What Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat Didn’t Discuss: A Tribute to ‘Small’ Conversations

These two warriors should’ve learned that discussing people unlocks the true depth of humanity.

Fayyadh Jaafar
8 min readMay 16, 2023
Photo by Gigi on Unsplash

There’s an old proverb that’s been bandied about, percolating through the collective consciousness of society, like an oversteeped tea bag that’s been left too long in tepid water. The saying, in its most common form, goes something like this: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” It’s a tidy, palatable piece of wisdom that’s been doled out in dinner parties and networking events, passed down from high school teachers to students, from parents to children, all in an effort to guide conversation toward what’s seemingly more ‘important’ or ‘valuable’.

And who could blame them? We’ve been raised in a world that prizes the grand over the mundane, the exceptional over the everyday. This hierarchy of conversation is an echo of our broader societal stratification, where ideas are held as the golden calf, events as the silver runner-up, and people as the lowly bronze, barely worth a mention. This, however, is a perspective that must be challenged, dissected, and perhaps left by the wayside like a forgotten relic of a time we’ve outgrown.

Let’s consider the tale of two legendary warriors from 15th century Malacca, Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. Their story, steeped in myth, power struggles, and personal betrayals, serves as a perfect allegory for the issue at hand.

Hang Tuah, the loyal knight, the obedient servant, the epitome of a ‘great mind’ discussing ‘ideas’, was he not? His unbending loyalty to his Sultan, his dedication to the idea of absolute fealty, his willingness to die for his ruler’s whims, is this not what the quote venerates? And yet, how pathetic he seems in the harsh light of scrutiny. How easily manipulated, how lacking in personal identity. Like a dog chasing after the stick its master throws, Hang Tuah pursued his Sultan’s desires with a single-minded fervor that belies a lack of self-awareness.

On the other hand, we have Hang Jebat, the rebel, the disruptor, the ‘average mind’ discussing ‘events’, one might say. After Hang Tuah was wrongly sentenced to death, Jebat rebelled, wreaking havoc in the court, a rebellion born out of the event of his friend’s unjust punishment. And yet, his rebellion was senseless, misdirected, merely a chaotic reaction to a singular event. He was no less a pawn than Tuah, dancing to the tune of circumstance, just as Tuah danced to the tune of power.

Now, let’s imagine a different scene, a scene where Tuah and Jebat sit by the river, discussing not ideas or events, but themselves — their hopes, their fears, their dreams. Imagine them talking about the taste of the river water, the coolness of the wind, the nostalgia invoked by the smell of the forest. Imagine them discussing the latest gossip in the village, the funny way the new cook stammers when he’s nervous, or the rumors of the blacksmith’s secret romance.

Would their minds be any less ‘great’ or ‘average’? Or would they, perhaps, be more real, more human, more alive? Would they not, in fact, be embodying a profound philosophy, the philosophy of existence in its purest, most unpretentious form?

Consider this: talking about people, about ourselves, is not a mark of a ‘small mind’, but rather, it is an affirmation of our shared humanity. It’s a testament to our curiosity, our empathy, our ability to connect and relate to one another. It’s a celebration of the human experience, in all its messy, chaotic, beautiful glory.

The beauty of conversing about the seemingly mundane, the ‘unimportant’, is that it grounds us in the reality of the human experience. It’s an oasis in the desert of the grand narrative, a safe harbor in the storm of sweeping ideologies. It allows us to navigate through the choppy waters of our existence without losing sight of the shoreline, without forgetting the taste of fresh, salty sea spray on our lips.

Ah, but some might argue, ideas are what drive society forward! Ideas are what spark revolutions, what inspire great works of art, what propel scientific discoveries! And to that, I say, indeed, ideas are powerful, but they are not the be-all and end-all. They are born from people, shaped by events, and ultimately exist to serve people. Without the context of human lives, ideas are merely empty vessels, devoid of meaning or purpose.

Consider Hang Tuah’s unwavering loyalty to his Sultan. An idea, yes, but one that became a noose around his neck, constricting his ability to think, to feel, to act as an individual. It was an idea that served not him, but the power structure he was a part of. It was an idea that, in the end, almost led to his unjust execution. The idea, devoid of the context of human compassion, fairness, and justice, became a destructive force.

Or consider Hang Jebat’s rebellion. A reaction to an event, yes, but a reaction that, in its blind rage, lost sight of the people it was meant to protect. Jebat’s rebellion was not for the people, but for his own sense of injustice. It was an event that unfolded in isolation, divorced from the reality of the people’s lives, their hopes, their fears, their need for stability and peace. The event, devoid of the context of human empathy, understanding, and purpose, became a force of chaos.

Let’s return to our imagined scene by the river, where Tuah and Jebat converse about themselves, about people. Here, in this simple act of conversation, they are not merely subjects to ideas or events. They are individuals, with their own thoughts, feelings, desires. They are active participants in the creation and interpretation of their own stories, not passive vessels for ideas or events to manifest through. Here, they are more than ‘great’ or ‘average’ minds — they are human.

Humor me for a moment, and imagine a world where conversations about ideas and events are not held on a lofty pedestal, but are interwoven with conversations about people, about ourselves. A world where discussing the latest scientific theory is as valued as sharing a heartwarming story about a stranger’s act of kindness, where debating political ideologies is as respected as recounting a personal struggle with mental health.

In this world, the boundaries between ‘great’, ‘average’, and ‘small’ minds are blurred, rendered irrelevant. Here, every conversation is a testament to our shared humanity, an exploration of our collective experience, a celebration of our existence in all its varied, vibrant hues.

The tale of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, when examined through this lens, becomes not a story of loyalty and rebellion, not a story of ideas and events, but a story of two individuals navigating their way through the complexities of life, guided by their own sense of self, their own understanding of the world. It becomes a story that is at once universal and deeply personal, a story that resonates with each of us, in all our ‘small-minded’ glory.

So, the next time you find yourself in a conversation, remember this: there is no hierarchy of minds, no hierarchy of topics. There is only the shared journey of existence, the collective dance of life, the universal symphony of human experience. And each conversation, whether it revolves around the profound or the mundane, the grand or the simple, the ideological or the personal, is a note in this symphony, a step in this dance, a milestone in this journey.

It’s high time we take off our scorn-tinted glasses and appreciate the beauty of ‘small-minded’ conversations. There is an art in discussing the weather, a philosophy in sharing personal anecdotes, a wisdom in speaking of people. It’s a celebration of our shared narrative, a moment of connection in an increasingly disconnected world, a reaffirmation of our humanity in the face of systemic dehumanization.

In the tale of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, we see the pitfalls of dogged loyalty to ideas and blind reaction to events. Both men, trapped in their own narratives, fail to connect on a human level, fail to understand each other’s perspectives, fail to see beyond the immediate. Their tale is a cautionary reminder of what happens when we elevate ideas and events above people, when we prioritize abstract concepts over tangible human experiences.

Imagine, if you will, a different ending to their tale. Imagine if Hang Tuah questioned the justice of the Sultan’s order, if he considered the human cost of his blind loyalty. Imagine if Hang Jebat sought to understand the motivations behind Tuah’s actions, if he reflected on the impact of his rebellion on the people around him. In these imagined scenarios, they’re not just discussing ideas or events, but engaging with people, with themselves.

It’s not about dismissing the importance of discussing ideas or events, but about recognizing the equal value of discussing people, of discussing ourselves. It’s about finding a balance, a middle ground, where we can navigate the complexities of life without losing sight of our shared humanity.

It’s about realizing that a conversation about the weather can be as profound as a discourse on climate change, that a personal anecdote can be as insightful as a historical event, that a discussion about a friend’s new hobby can be as stimulating as a debate on economic policies. It’s about acknowledging the inherent value in each conversation, in each interaction, in each connection.

In a world that’s constantly pushing us to be ‘greater’, to be ‘better’, to be anything but ourselves, ‘small-minded’ conversations are a form of rebellion, a form of resistance. They are a reminder that we are more than just vessels for ideas or events, more than just cogs in the societal machine. We are individuals, with our own stories, our own experiences, our own minds.

So, let us celebrate ‘small-minded’ conversations. Let us revel in the mundane, the everyday, the ‘unimportant’. Let us find joy in the simple act of talking about people, about ourselves. And in doing so, let us reclaim our humanity, our individuality, our ‘small-minded’ glory.

Let us remember the tale of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, not as a cautionary tale of loyalty and rebellion, but as a celebration of human complexity, of individual agency, of shared experience. And let us, in our own conversations, strive to be not ‘great’ or ‘average’ minds, but human minds, engaged in the ever-evolving dance of life, the ever-unfolding symphony of existence.

In the end, we are not just the ideas we discuss, the events we react to, the people we talk about. We are the sum of all these and more. We are the conversations we have, the stories we share, the connections we make. We are, in all our ‘small-minded’ glory, beautifully, gloriously, undeniably human. And that, dear reader, is something truly worth talking about.



Fayyadh Jaafar

Former business journalist. I write other things here too, you know.