Malay Annals and the appeal of superheroes

Characters in works like Sejarah Melayu speak to deeper human desires and fears

While the two are not natural bedfellows, courtly hikayats (stories) like Sejarah Melayu and American superhero comics like Iron Man share some stark similarities.

Both feature living beings, usually humans, with superpowers. Both detail the origin stories of these beings. Most importantly, both forms are not just entertainment. Rather, they are allegories that speak to deeper human desires and fears. In his book Do The Gods Wear Capes? (2011), Ben Saunders suggests that the narrative about the Marvel superhero character Iron Man is really an exploration of the human will to transform the world on the basis of reason and technology, while Spiderman is a story about Everyman's struggles with his gifts and failures. We can ask the same of the superhuman characters in Sejarah Melayu. What do they represent?

Most Singaporeans know the legend of Sang Nila Utama, the Indonesian prince who gave Singapura its name. Fewer people are aware of the tale of his father Sang Sapurba, the first in the long line of Malay royals.

This is where we should begin. Sang Sapurba appears early on in the text when he magically manifested himself on Bukit Seguntang, a hill in Palembang, alongside two other royals, Nila Pahlawan and Chandra Pandita.

One version puts them down as brothers, but the version by (John) Leyden is less clear about their relations. Regardless, Sang Sapurba claims to be a descendant of Raja Suran, who was in turn descended from Iskandar Zulkarnain.

Magical things happen with Sang Sapurba's sudden appearance. The night before, the rice fields on the hill where he would appear gleamed and glittered like fire. Come daylight, it was discovered that the rice grains had turned to gold, their leaves to silver and their stalks to brass. The white bull that Sang Sapurba rode on morphed into a human being named Bat'h, who immediately sang praises of the king.

These miraculous events gained the attention of the Palembang chief Demang Lebar Daun who kindly hosted the three royals as his guests. Demang had a beautiful daughter named Wan Sundaria, whom Sang Sapurba married. But, this was a marriage secured on certain conditions. For the two to wed, Demang agreed to install Sang Sapurba as king as long as he never treats Demang's descendants with disrespect, shame or opprobrious language.

In return, Demang vowed that his descendants would always be loyal to Sang Sapurba's lineage, even if they were to behave tyrannically. Later in his life, Sang Sapurba moved from Palembang to Minangkabau, where he once again became king after instructing one of his warriors to kill a giant serpent that had been terrorising the land using his magical sword, Chora Sa Mendang Kian.


While there is no mention of Singapura in the legend of Sang Sapurba, his story lays down some foundational myths about the concept of citizenship that are reinforced in later stories, including Sang Nila Utama's. One is the idea that citizenship is not defined by where you come from but what you do at a place.

The tale of Sang Sapurba, the metaphorical father of the Malays, suggests that the community is itself prone to migration. Indeed, Sang Sapurba was himself a migrant who had made both Palembang and Minangkabau his home, contributing to these places in ways that changed the norms of how society operated there. Sang Sapurba is a citizen made of roots and routes.


The story should not be taken as weakening the indigenous status of the Malays as bumiputera, or sons of the soil. Rather, it suggests that this group is neither insular nor static. Their identity changes as they move through time and space.

The Malays today may be Muslims, but they were once Hindus - making them inheritors of two great traditions. Yet they were not just passive recipients. They had transformed these traditions into something they could call their own.

Thinking of contemporary Singapore, we might ask ourselves how the legend of Sang Sapurba can help us think about citizenship, identity and belonging.

Let us turn to another character, Badang. Little known by the Singapore public, Badang took centre stage in 2015 when his legend was performed at the National Day Parade. His origin story was just as fantastical as Sang Sapurba. Like the king, Badang was a migrant who made his mark elsewhere, contributing much to his new home, Singapura.

Depending on which accounts you read, Badang was either of Orang Asli or Siamese descent. He worked at Salwang, believed to be in modern-day Aceh in Sumatra, as a slave but later became a great warrior as a result of a fantastic encounter.

Over several days while out fishing for his master, Badang noticed that the fishes he had trapped were reduced to bones. He decided to camp out to catch the thief, and discovered that it was a water spirit.

Steeling himself, Badang confronted the spectre, who offered to grant Badang anything he wished if he were to let it go. Badang agreed and chose great strength. The process was nothing short of icky. Badang had to consume whatever the spirit threw up, which he did.

Returning to his master's land, Badang cleared the jungle in record time. Impressed and indebted, his master set Badang free from the bondage of slavery. Badang then travelled to Singapura, a thriving kingdom, where he demonstrated his strength to its king by launching a large boat into the water on his own, when 3,000 men had earlier failed. For this, the king appointed him the special post of court champion, or hulubalang. Later, Badang bested the champion of a rival kingdom in South India when he hurled a heavy rock from the king's palace to the mouth of the Singapore river. The rock is today known as the Singapore Stone, fragments of which are on display at the National Museum of Singapore.


There is no doubt that the legend of Badang reproduces the duality of roots and routes in Sang Sapurba's tale when it comes to sense of belonging.

While there is no mention of Singapura in the legend of Sang Sapurba, his story lays down some foundational myths about the concept of citizenship that are reinforced in later stories, including Sang Nila Utama's. One is the idea that citizenship is not defined by where you come from but what you do at a place.

Yet, one important difference between the two legends can be couched along class lines. Sang Sapurba is a story about an elite who had assumed his natural place in the hierarchy of things. Readers then and now expected that he ended up where he did.

Badang, on the other hand, is a rags-to-riches story. From a position of low status within the Malay world, Badang rose to a position of high station.

At first glance, it seems only natural to speak of Badang's legend as prefiguring Singapore's contemporary practice of meritocracy. But it is important to note here that Badang attained his success not out of sheer effort alone. Badang's success story was a rarity as opposed to the narrative of Singapore's meritocracy, which pitches success as something attainable to anyone who works hard.

Badang did not just work hard, but he had also resorted to dubious means such as threats. His success also necessitated a lot of intervention from more powerful beings - the water spirit, his master and the king. Seen in this light, his story places as much emphasis on outside help as much as one's own wit.

On the topic of wit, it is apt to now revisit the legend of the child genius who had saved Singapore from a relentless attack by shoals of garfish, or todak.

This is an important but tragic story that had given two places in modern Singapore their names, Tanjong Pagar (or, fenced cape) and Bukit Merah (or, red hill). Despite its significance, Sejarah Melayu only has a short description of it in chapter 10 of the Leyden version.

An interesting aspect of the story concerns the gender of the child. While the Malay noun "budak" was used to describe the child genius, Leyden had translated it as "boy". The child's gender was later affirmed in popular culture when the child was given the male name Hang Nadim in the 1961 film Singapura Dilanggar Todak. Today, with changing attitudes to gender roles, it is necessary to ask if the child could in fact be female.

When news of the garfish attack reached the king Paduka Sri Maharaja, he ordered his men to form a "human wall" of their thighs to stop the garfishes from reaching inland. This resulted in a high number of casualties until a child suggested that the king should construct a wall made from plantain stems instead.

The king found the child's plan to be sound, and ordered it done. True enough, the attack ceased and very few lives were lost. The place came to be known as Tanjong Pagar.

Sadly, the king's advisers said that the child could one day outwit the king, and recommended to have him or her killed. While this was not captured in Sejarah Melayu, it was said that the king had hired assassins to murder the child in his sleep at his home on a hill. That hill came to be known as Bukit Merah.

This is a difficult story to stomach. It appears to uphold the earlier pact made between Sang Sapurba and Demang Daun Lebar that a king has to be obeyed even if he was badly behaved. In this sense, the story could be taken as suggesting that the Malays value loyalty over justice, making them an uncritical lot with little capacity for political action.

However, it is important to note that the injustice suffered by the child genius did have repercussions.

Leyden's version of Sejarah Melayu has it that "the guilt of his (or her) blood lay upon the country", suggesting some kind of curse at work.

Soon after the child's death, the Maharaja too died, and Singapura's rule was passed over to his son Iskandar Shah. Iskandar's time as king was equally fraught. Enraged by rumours of infidelity about one of his concubines, Iskandar sentenced her to death.

Furious at this wrongdoing, her father Sang Rajuna Tapa, who was also the prime minister, decided to betray his king to the rival Majapahit empire, effectively ending the reign of Sang Sapurba's descendants in Singapura.

If we consider the extended version of the story of the child genius, it does appear that what goes around comes around. This complicates the view that Malays are prone to authoritarian rulers. On the contrary, it can be taken as a warning to despots.

There are many other "superheroes" in Sejarah Melayu whose stories deserve unpacking. One of these is the pelanduk or wily mousedeer, a non-human character, that had made a brief appearance in Sejarah Melayu.

As Sultan Iskandar fled north of Singapura to seek a new settlement, he witnessed a mousedeer chasing one of his dogs to the river's edge. Inspired by the mousedeer's courage, Iskandar decided to establish a kingdom at the mouth of the river, naming it Melaka because he was sitting under a tree of that name as this happened.

In Malay folklore, the mousedeer came to symbolise not just courage, but also wit. There is even an entire hikayat dedicated to it by the title of Hikayat Sang Kancil. It is not a stretch to say that the pelanduk story channels the preference for brains over brawn that similarly animates the legend of the child genius of Singapura.

• Nazry Bahrawi is a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. This is an edited excerpt from an e-book on the Singapore Bicentennial. Titled 1299: The Myths Of The Lettered Native, the e-book explains the significance of and retells stories from the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), a seminal text for the world of Malay literature. The e-book is available at https://www.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 15, 2019, with the headline 'Malay Annals and the appeal of superheroes'. Subscribe