The name Palembang, now the provincial capital of South Sumatra (Sumatera Selatan), was close to my heart ever since I was in primary after reading books, especially on history that relates the founder of Melaka (Malacca), Parameswara, as a runaway prince from there.
In Form Six, I read and studied the Malay text ‘Sejarah Melayu’ (Malay Annals) edited by WG Shellabear that was published by Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn Bhd, for the ‘Kertas 2 Bahasa Malaysia’ (Malay) for the Higher School Certificate (HSC).
In the second topic (Alkisah Cetera Yang Kedua) of the ‘Sejarah Melayu’, it was mentioned the origin of many of the Malay Sultanates; Malacca included. The offspring of the Malay king of Palembang then went and explored various parts of the Malay world such as Melaka and Johor-Riau. In ‘Sejarah Melayu’, Singapore (Singapura) was said to be found by Sang Nila Utama, also a prince from Palembang after he had seen sight of a lion.
Among others the Sejarah Melayu recorded: “Kata sahibul hikayat, ada sebuah negeri di tanah Andelas (Sumatra), Palembang namanya, Demang Lebar Daun nama rajanya, asalnya daripada anak cucu Raja Suran, Muara Tatang nama sungainya. Adapun negeri Palembang itu, Palembang yang ada sekarang inilah. Maka di hulu Muara Tatang itu ada sebuah sungai, Melayu namanya. Di dalam sungai itu ada satu bukit yang bernama Bukit Siguntang, di hulunya Gunung Mahameru, di daratnya ada satu padang bernama padang Penjaringan. Maka ada dua orang perempuan berladang, Wan Empuk seorang namanya, dan Wan Malini seorang namanya; dan kedua itu berhuma di Bukit Siguntang itu terlalu luas humanya itu, syahdan terlalu jadi padinya, tidak dapat terkatakan; telah hampirlah masak padi itu.”
(According to tales, there was a state in Andelas, its name was Palembang. Its king was Demang Lebar Daun, he was from the offspring of Raja Suran, Muara Tatang is the name of its river. And in the hinter of Muara Tatang, there was a river, its name was Melayu. In the river there was a hill, named Bukit Siguntang, in the hinterland Mahameru Mountain, on land there was an open field named Padang Penjaringan. And there was two women farming, one named Wan Empuk; and the other was Wan Malini; and both of them worked on their (paddy) fields, it was very vast, and their paddy was abundance, and they were about to ripe.)
So, Palembang was one of the ‘kampung asal’ (roots) of the Malays; their language included. Since in Malaysia, the people were busily discussing and championing the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) (remember the 7th March incident where thousands of ‘pencinta’ (lovers) of bahasa Melayu were fired with tear gas and drenched with water laced with chemicals), I developed enough courage to pack my bags, and then was off to Palembang to look and the people and at the development and future of bahasa Melayu (Malay language) there and at international level especially in science and technology.
During my stay there, I gathered this information on Palembang: “The city was traditionally a trade center, and, for about 500 years up to the 13th century, Palembang was one of the principal ports of the world, meaning a central point for the bulk of the Indonesian islands trade.
“Mahayana Buddhism came here around the 7th century. A Chinese-Buddhist pilgrim, I-Tsing, who was going to India, arrived at Sriwijaya University in 671AD, and spent six months studying Sanskrit. He stayed here for four years writing his memoirs and giving a valuable description of the city.
“Palembang was believed to be the predatory power, and was once the capital of Sriwijaya Empire. There were regular ships that laid anchor here and it sent its mercenaries as far as Mesopotamia. There were many scholars and monks, and perhaps thousands of them, who learned Buddhist teaching and translated Sanskrit texts here.
“At the end of the 13th century, Sriwijaya had splintered into eight small kingdoms, the largest of which, MALAYU, was centered on Jambi and became a strong power. But finally, with the rise of Melaka, in the 14th century, Sriwijaya became a remote backwater. The region around Palembang still produces fine woven fabrics and performs unique Hindu-like dances.
“The population of Palembang is estimated at 1.4 million and they came from all ethnics in Indonesia, especially from South Sumatera and original inhabitant called ‘Wong Palembang’.”
To know more about Palembang and its history, one of the right places, was of course the museum. But before I went to Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum near the banks of the Musi River (the longest and largest river in Sumatra that divides Palembang into two parts – Ulu and Ilir) and also nor far away from the famous Jambatan (Bridge) Impera that was built by the Japanese as a compensation for its invasion in Indonesia; I went to the office of Dinas Pendidikan, Pemuda dan Olahraga ((National Department of Education, Youth and Sports) in Jalan Kapten Rivai.
I was met by Raudhah, 40, a ‘tatausaha’ (administer) there. She told me education in Indonesia was solely done in bahasa Indonesia. All students from Taman Kanak-Kanak (TK), Sekolah Dasar (SD), Sekolah Menengah Pertama (SMP), Sekolah Menengah Atas (SMA), Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan (SMK) and universitas (university), were taught in bahasa Indonesia. Bahasa Indonesia derived from bahasa Melayu after that language was accepted as the national language of Indonesia from the ‘Sumpah Pemuda’ (Youth Oath), a historical event in 1928.
English, she said was also taught, but only as one of the few subjects offered in schools and among some subjects in universities but never as the language of instruction.
So what was actually bahasa Melayu? According to Abi Sofian, an administer at Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum, who took the writer almost two hours touring and explaining the artifacts there, the earliest Malay/Sanskrit inscription (writing) was traced on the Prasasti Kedukan Bukit (683 AD) and Prasasti Talang Tuwo (684 AD or 608 Saka Year of the Sriwijayan calendar).
“The writing on the stone, proved the Sriwijayan had a great civilization,” said Abi Sofian. “The Malay world covers a vast area. Even though the Sriwijayan empire during its peak covers almost the areas in Sumatera and the Malay Penisular, its sailors and travelers went as far as Madagasdar and Polynesia,” he said.
Abi Sofian said, although one of the Palembang king, Ariodamar who ruled from 1455-1486 converted to Islam and used the name of ArioAbdillah or Aridillah, the majority of his people were not Muslims, not until the formation of the state of Palembang Darussalam in 1659 headed by its Sultan, the famous of them was Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II who ruled from 1803 to 1821.
“This great Sultan choose not to be cooperative with the Dutch by accepting its adviser (the same status as the British Resident in the Malay states), but he was determined to push out the invader. War broke out, and at last the great city of Palembang fell in the hands of the Dutch. Today Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II had been declared as a national hero,” said Abi Sofian.
“Bahasa Melayu is a great language. When the kingdom (for example Sriwijaya and the Sultanate of Palembang) was strong, that language had become lingua franca of the people in vast parts of Asia. Bahasa Melayu is great, for example to describe various types of cannons, the Malays used different words such as ‘lela’, ‘rentaka’ and ‘meriam’ proved that it could be easily cushioned and adapted itself to changes including in scientific world of today,” he said.
In a lighter note, Abi Sofian pointed out that the word ‘meriam’ derived from the word ‘maria’ (Santa Maria), the prayers offered by the Dutch soldiers every time they took a shoot from their cannons.
In Palembang, people like Raudhah and Abi Sofian and almost all the people in the streets are proud of their bahasa Indonesia, but why must we abandon the teaching of Science and Mathematics in bahasa Melayu. I could not understand it; what’s wrong with bahasa Melayu? If the Malays themselves do not enriched it, who would do it? Are we asking the Dutch, the British or the Americans to enrich bahasa Melayu that was once used widely in this part of the world? Was it was because we were ashamed to use ‘imported’ words such as ‘tribulasi’, ‘kontradisi’, ‘korupsi’, ‘sekretaris’ and so on?
The visit to Palembang was an eye opener to me. While resting in the main hall of the Great Mosque (Masjid Agung) after an afternoon (zuhur) prayer one day, I felt as though I was at home. It was because the preacher, who was giving lessons, was speaking in perfect (standard) Malay, the same language at home; so must we abandoned this beautiful language of knowledge?
Masjid Agung was an abode, but the city witness the gritty and determination of its citizens in their struggle for a piece of bread. Palembang was cruel, but bahasa Melayu (bahasa Indonesia) was looked as an unifying factor and of course as a language of knowledge. It was ‘rojak’ all the way, for example the drivers of the hauntingly ‘BUS KOTA’ would understood and knew what to do when there was shouts of “STOP, STOP PAK!” Amazingly, the people knew how to speak half Malay, half English without even studying Science and Mathematics in English!