Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Professor Datuk Zainal Kling
Tun Abdul Ghaffar Baba Chair
Sultan Idris University of Education

“… dan pada suatu masa bahawa fakir duduk pada suatu majlis dengan orang besar-besar bersenda gurau. Pada antara itu ada seorang orang besar, terlebih mulianya dan terlebih besar mertabatnya daripada yang lain.” (Sejarah Melayu, ed. Samad Ahmad, DBP, Kuala Lumpur, 1979: 2)

“I happened to be present at an assembly of the learned and noble, when one of the principal persons of the party observed to me…” (Malay Annals, John Leyden, translator, MBRAS, Kuala Lumpur, reprint 20, 2001: 1)

The Historical Linguistic Connection

Literally translated, the Malay concepts of the traditional elites as ‘orang besar’ and ‘orang kaya’ are respectively ‘big man’ and ‘rich man’. The concept of ‘orang besar’ signifies the titular location within the general hierarchy of senior officials within the traditional governance of the Malay kingdom. The ‘orang kaya’ signifies both the titular designation as well as the term of public address to the bearers of the title. Perhaps, officials of high rank within the governmental system were literally ‘rich man’ (orang kaya) that by virtue of their position they were able to accumulate surpluses of wealth. This is well illustrated by the case of the chief official of the ancient Melaka Sultanate, the bendahara, whose wealth was so much that he gave away gold for his children to play with. Similarly only the rich would be able to attract the favour of the ruler by supplying necessary gifts and presents that they were made officials of the state.

Superficially perhaps, the two concepts certainly strike a very high identity with the Melanesian and Polynesian conception of ‘chiefs’ as presented by Marshalls D. Sahlins (1963) four decades ago. Reviewing an extensive bibliography of ethnographic studies of the Melanesian and Polynesian societies by various scholars and observers, Sahlins sketched what he regarded as the ‘ideal types’ of the political leaderships in the Pacific areas. Nevertheless, at a glance, those who are familiar with the ethnographies and history of the Malay Archipelago would not miss the identical location and class of these elite groups within the stratified Malay societal formation. It was perhaps this superficial glance that attracted my attention towards attempting a comparative study of this widely spread traditional political model and organization within the entire Pacific region. This attempt would only be largely exploratory since much work has to be undertaken to ensure greater validity and utility. My objective is perhaps to draw attention towards the existence of a social and cultural dimension to a very well-known discipline in the Pacific region, the linguistic prehistory of the Austronesian societies.

Since the pioneering efforts of Wilhelm Schmidt and Wilhem von Humboldt in the nineteenth century and later Grace (1959) and Dyen (1962) and several others, much have been achieved in this area of studies. More recent comprehensive efforts by Blust (1977, 1978, 1980) and others have firmly developed more influential and persuasive conclusions of the relatedness in the family tree of the Austronesian languages. As Bellwood observed: “Comparative linguists are now in general agreement about the basic shape of the Austronesian family tree, although names given to particular subgroups have changed over the last decade.” (1985:107)

Based on the pre-historical linguistic findings it may be surmised that there was a strong possibility for an organizational identity among the major Austronesian linguistic groups that was carried over throughout history. This is not to say that there was a typical Austronesian type of social organization with little variation imposed by differences in locality, separation through migrations and the eventual isolation in the various islands of the vast Pacific Ocean. Descriptive ethnographies of the many societies already undertaken by many expert researchers do not support such an assertion nor is it logical to expect such a possibility. Nevertheless, there might just be a possibility that a general pattern of the social organization survived the vast passage of space and time through which the variety of social groups has undergone in their historical experiences. There might be a replication of a ‘collective memory’ brought over the vast space and time upon which the social groups model their organization upon settling in a new insular location. This replication would undergo some local variations as they continued their oceanic ‘conquest of the Pacific’, as Bellwood (1978) said, yet retaining the general societal feature: the big-man, rich man chiefly type.

Sahlins’ Rich Man, Big Man

Sahlins’ comparative study, “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia” of the ‘rich man - big man’ phenomenon amongst the Pacific communities certainly attracted a great deal of interests. I have no comprehensive bibliographies of the influence he left among scholars to enable a conclusion on the impact his writing. Of interest is certainly the rationalism he imputed on ‘primitive economics’ as witnessed by his now classic treatment of the ‘original affluent society’ which debunked the assertion of irrationality amongst the primitives. In line with his attempt at creating a comprehensive classification of ‘primitive’ social organization as advocated in his insights into the ‘political types in Melanesia and Polynesia’ it would be interesting to examine the ‘caricature’ of chieftainship, as he put it, compared to another society in Western Austronesia. In this case I am taking the liberty of listing some of the features or characteristics of territorial chiefs amongst the Malays of Malaysia.

Sahlins distinguished the traditional Melanesian communities from the more advanced Polynesian political organization in that the Melanesian are more tribal and largely, “consists of many autonomous kinship-residential groups… The tribal plan is one of politically non-integrated segments – segmental… Local groups of the order of self-governing Melanesian communities appear in Polynesia as subdivisions of a more inclusive political body. Smaller units are integrated into larger through a system of inter-group ranking, and the network of representative chiefs of the subdivision amounts to a coordinating political structure.”

He had a more positive view of the Polynesian structure and its ability to adapt to the onslaught of the Western pressures in the late eighteen century. “The Hawaiians, Tahitians and Fijians,” he said, “were able to top successfully defended themselves by evolving countervailing, native-controlled states… these nineteen century states are testimony to the native Polynesian political genius, to the level and the potential of indigenous political accomplishments.”

“Embedded within the grand differences in the political scale, structure and performance is a more personal contrast, one in quality of leadership. A historically particular type of leader-figure, the ‘big-man’ as he is often locally styled, appears in the underdeveloped settings of Melanesia. Another type, a chief properly so-called, is associated with the Polynesian advance.”

From this extensive quotation, I have distinguished my area of concern with the Polynesian type, as they represent a more advance model, in line with the more stratified and state-based Malay traditional polity. For the purpose of further comparison, a closer examination of the ‘rich-man, big-man’ features would be necessary in order to elucidate the comparative data from the Malay case.

To begin with, Sahlins quoted several ethnographic statements to illustrate the standing of the Polynesian ‘big-man’ chief. He is regarded as almost regal, ‘very likely he just is a big man’. He displays a ‘refinement of breeding, in his manner always that noblesse oblige of true pedigree and incontestable right of rule… he is, every inch, a chief.”

The position of the Polynesian chief is characterized as a ‘nexus’, dependent on ‘an extensive set of offices, a pyramid of higher and lower chiefs holding sway over larger and smaller sections of the polity.’

“The pivotal paramount chief, as well as the chieftains controlling parts of chiefdom, were true office holders and title holders … they hold positions of authority over permanent groups. The honorific of Polynesian chiefs … (refer) to their leadership of political divisions – here “The Prince of Danes” not “the prince among men”. The Polynesian chiefs … “were installed in societal positions.”

“In Polynesia, people of high rank and office ipso facto were leaders, and by the same token the qualities of leadership were automatically lacking...” A Polynesian high chief “inherited by divine descent as the mana which sanctified his rule and protected his person against the hands of the commonality.”

In Polynesian view, a chiefly personage was in the nature of things powerful…. his power was of the group rather than of himself. His authority came from organization, from an organized acquiescence in his privileges and organized means of sustaining them.”

“Masters of their people and “owners” in a titular sense of group resources, Polynesian chiefs had right of call upon the labor and agriculture produce of households within their domains.”

“Most significantly, he has generated a politically utilizable agricultural surplus… Redistribution of the fund of power was the supreme art of Polynesian politics... use of the chiefly funds included lavish hospitality and entertainment for outside chiefs and for chief’s own people…”

“In most advanced Polynesian chiefdoms, as in Hawaii and Tahiti, a significant part of the chiefly fund was deflected away from general redistribution towards the upkeep of the institution of chieftainship. The fund was siphoned for the support of a permanent administrative establishment.” Much of them were appropriated for the upkeep of retainers, close kinsmen and specialized warrior corps... whose force could be directed internally as a buttress against fragmenting or rebellious elements of the chiefdom. Rebelliousness seemed to appear in the form of ‘status rivalry’ in the contest for position or perceived despotism. Rebellion and dissatisfaction over lavish chiefly spending and ungenerous display laid the seeds for fragmentation of extensive chiefdom into smaller areas of authority.

“Polynesian chiefs were the more effective means of societal collaboration on economic, political, indeed all cultural fronts.”

The lengthy quotes are necessary to capture the essence of the Polynesian chief characteristics as described by Sahlins. Within this context only can we compare with some of the features of the Malay ‘big man-rich man’ phenomenon as portrayed by the classical text and kept alive within contemporary political system. The comparison may not have to be feature-for feature. I would like to highlight some distinct cultural elements especially the coherent connection of political power, its mobilization in economic sphere by way of mystical and perhaps magical means. This thesis is specifically formulated to clarify a certain assertion among scholars, especially the orientalists, that the political power exercised by the Malay chiefs and kings over their subjects was the terminal acculturation of Hinduistic mystical elements of the past. The fact that Sahlins demonstrated the art of power sustenance of the Hawaiian chiefs in the mobilization of the mana mystical power in economic and political dealings seems to indicate the indigenous origin of the practice. As I assumed earlier, the passage of time and space might have just retained certain elements of the original cultural constitution of the Austronesian in-spite of separation in time and space. The Melanesian tribal dynamics of leadership may be regarded as the ‘survival’ of the primordial condition which has undergone tremendous change within the Polynesian and Malaysian situations. This thesis is of course a long short in anthropology in an attempt at understanding the political dynamics of human societies.

The Big Man, Rich Man as Malay Traditional Elite

The Malay hierarchical socio-political structure locates the king (raja) or sultan at the epical point. He is supported by a series of subordinate class structure composed of a class of royalty (anak-anak raja) and a hierarchy of ranked ‘orang besar’ (big man), the freemen (orang merdaheka) and the ‘slaves’ (hamba, ulun, sahaya) who were normally the assistants and helpers of the orang besar rather than slaves (legal property with absolute obedience) at such. The orang besar then would be composed of the non-royal officials and chiefs with aristocratic antecedents – the son or descendent of former nobles and big-mans.

There would be two classes of orang besar – the ‘inner’ or central group who are closely related and located near the king’s palace, in surrounding villages and heading a closely knitted servants, helpers and assistant who were regarded as ‘the people’ of the orang besar. The people will form the retinue of the orang besar wherever he goes or whenever they are called for in any official and social activities and even in war undertakings. The other class would be the territorial chief – the ‘orang besar jajahan’ who were appointed or dispatched to govern a territory away from the central government. For instance, a ‘governor’ from among the senior orang besar was appointed by the King of Malacca to govern the State of Pahang when it was overran by the Malaccan fighters in the middle of the 15th century prior to the appointment of real and permanent ‘king’ for the state. Or, in the case of the territory of Kelang, which was governed by an orang besar of the penghulu rank (chief of lower rank) in the person of Tun Perak was recalled to the centre in Melaka to be the chief orang besar (Bendahara) after he proved his strategic competence in facing the Siamese attack on Melaka.

It has been described that the class of officials in Melaka was ranked variously in what is known as the ‘mandala’ pattern of concentric circles, with the king as the centre. The series of outer circles emanating from the centre would be composed of the series of non-royal orang besar, variously ranked from the most senior being the ‘big man of four (orang besar empat), the big man of eight (orang besar delapan), big man of sixteen (orang besar enam belas) to the most junior, the big man of thirty-two (orang besar tiga puluh dua). This of course was the ideal prescription, since there was very seldom any clear cut division made out for each and every one of ranked class nor were there all the members of each class fully appointed at all times. Nonetheless, the orang besar as a series of ranked official class existed to support the administration of the kingdom, and were separated in various capacities of administrative functions. The set up remained a significant institution of traditional politics in modern Malaysian sultanate of Perak, Pahang, Terengganu and Selangor. Various levels of orang besar are instituted within the state constitution as legal means for the assurance of succession in the state. The more elaborate system has been instituted in Perak which claimed to have the rightful inheritance of Malacca and pre-Malacca tradition of the Srivijayan empire (6-13 AD).

The most senior was the bendahara – the chief of the orang besar and the chief minister, often related to the king through marriages of female kin members, especially sisters and daughters. It was the custom for the chief minister to let the king know of the availability of his daughter in marriage, failing which relationship between them may soured to the extent of creating schism and jealousy. Next to him would be the temenggong, the minister of internal affairs and security. Then there would be the penghulu bendahari in charge of the palace and state treasury. The last would be the laksamana, shabandar or perdana menteri, depending very much on the set up of the state bureaucracy. The laksamana would be the defence minister especially in the case of the being a maritime power, in control of a large expense of island territories. The shabandar would be the harbour master in charge of all the foreign traders and assisted by a number of junior shahbandar allotted with traders from various group of countries. The perdana menteri would in such circumstance be a senior minister allocated with various function within the state.

Subordinated to the four would be the ‘big man of eight’ being either the junior to the senior minister or wazir or in were charge of a unit of the administration. The most senior among the second echelon official would be the ‘bentara’ who was the king’s intermediary in external relation. He received all the communication from foreign states and transmits the same to other sovereign states. If the laksamana was not part of the senior most official he would be the most senior second echelon official in charge of the personal security of the king, bearing with him the state regalia especially the long kris (kris panjang) which represents the king’s worldly power and authority. Various other officials would be entrusted with other functions of inter-state relations, territorial law enforcement and internal duties by the order of the king.

A special function was allocated for territorial chiefs who received their appointment from the king by way of the presentation of a set of territorial incomplete regalia, especially the ‘gendang nobat’ – royal musical regalia - usually without the piece called ‘nagara’ – a drum piece. Accompanying the set would be the ‘payung iram-iram’ – the state umbrella. The major duty would be of course to transmit ‘ufti’ or territorial tax to the king in the manner of a feudal lord. He would be the sole big man of the territory and would have almost the power of the king except for the case of murder and the sentence of beheading the guilty person. As an official of the state he is completely responsible for the running of the territory, collecting taxes and administering the state law. As a result, under certain circumstances, very often a territorial chief could manipulate the economic output of his area of jurisdiction to cumulate surplus and utilize it to gather powerful followers and thus challenge the king at the centre. This was where the central power of the king would need the support of various officials at the central court – the orang besar - as well as ‘warriors’ (hulubalang) to put down rebellions in outlying territories. The bendahara would play the major role in mobilizing the state military apparatus by selecting and appointing the appropriate official for the task of subduing the rebellious territory.

As said earlier, the basis of appointment for senior and junior officials/chiefs – orang besar – basically was based on the legitimacy of inheritance through blood or marriage line. Blood line seemed to have priority as the basis of selection and appointment to a post over marriage. A bendahara post was always inherited by one of his sons, failing which a close descendent through marriage line may be considered. The same could be said of the other senior ministerial posts – temenggong, bendahari, laksamana or shahbandar. The junior officials would also be inherited by way of appointing close descendents but post may be transferred to other family lines depending very much on the favour of the king.

Each orang besar empat – the senior officials – would reside in a ‘village’ (kampung) with all his people and they will be identified as the ‘people of the official’, such anak buah bendahara (relatives of bendahara), anak buah temenggong (relatives of temenggong), anak buak laksamana (relatives of laksamana) even if the people are not related in any way either by blood or marriage to the senior official. By virtue being allowed to live within the village of official, a person, especially the freemen, will have an obligation to serve the official in ways that were determined by the official. Very often their labour would be mobilized for certain work within the household of the king when the official was assigned by the king, or within the household of the official, in landed occupations or in other more significant tasks such as in war and military expeditions. In return, the people would be protected from unlawful intrusion in their life and free of tax levy from the state. They will always be defended or even avenged in case of attack. More significantly was the obligation of the people to supply ‘man’ or ‘children’ for the purpose of serving the king in certain activities or ceremonial needs. Man and children were presumably taken over by the official to provide the king with ‘presentation’ to other sovereign kings and chieftains especially to accompany marriage of princes and princess to other lands. Presumably too, human presentation was something of an honour to the family and persons involved. In their perception, such an act would be regarded as ‘memperhamba diri’ – honorable services. There was therefore an attitude of ‘service’ among the people for the orang besar and the king and thus for the country.

The senior orang besar of course play a very crucial role in the politics of the kingship. A bendahara or temenggong would the closest an officialdom would have with then throne. Very often they were the king-maker, being entrusted by a dying king to ensure a rightful succession to the throne. In cases where the senior official have personal relations with the would-be-king or his brother there might just a possibility that the official’s favourite would be enthroned, bypassing the rightful prince. Palace intrigue of this nature occurred to create little rebellion within the royal family. On the other hand, even among senior officials too, jealousy and envy may create intrigues that senior official may be accused of rebellion and usurpation of powers. As such kingship would always be endowed with other than physical powers within the cultural system to ensure public and general obeisance to the kingship. A mystical factor introduced within the attitude of service was the idea of ‘daulat’ – the mystical power of the king or ruler to enhance his political authority. An unlawful disobedience and rebellion was regarded as ‘lawan daulat’ and ‘derhaka’ – rebellion – which would have to be quashed and the entire family would be sentenced to death, with their dwelling uprooted and thrown to the sea. This very harsh attitude means that such an act not only went against temporal power of the king but also his mystical bearing. The rebel was both a transgressor of this world and also of the other world which has endowed the king with such position as the ‘shadow of God on earth’. It is the duty of the senior officials to ensure that no such rebellion would occur even if the was ‘despotism’ and ‘cruelty’ in the rule of the king. Nonetheless, senior official did conspire with each other wherever there were elements of tyranny and oppression by the kingship. This case was well illustrated by the history of the Malaccan Sultanate (15 century) and modern history of the State of Johor (17 century).

The idea of the ‘daulat’ and ‘derhaka’ would have to be understood as the cultural device for state control over senior officials as well the large populace. Since state and political powers have to be constituted and supported with financial surpluses through taxation, the emergence of personal and eventually popular dissatisfaction could arise among royal brothers, officials and the populace at large. Officials who managed to gather great favour from the king could be viewed with envy and jealousy by others. Others may also took avenge of unjust favouritism among officials thus creating conspiracies and intrigues. With personal followers and attendants in villages ready to follow the command of a leader, rebellion could be easily started. The king therefore would have to rely on the loyalty of officials and people by instituting various means and leverages of control, be it through the physical present of hulubalang (warrior class) or spiritual and mystical practice of ‘daulat’. The cultural construction of such mystical powers was well developed in Malay kingdom since the time of its root in the Srivijayan Empire. The presence of ‘sumpah’ (curse) prescription on the prasasti (stone stele) dated at end of 7th century AD attested to the mystical leverages put in place by the kings. Presumably, the Sejarah Melayu text reminded Malays of their ‘waad’ (oath of loyalty) to the king, that very seldom was rebellion went against the state as a whole, but rather towards the person of the king. A king may be displaced by his royal brothers or the orang besar through an act of vengeance or rebellion but the mystical belief of the effect of ‘daulat’ remained a potent belief, deeply ingrained in the psyche of the people to refrain them. Such was the cases with the history of Johor, Langkawi and Melaka.

The orang besar therefore would remain as the bed-rock of the Malay hierarchy of kingship support and has remained so for the last several centuries till today. While kingship survived in the Malay society and perhaps the only social system which has allowed it to proliferate when the surroundings have changed so much, other factors may have to be surveyed to determine its perpetuity under current situation.

Comparative Observation and Conclusion

As a short comparison, it may be said that several features of the presence of rich man, big man in both Polynesia and Malaysia can be cited. First, both communities have developed the institution of leadership far more advance than the Melanesian tribal and kinship based organization. The chiefs and kings in Polynesia and Malaysia are offices of the highest order in the socio-political organization of the nations. As such they are not anymore instituted through the dynamics of tribal power struggle but by way of fulfilling the necessary conditions of office.

As posited by Sahlins, the personal requirements for fulfilling an office would not demand from a person leadership characteristics but merely inheriting the right kinship line and perhaps birth rank. This means that the person of the king would only need to be present at the point of the installation, failing which he be disqualified by virtue of absenteeism.

Of more significant is the fact of the perpetuity of the whole kingship or chieftainship system. While physical leverages such the presence of large administrative establishment and a hierarchy of orang besar (big man) sustained the structure nevertheless modern historical development seemed to favour a reduction of its presence. Thus, the emergence of the so-called ‘constitutional monarchy’ as the more preferred form of modern kingship system. Even if such a system is more acceptable now, there remained the deeply ingrained psychic element in the form of the ‘mana’ and ‘daulat’ mystical power which seems to remain constant and pervades the institution. As an ancient and perhaps ‘primitive’ element in the institution of leadership and governance in the Austronesian society this indicate a interesting survival. Perhaps, the two conception of power pervading the leadership institution attests to the ancient link among the Austronesian societies in their migrations eastwards from the western section within the Malaysian Archipelago.

Further comparative studies may be able to yield more ethnographic information to enable a solid conclusion in Austronesian anthropology. Much of the work so far remained concentrated among scholars of the Pacific studies with little reference to the Malaysian end of the spectrum. Perhaps the time is now right to extent the area to be a little bit more inclusive and Austronesian wide.


A. Samad Ahmad, ed., Sejarah Melayu, Kuala Lumpur: DBP, 1979.

Asmah Hj Omar, Susur Galur Bahasa Melayu, Kuala Lumpur: DBP, 1993.

Leyden, John, trans., Malay Annals, repr. 20, Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS.

Bellwood, Peter, Prehistory of Indo-Malaysian Archipelago, N. S. W.: Academic Press Australia, 1985.

Sahlins, M. D., “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia”, Journal of Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 5, No. 3. (Apr., 1963) pp. 285-303, Cambridge University Press.

No comments: