Gurindam 12 Fasal 5

Maqam at Masjid Bahagian Kuching

by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873)


This is the gurindam of the fifth issue:

If you wish to know the people of high birth,
in manners and speech are shown their worth.

To know the people of happiness,
avoid involvement in the meaningless.

To know the man of high distinction,
look upon his deeds and actions.

If you wish to know the people of wisdom
ask and learn without feeling boredom.

If those with intellect you would know
store provisions now in this life below.

If men of character you would recognize
among the masses observe how they fraternize.


Ini gurindam pasal yang kelima:

Jika hendak mengenal orang berbangsa,
lihat kepada budi dan bahasa.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang berbahagia,
sangat memeliharakan yang sia-sia.

Jika hendak mengenal orang mulia,
lihatlah kepada kelakuan dia.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang berilmu,
bertanya dan belajar tiadalah jemu.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang berakal,
di dalam dunia mengambil bekal.

Jika hendak mengenal orang yang baik perangai,
lihat pada ketika bercampur dengan orang ramai.


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Raja_Ali_HajiGurindam Dua Belas is a 19th century Malay poem written in rhyming couplets with free meter. It has 12 parts, each dealing with a different pasal, or issue. It was composed by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873), an intellectual of the Riau-Lingga court best known for his history Tuhfat al-Nafis (the Precious Gift). I’ll be posting my translations pasal by pasal.

Gurindam of the First Issue

Gurindam of the Second Issue

Gurindam of the Third Issue

Gurindam of the Fourth Issue

Daun Inai

Henna'd fingers at the henna tree

Daun inai banyak getahnya,
Ambil segenggam pewarna kuku,
Wahai adik abang bertanya,
Apa obat penawar rindu.

Thick with sap run the henna’s leaves
Take some in hand your nails for dying
O young maiden, your lover asks you
What salve is there to heal longing?


Gadis ditegus lalu dikenyit
Baik perangai pandang tak jemu
Bagai kapur bertemu kunyit
Merah inai mencari kuku

A glance at the maiden leads to a wink
Moves so fine eyes can’t take their fill
Just like limestone chanced upon turmeric
Or the red of the henna seeking the nail



Photo: Lawsonia inermis, the Henna Tree, Pokok Inai in Malay.

Traditional pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization.

Translations mine.

Batang jati kangkung

Kangkung, Ipomea aquatica, is a crawling vegetable with hollow stems, allowing it to float on the water, from whence it gets the name water spinach. There’s no relation – in fact it is in the Convulvulaceae or morning glory family. It is a mainstay of kampung cuisine, growing freely in the canals and marshy places. Although peasant food, it has its etiquette: the stems should be cut such that each stem has a leaf, and the leaf should be uncut. The orang tua on my wife’s side will not eat kangkung that has been chopped indiscriminately. Its dignified lowliness, its crawling, floating wayside abundance, allows it to represent humility when evoked in the following pantun.

Batang jati kangkung
Tumbuh rapat di dalam taman
Suka dipuji gemar disanjung
Bukanlah sifat orang budiman

“Morning glory of the water  /
Growing thickly in the garden.  
Love of praise and pride in honors  /
Is not the way of the gentleman.”


Malay pantun courtesy of UKM Malay Civilization Database

English translation mine.

Three Pipers: Lada, Sirih, Kaduk

Black pepper is the quintessential spice of the Spice Route, the ancient trade routes across the Indian Ocean that have brought merchants and travelers to the Nusantara since antiquity. Pepper was once as valuable as gold, and even now, it is the world’s most traded spice. Piper nigrum is well suited to cultivation in Sarawak: pepper represents roughly 5% of total agricultural exports, and virtually all of it comes from Sarawak. Sarawak produces more than 90% of the world’s supply of white pepper. White pepper, like red and green peppercorns, comes from the same plant as the common black corns. The difference is in the processing: with white pepper the peppercorns are submerged in running water for a period of time. That bleaches the color and gives white pepper it’s milder flavor.

Young peppercorns a-dangling

Anak rekan pergi ka pantay
Masak ikan berkua lada
Chukop makan chukop pakay
Mau di simpan tidak kan ada

Down at the beach, a band of youths
In black pepper sauce they fry their fish.
From hand to mouth, enough to get by.
Enough to save?  A distant wish!

Black pepper is used in Malaysian cooking, as the pantun suggests, but it isn’t a particularly distinctive ingredient. (I’ve often wondered how KFC could win over Malaysians so thoroughly with their 11 herbs and spices, when any Malay woman would need 11 herbs and spices before they even considered what to cook.) The fresh green peppercorns are a lot more exciting. At our house, we like to grind them up for sambal with fermented durian paste and anchovies.

green black pepper
Turmeric root, green peppercorns, terung pipit

Black pepper isn’t the most important Piper around either. A close relative of black pepper is Sirih, the betel-leaf, Piper betel. Chewing the leaf together with lime and the nut of the Areca palm yields a mild buzz while quelling the appetite and staining the teeth red. It is among the oldest shared cultural practices across South and Southeast Asia, with evidence of it’s use going back thousands of years.  Chewing betel is still very popular in Sri Lanka and India, where it is called paan. Paanwallas sell chews by the side of the road, with extras like honey, tobacco and spices. Like hot dog vendors! Ask for one with everything.

Sirih, the betel leaf
Sirih, the betel leaf

Burung jentayu terbang beriring Mati dipanah gugur ke lumpur Sirihku layu pinangku kering Sudikah dimamah barang sekapur?

Together take flight a flock of Jentayu
Felled by an arrow one drops from the sky
Would you care to sit for a chew
Though my sirih has wilted, my betelnut dried?

In Malaysia, the habit is waning. It’s considered country, unsophisticated. Old grandmothers will still chew surreptitiously, but men have turned to cigarettes instead – a very bad trade, constant spitting and tooth decay notwithstanding.  Still, even now, the betel leaf has some cultural cachet. Sirih appears in pantuns, proverbs, and in the classic phrase “sekapur sirih”, used as a literary preface or for opening remarks. Exchanges of wedding gifts may be sent on platters of betel-leaf, or for the very old fashioned, a quantity of leaves may be stipulated in the gift exchange. I’ll know the habit is gone for good in Kuching when my neighborhood grocery store stops stocking them. Folded bundles tied with vines: 50 sen a packet!

Sirih folded and tied for sale

Sirih and pepper are climbing vines, but there is another Piper that just sits around: Kadok, or Sirih Duduk, Piper sarmentosum. It makes a lovely groundcover, a tasty raw vegetable, and the name of the archetypal village idiot, Pak Kaduk.

Sirih duduk, just sitting around.

Hinggap merpati di dahan senduduk
Gugur pinang ditiup badai
Jangan seperti malang Pak kaduk
Ayam menang kampung tergadai

A pigeon rests on a bough of senduduk[1]
Down fall areca-nuts blown by the wind
Don’t be a fool like old Uncle Kaduk
Losing the village a hen for to win

Kaduk is eaten as ulam, the Malay answer to the vegetable platter. Instead of ranch dressing, the kaduk – already hot and bitter – is dipped in sambal and eaten with rice. Since it is a perennial shrub, there are always leaves ready to eat. If the kitchen is empty, you can step outside and graze.

Kijang menghantuk di rumpun buluh
Makan kaduk di dalam padi
Tuntut ilmu bersungguh-sungguh
Kerana hidup tunangnya mati

Upon grazing the kaduk from fields of paddy
The drowsy deer stands amidst the bamboo
Surely the bride of this life is death
So seek ye knowledge in all that you do

Makan berulam si daun kaduk
Sambal belacan asam kelubi
Dulu nyaring bunyi beduk
Kini azan lantang di TV

Eating a dish of raw leaves of kaduk
with shrimp paste chili sauce doused with kelubi
Where once rang out the sound of the beduk [1,2]
Now the azan is played on the TV

flowers of the kadok

All pantuns are sourced from the Malay Civilization project of the National University of Malaysia.
Translations mine.

Gurindam 12 Fasal 4

The 12 Gurindam of Raja Ali Haji


This is the Gurindam of the fourth issue:

Ini gurindam pasal yang keempat:

The heart over the body rules all;
if it oppresses, every part falls.

Hati kerajaan di dalam tubuh,
jikalau zalim segala anggota pun roboh.

Whenever jealousy has been sown,
shoot forth a multitude of arrows.

Apabila dengki sudah bertanah,
datanglah daripadanya beberapa anak panah.

In cursing and praising pause first to think;
it is there that many sink.

Mengumpat dan memuji hendaklah pikir,
di situlah banyak orang yang tergelincir.

When in anger, act not upon it;
that is how to lose your wits.

Pekerjaan marah jangan dibela,
nanti hilang akal di kepala.

The smallest lie or abuse of trust
is like a mouth dripping of pus.

Jika sedikitpun berbuat bohong,
boleh diumpamakan mulutnya itu pekong.

It is a sign of a man most cursed
who considers not his honor first.

Tanda orang yang amat celaka,
aib dirinya tiada ia sangka.

To miserliness do not give leave;
it is stronger than a pack of thieves.

Bakhil jangan diberi singgah,
itupun perampok yang amat gagah.

Whosoever has reached to greatness
should behave in a way free of coarseness.

Barang siapa yang sudah besar,
janganlah kelakuannya membuat kasar.

Those who love to speak filth
have a spittoon and not a mouth.

Barang siapa perkataan kotor,
mulutnya itu umpama ketur.

Yet our own faults we cannot know
if not to us by others shown.

Di mana tahu salah diri,
jika tidak orang lain yang berperi.


Raja_Ali_HajiGurindam Dua Belas is a 19th century Malay poem written in rhyming couplets with free meter. It has 12 parts, each dealing with a different pasal, or issue. It was composed by Raja Ali Haji (1808-1873), an intellectual of the Riau-Lingga court best known for his history Tuhfat al-Nafis (the Precious Gift). I’ll be posting my translations pasal by pasal.

Gurindam of the First Issue

Gurindam of the Second Issue

Gurindam of the Third Issue

Two Murrayas

Black on black stack mangosteens
Pity the kemuning as its flowers fall
My dark-skinned beauty is sweet to behold
A light-skinned woman is no use at all

Hitam-hitam si tampuk manggis
Sayang kemuning luruh bunganya
Hitam-hitam kupandang manis
Putih kuning apa gunanya

A turn to the risque!  Although this pantun is hardly, uh, progressive, it is interesting.  In modern Malaysia, white skin is overwhelmingly seen as a mark of beauty. There is a huge market for skin whiteners, Malaysians with European heritage are all over the TV, family photos are retouched to bleach everybody out. But in this poem at least, taken from the Malay Civilization pantun database, it is the darker woman who is praised, by comparison to the mangosteen.

Si tampuk manggis
Si tampuk manggis

Mangosteens, or manggis, are fruits with a hard purplish-black rind and a sweet, juicy flesh that I have written about previously.  Kemuning, Murraya paniculata, is a common flowering shrub with small, fragrant, creamy white petals with a yellowish center. Alas, the little flowers bloom for only two or three days before wilting and falling.  Thus the light-skinned woman is described as trifling like the fleeting kemuning bloom.

Kemuning shows up in several other pantuns in a similar way, as a symbol for fickle or weak light-skinned women.  It’s not fair to the kemuning!  It flowers often throughout the year, it is pretty hardy, takes pruning well, and even makes a fine bonsai specimen.  Even when the kemuning is not standing in for Si putih-kuning, it rarely comes out of a pantun looking good:

Kemuning wrapped ’round fence’s edge
A garden of tea with a thorny hedge
Boastful talk from scanty knowledge
Is a great big spoon for little porridge

Kemuning melilit di tepi pagar
Pagar berduri di kebun teh
Ilmu sedikit cakap berdegar-degar
Kurang bubur sudu yang lebih!

The pembayang  here is less clear in its relation to the pemaksud, but the pairing still doesn’t reflect that well on the Kemuning. Don’t ask me why – I think it’s a lovely shrub. Its close relative is even more famous:  the curry tree,  Murraya koenigii.


Everybody knows curry the dish.  It is practically a staple food for the British, I’ve heard.  But Waugh’s Curry Powder contains no M. koenigii.  Which is not to put anybody down: Malaysian curry powders are mixes of turmeric, coriander, cardamon, and more… but are also Murraya-free.  Curry, like ketchup, has drifted far from its origins.  The leaf of the curry (kari) tree is what gives South Indian cooking its special aroma.  The leaves are thrown whole into curries and sambars, fresh, fried or pan-roasted.  I don’t know that it imparts so much flavor, but the smell is very strong.  The plant, shown here in my yard, can grow into a small tree, but I plan to keep mine shrubby.  The pungent cloud of scent wafting downwind of a  full-size curry tree can knock you over.  Curry the tree has inspired no pantuns of record, but curry the dish shows up in a pantun in Sarawakian dialect:

Let’s cook lempah, pass me that pot
Pufferfish curry cooks up fast
I’ve told you before, have I not
Don’t waste time regretting the past

Ambik periuk memasak lempah
Ikan buntal dimasak kari
Agik dolok kamek dah madah
Jangan menyesal belakang belakang hari


Third Coffee

Coffee beans spread upon a tray

Jasmine blooms on the ledge do rest

I’ve been dreaming till break of day

My sweetheart sleeping upon my chest

“Buah kopi di atas loyang

Kembang melati letak di bangku

Saya bermimpi hampirkan siang

Jantung hati tidur di pangku”

Coffee Flower Island South-east Asia produces a lot of coffee.  The word Java, now perhaps most famous as a computer language, came to English as a word for coffee because so much of it was grown on the island of Java, the home island of Indonesia.  This was before Juan Valdez came on the scene. Coffee lovers are probably aware of Sumatra Mandheling, the fine beans from the highlands of Sumatra island.  And if you’re a real coffee snob, you may even have tried the coffee prepared from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of an Indonesian civet cat: kopi luak.

And yet, local people are not drinking any of that.  All the really good stuff gets exported to the West and simply cannot be found in the marketplace even at export prices.  What we get instead are bins of greasy beans of uncertain provenance roasted in a traditional process: margarine and sugar are mixed in with the beans as they are stirred over a fire.  In the end you get a very black bean with a milimeter or two of oily sugar glazing on it.  Virtually all coffee you drink in Malaysia will be prepared from this stuff, usually by pouring boiling water over a pot of grounds.  This yields French press coffee or cowboy coffee, depending on whether you find this method sophisticated or crude.

The bean itself is almost certainly not arabica, which comes from the first species to be brought under human cultivation, Coffea arabica.  Originating in the highlands of East Africa, it doesn’t grow all that well here in the hot humid tropics.  An epidemic of coffee rust, Himileia vastatrix, wiped out the bulk of Coffea arabica several decades ago in SE Asia, and what is still grown in the cool uplands of Java and Sumatra goes straight to export.

Unripe berriesThe second species to be commercialized was Robusta, C. conephora.   Robusta is more productive, easier to take care of, and less picky about climate, but is considered inferior by discerning coffee drinkers.  Thus, most robusta enters the global coffee-stream mostly as powdered or instant coffee, or as a cheap filler for blends of beans.  At the moment, discerning drinkers turn up their noses at robusta, but it may be we’ll all be drinking it in the future.  Arabica production in the Americas is threatened by the same disease that wiped out most arabica plantations in SE Asia originally.  Industrial growing conditions are likely at fault, according to University of Michigan Prof Vandermeer. If there is an arabica holocaust in the Americas, what will we drink?

It turns out Coffea is a big genus, and there are apparently many species that yield caffeinated beans that are more or less untested.  In Sarawak, down in the sweltering lowlands where I live, robusta is grown together with a third species of coffee, Coffea liberica.   Liberica is a larger tree than arabica or robusta, with cherries larger than arabica and more oblong than robusta.  It is much more resistant to rust and has been used in hybrid breeding programs for hardier arabica.  As arabica wanes, selection and improvement of liberica varieties may well yield the coffee of the future.  If you want to try tomorrow’s coffee today, you need to head down to Carpenter Street in Kuching.
october07 032
One of the few remaining streets of the historic Chinese district in Old Kuching, Carpenter Street begins at a large red arch opposite the old courthouse complex.  The narrow one-way lane winds through several blocks of shoplots, including a large number of jewelers, before terminating at a Chinese temple and former Chinese open-air theater.  The best coffee shop in Kuching is the second to last storefront before the temple:  Black Bean Coffee Shop.
Black Bean Coffee Shop
Gracious and low-key, the cafe has been doing business essentially unchanged since I got here ten years ago, before the first Starbucks arrived, before our local Starbucks competitor chain, Bing! Coffee, opened up.  To the best of my knowledge, it is the only place in town you can find locally grown coffee, which the proprietor sources from individual growers in the area and roasts himself.  Several times I’ve walked in to find big bags of green beans in various stages of processing at the rear of the small store, someone picking and tossing defective beans by hand.

Coffee beans upon the shelf
Coffee beans upon the shelf

The key is the roast.  The same beans that produce one flavor roasted in sugar and margarine become something very different after a skilled dry roast.  The espresso drinks at Black Bean are made from two parts liberica to one part robusta, scooped out from the big glass jars in front of you.  The coffee is delicious.  And exceedingly potent:  Robusta and Liberica beans contain roughly double the caffeine of arabica.  Adjust your dosage accordingly.

Before a ring better a necklace

A necklace graces the entire body

Better mustached than cleanshaven

With a mustache you can strain your coffee

“Daripada cincin eloklah rantai

Rantai dibuat penghias diri

Daripada licin elok bermisai

Misainya dapat menapis kopi”

Gracious and low key
Gracious and low key

Pantuns courtesy Malay Civilization
Translations mine.

Ambil galah jolok keranji

Pulasan grows at branch’s end

Harvest keranji with a wooden rod

O Man! Do not seek to be praised.

Know that all praise is only for God.

Ambil galah jolok keranji

Buah pulasan di hujung dahan

Manusia janganlah suka dipuji

Segala puji kepunyaan Tuhan



As durian season peters out, a couple of marginal fruits make their appearance.  The brittle, velvety black shells of the keranji start showing up in February. Keranji season comes and goes so quick I usually don’t manage to pick any up; I rarely see it in the market longer than two or three weeks.  Beneath the shell is a very thin layer of tart and sweet flesh around a hard seed. The whole package is reminiscent of tamarind or asam jawa (they are in the same botanical family) but far fussier, yielding much less to eat and requiring much more time and care to pop open the shell.  Press to hard and you get fragments stuck in the flesh.  Keranji may be appealing compared to whatever else can be gathered wild from the woods at the same time of year, but it doesn’t hold up well to what you can find in the supermarket.  Frankly, it was only my devotion to my readers that made me buy some this year.

Upon further investigation, I wish I hadn’t.  It turns out keranji is of the genus Dialium, which is a valuable timber tree.  As such, it has become rare throughout the country and is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN.  It is certainly the logging that is responsible, but eating the fruit can’t help.  Next year I’ll pass.


Duku fruit upon the shelf

Who knows where the langsat has gone

Who can measure how worried my heart is

All that I’ve done has come out wrong

Buah duku di atas para

Buah langsat entah di mana

Resah hatiku tidak terkira

Apa dibuat semua tak kena


Langsat is another tropical fruit that is unlikely to ever make it big on the world market.  The fruits only stay fresh a few days before the skins discolor and the flavor turns, and there isn’t much you can do with the fruits but eat them fresh.  When fresh, they are sweet, tart, juicy and delicious, without tasting very strongly of any particular flavor.  Each little fruit barely yields a full swallow, and with the bitter green seeds inside, you have to work them around in your mouth to strip the flesh off.  Between the peeling and the mouth work, eating a bag of langsat has the same kind of rhythm and pleasure as shelling and eating pecans, or working a handful of sunflower seeds in the shell.  I pass six or seven langsat stands on my way home from work so most days I get a 3-kilo bag to keep me company on the long commute.  Perhaps the trail of langsat skins on the roadway will help me find my way back to work again, Hansel & Gretel style.

Langsat, Langsium domesticum var domesticum, is orchard fruit, cultivated in Kalimantan and shipped over the border at the “inland port” of Tebedu.  I’m not sure what distinguishes an inland port from any other border crossing, but that’s what they call it.  Folks in West Malaysia may be more familiar with duku, which is L. domesticum too, but a different variety.  It has a thicker, harder rind and doesn’t weep latex when peeled.  For whatever reason, I’ve yet to find duku in Kuching or langsat in west coast Semenanjung, although both varieties should be able to grow well in either place, as the pantun suggests.  Buah duku entah di mana…

Peeled Langsat
Peeled Langsat

Pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization

English Translation by Bin Gregory Productions