Pre-Colonial Malay Class Structure October 3, 2018 – Posted in: Book Excerpts

It is often convenient and acceptable to define the pre-colonial Malay society as constituting two broad classes, namely, kelas pemerintah / golongan bangsawan (the ruling class or aristocracy) and golongan rakyat (subject class or peasantry). This mode of class analysis implies a dichotomic scheme of a non-producing and politically dominating class as against a producing and politically dominated class manifesting a division in economic function and the political structure. Each of these classes, however, was heterogeneous rather than homogeneous.

The ruling class can be further subdivided into the royal and nonroyal aristocracy. The former, sometimes known as Kerabat Diraja (the royal core group), traced descent from a common ancestor while the latter did not. The royal aristocracy constituted the ‘core group’ of the Perak sultanate. At the apex of the sultanate was the ruler with the title Sultan (the Arabic name for ruler or king) or Raja (from Hindu tradition) or Yang Di Pertuan (He Who is Made Lord) (Gullick 1965, 44). Ascendance to the throne of the state was based on seniority and rotation of three royal families, all claiming direct descent from the Melaka sultanate.

The other offices below the Sultan were Raja Muda, Sultan Muda, and waris negeri. The first two were assistants and advisers to the ruler while the last is a collective name for ‘Raja Heirs of the state’, (Winstedt and Wilkinson 1974, 134-5). In Perak, as in most other Malay state which had a Sultan as the head of the state, only members of the royalty were entitled to become the Sultan. Some other states like Penang, Melaka, Sabah, and Sarawak, which came into existence as territorial and administrative units created by the British, had British governors beginning from early nineteenth century until independence when they were replaced by indigenous governors who later took the title of the Yang Di Pertuan Negara (Head of State).

The royal families of Perak constituted a lineage which claimed and could trace descent direct through the rulers of Melaka. The latter and most royal families of other Malay states in turn traced descent through 3 common ancestor of three brothers who, in the Malay mythology, descended from heaven to Bukit Siguntang Mahamiru at Palembang on the island of Sumatera. These original ancestors were believed to be sent to earth from the celestial world by God Al-Mighty to be rulers of the Malays.2 Malay rulers also claimed descent through the great emperor of the Middle East Sultan Iskandar Zulkernain (Alexander The Great).

Most of the Malay literature written in the 17th and 18th century like ‘Hikayat Hang Tuah’, ‘Sejarah Melayu’, ‘Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa’, and ‘Misa Melayu’ mentioned the genealogy of the Malay rulers of each state (Melaka, Kedah, and Perak) as a direct descendent of the original rulers from Bukit Siguntang Mahamiru. This literature, which contains stories of the greatness of the Malay rulers in the past is implicitly imbued with the ideology of the ruling class meant to be disseminated among the subject class. One of its functions was to legitimize the ruling hierarchy and the unequal relationship between the two opposing classes.

Legitimation of the relationship of domination and subordination between the classes is derived from a mythological account of the origins of the royal lineage bound in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). It pertains to the covenant or ‘oath of loyalty’ to Sri Tri Buana (original name Sang Utama) the first royal ruler of Palembang affirmed by Demang Lebar Daun, the original but non-royal ruler of Palembang who was evicted from his office and replaced by Sri Tri Buana.3 While Sri Tri Buana represents the ruling class, Demang Lebar Daun symbolically represents the subject class. With this incident originates the two well known Malay concepts of daulat and derhaka which define the authority of the Malay rulers and the obligation of the subject class to the former. Daulat is translated as ‘sovereign’ not only in legal but also in cultural and religious sense (Zainal Abidin Wahid, 1970, 20). A ruler is described as ‘having daulat’ implying that he is sovereign, having rights, privileges and to a certain extent supernatural power over the subject class and therefore commanding unquestioned loyalty from the latter.

Derhaka is a related concept which can be translated as ‘an act of treason’, ‘disloyalty’, or ‘defying the ruler’s sovereignty’. To disobey a ruler and to go against him is to commit treason (derhaka) and this could have grave consequences for anyone who committed such a crime. According to traditional accounts he might be put to death or, sometimes, suffer Supernatural punishment such as being striken by lightening.

Stories in traditional Malay literature often contain several cases epitomising the extreme loyalty of the subjects to the rulers such as that depicted in the personality of Hang Tuah; or cases of ‘treason’ committed by Hang jebat who rebelled against the Sultan of Melaka after the former learnt that his putative brother Hang Tuah had been unjustly punished for a small crime he committed; or the ‘treason’ committed by Megat Seri Rama who was also one of the Sultan’s warriors by murdering Sultan Mahmud Shah of Johore who had put to death his beloved wife because she had eaten a small portion of the Sultan’s jack fruit without the permission and prior knowledge of the Sultan. While Hang Tuah was hailed and celebrated as the folk-hero in pre-colonial times, both Hang Jebat and Megat Seri Rama received severe punishment by death; the latter’s house is described as striken by lightening and uprooted by storm. The stories provided lessons that the subject class were expected to learn in defining their relationship with their ruler.

The non-royal aristocracy comprised; i) The Four Great Chiefs, ii) The Eight Lesser Chiefs, iii) The Sixteen Small Chief, and iv) The Thirty-Two Inferior Chiefs in a descending order of seniority. These were state functionaries often addressed as orang besar (lit. big man) of the state, some of whom were territorial chiefs. The presence of the latter implies the existence of a decentralised form of government. It must be emphasised here that orang besar were not ‘feudal landlords’ or lords of the manor where the relationships of the latter and the peasantry were based on production and the use of land. This class relationship is one of the Structural conditions that distinguishes Asiatic mode of production from feudal mode of production.

The Four Great Chiefs comprised Bendahara (Court Minister), Penghulu Bendahari (Chief Treasurer), Temenggong (Chief of Police), and Mentri (Minister), each having specific functions in the administrative set up of the sultanate. They constituted the primary group of members of Council of Adviser to the Sultan. In former times, all the offices of the Four Chiefs were held by descendents of the great Melaka Bendahara of the 15th century. In later years, these were replaced by members of Megat, Tan Saban (lit. a person chose by the ruler), or Syed (descendents of the Prophet) families of Perak. In Melaka, the office of Bendahara was all the time filled by members of the non-royal aristocracy. In Perak, it had been so only up to the reign of Sultan Iskandar Shah who made a radical break from the past tradition by putting his own brother into the office of Bendahara.4

In theory, the eight Lesser Chiefs were territorial chiefs assigned by the Sultan to look after their territories outside the royal capital. They were to maintain peace and order and to collect taxes, tributes, and royalties on behalf of the ruler of which only a part could be retained by them for their own consumption. The rest was to be passed on to the Sultan. But this was not always realised fully in practice as the Sultan was unable to supervise and control the activities of his territorial chiefs because of difficulties of internal communication between the royal capital and some territorial districts. Perak Malay rulers, therefore, have been described as “not much wealthier than most territorial chiefs”.

Both the Sixteen and Thirty-Two Chiefs were to assist the Eight territorial chiefs. Their function was not clearly specified though they remained as members of the ruling class having direct access to tin mining areas, and collecting tribute and royalty for their own subsistence. Their status was definitely higher than that of the subject class.

The day to day administration was run according to the principle of ‘collective government’. The Sultan himself did not have absolute power. Any important decision he wished to make, he had first to consult the Council of Advisers who were usually the Four Great Chiefs. The latter’s acknowledgement and approval had first to be sought. The Four Great Chiefs and Eight Lesser Chiefs were powerful and a few of them were richer than the Sultan. They had their own followers who were loyal to them. They also had the final say in the selection of a new Sultan to succeed a deceased one.

The most important sources of income of the ruling class were from taxes on trade (toll tax), profits from trading activities, revenue from tin mines, and exploitation of agricultural workers who were ordinary slaves and debtor-slaves (Gullick 1965, 126-8). All these sources of revenue were meant to be the exclusive privilege of members of the ruling class.

Most senior chiefs were granted permits, in the form of surat kuasa (letter of authority), by the ruler to erect toll stations on rivers where most trading vessels passed. Tax on trade was an important source of income as rivers were the most important means of transport where communication by land was still undeveloped. Both imported and exported products were taxed, usually at several stations before they reached the buyers who were traders and consumers. A portion of this collection must be surrendered to the Sultan while the other portion was kept by the chiefs for their private use. Some chiefs engaged themselves in trade or the cultivation of crops on a relatively large scale and some were granted by the ruler tin mining land to carry on the exploitation of this natural wealth. Profits from trade constitute an additional personal income of the chiefs. A portion of the income from tin mines was required to be handed over to the ruler. But usually, the Sultan demanded a fixed amount of annual tribute from the chiefs rather than a percentage of the total revenue from the sale of tin.

Both the Sultan and the chiefs had followers. Some were relatives who were their assistants and body-guards but most were ordinary slaves and debtor-slaves. These followers performed economic tasks for their masters ranging from trading, supervision of mine works, growing agricultural crops, and performing domestic duties as cooks and maid-servants. The number of followers commanded or owned by the ruler and the chiefs varied. The wealthy chiefs had more followers than the not so wealthy ones. This entailed a higher status-position of the former as compared with the latter. Gullick estimated that a Sultan normally had between sixty and a hundred followers while the chiefs had followers ranging between ten and thirty (Gullick 1965, 128).

Occasionally, the ruler also demanded tribute from his subjects in the form of agricultural products (usually rice) and domestic animals (cows, buffaloes). This act of payment of tribute or hantar serah (sending of offer) usually took place during the celebration of the ruler’s birthday, celebration of installation of a new ruler, or the wedding of the ruler’s prince or princess. The tribute was collected by the penghulu or ketua kampung (the village headmen) who either handed over directly to the Sultan or indirectly through the territorial chiefs (Wan Hashim 1978, 67).

Like the ruling class, the subject class too was a heterogeneous one. They comprised 1) free peasantry or kaum merdahika, 2) debtor-slaves or orang berhutang, and 3) ordinary slaves or hamba abdi.5 The free peasantry who constituted the majority of the population were free to earn their daily subsistence but were often discouraged from accumulating personal wealth. They had free access to the most important means of production, land. Except in the district of Krian, which is located outside the traditional settlement area of the Malays and populated only from the nineteenth century onwards, where tax from the main crop paddy was collected, the peasantry were not required to pay any tax on land or on their produce except the payment of tribute. Their obligation to the ruler and the ruling class in general was absolute loyalty in accordance with the long standing Malay tradition, payment of periodical gifts, and performing ‘corvee labour’ or kerah whenever demanded by the ruler of their chief.

The corvee labour was usually demanded for infrastructural construction, e.g. making footpaths, building trenches for defence, constructing canals for irrigation, repairing boats of the ruler or chiefs and occasionally cleaning the compound of the chief’s house or erecting a chief’s house. Those exempted from this free labour service were, apart from the aristocrats and Syed, the haji (returned pilgrim from Mecca), lebai (religiously learned), pegawai (state functionaries), and penghulu (village head) (Gullick 1965, 108-9).

What is important in this case is that the exploitation of the peasantry by the ruling class was collective and labour exploitation was mainly for infrastructural construction, that is, public works, and not for the private use of the chiefs albeit the latter was not totally absent. When labour service was used for the private advantage of the chief, this was normally used in the name of the latter as one of the state functionaries. This is different from the labour services performed by serf-tenants for their feudal lords in the feudal social formation.

There were some natural safeguards against excessive exploitation of the subject class by the ruling class. As land was plentiful and the ruler and the district or territorial chiefs did not have a powerful army of their own to keep the subject class intact or tie them to the soil, dissatisfied peasants could always move on to another area to seek the protection of a more reasonable chiefs. This compelled the ruler and chiefs to treat their subjects with reasonable kindness. This is again unlike the situation under feudalism where the serf-tenants are forbidden to move freely from on geographical area to another or changing allegiance from one master to another; the latter was a common phenomenon in the Malay state. This points to another characteristic that differentiates Asiatic social formation from feudal social formation.

Debtor-slaves were lower in status than free peasantry but higher than ordinary slaves. They constituted those who at one time had borrowed in cash or kind from the chiefs but were not able to repay the debt. They, therefore, had to be under the service of the creditor-chiefs until the debt had been paid. Since the chief charged high interest rate on loan made available to the subjects, the borrowers had little chance of repaying the loan and regaining their status as free peasants.

Ordinary slaves constituted the last category of the subject class. They were normally non-Muslims as Islam does not condone the treatment of fellow Muslims as slaves. Aminuddin Baki’s study on the institution of slavery in Perak in pre-colonial time divides ordinary slaves into the following categories: 1) the enslaved war captives or hamba lawanan; 2) infidels including Sakai (aboriginal tribes of the Malay states) and the Batak people of North Sumatra who were captured by force. They were then sold as slaves or hamba diranggak; 3) Negro slaves purchased in Saudi Arabia while on a pilgrimage to Mecca or those imported by Arab merchants or hamba habshi; 4) criminals usually manslayers or others guilty of grave crimes who were not able to pay fine of blood they shed or other fine and so surrendered themselves to the raja or hamba hulur; and finally 5) those who voluntarily enslaved themselves due to economic handship in return for food and shelter or hamba serah (Aminuddin Baki 1966, 1).

The functions of the ordinary slaves were several. The families performed the role of domestic servants like cooking, washing, carrying water from wells or rivers, splitting firewood, weaving or harvesting, or even prostituting. The males performed the economic tasks of ploughing paddy fields, planting rice, harvesting, clearing new land for cultivation, mining tin on a small scale, or going on trading trips with their masters. Because of the prevalence of the institution of slavery the chiefs were not forced to tie the free-peasantry as serf-tenants as in the feudal social formation in order to derive the resources to maintain themselves. Furthermore they derived their main income from trade.

Treatment of ordinary and debtor-slaves by their masters varied. Some were harshly treated while some others were treated with kindness and were regarded as members of the household by their masters. There were some who were unlucky to be under a wicked chief and were beaten or forced to prostitute themselves. Those who tried to escape were condemned to death. On the contrary, cases were cited where a slave having helped his master in trading activities and being hard-working was finally accepted to become his master’s son-in-law (Gullick 1965, 108-9). As for the treatment of debtor-slaves Aminuddin Baki concluded:

On the whole, debtor slaves were treated with great liberality, and led an easy and thoughtless life. Their lots were not as hard and grim as those of the negro slaves of the American colonies. Luckier still were those who lived far away from their creditor-master.

(Aminuddin Baki 1966, 10)

The population of slaves in Perak in 1879 was estimated to be 3,050 (1,067 ordinary slaves and 1,380 debtor-slaves) compared to 56,632 total Malay population of Perak (Aminuddin Baki 1966; Gullick 1965, 105). This gives the ratio of free men to slaves as approximately 19 to 1. Slavery as an institution was formally abolished by the British colonial government in 1891 after the latter took over the administration of Perak in 1874.

From the above discussion, there was also the slave relations of production apart from the Asiatic relations of production. But the former constituted a secondary rather than a dominant relations of production. Also the free peasantry rather than the ordinary and ‘quasi’ slaves constituted the majority of the population. This means that the Asiatic mode of production constituted the dominant mode of production in the pre-capitalist social formation of Perak.


2. Stories on origins of the Malay rulers descended from heaven is well expressed in the traditional court literature like Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) and Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Story of Hang Tuah) originally written sometimes in the 16th century. 
3. For details of the episode in Sejarah Melayu, see Appendix 1. 
4. R. Winstedt & R. Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 140: “On the death of Bendahara Megat Pendia Sultan Muzaffar (d. 1754) appointed Sharif Abubakar (one of the great Sayid house in Perak, p. 144-) to the vacant office, but a few years later Sultan Iskandar accepted the Sayid’s resignation and gave the office to his own brother afterwards Sultan ‘Alau’ddin Ri’ayat Shah. The Misa Melayu relates that, when Sultan Iskandar was building a new palace at Pulau Indra Sakti, His Highness was so exacting that the Bendahara, Temenggong and Mantri all returned their swords of office. It was then that the first royal Bendahara was appointed”. 
5. The Malay word merdahika means ‘independence’ or freedom while the word abdi might have originated from the word abadi meaning ‘forever’.

Excerpt Source

“Chapter 3: Pre-Colonial Malay Social Formation.” 1995. Peasants under Peripheral Capitalism. By Wan Hashim. 2nd ed. Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1988. 48-54. Print.


Wan Hashim is a Emeritus Professor and former Director at the Institute of Malay World and Civilization, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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