The Question of Succession: The Role of Women in Traditional Malay Court Politics

Ruzy Suliza Hashim
Department of English
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand

Deep South v.2. n.3. (Spring 1996)

Copyright (c)1996 by Ruzy Suliza Hashim


This paper will examine the role of women in Malay court politics as portrayed in two Malay historical/court chronicles, The Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu) and The Precious Gift (Tuhfat al-Nafis). These works describe genealogies of rulers, the founding of kingdoms and dynastic warfare. Women, because they are not involved in the intricacies of expanding empires, are not central figures in this genre. Moreover, politics is an exclusively male business in traditional Malay society, therefore women do not seem to participate actively in it.

The question of succession in the Malay sultanates, however, is an interesting one, because sometimes more than one contending prince vies for the throne. When such a crisis occurs, female court-dwellers appear to intervene. I will highlight their strategies, and discuss how these women attempt to change the course of court politics in their favour.

Studies on influential women in antiquity have revealed that they "neither had nor sought political power, but worked through their husbands or father or sons" (Lefkowitz, 49). Even if a few of these women seem to defy the norms of what is expected of feminine behaviour, it has been documented that "women take political action only under certain closely defined conditions, and that unless they do so at least ostensibly on behalf of a male relative, they and others around them come to a bad end" (Lefkowitz, 49). Lefkowitz's findings, drawn from Greek myths and history, confirm restrictions to female power. Since the concern of this paper deals with a group of women of influence in Malay historical works, Lefkowitz's findings can perhaps yield some light on the matter.

Malay historical works (sastera sejarah) prospered as a courtly narrative tradition between the late thirteenth century and the early nineteenth century. The two works chosen in this paper represent two ends of a continuum; The Malay Annals (hereafter referred to as MA) were commissioned by Sultan Alau'd-din II, not long after the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511. The Precious Gift (hereafter referred to as PG), started around the 1860s and finished in the early nineteenth century, and was not commisssioned by a ruler, but emerged out of the writer's own initiative to "trace genealogies, expeditions, dates and most important of all, the narrative of the Malay and Bugis Kings and of all their children" (12). Unlike other works in the same genre whose scribes are unidentifiable, the compilers of these two works have been identified, and they are male court dwellers, relatives of the rulers, and are well-versed with the goings-on in the two courts.

Malay historical works trace the origin and genealogy of Malay rulers, describe the founding of kingdoms, glorify expansions of geographical boundaries, and give an account of the elaborate etiquette of royal households. The titles of these works commonly begin with either sejarah (history), silsilah/salasilah (genealogy), and hikayat (lengthy traditional tale).

Due to the nature of the works, and the reasons for writing them, women do not figure prominently in these narratives. Most women are nameless and voiceless, incognito. They normally appear as somebody's wife or daughter, for example, "Sultan Mahmud Syah begat three children: the son was called Sultan Ahmad and it was he who was to succeed his father on the throne: the other two are daughters" (MA, 118). The scribe does not identify the consort, or the two daughters as they are considered unimportant to the reading public (which is limited to the court/elite sector of a feudal society). Women are utilised as peace-weavers, or valued as pawns in political alliances, either by marrying them off to foreign rulers/diplomats or sealing alliances within one's own kinship.

The women discussed in this paper, however, do not appear as the passive political tools as do most of the women in the court. There is a group of them who attempt overt participation in court politics, especially in a delicate matter such as the succession of rulers to the throne. This is an extremely important position, because a ruler carries with him sacral sovereign power. The Malays, whose ancestors can be traced to worshipping the Hindu Gods, adopt a belief in divine kingship. The coming of Islam gives birth to another form of sacral sovereignty which regards a ruler as "a shadow of God upon earth" (MA, 1). Therefore, the power which comes with the position gives rise to a power contest between eligible male siblings. The general trend which can be discerned from most historical chronicles is that the ruler decides who is going to succeed him, and the power normally passes to the eldest son of a royal consort. However, Malay rulers in these works do not practise monogamous marriages, and although they have all adopted the Muslim faith which allows up to four wives at any one time, some of them even have up to six, not to mention numerous concubines. Therefore, the question of who is going to replace the ruler becomes contentious, because several princes might claim their eligibility. This provides the opportunity for female court-dwellers to intervene, especially those who are in the position to determine the outcome of the succession battle.

The first instance of a woman's overt participation in Malay court politics occurs during the reign of Sultan Muhammad, the third Sultan of the Melakan dynasty. He has two consorts - the Princess of Rekan, who is the Queen, and the daughter of the Bendahara (Prime Minister). Both give birth to a son, however the eldest son is the offspring of his secondary wife. Although the Sultan wishes his oldest to succeed him, the Queen wants her own son, who is only seventeen months' old, to ascend the throne:

"The latter [Raja Kasim] was older than Raja Ibrahim, but it was the desire of the Queen that even so Raja Ibrahim should succeed his father, and Sultan Muhammad Syah acquiesced despite his fondness for Raja Kasim. Such was the deference that he paid to the Queen's wishes that he was helpless, allowing Raja Ibrahim to do just as he pleased but chiding Raja Kasim if he took so much as a bit of sireh leaf from anyone". (MA, 51)

Although the Sultan heeds his Queen's wish, how and what methods she has used to manipulate him are not specified. Obviously, she is influencing the outcome of the battle for power by working through her husband. Ironically, her overt intervention is merely described; her voice is decidedly absent. The scribe, who can pick and choose to tell a story as he sees fit, cannot appear to offend the royal patron who has commissioned him to write the history of kings. Yet he implies that the Sultan has violated an established custom, and erred in his decision: "The people, however, hated Raja Ibrahim and liked Raja Kasim" (MA, 51). By conceding to his Queen's wishes, the ruler is indulging her, and giving licence to women to participate actively in a male domain. The consequence of her intervention causes an uproar - that her son is still a minor gives an excuse for the Queen's own cousin, the Raja of Rekan, to act as a regent, while Raja Kasim is made to earn his living as a fishmonger. An Arab trader, Maulana Jalaluddin, foretells Raja Kasim that he is the true ruler of Melaka, and pushes him to claim his throne, although the trader puts a condition that the Queen must be given to him as a reward, which Raja Kasim agrees to fulfil. The prince manages to gather the support of the masses, overthrows the regent, who, in the event, stabs the child-ruler. The Queen's life is spared: she is neither killed nor given away to the Arab which Raja Kasim could have easily done to humiliate her for her meddling. Instead, Raja Kasim orders a palace maid to be adorned like a princess whom the Arab trader has mistaken to be the Queen herself. By saving her that ultimate humiliation, Raja Kasim is shown to be a nobler man, while the Queen is presented as a vindictive woman. Although she tries to take part in politics because of her son, her involvement does not follow closely defined conventions: firstly, by allowing the older step-son to ascend the throne, and secondly, by allowing the court elders to act as the regent, not her own cousin. Her meddling causes internal strife, and brings destruction to her close family members.

Female participation is described as more intruding as the chronicle progresses to narrate the reign of Sultan Mahmud. His father, Sultan Alauddin, chooses young Mahmud to be the successor although he has two other sons from a marriage with a princess. In one instance, the child-ruler gets chronic diarrhoea, and is almost at the point of death, and the message is relayed to his grandmother (Raja Tua), the queen dowager. She wishes her older fully royal grandson, Raja Menawar, to take over the throne, and contrives to murder the present ruler by suffocating him: "Let me get to the palace and I will lay myself down on Sultan Mahmud Syah and weep over him, so that he may die while I lie upon him" (Sejarah Melayu, 139). [1] However, when she tries to approach the bed, the two caretakers rush forward to attack the old woman. She reminds them of her own sovereign power, endowed through her position as the previous Queen. But both men reply: "Yes, this once Malays will be disloyal! If your highness persists in going near your grandson, nothing shall stop us attacking you! Raja Tua accordingly abandons the idea of approaching Sultan Mahmud" (Sejarah Melayu, 140). The scribe further says ".... and he was preserved by God Almighty: his alloted span in the Book of Life was not yet rubbed out" (104). One can make two interesting observations in this episode. The queen dowager is presented like a raving mad woman with dishevelled hair which indicates that she is not in the right frame of mind, and therefore her sovereignty can be discarded. The scribe also seems to scorn the idea of a woman trying to assert her sovereignty and influence. In this case, she is given a voice, but the fact that the scribe allows us access to her thoughts is a device used to show the transparency of her treachery. Moreover, the favoured grandson does not even contend the kingship of Melaka. The queen dowager is an independent agent who is bent on working on behalf of a relative who is not even remotely concerned with the position.

The reign of Sultan Mahmud also records an explicit kind of female power as shown by Tun Fatimah, daughter of the Bendahara. The king is well-known for his liaisons with women, married or maiden. He has many consorts, and even attempts to marry a fairy (non-human) Princess, Princess Mount (Gunong) Ledang, though she thwarts his proposal by asking, besides a bridge of gold and a bridge of silver from Melaka to the mountain, seven trays of mosquitoes' hearts, seven trays of mites' hearts, a vat of young areca-nut water, a vat of tears, a cup of the Raja's blood and a cup of his son's blood (MA, 96). Strangely enough, the Sultan says he is able to fulfill all wishes except a cup of his son's blood. This is obviously a myth to show the ruler's preoccupation with women, but only a woman in non-human form is able to reject his proposal. His first consort, whose name is not mentioned, bears him a son, Raja Ahmad, whom he makes his heir apparent. One event, however, changes the whole scenario. He sets eyes upon Tun Fatimah on her wedding day, and conceives a passion for her. His desire is so insurmountable that he orders the execution of all the males in the Bendahara's family after a malicious rumour that the latter plans to dethrone him. The Sultan marries her, even makes her his Queen, but Tun Fatimah, throughout her married life with the Sultan, "never once did she laugh or even smile. As was her sadness, so was the king's; and he bitterly repented what he had done. And he abdicated from the throne in favour of his son Sultan Ahmad, to who he made over his officers and the regalia" (MA, 160). Tun Fatimah's anger at the Sultan is implied through her repeated abortions that puzzle the Sultan: "Why is it that when you are with child you cause abortion? Is it that you dislike bearing a child to me?" And Tun Fatimah answered, "Why should you want children of me any longer when you already have a son on the throne?" And Sultan Mahmud Syah said, “Even so, if you conceive by me, let the child be born: if it be a son, it is he that we will make Raja" (MA, 161).

It so happens that his son, Sultan Ahmad, mistreats court elders which gives the excuse for Sultan Mahmud to commission someone to kill his son. He later appoints another son, Raja Muzaffar Syah from his marraige with the princess from Kelantan, as his successor: "When Raja Muzaffar Syah sits in the hall with people before him, there was laid for him first a spread-out mat and then a rug. On the rug there was a sitting-mat and on top of all the royal cushion. Thereon he sat" (164). However, Tun Fatimah, after giving birth to two daughters, now gives birth to a son, Raja Alau'd-din Shah. Soon after the son is born, the royal cushion of Raja Muzaffar Syah is removed, then the rug, until he is left with nothing to sit on except a mat such as ordinary people use. When Tun Fatimah's confinement period is over, which is forty days, her son is proclaimed as the successor.

The Sultan easily abdicates his throne, and as easily does away with his two sons to follow the whims and fancies of a woman. The fact that she cannot possibly forgive a murderous ruler, who gives way to his lust, and kills all her male family members, is not elaborated. The act of killing her unborn babies becomes an act of selfishness; but the fact that she cannot carry to term a progeny of violence is passed over in silence. Tun Fatimah has no control over her marriage, however, she seems to hold the trump card for her own offspring to take over the dynastic lineage. She works through her husband, and adapts to patriarchy by using her femaleness and sexuality until she gets what she wants, but at a great cost. The ruler loses two sons, and more importantly, the Melakan empire loses all its glory to the Portuguese. The fall of Melaka is indirectly attributed to Tun Fatimah's active participation in court politics.

Does time change the perception of women's participation in Malay politics? The Precious Gift, which comes nearly three centuries after The Malay Annals, describes the pattern of events that leads to the Bugis intervention in Malay politics, and how the covenant between the Malay-Bugis is broken time and again by a selfish Malay faction. A Malay princess plays a large part in making way for the Bugis to launch themselves in Malay politics, which later becomes a sore point with Malay aristocrats who see themselves losing power to the military might of the Bugis clan.

The Sultan of Johor, a former Bendahara, finds his position threatened by the son of the assassinated ruler. The Sultan is of non-royal descent who has gained his royalty through regicide. The previous ruler, Sultan Mahmud, has murdered his chieftain’s pregnant wife. This is how the story goes:

"This is the account of the reasons why the sovereignty of the Kings of Malacca passed to their Bendaharas. According to the story, the last descendant of Seri Teri Buana and the Kings of the Singapore, Malacca and Johor periods was Sultan Mahmud, a Johor king. It is said that he took a peri, a type of genie, as his wife, and so had no desire for marriage with a human spouse. Once, when the ruler was sleeping, someone brought him a ripe jackfruit as a gift, which the palace steward kept until the king should wake. By chance, Megat Seri Rama's pregnant wife came by. She had a craving for jackfruit, and begged the steward for a slice. He gave her one, and she went away.

When the king awoke, he wished to eat the jackfruit, so the steward brought it to him, and said, Something unfortunate has happened; I have just given some to Megat Seri Rama's wife, rather than turn her away. On hearing this, His Majesty was furious and ordered Megat Seri Rama's wife to be summoned. He then ripped open her belly and pulled the child from her womb. Thus Megat Seri Rama's wife died". (42)

The chieftain, with the Bendahara's help, assassinates the Sultan as he is borne aloft on his retainers' shoulders. The Bendahara proclaims himself as the Sultan of Johor. After nineteen years of peaceful reign, the Sultan is faced with an intruder, Raja Kecik, who claims that he is the son of the murdered Sultan Mahmud, and there are three versions given of how he is conceived: 1) Sultan Mahmud desires his fairy wife, ejaculates, and orders Encik Pung, a concubine wife, who happens to be in the room, to eat his semen. She becomes pregnant. 2) The Majesty dies with an erect penis because he desires Encik Pung before he dies, so she is requested by the court officials to have sex with the dead man whose penis only relaxes after the act. She then becomes pregnant. 3) Encik Pung is already pregnant when the Sultan dies.

Obviously the scribe, by telling the three versions of the existence of Raja Kecik, is trying to raise doubts about the legitimacy of the claim. The men of the ruling Sultan, however, appear too weak to oppose the charges; Raja Kecik has managed to convince the sea-people that his conception is attributed to divine power which is endowed upon the rightful monarch. At such a critical period which seems to paralyze the male court officials, Tengku Tengah, a daughter of the Sultan, decides to take charge. She implores a family of five Bugis princes, immigrants from another part of Malay Archipelago, who have great military might, to restore her father's honour:

"... Tengku Tengah stood at the entrance to the guests’ gallery, opened the screen and threw down her ear stud, saying: O Bugis Princes, if you are truly brave, avenge the shame of our family. When that is done, I shall willingly be your slave, and even if you ordered me to cook your rice, I would do it" (49).

One of the princes, Opu Daeng Parani, takes up her offer and makes her his second wife, and promises to avenge her family's shame. The same prince goes on to marry two other women; each time the group of brothers restores peace to a city-state, he marries one of the daughters of the rulers. The Sultan's honour is restored; Tengku Tengah is seen as courageous, a woman warrior who even dares to face her father's assailants with a sword. She adopts the masculine stance of the aggressive avenger, symbolized in the throwing of her ear stud. However, after revenge is done, she voluntarily abandons her masculinity, and goes back as a domesticated female - the woman who cooks rice for her husband. This transformation from femininity to masculinity to femininity again correlates with Lefkowitz's framework that an act of courage, a streak of masculinity, is but ephemeral - the influential woman "takes action to preserve and then returns to her families" (54).

We can draw some conclusions here about women and power, based on the two texts. There seems to be two types of participation - the honourable way of female intervention, and the dishonourable way. Tengku Tengah is an example of an honourable assertion of power; she acts to preserve her family's royalty, not her own son, from a dubious claimant. She does not seem to get any immediate reward; in fact, her husband dies quite soon after her marriage. Tengku Tengah stops interfering when order is restored. However, the chronicler gives a warning to his readers of the possible repercussions from the behaviour of assertive women: "The reader knows what women will do; when they are angry or full of hatred they act rashly, heedless of consequences" (PG, 53). Thus, for all her courage, there is still a lack of confidence in prolonged female political participation. The women in The Malay Annals, on the other hand, indicate the dishonourable way of assertion of power. Their methods of participation are dangerous. The scribe provides his readers with the other side of the picture - what women are capable of if they get the upper hand. His examples confirm that women should stay away from politics.

It is clear that the authors of the court narratives believe that women do not and should not have executive power. Gender distinction exists as part of the formal structure of a feudal society, and I believe that the scribes give warning signals to the audience of the repercussions of female intervention. The fact that the women seem to wield power in their domestic capacity shows their innovation and adaptibility to the restrictive condition, yet, their participation is at best perceived as an intrusion, and is not at all favourable to men. The typical male reaction is a confirmation of the subordinate status of the women in feudal Malay society.


[1]I have used Sejarah Melayu. ed. W.G. Shellabear as the primary source, and The Malay Annals. trans. C.C. Brown as the translated version. There are some differences in the two variant versions, and where appropriate, I have translated passages from Sejarah Melayu (SM).


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