BANGI 28 February 2013. Papantanda pantun berkaitan nenas diletakkan berhampiran pokok nenas di sekitar Taman Pantun UKM, Bangi. NSTP/ Zulfadhli Zulkifli.ZULFADHLI ZULKIFLI

BUDI is the root paradigm in Malay science and knowledge. Budi is not the Malay mind in the Cartesian sense. It is the womb of intelligence, reasoning and emotion in which jiwa (soul) operates, and rasa (feel) and rupa (form) are manifested. It shows the workings of the Divine cosmology whereby knowledge has its genesis in the creator and eventually returns to Him.

In recent years I have been invited to speak on several occasions pertaining to budi and akal budi. The most recent was a keynote address to the Malaysian Linguistics Association Seminar titled Akal Budi Searching for the Malay: Re-examining the Epistemology of Social Science and Media Studies in Malaysia (Akal Budi Mencari Melayu: Menilai Semula Epistemologi Sains Sosial dan Kajian Media di Malaysia).

I referred to several pertinent themes in the keynote address, namely defining the Malay in relation to akal budi — translated into English as the rational soul, the akal budi in social science epistemology — and some suggestions in appropriating what can be called the budic paradigm in the national consciousness.

I started with the suggestion that budi and akal budi is not only a Malay “project” but made a national one, permeating the national consciousness at all levels, and instituted as the root paradigm in both knowledge and the nation’s public policy. Budi represents both the most esoteric sense of the self, as well as the most esoteric sense of the collective self. It is the consciousness of the nation. We can speak of budi as representing the material/physical level of reality, or the precursor of language as in budi-bicara where bicara means “speaking”, hence budi-bicara means pertimbangan or innate judgement - the depth of Malay aurality and orality.

With regards to Islam, where we find the first use of akal budi in the Malay text going back to the 1530s in the Hikayat Seri Rama, the concept of budi, used centuries earlier, is partly integrated into the doctrine of akal, thus resulting in akal budi. This establishes the rational soul in Malay cosmology.

While budi generically refers to intelligence and a network of intelligence including emotion, akal refers to the intellect, viewing sensible and intelligible objects in relation to the Divine with God as the centre for all cosmological objects. In a profound sense, the Malay akal budi resonates with the notion of the transcendence. Hence thinking and thought, ethics and judgment, operate within akal budi.

Hati – qalbu or the heart — shows the seat of the most subtle essence lending itself to the spiritual dimension of budi bicara and budi pekerti, the avatar of which is the budiman (virtuoso). The larger epistemology of social science and its various disciplines manifest themselves in local problems and issues, many from Western Europe circa 16/17th centuries. Much of it is unique to the European mind, reasoning and logic. And Europe is not universal.

I dread it when scholars deliberate on the Malay mind along Cartesian lines. That has dominated our consciousness. For example, research in media and media literacy has been oblivious to the peculiarities of the national psyche in that religion and the Divine play a ritualistic role and are structured in our daily lives. Sacred time and space are essentialised in our society, unlike that in the dominant ideology of European societies. Locating budi in the province of Malay Studies and Malay Literature is only severing its umbilical cord from the garden of budi.

Coincidently while writing this piece, I had just attended a seminar on Malay research at University of Malaya (UM) and one of the papers was a proposal on the Malay garden at UM. I responded then that the Malay garden should not only be manifested in a portion of the campus. The whole Lembah Pantai campus should evoke the Malay garden. Hence the campus would be the Malay garden, with plants, flowers and other features, evoking akal budi as the quintessence of a cosmology, and celebrating the Gardener in every leaf, branch and root, and every fragrance.

And not forgetting the Malay house, the epitome of Malay architectural genius – the budi in the built environment.

And in walking through such a garden, one is soaked in the language of budi, where its jiwa and raga create the avatars of rupa and rasa – a network of logic and emotion all at once, just like the pantun. The budic rationality sways in the garden. If the Malay garden is the visual, tactile and olfactory medium, the Malay pantun is the cognitive medium. I have argued elsewhere that the Malay pantun is the essence of the budi, as illustrated in the last two lines of the following:

Pisang emas bawa belayar

Masuk sebiji di bawah peti

Hutang emas boleh dibayar

Hutang budi dibawa mati

(Sail away with a bunch of bananas

One ripe fruit remains below the box

Debts of money we can repay

Debts of kindness we take to the grave)

The conscious and subconscious construction of the Malay worldview, projecting the social world and the unseen universe, are encapsulated in budi and are abundantly manifested in Malay texts — the pepatah or proverbs, peribahasa, syair, and gurindam. The most vibrant is the pantun.

The Malay pantun essentialises a network of thought, rationality and irrationality. It is reason and feeling — encompassing virtual and concrete meanings at the same time. It characterises the jiwa, rasa and rupa of the budi. Indeed, budi is the jiwa of the pantun. The pantun is both medium and message in Malay society. It is a capsule of the Malay weltanschauung.

The pantun is the embodiment of the world before us as a teacher, as the Minangkabau saying goes: alam terkembang jadi guru (the world before us becomes the teacher). The genius of the pantun is the simultaneous projection of the pembayang (virtual/foreshadowed) and maksud (proper).

The form is about the conscious use of language. The abstract and the concrete emerge all at once in the pantun — the virtual and the real at the same time. It is a vehicle for the transmission of origins, observations, criticisms and news. It is a narration of unwritten communication.

The pantun needs a fresh understanding in daily life. Display the form on billboards (conventional or electronic) or public spaces such as parks and junctions. Local councils can work something out. Schools should indeed be well-placed in projecting the pantun’s meaning and aesthetics. Its study in schools as a form of philosophy, thought, reasoning, aesthetics and expression has to be reconsidered beyond the literary form. On that note, the soft skills dimensions can be re-conceptualised as Kemahiran Akal Budi instead of Kemahiran Insaniah.

Also, studies on akal-budi as philosophy and weltanschauung should traverse the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines into sociology, science, media and technology studies, and the like. The new (social) media is returning to the oral. Apart from returning to the assumptions of akal budi as the root paradigm for social science in Malaysia, the budic rationality should also be fundamentally used for research questions and concepts relevant to localised problems, the category of rantau/merantau/perantauan be consciously used to replace the category of “migration” when referring to movements of the indigenous inhabitants of the Malay archipelago; hence the category of Tanah Air, peculiar to the history and geography of the archipelago, be evoked as more than the motherland. Malaysia’s foreign policy must also be reassessed in light of the akal budi doctrine.

And before I refer to the budi pantun, the discourse on the Fourth Industrial Revolution taking place nationally, and the rhetoric of fundamental changes – the deep shifts - that are foreseen to affect us, must structure the akal budi, instead of ignoring the paradigm.

Many years ago, I saw a pantun on the wall of a house on the shores of Lake Maninjau in the Minangkabau heartland, still far remote from the imageries of the Revolution. What was inscribed was a popular one in the Minangkabau dialect:

Yang kuriak itu kundi

Yang merah itu sago

Yang baik itu budi

Yang indah itu baso

(The speckled is the spotted

The Indian pea is red in form

The virtuous is kindness

The resplendent is decorum)

The budi is the (Malay) garden of knowledge. To borrow a line from Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, “Beauty surrounds us, but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it”. Walk through akal budi, it is not just aesthetics.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at

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