set on leaving the widow, it is she who
detains him with her pleas and exhortations. She follows up with kissing
him, an act certainly at odds with the usual portrayal of white women as
sexually reserved. The atypical conduct takes on a greater significance
when her affections are directed toward a native male - the "other" who
in colonial discourse is an inferior to her in every way. And unlike Robert
who "goes native" due to love potions, William's widow acts the way she
does not due to any such cause but has cleC!rly fallen hopelessly in
love with Ratu Bongsu. In other words, she "goes native" willingly and
this she confesses to Ratu Bongsu openly, "I'm willing, and I'm ready
to submit my body and soul to you, my beloved"? It is noteworthy that
in her confession, she specifically refers to "body", which in colonial
discourse is clearly linked to conquest, meaning colonisation.
Apart from the above representation in the episode, another aspect
that warrants attention is the allocation of narrative space accorded
to this concluding part of the novel. Can this limited space, which is
also the concluding part of the novel, be read as the total rejection of
colonial discourse? In truth, the limited narrative space is more than
adequate to convey the necessary message, whilst the positioning of
the episode at the conclusion of the story fits in neatly with the intended
message. In short, whilst the proposed marriage is a minor episode, it is
nonetheless saturated with significance, namely the total debunking of
colonial discourse. In addition, its placing at the end of the story serves
as a fitting climax to a counter discourse, namely that of appropriation,
that is the taking over of another's discourse and making it one's own
in order to serve one's purpose.
The foregoing discussion has attempted to show that the marriage
episode (or agreeing to the union) or the intimacy between Ratu Bongsu
and the widow is a relevant and substantive part of the entire reversal
of the discourse. This might raise the question: should a woman who
has been unfaithful to her husband be made the Queen of Tahan
7 Mrs. William's confession of love draws attention to notation NO.5 about the
Queen of Sheeba who surrenders her wealth because of her desire for physical
Mountain or the consort of the powerful Ratu Bongsu? Would her past
as a woman who once betrayed her husband defile her status as the
Queen and dilute the alternative discourse the novel seeks to promote?
In answering this hypothetical question, the recommended reading is to
view it mainly as an attempt to reverse the colonial discourse in that the
sexual relations that is likened to colonisation now occurs in a reversed
context. In the context of colonial discourse, any relationship with a
native, even in an encounter that entails no intimacy, the implications
go beyond the literal as it is related to the sacred identity of "the
European self'. Thus Ratu Bongsu's ability in forging a relationship in
whatever form-needs to be seen as a "victory". In the novel, not only
does such a rare relationship actualises, it occurs at the initiative of a
white woman who desires it, and submits herself willingly to a native.
This is clearly a victory for Ratu Bongsu. Furthermore, the widow that
Ratu Bongsu meets is one who has repented and regrets her past. To
this, one must not ignore the three-year wait that the writer imposes
on the woman. When viewed against this background, the prospective
marriage does not negate the alternative discourse, but reinforces the
absolute "conquest", "colonisation" or triumph of the native over the
coloniser. The conquest is all the more remarkable as it occurs in the
1930s when colonial discourse was an unknown concept8 .
8 The emphasis on 'discourse' and its role in the 'post-colonial discourse' draws
attention to the idea advanced by Mohd. Affandi Hassan, namely Persuratan Baru
(New Literature) (hereafter PB) that also gainfully uses the concept of 'discourse'
in the creation and criticism of literature, albeit with a clearly different definition
and understanding. Unlike the term 'discourse' that is frequently used in the post
colonial context, the 'discourse' tabled by PB is specifically aimed at consolidating
the narrative space to develop ideas, thoughts, arguments, which are also referred
to as 'discourse'. Subsequently, and more importantly, the PB discourse stresses
on the importance of the discourse being developed to celebrate the truth, namely
the righteousness in the way of Allah. It would be interesting if this text is analysed
using the idea put forward by PB to see what type of interpretation is elicited, and
how far the interpretation resembles or not the post-colonial discourse, especially
from the aspect of the truth and how the procedures of finding the truth is upheld.
For further information on PB please refer to the more important writings of Mohd.
Affandi Hassan such as Pendidikan Estetika Daripada Pendekatan Tauhid. 1992.
Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka; Medan-medan da/am Sistem Persuratan
Me/ayu: Sanggahan Terhadap Syarahan Perdana Prof Dr. Muhammand Haji Salleh
(Sarjana dan Sasterawan Negara). 1994. Kelantan: Tiga Putri; "Pemikiran dan
Pendekatan dalam Kritikan Sastera Melayu Moden" in Kesusateraan Me/ayu Mitos
dan Rea/iti: Esei Kritikan Hadiah Sastera Ma/aysia 1988/1989. 1994. Kuala Lumpur:
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka; "Mengapa Saya Menulis Aligupit" in Dewan Masyarakat,
September, 1994, pp. 10 - 12; Persuratan Baru dan Cabaran Intelektual: Menilai
Kembali Kegiatan Kreatif dan Kritikan. (Paper read to the Colloquium 'Membina Teori
dan Sastera Sendiri' (Formulating One's own Literature), 6-8 December, 1999, and
the latest work with Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir and Mohd. Zariat Abdul Rani,
Gagasan Persuratan Baru; Pengena/an dan Penerapan. 2008. Bangi: Institut Alam
dan Tamadun Melayu Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
The above discussion contends that Gunung Putera Tahan strives to debunk
the colonial discourse by advancing an alternative. Armed with an array of
story-telling strategies, Ishak has structured his novel to address the issue
of colonialism, and in this endeavur has, without question, succeeded in
debunking colonial discourse. And Ishak's success must be viewed in the
context of the era when the novel was written. Unlike works produced in
independent nations (ex-colonies) by writers free from colonial controls,
Ishak produced his work in an entirely different environment - when
Malaya was a colony with all its attendant implications. This renders Putera
Gunung Tahan as a spirited and bold discourse, more so as Ishak has
employed the colonialists' weapons, but "overturned" it to advance an
alternative discourse. Judged from this perspective, Ishak's claim made
in 1937 and repeated 36 years later in 1973 that he intended the novel
to be "a tool in the struggle for independence, justice and to drive out the
colonialist" was certainly not empty rhetoric. The nationalist-writer, in his
own ingenious way, has made good his promise.
Ashcroft et aI., 1998. Key Concepts In Post-Colonial Studies. London:
Childs, P. & Williams, R.J.P., 1997. An Introduction to Post- Colonial Theory.
London: Agency.
Ishak Haji Muhammad, 1973. Putera Gunung Tahan. Petaling Jaya: Pustaka
8udaya Agency.
Jan Mohamed. Abdul. R., 1985. "The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The
Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature", Critical Inquiry,
Autumn. Vol 12. NO.1.
Loomba, A., 2000. KolonialismelPascakolonialisme. Translation by Hartoni
Hadikusumo. Jogjakarta: Bentang.
Loomba, A., 2000. Colonialism/Post-colonialism. London: Routledge.
Pak Sako, 1973. Putera Gunung Tahan. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan
Said, Edward., 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
Sohaimi A. Aziz., 2003. "Putera Gunung Tahan - Satu Karya Pascakoloniaf'
in Teori dan Kritikan Sastera: Modenisme, Pascamodenisme,
Pascakolonisme. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
(Translated by: Belaetham K. and Mohamed Ghozali Abdul Rashid)