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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Gedebe: Becoming a Man in Kelantan

It is not a remnant of feudalism or a mark of fatalism, but an expression of a community deeply rooted in its sensibility and culture.

Tok Dalang Pok Wi. Source: Putra Othman @ PUSAKA.

In the 60’s and 70’s, almost everyone in the small town of Kota Bharu knew who Mat Zin Korea was. He was born and spent most of his childhood in Kampung Padang Bemban, a small farming village 12 kilometres to the east of Kota Bharu. At the age of fourteen, unable to stand the routine and strict discipline at school, he dropped out of Maktab Sultan Ismail and found himself falling deep into the notorious Kelantan underworld. Mat Zin was a famous gang leader, his reputation spread through the peninsula, across the straits to Singapore, and over the border to Thailand. He reigned over Wakaf Che Yeh, collecting protection money from petty traders at the night market. According to the locals, he wouldn’t step out of his house without a golok (machete) or kapak kecil (small axe) or a pistol tucked under his shirt.

For many, Mat Zin Korea was a sort of gedebe—a tough, brutish, and fiery Kelantanese man valued and loved by the community despite his impulsive temperament. He often became ensnared in gang fights, but was always ready to protect the poor and vulnerable. In 1972, Mat Zin suddenly disappeared. The speculation was that the infamous gang leader was murdered by his rival and his remains were nowhere to be found. But it turned out that he went to live in seclusion to study religion, and eventually built his own religious school. Surrounded by his family, students, and followers, he died in 2018 at the age of 73.

Other than local and international celebrities, it was local gedebes like Mat Zin Korea whom young boys like me in 90’s Kelantan aspired to be. There was a sense of primordial respect, prestige, and heroism brimming within the boys growing up to become men in a wild and harsh environment like Kelantan. In the coastal areas, young men spent most of their days catching fish, while towards the greener inland areas, farming was the main source of livelihood. Towns like Kota Bharu offered an escape from the mundane life of the kampung, opportunities to get involved in trade, and earn an honest living.

School was the only hope for those who dreamt about moving out of the cocoon and climbing up the social ladder. It was a place where one could work towards changing their destiny and aspired to be future corporate leaders and government officers. Yet, despite the bright future that school had to offer, it was also a place where kids organised, braced themselves for the viciousness of adulthood, and primed themselves to become a gedebe—an informal leader and protector of the community. One way to do so was by becoming a gang member and starting regular fights with each other, eventually gaining greater influence and followings.

Understanding Gedebe

The concept of gedebe is unique to Kelantan and the Patani region in Thailand. It is a term of respect given to someone—mainly Kelantanese men—who is fearless, rugged, and fierce. The Malay word samseng or thug doesn’t quite capture the meaning of gedebe. While samseng usually carries a negative connotation, gedebe is more ambiguous, encompassing both negative and positive traits. A gedebe has usually possesses an air of authority, an extensive network of ‘connections’, and oozes charisma that opens up unofficial channels of getting official things done.

The word gedebe is probably rooted in tok nebeng, a term which originated from Patani, Thailand and was introduced in Kelantan in the 1860s. It refers to a leadership role that is equivalent to today’s penghulu or village leader. A tok nebeng was appointed by the sultan to serve as intermediary between the sultan and the subjects. In the past, the tok nebeng or penghulu was a respected and well-loved figure among villagers due to his ambiguous authority. He resolved conflicts, meddled in household issues, and assured the security and wellbeing of his village.

In Patani, tok nebeng or gedebe refers to someone who is hardworking and respected. It was the dominant, strong, and reliable traits of tok nebeng that became a reference and was admired by some if not all Kelantanese men. Many grew up to be a gedebe, developing their own characters, mastering their craft of controlling their temperament, and redefining what it means to be a gedebe. Growing up in this social milieu, I observed many kinds of gedebes in my hometown, and came to understand that learning to be a gedebe is learning how to be a man.

I particularly admired Nawi and Baharuddin, among the prominent figures in my kampung. No one would dare to have eye contact longer than 5 seconds with Nawi. He was what Kelantanese would call bekeng (hot-headed). At a glimpse, he looked like a typical old Kelantanese farmer, with a small build for a guy, always dressed in sarong, and spent most of his day farming and doing odd jobs. But fighting was his main forte, even the penghulu didn’t want to take the risk to get close to him.

Baharuddin, whose main turf was the small town of Pulai Chondong, was the total opposite of Nawi. He was a cool guy with a large build, suave, flashy, and rich. He was the only man in the district who owned a horse stable and drove a left-hand drive Mercedes. At times, his name and reputation as a gedebe allowed him to get away with breaking the law. He spiced up mundane kampung life with exciting and unexpected episodes. No one but Baharuddin would think of organising a four-wheel drive tournament in the middle of a paddy field.

One can observe the gedebe traits of Nawi and Baharuddin in Pok Ya Cong Codei, the main character of the tele-movie Pok Ya Cong Codei, played by the Kelantanese-born Malaysian actor, Sabri Yunus. The movie tells the story of Pok Ya Cong Codei, a kampung man, on his mission to relocate Aina, the daughter of his good friend, who was kidnapped in Kuala Lumpur. Unfamiliar to the big city, Pok Ya calls and organises his anak buah (acolytes) in Kuala Lumpur to assist him in finding Aina. The movie depicts Pok Ya Cong Codei, socially awkward outside his own kampung, yet a veritable ‘godfather’ in his circle of acolytes. While he lords over his young followers, he also nurtures them with kindness and generosity.

Politics and Irrationality

I spent 3 years in Kelantan as a master’s student, understanding the influence of local knowledge in the modern governance in Kelantan. I travelled to different kampungs and districts, meeting local penghulu, penggawa, and politicians, as well as common folk. In the course of my research, I discovered that traditionality and the legal-rational bureaucracy, and the rational and the irrational ways of conducting politics are inextricably intertwined. Even though penghulu or penggawa are now incorporated into the modern, rational, and bureaucratic state administration, traditional and informal elements are still palpably present in their politics and administration.

After the incorporation of penghulu and penggawa institutions in the state bureaucracy in the 19th century, the power to appoint penghulu and penggawa fell into the hands of the state government. Equipped with modern qualifications such as good results in SPM and speaking the national language, anyone is eligible to become a penghulu or penggawa. However, the modern rational bureaucracy does not always work in the rural setting. There are unwritten qualities that a penghulu or any local leader need to possess: being ostensibly religious or being gedebe. People tend to go to local gedebes or imams to seek help, instead of bringing the matters to the attention of state-appointed village leaders.

Gedebe is a quintessential feature of Kelantanese politics. One may witness the high drama of gedebe played out in the arena of politics—at times in the form of audacious posturing, other times taking a deadly turn. In 1967, the former Member of Parliament for Pasir Mas Hulu, Abdul Samad Gul, was assassinated by a mysterious assailant using the sinister kapak kecil (small flying axe) in what was probably a politically-motivated attack. This incident repeated itself in 2019, when the then Vice Chairman of Kelantan UMNO, Datuk Kamaruddin Abdullah, was slashed in a parang attack.

In a verbal crossfire between two prominent Malaysian politicians, the Kelantanese maverick parliamentarian, Ibrahim Ali turned the table when the then UMNO Youth chief, Khairy Jamaluddin hurled what he thought was an insult at him—“gedebe politik”. Ibrahim Ali retorted by saying that he was proud to be a gedebe, because in the Kelantanese understanding, gedebe refers to a brave and fearless character.

The Redefinition of Gedebe

Pak Su Agel playing the gendang. Source: Putra Othman @ PUSAKA.

The concept of gedebe is fluid and applicable in many contexts. Kelantanese give the title to different kinds of figures who they see as leaders or heroes, such as school teachers, medical workers, and cultural practitioners. Such figures usually exude a natural authority and earn the respect of their community organically, rather than through official positions of power.

In Kelantanese traditional performing arts communities, gedebe is often embodied by the masters who possess distinguished qualities, having deep knowledge of their craft, and a magnetism that inspires the respect and loyalty of apprentices and the larger community. Coming back to Kelantan as a writer and researcher on culture, I perceived this manifestation of gedebe in two masters—the legendary musician Pok Su Agel and Wayang Kulit puppeteer Tok Dalang Pok Wi.

Speaking to these masters, I sensed their impregnable aura of charisma, mastery, and masculinity. They may not be typical gedebes, but the qualities of gedebe are internalised and expressed through their powerful command of their craft. Besides earning the informal title of Raja Gendang Kelantan (Kelantan’s Gendang King), Pok Su Agel also distinguishes himself as a formidable leader and teacher, who inspires respect and recognition in everyone he encounters. Although a man of few words, Tok Dalang Pok Wi possesses extraordinary skill in language. As a custodian of the oral tradition, his language has been deeply crafted in the world of Wayang. To me, gedebe is not a remnant of feudalism or a mark of fatalism, but an expression of a community deeply rooted in its sensibility and culture.

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, February 2023.


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