Raja Ali Haji

Nineteenth century Pulau Penyengat was bustling with Sufistic intellectual and literary work. But as Dutch colonisation ramped up in the region, it brutally dissolved the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, and brought this Malay literary renaissance to a premature standstill. Amidst the violence of social and political life, and in between resistance against the colonisers, Raja Aisyah Sulaiman wrote.

Raja Aisyah’s writing has largely been obscured in favour of other Riau writers. Her words still live in the shadow of her grandfather’s, well-known Bugis-Malay historian, poet and scholar Raja Ali Haji. But as the only female writer in the fourth and last generation of Riau-Lingga writers, Raja Aisyah shouldered a legacy that spanned generations.


Discover some of Raja Aisyah’s hidden literary treasures.

Raja Aisyah Sulaiman and her husband, Raja Khalid Hitam, escaped to Singapore from the Dutch
Syair Khadamuddin (1926)
Photo credit: Departemen Pendidikan
Dan Kebudayaan

Raja Aisyah’s family was part of a resistance movement against Dutch colonialism which carved up territories in the archipelago. Fleeing the colonisers meant that many of her records were possibly deliberately destroyed. What has been salvaged reveals an air of despondence, amidst a persistent layer of gendered struggle.

Syair Khadamuddin (1926) is a key work produced by Raja Aisyah. In it, Siti Sabariah dangerously rejects a marriage proposal from a King, determined to be reunited with her husband one day.

"I cannot be exchanged for
your mirth
Although you may say it’s
your right of birth
This universe and the contains
of this earth
For I am worth seven times
more of its girth"

Syair Khadamuddin (1926)

"Kepada aku tiada tukar gantinya
Hak bapa engkau yang punya
Alam dunia dengan isinya
Tujuh kali lagi gandanya"

Syair Khadamuddin (1926)

A similar streak of resistance threads through the main story of Hikayat Syamsul Anuar, a compilation of short stories, pantun (quatrains) and syair (poetry) published in 1890. It tells the tale of Badrul Muin, a princess who runs from her royal compound disguised as a man to evade proposals, despite eventually being forced to concede to marriage.

Through the choices these characters made in the balancing act between aristocracy and womanhood, the restrictions of patriarchal feudalism Raja Aisyah was bound by could be unravelled.

“It is absolutely not beneficial for me to be around him unless I want to bring harm to myself,”

Hikayat Syamsul Anuar (1890)

“Tiada manfaat sekali-kali kita berhimpun dengan dia, melainkan mudarat juga akhirnya”

Hikayat Syamsul Anuar (1890)

“Oh, Mother! How inappropriate of you to accept his proposal without consulting my opinions!”

“Ya Umi! Adakah patut bagimu itu berbuat ini pekerjaan? Padahal sebelum kamu mesyuarat dan mengambil andaian daripada kami?”

“And she continues to stay silent like a deaf and dumb person. No matter how much Syamsul Anuar tried to soothe her, she refused to move an inch…”

“Dan melakukan ia akan dirinya seperti keadaan orang yang tuli dan bisu. Berapa pun dipujuk Syamsul Anuar tiada ia mahu bergerak...”

Raja Aisyah Sulaiman: Pengarang Ulung
Wanita Melayu by Ding Choo Ming (1999)

While these stories are undeniably informed by her privileged status, Raja Aisyah’s delicate artistry helped her move between everyday themes of love, marriage and self-worth. She battles against patriarchal demands that still fence us in today in different ways.

‘Kami ini seorang merdeka’ (We are free and independent), she declares in Syair Khadamuddin, centering her sense of personal justice firmly with women’s agency.

"We are free and independent
From all of you men
Although you treat us like controlled items
But we are not to be sold or auctioned
Nor are we commodities you see on the sidewalk
That you could take and put in your bags"

Syair Khadamuddin (1926)

"Kami ini seorang merdeka Daripada kamu itu belaka

Kami barang di dalam kawalan Bukan sekali bangsa jualan Atau kececeran sepanjang jalan Boleh diambil masuk pikulan"

Syair Khadamuddin (1926)

But this declaration rings beyond domestic walls and the singular defiance against marriage. ‘Kami ini seorang merdeka’ reverberates in the climate of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate battle for sovereignty against an imperial power. Raja Aisyah’s words weave the intimate trials of women with the political gravity of liberation.

Their Impact

It is impossible to do full justice to the impact Raja Aisyah Sulaiman, Kumpulan Bebas Melata, Adibah Amin, Sa’eda Buang, Rasiah Halil and Associate Professor (A/P) Hadijah Rahman have had on not only their fields of knowledge, but the wider cultural context of Malay literature. Their works do not stand alone: they are bound together with both the weight of history and clarity of foresight.

Collectively their words are invigorated by the same spirit for emancipation. Freedom is sought in different ways for our pioneers, but even in its most private and visceral form, politics, culture and society attempt to dictate the conditions of how it is exercised.

Our pioneering writers’ works must be understood not only through choice excerpts and quotes featured here, but as imprints that leave intergenerational marks. Rather than fading away with time, they crystallise.

"We are free and independent
From all of you men"

Syair Khadamuddin (1926)

“Kami ini seorang merdeka
Daripada kamu itu belaka”

Syair Khadamuddin (1926)

Resistance begins when we interrogate what is taken for granted. What will you question?


Raja Aisyah’s works were discussed in 1987 by Raja Hamzah Yunus, a descendant of the Riau-Lingga sultanate. Here are a few of her known works

  1. Hikayat Syamsul Anuar (1890) a.k.a. Hikayat Badrul Muin. 1042-pages long story first written in Pulau Penyengat, Riau. Short stories, pantun and syair collection.
  2. Syair Khadamuddin (1926). Traditional Malay poetry containing 1483 lines written after her husband’s death.
  3. Syair Seligi Tajam Bertimbal (1929). Co-authored with Ibu Zain. (Lost manuscript)
  4. Hikayat Syaiful Akhtar (1929). 25-volume school textbook. Currently in the Kuala Terengganu Museum.