by Amelia Fyfield


The word bicara is assigned several meanings by Malay-English dictionaries. These can be roughly summarized into two categories of meaning, namely: discussion or business and opinion. This essay will explore both these definitions, and the contexts in which they apply, and finally will consider whether this list of equivalent English terms is sufficiently comprehensive.

The first category of definition, as circumscribed by the terms discussion or business, involves the concepts of debate, examination by argument, and dealings with men and matters. Central to all these processes is the concept of reaching a resolution or settlement. So where bicara is used as a noun in the sense of something to be resolved (putus), the terms discussion or business seem to apply almost universally. See for example:

Syahadan barang suatu bicara negeri jika tiada Laksamana tiadalah putus.

Thus whatever the state business, if the Admiral was not present it would not be resolved.

and :

...jika sesuatu bicara, jika Hang Tuah belum masuk, bicaranya belum putus.

...if there was a discussion, if Hang Tuah had not yet entered, the discussion / business was not yet resolved.

The second term, 'opinion', really covers a spectrum of meaning, and as such seems to apply in a wider variety of contexts. On the one hand, opinion can be speculative or subjective : a "...belief based on grounds short of proof..." On the other, it may denote authoritative or objective "...professional advice".

'Opinion', given the first of these connotations is therefore an appropriate translation for the word 'bicara' as it is used in the text Sejarah Melayu when Sultan Mansor Syah suspects Sri Nara Diraja of having harboured Hang Tuah. The specific passage:

Hanya kepada bicara kita ada juga si Tuah

in Brown's translation finds itself equated with the English phrase, "I have a feeling that...", indicating the formation of a judgement based on somewhat dubious evidence.

More commonly, though, it seems the word 'opinion' can be said to apply in its more authoritative sense as indicating advice given on a professional level. Looking at the parties by which it is used and their socio-political context, it seems 'opinion' given this connotation perhaps best describes the function of the term bicara in the question, "Apa bicara...?" Most frequently it is the Sultan himself who is heard to utter this phrase, and it is almost always directed to his ministers, either individually (eg. "Setelah Demang Lebar Daun datang, maka titah baginda, 'Apa bicara paman...'"), or as a collective group, usually assembled in the balai (eg. "Maka titah baginda, 'Sekarang apa bicara segala orang...'"). Though one may at first doubt the appropriateness of this definition, given the deference of the ruler to the opinion of his subjects that the frequent use of this phrase suggests, the peculiarly diverse nature of real power within the administrative and political system characteristic of the Malay Sultanates, and the role that hikayat literature played in perpetuating this structure, nevertheless supports this interpretation.

Traditionally, the basis of the Sultan's claim to power was notional rather than actual. Says Hashim, "...the concept of ruling and the [Sultan's] prerogative to rule...were primarily spiritual and... [only] put into practice through the physical authority of the state officials..." Given the geographically fragmented nature of the Sultanate, consisting as it did of an assortment of river-based communities, Gullick concurs in his functionalist study of indigenous Malay political systems that the holders of 'real power' within the system were the district chiefs of each river-based territory, to whom fell the 'hard facts' of government, including "local administration, justice, defence, revenue collection and general leadership." On this basis, a Sultan would be quite considerably constrained in the extent to which he could make purely autocratic decisions, against the will of these 'administrators', and yet be confident of maintaining his rule. This was particularly so, says Hashim, because the mechanism linking the rakyat to the Sultan was the officials, meaning "...followers were apt to be disloyal to their defend the reputation of their particular master..." As such, the sovereignty of the Malay Sultan was heavily dependent upon the support of district chiefs.

The extent to which this was recognised by Malay rulers is evident from a report from the British Governor of the Straits Settlements, which records the well-established Sultan Ahmad of Pahang as explaining that on a matter of state, "...he must ask the opinion of the Chiefs of the Ulu." In fact, British Agents at the turn of the century frequently noted that in several Malay Sultanates, informally constituted state advisory councils existed before their arrival. Clearly it was understood that, for the preservation of the realm, consultation with one's chiefs, who controlled the state apparatus, was essential. Recognition by the ruling elite that a Sultan's sovereignty hinged on cooperation with administratively powerful officials also gave fostered a concern to inculcate in one's successors the concept of consultative rule. Says Hashim " order to secure the...system, a political philosophy regarding this type of cooperation was instilled..."

That this should have ramifications for the reading of hikayat literature is a consequence of the central role these works played in instilling political values. That there was a perceived connection between the hikayat and the maintenance of the Sultan's sovereignty is evidenced by an observation, made by Dutch scholar Valentijn, that, "The Mohammedan Princes and their priests are almost the unique possessors of these works and it is the greatest" That this connection was related primarily to their content, and the enlightenment it held for future generations, is suggested by the long tradition noted by Milner which required that young princes study hikayat. The role of the hikayat in reinforcing fundamental political philosophies was such that, says De Jong, in some instances the purpose of hikayat literature was,"...most important, to provide a...truly sacral code of political conduct by which...greatness could be retained..." .

That the importance of consultation was one such theme of hikayat literature appears quite evident from a reading of the Sejarah Melayu. Therein, for example, is to be found the following advice from the great Sultan Masor Syah on his death bed:

...hendaklah engkau mufakat dengan segala menteri dan segala orang besar-besarmu, kerana raja itu, jikalau bagaimana sekalipun bijaksananya dan tahunya, jikalau tiada mufakat dengan segala pegawainya di mana akan dapat ia melakukan bijaksana itu? Dan lagi tiada akan sentosa kerajaannya, kerana raja-raja itu upama api, akan segala menteri itu upama kayu; jikalau tiada kayu, di manakah api itu bernyala?

So the importance of consultation is promoted for two reasons: the first being that the implementation of policy (and therefore the exercise of the Sultan's will) was dependent upon officers of state, and the second being that the very safety of the realm depended on the contentment of the Sultan's ministers. These are themes which occur quite regularly in hikayat literature. Interestingly also, notes Milner in his analysis of the Hikayat Pahang, whilst the successful rulers are portrayed as the embodiment of a just, consultative government, their enemies and would-be rulers are the antithesis of the ideal, being described as sombong (arrogant) and dzalil (cruel and tyrannical). In this context, the frequent use of bicara in the posing of questions (particularly those which move from governor to governed) should be viewed as an extension of the undertaking to reinforce the importance of consultation with one's administrators; an illustration of the concept's application in the day-to-day affairs of court. Therefore, where it appears in the context of a request, bicara is rightly to be read as meaning opinion in the sense of professional or authoritative advice.

However, where the term bicara does not appear in the context of a question, its import ought really reflect the hierarchical nature of interpersonal relations so central to the cohesion of the Sultanate form of government. As such, some extrapolation from the general synonymy of bicara and opinion may be necessary to convey the full implications of the Malay word in the context of hikayat literature. Within the Malay Sultanates, inherent power differentials were primarily determinative of interaction in formal contexts. Says Gullick, "There was a well-recognised etiquette...for proceedings in the balai. The...officers of state...with due deference...gave their advice taking into account what the ruler appeared to expect. To argue with the ruler...or...forward proposals which he was unlikely to accept was contrary to convention." The 'due deference' described suggests that where a subject is heard to offer, "Pada bicara..." the input which follows is not intended to place the recipient under any compulsion, meaning that mere opinion is indeed an apt translation. By contrast, however, the obvious importance attached to the Sultan's wishes indicates that if he were to make a suggestion of any kind, it would presumably be afforded more weight than mere 'opinion' implies. Indeed, Hashim states, "...the position of the ruler the extent that his..mere gesture [was] likely to be taken as an order to be carried out..." Given also that bicara is derived from Sanskrit where it denotes a plan, it therefore seems appropriate that, where reference is made by a subject to the bicara of his ruler, it be given such emphatic overtones.

In the context of hikayat literature, this is so much more the case given that the hikayat medium has often been credited with functioning as a didactic tool of the ruling elite. The extent to which the ruling elite controlled the hikayat medium was considerable. In addition to maintaining a close guard on the manuscripts themselves (as mentioned earlier), Wilkinson refers to one ruler who "...destroyed deliberately a number of documents that did not corroborate his own version of history..." Yet this is not to suggest that exposure to hikayat literature was restricted to court circles. On the contrary, Malay Sultans maintained their own storytellers, Penglipor Lara, who read aloud to the populace from hikayat literature; a contemporary report from the early 1800's indicating that the Sultan of Deli had 'papers' read to his people. John Anderson records seeing one of the "King's men reading with a loud voice, in a circle of about two hundred people, from a book..." (presumed to be the Hikayat Iskandar). The controlled dissemination of the hikayat seems to suggest that they were an important means of establishing or reinforcing certain institutions and practices favourable to the Sultan. Indeed, evidence suggests of hikayat literature that, "...those who listened learned to behave properly and acquired a knowledge of Malay culture," as defined by the ruling elite under whose patronage it was fostered. Says Milner (of the Hikayat Deli), each of "...[Its] episodes...serve as parables to illustrate or inculcate some facet of Malay political procedure...and to articulate certain critical assumptions...[which] formed the basis of Malay political action..."

Perhaps the most critical of these assumptions to the functioning of the Malay Sultanate, given the primarily 'spiritual' nature of the Sultan's prerogative to rule (expounded above), was that the Sultan was the organising principle of the Malay world. Hashim discusses the religious, traditional and mystical justifications of this concept in the Sejarah Melayu. Milner too canvasses the various ways in which this theme was articulated in the Hikayat Deli. The idea of feudal loyalty and unquestioning deference to the Sultan's will was undoubtedly a significant part of this philosophy. The Sejarah Melayu, for example, tells audiences that

...kerana adat hamba Melayu itu tiada dapat menyalahi kehendak tuannya.

The obvious importance of the hikayat as a means of perpetuating the Sultanate system of rule, and the associated value in reinforcing the view that the Sultan's merest wish was to be taken as binding, supports the conclusion that, in an English translation, a reference to one's own bicara offered to a superior should always be translated to mean opinion. Thus, for example, where Sri Nara Diraja is reported as saying:

Tuanku, pada bicara patik, baik juga duli Yang Dipertuan menyuruh membantu Pahang...,

the term bicara is rightly to be translated as opinion.

For these same reasons, any reference by an inferior to the bicara of his better should be taken to mean plan or decision. Hence where an inferior undertakes to 'follow' his master's bicara, eg:

Ya tuanku Syah Alam, mana bicara yang dipertuan patik sekalian turut,

plan (meaning way of proceeding) seems the most appropriate translation.

Logically, reference by the Sultan to his own bicara ought not to be translated as plan, given that such an emphatic statement of intention would tend to undermine the concern demonstrated in other parts of the text to promote the concept of consultative rule. Therefore, opinion ought generally be applied, perhaps supplemented by the slightly more imperative 'purpose' (in the sense of design or intention) where the Sultan is referring to a royal desire (hendak). For example:

Maka titah baginda, 'Hai Mamak Bendahara, adapun pada bicara kita hendak mengutus kebenua Keling kepada saudara kita.'

So his Highness commanded, "O Mamak Bendahara, it is also to my purpose that I wish to send you as a herald to the continent of Keling."

In conclusion, the term bicara can, in different contexts, signify both discussion or business (something to be settled or resolved) and opinion (both in a speculative and an authoritative sense). Yet given the complexities of the social hierarchy which governed personal interaction in the Malay Sultanates, and the extent to which hikayat literature was used to exemplify and reinforce this structure, it seems the existing definition of bicara provided by English-Malay dictionaries should rightly be expanded to include the terms plan and purpose.



Brown, C.C. (trans) , Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, OUP, Kuala Lumpur, 1970

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English 5th ed. H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler (eds) OUP, London, 1964

Gullick, J.M. Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya OUP, London, 1965

Gullick, J.M. Malay Society in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Beginnings of Change OUP, Singapore, 1987

Hashim, Muhammad Yusoff, The Malay Sultanate of Malacca: A Study of Various Aspects of Malacca in the 15th and 16th Centuries in Malaysian History Ministry of Education Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 1992

Hikayat Hang Tuah, Kassim Ahmad (ed), Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1968

Jeran, Kalthum (ed), Hikayat Pahang, Penerbit Fajar Bakti, Petaling Jaya, 1986

Malayan and Indonesian Studies; Essays presented to Sir Richard Winstedt on his 85th birthday, John Bastin & R. Roolvink (eds.), OUP, Kuala Lumpur, 1964

Mulyadi, S.W.R. Hikayat Inderaputera: A Malay Romance Foris, Dordrecht, 1983

Shellabear, W.G.(trans), Sejarah Melayu (3rd ed), Penerbit Fajar Bakti, Kuala Lumpur, 1977

Sulalatus Salatin (Sejarah Melayu), A. Samad Ahmad (ed), Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1979

Wilkinson, R.J. A Malay-English Dictionary (Romanised) Macmillan, Mytilene, 1932, reprinted London, 1959

Winstedt, R.O. An Unabridged English-Malay Dictionary (2nd ed), Marican & Sons, Singapore, 1960

Winstedt, R.O. An Unabridged Malay-English Dictionary Kelly & Walsh, Singapore, 1955