Brave New World (The Star)
28 July 2011
There is a sense of social justice to be found in our myths. But in the real world there will not be magical heroes. There will only be the constant vigilance and small acts of courage of ordinary folk.
WHEN I was a little boy, there was one particular traditional story that freaked me out. This was the tale of Raja Bersiong (the Fanged King).
If I am not mistaken, it is set in Kedah. Anyway, for those of you not familiar with this Malay legend, let me tell you the tale.
Long ago there was a very cruel Raja.
He treated his subjects viciously and was feared and hated.
It is said that he had fangs instead of teeth.
One day, his cook was preparing his lunch when she cut her fingers and bled into his vegetables. Because she was pressed for time, she just went on cooking the meal, rather than face the wrath of the Raja for being late.
When the food was served, the Raja exclaimed that this was the best spinach he had ever eaten.
He called the cook and asked her what she did differently.
Out of fear, she admitted that the only difference to the dish was the addition of blood.
The Raja then ordered that blood be put into all his meals.
Eventually, his appetite for blood grew and grew, and soon people were being slaughtered just to sate his appetite.
The cruel reign of the Raja degenerated into one of abject terror.
Naturally, a hero appeared and he fought the Raja.
The hero had magical powers and he used it to turn himself into a tiger which then devoured the evil ruler.
The story ends, therefore, with a touch of irony; the fanged king met his doom at a pair of fangs.
I tell you, this story scared the heck out of me.
When I was seven I cut my lip and I bled into my mouth.
Inadvertently, I swallowed some of the blood.
I lived in terror that I was going to become Raja Bersiong.
Sure enough, a day or so later, I felt a pain in my neck.
Oh no, I thought, this is it.
My fangs are starting to grow.
It turned out that I had mumps.
Anyway, the point of these ramblings is that unlike some assertions that our culture demands subservience and sheep-like behaviour, our legends say otherwise.
There is a sense of social justice to be found in our myths, which means it is within our collective psyche to stand up against injustice and cruelty.
The legend of Raja Bersiong is about how the abuse of power will eventually lead to one’s downfall.
Of course, in the real world, there are no fairy tale demonic kings.
The forces of oppression take different, more understated forms.
It happens through the usurping of control in public institutions meant to serve the greater good. And just as there are no demonic villains, neither are there magical heroes.
A single hero can’t battle such subtle widespread tools of oppression.
In the real world, it is up to the people to take that responsibility.
In the real world, there will not be a battle royale between a brave tiger and an evil Raja to make the world a better place, there will only be the constant vigilance and small acts of courage of ordinary folk.
Without it, we will forever be haunted by our own Rajas Bersiong.