Culture History

Originally seen as a traitor, Hang Jebat may be the story’s real hero 500 years later.

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[This article was originally published in December 2019.]


Mention the name Hang Tuah and you may remember him from our Sejarah textbook, movies or theater like this:

Hang Tuah movie by P Ramlee. Img from Alchetron

Hang Tuah movie starring P Ramlee. Img from Alchetron

But in case you’re like super young or something and dunno who he is, Hang Tuah was a warrior who lived during the reign of the then Sultan Melaka, Sultan Mansur Shah sometime in the fifteenth century. He was also said to be one of the most powerful admirals (laksamana) of the Sultan at that time.

If you forgot how the story goes, according to the Hikayat Hang Tuah, Hang Tuah was the Sultan’s favourite. The other Sultan’s commanders were jealous of him so they accused him of adultery with one of the Sultan’s court ladies. When the Sultan found out about that, he ordered the Bendahara to execute Hang Tuah without investigating those allegations. But the Bendahara decided to hide Hang Tuah instead.

Despite that, everyone thought Hang Tuah was dead and this includes his best friends, one of them being Hang Jebat. Upset by the Sultan’s injustice towards Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat ran amok in the palace. The Sultan, who saw this, kinda regretted his decision to execute Hang Tuah because he was the only one who could actually stop Hang Jebat (read: kill Hang Jebat). In the story, thousands of men died trying to execute Hang Jebat.

Long story short, Hang Tuah ‘came back from the dead’, and executed Hang Jebat, who was pretty much shocked to see his bff alive, upon the Sultan’s order. The story ended with Hang Tuah being hailed as the hero of the story (we’ll explain more on this in a bit).

However, centuries later, studies found an ultimate…

plot twist

Yes it means plot twist

… to this story. And that is…


The real hero of the story might actually be… Hang Jebat!

Well, at least, according to author, poet and politician in the early days of Malaya and later Malaysia, Kassim Ahmad.

Kassim Ahmad. Img from Aliran

The late Kassim Ahmad. Img from Aliran

Kassim, who was vocal on his views about socialism which later led to his arrest under the Internal Security Act in the 70s, was known for several of his controversial works. One of them was the Characterisation in Hang Tuah where he analysed the characters in the Hikayat Hang Tuah.

And, based on this analysis, he pretty much concluded that Hang Jebat was the real hero of the story.

“Essentially he (Hang Jebat) is a rebel, a revolutioner, a man whose ideas are too radical for his own times. He is, in truth, a hero of another age.” – Kassim in his thesis.

Hang Jebat. Img from Wikipedia

Hang Jebat. Img from Wikipedia

But before we get deeper into that, let’s take a look at why Hang Tuah was hailed as the hero all this while. And to do that, we gotta take a time machine to when the Malay community were still practicing feudalism.

So back in the 15th century, it was considered ideal to be absolutely loyal and obedient to one’s master as it fulfills the idea of the basic Malay society. In this story, it means being loyal to the Sultan la. Hang Tuah was considered loyal to the Sultan although the Sultan tried to kill him once. He carried out Sultan Mansur’s orders by killing his own best friend, Hang Jebat at the end of the story.

On the other hand, Hang Jebat was seen as a traitor because he wasn’t loyal to the Sultan. In fact, when he was given the Paduka Raja title, he allegedly went on a killing spree in the palace that had somewhat caused the Sultan to back off to the Bendahara’s house. He caused chaos to the kingdom which was why the Sultan had ordered Hang Tuah to execute him.

If Hang Jebat is that awful of a person, then why did Kassim claimed that he is the real hero?

Answer: Kassim analysed this story from the twentieth century point of view when our society became more democratic.

When you see it from this point of view, you may see how Hang Tuah was blindly following the Sultan’s order without questioning or even considering whether it was the right thing to do.

Hang Tuah was probably like... Img from Scalar

Hang Tuah was probably like… Img from Scalar

You’d also see Hang Jebat’s good traits despite what he did at the end of the story. According to Kassim’s analysis, some of them are…

  • He was loyal to his friends
  • He stood up to his beliefs

And, based on another study called ‘Matinya Seorang Pahlawan – Hang Jebat‘, Hang Jebat also stood up for the rakyat’s rights against a cruel leader. From a democratic point of view, it may make sense why the modern generation are the ones who would normally hail Hang Jebat as the real hero of this story.

[QUIZ] Can you guess what Malaysian students nowadays carry in their bags?

Although Kassim personally favours Hang Jebat, he also pointed out in his thesis that…


There are NO actual heroes in the legend of Hang Tuah

“In our opinion, viewed objectively, this story has no hero. Obviously Tuah is heroic; and Jebat is heroic too. But each perform his heroism from a post slightly off the central position which is the hero’s own.” – Kassim in his thesis.

Wat heck

Wat heck

Okay, okay, we know how confusing this sounds but basically, according to Kassim both Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat are heroes to two extreme ends. And both characters resemble two different ideologies.

Hang Tuah is said to resemble the adoption of the traditional ideology where people generally have no say in the decision making of a nation.

Hang Jebat, on the other hand, is said to resemble the new democratic ideology where people can defend their rights from the authority if they feel that the authority is being unfair or cruel towards them. So the fatal confrontation between Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat was to apparently show social conflict.

These characters are called culture heroesmythological heroes to some groups, be it culturally or ethnically – rather than national epic heroes. And unlike other national heroes like King Arthur, Kassim pointed out that both characters also fulfill the criteria of a national hero. Some of the characteristics of a national epic hero are someone who’s a noble birth, has superhuman capabilities, cultural legend and a vast traveler, among other characteristics.

Hang Tuah. Img from

Hang Tuah. Img from

But like we mentioned earlier, Kassim looked at the Hikayat Hang Tuah from the twentieth century point of view. There are arguments that this view is a bit unfair considering how the story was set back in the 15th century where democracy was a foreign concept to the society at that time.

And since both characters are deemed as culture heroes, it may make sense why some believe that Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat are purely fictional. But…


Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat are real people based on documents written by… Da Vinci!?

Actually, there are more arguments when it comes to the Hikayat Hang Tuah besides who the real hero is such as how Hang Tuah is actually a Chinese dude or how these characters don’t exist at all. Historian Prof Khoo Kay Kim once even suggested to remove Hang Tuah from textbooks because he and the other characters from the Hikayat Hang Tuah are just myths.

It may make sense why he said that considering how these characters are made to sound a bit unbelievable with their super-human and mystical powers.

“The story has been made (so) flowery that the real essence of the figure is lost. He (Hang Tuah) has been glorified too much that he became mystical or legendary.” – Prof Datuk Dr Yusoff Hashim, vice-chancellor of the Malacca Islamic University College (KUIM) told The Star.

It’s pretty much like telling your friends that you have epic superpowers or…

Sure... Img from Pinterest

…this. Img from Pinterest

In fact, when you look at the history of the Hikayat Hang Tuah, you’d find that it’s actually a story inspired by real characters from the Malay Annals. Yusoff pointed out that Hang Tuah’s name was mentioned in 19 out of 28 chapters of the Malay Annals. Kassim also added that these characters have been modified and assumed a few artistic life of their own in the Hikayat.

And if you still have doubts on whether these characters are real or not, researchers from Universiti Putra Malaysia apparently found that they are… through a document called Notes of Leonardo Da Vinci written by… Da Vinci himself!?

“In that note, Da Vinci wrote ‘I drew a vehicle after meeting up with the rich people of Malacca’ and the words afterwards weren’t really clear whether it mentioned laksamana or Hang Tuah.” – Excerpt from Harian Metro.

But this may be a story for another day la.

At the end of the day, you may wanna look at Hikayat Hang Tuah from a bigger perspective. This is because, according to political scientist and historian Dr Farish A. Noor, Hang Tuah played a role in shaping the political and social consciousness in Malaysia. Farish mentioned that this itself more important than any arguments about the Hikayat.

“He is powerful in the sense that people turn to myths on how to live out their lives as there are certain models of behaviour. There are debates on who is the real hero Hang Tuah or Hang Jebat for instance.” – Farish told The Star.

Hang Tuah (sitting) and Hang Jebat (lying down). Img from

Hang Tuah (sitting) and Hang Jebat (lying down). Img from


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