Banditry in the UMS: Panglima Nayan

The idea of ‘Malayness’ as an essentially racial category, possessing its own ethnic roots, language and broad parameters,[1] have been incessantly a point of dispute in the protracted historical trajectory of political governance, Malay nationalism and Malaysian historiography. Nineteenth century understanding of ‘Malayness’ as a social identity was concerned with legitimating the continuance of a line of royal kingship, a ‘Melakan tradition,’ that descended from Srivijaya and the dominance of a patron-client relationship of power, prestige and patronage between the populace and royalty. The sovereignty of kingship (kerajaan), the local social customs and traditions (adat) and the severity of treason against authority (derhaka) were firmly entrenched as seemingly rigid rules demarcating Malay identity.’[2]

At the advent of British colonial direct intervention in Malaya beginning with the Pankor Treaty of 1874, a high incidence of lawlessness in crime characterized the Unfederated Malay States as the Malay social system of governance confronted and negotiated with British imperial political undertakings. This period of transition towards British rule saw the rise of Malay bandits, such as Panglima Nayan in Kedah, who were later romanticized in folklore of which exhibited changes and continuities in Malay traditions.  The occurrence of crime should be understood not solely as unlawful acts but also as a struggle over the appropriation of symbols to give banditry meaning within Malaysian local history for defining ‘Malayness.’

Through the case of Panglima Nayan and crime, I examine the significance for the mythologization of Malay bandits such as Nayan and how British colonialism altered the traditional patron-client relationship in Malay society. The pillars of Malay tradition, that of kerajaan, derhaka and the adat, are shown to be highly mutable as the local people in Kedah negotiated to retain a social significance familiar to themselves. The creation of ‘Malay-Malayness’ as a social identity and the ‘Melakan tradition’ is consequently demonstrated as an invention of tradition resulting from the intersection of historical, cultural and social elements.

Michael Wesser suggests that crime reveals certain forms of communication within a community no longer function as originally intended. [3] Adding to this, J. A Sharpe attributes the loss of these functions to conflicting sets of official and unofficial interpretations of the legal system.[4] The 1874 Pankor and 1909 treaties saw the misunderstanding and encroachment of British imperial policy over Malay economics, politics and administration, in the Unfederated Malay states, leading to the dissolution and loss of the traditional contract of the Malay patron client relationship and giving rise to new adaptations in the form of banditry.

Prior to British colonialism, Kedah was already showing strains in social relations in the form of crime. Even by 1921, more than a decade after the British-Siamese treaty of 1909, the state had been ill developed, possessing few roads, a population living in scattered villages distant from each other and punctuated with few police stations in-between not linked by any lines of communication to enforce local law and order.[5] In the northern Kedah-Perlis frontier as well as the in the South of Kedah, a significant segment of the population were Sam-Sams, locals who spoke the Siamese language and who had adopted Islam. Many were apprehended for cattle and house thefts[6] while others were apathetic and connived with other Sam-Sams, making the regulation of the law even more difficult. Moreover, the large segment of tropical forests and hills of in the central rice growing plains Kedah gave cover to gangs of various ethnicities who knew the terrain well while South Kedah, chiefly in the mining town of Kulim, was burdened by Chinese secret societies running opium joints, brothels and gambling dens.[7]

The demarcation and rift between the rich and the poor was growing precariously wide in Kedah by 1900. As early as the seventeenth century, the principal export for Kedah was rice and the monopoly lay in the hands of the Sultan and aristocracy, supported by Indian and Chulia merchants. The monopoly changed hands by the middle of the nineteenth century as the Sultan granted Kedah’s revenue farms to Chinese merchants. Landownership however, remained primarily in the Malay landlords. Sizable amounts of land was conferred to them by the Sultan prior to 1909, giving them the benefit of possessing the financial capacity to purchase more land and creating a new landed Malay elite when the British put up land for sale after 1909.[8] The Sultan absolved Penghulus (village headmen) and the other members of royalty and aristocracy of the land tax (hasil tanah) or land rent (sewa tanah) and these men garnered revenue of the mukim (sub-district of villages) and enforced kerah (corvee labor) on the peasantry.[9] On the other hand, by 1909, Kedah’s Malay peasantry had become an impoverished and exploited class mainly due to the immense pressure from the Sultan, landed aristocrats and the revenue farmers to produce more rice.[10]

The British haphazard takeover in the Treaty of 1909 displayed an assertive attempt at putting in place a dispassionate bureaucracy to weaken traditional Malay patronage structures. This political and economic encroachment brought with entailed also a cultural intrusion on the local Malay social system, increasingly disempowering the natives by limiting their ability in defining and maintaining their own local systems of power. The increased centralization by the British made the Sultan and local chiefs salaried workers, increasingly edged out of their traditional capacity to dispense patronage. With the Land enactment act of October 1909, the traditional royal right to exact kerah, was removed from the Sultan and Penghulus.[11] This change meant that the Sultan not only loss direct control over revenue and labor but also the capacity to dispense traditional patronage in kind that played a part in keeping the peoples’ obeisance. Both the aristocracy and peasantry liable to regular payments of land tax and rent while additional licenses and taxes compounded the situation. Peasants could no longer pay off their dues in terms of labor and with unchecked demands on them for public works alongside confiscation of produce surpluses by the state; the Kedah peasantry was pushed into new forms of economic and political vulnerabilities.[12] Apart from leaving for other states or writing to Sultans in demand for justice, peasants increasingly turned to crime as an unofficial system for self-help and social mobility.[13] Within this context, the emergence of new local leaders who were bandits in the Northern Malay state such as Panglima Nayan represented the notion of dissolution and change in Malay traditional leadership and authority as a result of British colonialism.

Varying accounts on the perceptions towards Nayan as an outlaw and mythological hero, as well as his relation to the local bandit chief, Sulaiman Kerekai of Guar Kepayang, had been delineated by Cheah Boon Kheng in his book, The Peasant Robbers of Kedah, 1900-1929. On one hand, Nayan is described as a rebel and rogue who coveted women and pilfered with his gang from the rich, a disturbance to the landed elite and women. On the other, Nayan in the eyes of the local poor and the youth living at greater distances from where he struck regarded him as a Robin Hood figure to be celebrated and supported.[14] The success of Nayan is associated in both accounts to the patronage and protection of Sulaiman, while Nayan’s fall is framed as an instance of derhaka and the lost of this new form of patron-client relationship. Finally, Nayan is romanticized in Mansor Abdullah’s novel where the patronage he receives from Sulaiman is removed and he becomes in folk tradition the champion of social justice. Present in all accounts is the myth of Nayan possessing mystical powers and great skill in martial arts.[15]

Why would society glorify and romanticize bandits? The basic significance of Nayan was catering to the immediate needs of the local people. Nayan represented the peasants who were politically powerless, the inarticulate and the poor who did not have the avenue for recourse in a Malay society that had its traditional framework of mutual protection confronting vicissitude. Nayan fits into E.J. Hobsbawm’s description of the ‘social bandit,’ the peasant outlaw whom the ‘state regards as criminals, but who remain within peasant society’ and represents a form social protest and justice. [16] Nayan fulfilled the role of ‘satisfying repressed wishes, enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities.’[17] The peasants considered what was being done not as theft but as the receiving of what they felt entitled to by earlier custom.[18]

The case of Panglima Nayan depicted the change in patron-client relationship on the ground and the fluidity of the notions of kerajaan, derhaka and the adat. Nayan’s relation with Sulaiman and other Penghulus in a web of connivance depicts crime as an alternative, adaptive strategy for a penurious peasantry. The patron encompassed in the ideas of kerajaan has necessarily shifted from being the Sultan and his courts to patrons (landlords, the penghulus or ketua kampungs) who were the immediate brokers of wealth and power in the contiguous localities of the village level. The severity of Derhaka is still reiterated but is no longer inviolable. Moreover, the adat, has is shown to be flexible where although not all Penghulus were criminals, they now had the tendency to connive or have a policy of “live and let live” with bandits. In this light, we can see the continuity in kerajaan, derhaka and the adat but these are shown to have an open-endedness in them being liable to personal interpretations in real life.

On another level, we see the continuity and changes of the idealized Malay hero that forms part of the construction of Malay tradition. The ideal conception of the feudal Malay hero is the image of the “Magical-Warrior.” [19] Many feudal cultural symbols are appropriated in Nayan’s myth to liken him to the folk hero Hang Tuah although with evident adaptations to the times.  While Hang Tuah is praised as brave, courageous, sincere and dedicated to his Sultan,[20] Nayan is portrayed as rising in defense of the common folk regardless of ethnicity. In this case, Nayan’s myth is used to represent a form of protest and the shift of civic nationalism towards the Malay peoples, not to the Sultans or colonial authorities. Nayan’s adeptness in Silat under Awang Panjang is likened to Hang Tuah’s fame and prominence at the Malay courts through martial prowess. Equally, Nayan is created to possess supernatural invulnerability and skill like Hang Tuah but has the additional capacity to wield the piston and gun and immunity to both blade and bullet.[21] These modifications and adaptations also have resonances in tales of Malay heroes such as the Hikayat Siak of Raka Kecil.[22]

Eric Hobsbawm argues that the ‘invention’ of tradition occurs especially when rapid ‘transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed, producing new ones to which they were no applicable, or when such old traditions and their institutional carriers and promulgators no longer prove sufficiently adaptable and flexible.’[23] Conversely, in light of the Malay tradition of Kerajaan, although Colonialism altered the traditional patron client relationship in Malay society, adaptation took place for old uses in the new conditions and by using old models for new purposes. In the mythologization of Nayan, we see the appeal and construction of “Malayness” in Nayan through the use of an existing framework in the form of a cultural script and with roles pre-determined by tradition. The moral code advanced is one that is based on a traditional patron client relationship but with an emphasis in upholding loyalties in the new patron-client relations that colonialism had ushered in. The old institutions with established functions, references to the past (Sejarah Melayu, Hikayat Hang Tuah, Siak) and ritual idioms (derhaka, daulat, kerajaan) and practices still kept a nominal continuity in past tradition but tended to personal interpretation by individuals.

In conclusion, by examining the case of Panglima Nayan and crime in Kedah, it is evident that Colonialism did infringe on the traditional Malay social hierarchy and governance. The traditional patron-client relationship had changed whereby the Sultan retained his symbolic powers but the spheres of influence had shifted to the local elites who negotiated in their own way to retain a social significance familiar to them.

The folklore and myths of ideal Malay heroes such as Nayan and Hang Tuah has become the repository of a Malay identity that harks back to a blend of historical and mythic accounts of Malay loyalty and greatness. These myths, together with the indeterminate ideas of Kerajaan, Daulat and adat form a part of the formation of a ‘Malay-Malayness’ social identity and illustrates that the invention of Malay/Melakan tradition results from the intersection of historical, cultural and social elements. The mutability of folklore and tradition will be shaped for various definitions of ‘Melayu’ within the context of contesting forms of nationalism in the years leading up to and after Malaysian Independence.[24]


[1] Anthony Reid. 2001. ‘Understanding Melayu(Malay) as a Source of Diverse Modern Identities.’ Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Oct.): 305.

[2] A.C. Milner. 1982. Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

[3] Weisser, Michael R. 1979. Crime and Punishment in early Modern Europe. Sussex: Harvester Press. pp. 14-15

[4] Sharpe, J.A. 1984. Crime in Early Modern England, 1550-1750. Essex: Longmans, pp. 122.

[5] Cheah Boon Keng. 1988. The Peasant Robbers of Kedah, 1900-1929. Singapore: Oxford University Press. pp. 28

[6] David J. Banks. 1980. ‘Politics and Ethnicity at the Thai-Malay Frontier: The Historical Role of the Thai-speaking Muslims of Kedah.’ Kabar Seberang Sulating Maphilindo, No. 7 (July): 98-113.

[7] Sharon Ahmat. 1984. Tradition and Change in a Malay State: A Study of the Economic and Political Development of Kedah, 1878-1923. Kuala Lumpur, MBRAS Monograph No.12, 90-1.

[8] Cheah. The Peasant Robbers of Kedah, 1900-1929. pp. 33

[9] Ibid., pp. 23.

[10] Ahmat. Tradition and Change in a Malay State. pp. 17-45.

[11] W.G. Maxwell. Kedah Annual Report for the Year 1327 A.H. (23 January 1909-12 January 1910). pp. 17, 20, 21.

[12] Cheah. The Peasant Robbers of Kedah, 1900-1929. pp. 34-35.

[13] Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Resistance. New Haven, Yale University Press. pp. 265-73.

[14] Cheah Boon Keng. 1988. The Peasant Robbers of Kedah, 1900-1929. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

pp. 66-78.

[15] Ibid., pp. 62-65.

[16] Hobsbaum, E.J. Bandits. 1972. London: Penguin books. pp.17.

[17] Burke, Peter. 1983. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 165-6.

[18] Scott. Weapons of the Weak. pp. 269.

[19] Shaharuddin, B. Maaruf. 1984. Concept of a Hero in Malay Society. Singapore: Eastern University Press.

pp. 60-77.

[20] Hasrom, B.Haron. 1976. Sejarah Tanah Melayu 1400-1965. Kuala Lumpur: Preston Times Sdn. Bhd. pp.9-12. 

[21] Cheah. The Peasant Robbers of Kedah, 1900-1929. pp.66.

[22] Timothy P. Barnard. 2003. ‘Charisma and the formation of a kacu polity’ in Multiple Centre of Authority: Society and environment in Siak and eastern Sumatra, 1674-1827. Leiden: KITLV Press. pp. 57-78.

[23] Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press. pp.4-5.

[24] Shamsul A. B. 2001. 2001.A History of an Identity, an Identity of a History: The Idea and Practice of ‘Malayness’ in Malaysia Reconsidered. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Oct.): pp. 355-366

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