Negri Sembilan’s democratic pledge of allegiance

MAY 23 — Most sources on history of Negri Sembilan will tell you the state was founded as a sovereign entity in 1773 by Raja Melewar. He was a member of the Pagar Ruyong royal family who crossed the Straits of Malacca to become the first Yang di-Pertuan Besar (Yamtuan) at the invitation of chiefs from various luak (districts) on the peninsula. For centuries, Minangkabau people had traded, settled and intermarried with local tribes: a process that resulted in the development of a unique socio-political system that combined traditions from Pagar Ruyong with those on the peninsula. 

The exact story of Raja Melewar’s arrival has been much debated (with there being theories of an imposter with a similar name and some inconsistency of dates) — but certainly a new political settlement had been agreed to by 1773. 

The next two rulers, Yamtuan Hitam (1795-1808) and Yamtuan Lenggang (1808-1824) were similarly invited from Pagar Ruyong. Unfortunately, a war broke out at the time in Minangkabau homeland over religion: a new Wahhabi-inspired faction called the Padri took issue with the matrilineal, decentralised and democratic system that had developed since the formation of Pagar Ruyong in 1347, and tried to take over by force. 

The Adat faction, in alliance with the Dutch, managed to defeat the Padri, but most of Pagar Ruyong royal family had been killed in 1815.

By 1824, Yamtuan Lenggang passed away, and turmoil erupted in Negri Sembilan. Not only it was impossible to invite a ruler from Pagar Ruyong as before, but wider geopolitical events were afoot: the Treaty of London between the Dutch and British split the two territories into different spheres of European influence. Various claimants fought until Yamtuan Raden (1831-1861), the son of Yamtuan Lenggang, managed to get sufficient consensus from the chiefs to be named as a ruler. Together, they defeated a new British incursion in Naning (ostensibly about tax collection) but ultimately failed, resulting in that territory’s annexation into Malacca, where it remains to this day.

After the reign of Yamtuan Imam (1861-1869) and the regency of Tunku Intan (1869-1872), Yamtuan Antah (1872-1887) then had to face another conflict with the British: the War of Bukit Putus. I have written about this elsewhere, but essentially after a successful counter-invasion up to Linggi River, British Gurkha reinforcements arrived, leading to the defeat of Yamtuan Antah and the torching of his palace.

Ultimately, shared political and economic interests led to an agreement in 1889 to reconstitute the old federation of Negri Sembilan, and the system of the four senior chiefs, known as Undang, electing the ruler was reaffirmed in another agreement in 1898. These two developments enabled peace and prosperity to return to the state, and resulted in the formalisation of traditional practices. One ceremony that emerged as a result was the Istiadat Penghulu Mengadap — an originally triennial pledge of allegiance from the penghulu of five other luak which came under the jurisdiction of the Yamtuan. 

Seri Menanti remains as Negri Sembilan’s royal town till today.
Seri Menanti remains as Negri Sembilan’s royal town till today.

Last weekend, from May 16-18, 2014, the first such ceremony during the reign of Tuanku Muhriz took place. The royal town of Seri Menanti was adorned with pennants of yellow, red and black — the ancient colours of the Minangkabau that have survived in the Negri Sembilan flag. 

Initiating the three-day event was the emplacement of the royal regalia in the palace forecourt on the first day. On the second day, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar and Tunku Ampuan Besar boarded a royal carriage Takhta Rencana, pulled by the ceremonial guard Pegawai 99, to a ceremonial dais Panca Persada, for a royal bathing ceremony known as Istiadat Bersiram. 

School children and visitors from across the state, and a smattering of foreign tourists, had come to witness this event. The procession was led by musicians melodically singing praises to Prophet Muhammad, accompanied by century-old gongs. Punctuating this was the rather louder artillery fire from the 105mm howitzers stationed beside the Padang Seri Menanti. 

The main component of the ceremony involved four senior palace officials Orang Empat Istana, circumambulating the Panca Persada and presenting the royal couple with lime water (cepu bedak limau) which provides the symbolical cleansing. Afterwards, everyone was treated to a fantastic performance of silat and the traditional plate dance (tarian piring). 

On the final day, all penghulu, elected according to the matrilineal clan system, came to the Balairong Seri and performed their pledge of allegiance. In the speeches of penghulu and the royal address by the ruler, one central message was clear: we in Negri Sembilan will continue to maintain our traditions, according to the old (and untranslatable) adage “Tak lapuk dek hujan, tak lokang dek paneh.”

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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