Thursday, February 18, 2016

'ABAH' ~ an introduction by Anna Salleh

Abah and I at home at Sungai Penchala in the early 1970s

It was 1973, the year the US withdrew from Vietnam, Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon, and my father returned to Malaysia after spending 10 years in Australia on a Colombo Plan scholarship. He had met my mother at the University of Adelaide and eloped to Tasmania when the in-laws threatened to deport him for 'messing around with a white girl'. When it was time to return home he took me with him. I was just 9 years old and we had tragically lost my younger sister in a car accident the year before. The next few years were a blur of exciting and challenging new things – it was the first time I experienced kampong life and the unconditional support of an extended family. I learnt Malay. And I lived the rollercoaster life of Salleh Ben Joned's daughter.

Much of my childhood was spent hanging around the University of Malaya where SBJ taught, playing games in spooky abandoned buildings where he rehearsed plays, or entertaining myself with his Ella Fitzgerald records as he sat hunched over his manual typewriter writing...writing...writing.

My father wrote anywhere anytime

There were a lot of social gatherings too – with people like actor Syed Alwi (I used to enjoy his great comic collection) and poet/painter Latiff Mohidin (I still have a sketch I did of him as a 10-year-old). And it was during this time that my father bought me my first guitar and let me come to a film club screening he had organised of Black Orpheus – sowing the seeds for my current love affair with Brazilian music.

Returning to work in Malaysia was payback for SBJ's scholarship, but it also seemed to meet a need he had to return to the land of his birth after years in the 'wild west'. A poem my father wrote during these heady years for my late sister Maria (he nick-named her 'Ria') expresses his desire to reconnect with his native tongue, and to salve his wounds as best he could. Here are a few lines from the poem that always bring me to tears...

A kampong childhood
Joy means your name Ria
in the tongue of your blood, 
a tongue I must learn again
to sing the mystery of our pain.

Be with me my Ria
in the sheer light
of my old sun.

What I didn't know as a child, was that my father was also using his bilingual skills to shatter taboos around race, religion and culture ­ giving the finger to the establishment and building a notorious reputation for himself in the world of Malaysian literature. Some of this rebellion was no doubt self-conscious, but I think he was trying to make sense of the contradictions he felt between the imposed strictures of the powers that be, and the sensual joy of life that he saw rooted in the culture he grew up in.

Most of his life Abah has struggled with manic depression and various treatments for it (he often challenged the bipolar diagnosis, suggesting that what people called 'mania' was just 'normal' and depression was what he experienced when he wasn't feeling creative). I'm sure he would have preferred to have lived fast and died young like James Dean, but it was not to be. He hasn't written for a long time now, yet his legacy continues to be a catalyst for expression and creativity.

Me and my father on a trip to Burma in the early 1980s

Last year, a message popped up on my Facebook from a young SBJ fan. "I don't know how to explain this," wrote Saufie Jaffar, a photographer and graphic designer from Melaka – my father's hometown. "I just wanted to know how is Mr. Salleh doing? Where is he now? ... [smile emoticon]". Saufie recalled first meeting my father at a Lat retrospective exhibition. "Inside the toilet, I was smoking with my friends and suddenly he came and said 'May I join the club?' He wanted to borrow the lighter actually [grin emoticon]." A bit later Saufie saw SBJ's brief appearance in Amir Muhammad's film The Big Durian and was able to put a name to the face of that 'jamban' intruder, and to follow up his writings. Saufie said my father's poetry had inspired him to write – and now he has his own publication coming out.  The young poet was beside himself when he managed to catch up with SBJ on a recent family trip 'balik kampong'. Saufie got his copies of Sajak Sajak Saleh and The Amok of Mat Solo autographed, although unfortunately a friend had borrowed his copy of As I Please at the time.

Saufie gets his collection of SBJ books autographed
Saufie is just one of a number of younger people who have connected with my father's writings. Students have based projects on his works, and those taught by my father's students have called for a tribute to be written for this 'icon' they've never met. Then there's young musician Emir Syazwan who paid homage to SBJ by reading one of his columns in a video posted on YouTube and the fans who lovingly describe Abah as "the Johnny Rotten of poetry in Malaysia" or "Malaysian literature's l'enfant terrible."

There are some who would have found my father arrogant and disrespectful in his time, some of his works obscene. But there is no doubt his provocation has left a mark, including on a whole new generation. Friends tell me his work is as relevant to Malaysia today as it was when first written – a fact that has given birth to this blog and its associated Facebook page, which will feature regular posts by the SBJ Online team. It's only right that the likes of Saufie and Emir and the countless others who may spend more time online than reading books, can access the works of the man I affectionately know as 'Abah', but who appears now to have become a national treasure.

Father & daughter in Melaka early 2016 (photo by Saufie Jaffar)

Preface to 'As I Please' by Salleh Ben Joned

Salleh Ben Joned at a poetry reading (by Lat)

A word about my New Straits Times literary column, As I Please (AIP). The pieces, selected from a very uneven bunch, written, with occasional breaks, over a period of three years (1991-4) are presented here as they first appeared, with all their sense of topical fervour, urgency and the need to meet the deadline. Whatever minor cuts, insertions and changes in phrasing that have been made were dictated by the needs of the non-Malaysian reader.

AIP kicked off on March 6, 1991 with a confident commitment to regularity. Quite soon it became “As and When I Please” to the dismay of the paper’s long suffering literary editor and the incredibly tolerant followers of the column. You see, I belong to the vanishing tribe of “Old Malay” – which the currently much talked about “New Malay” would no doubt dismiss as lazy, irresponsible, cynical. indisciplined, unpredictable, fun-loving and therefore unreliable. I must be one of the most, if not the most, irregular, columnists in the history of journalism. But this hopeless, so-called columnist, despite intermittent seizures of doubts about the quality of his writing, is sure of one thing. The column, if nothing else, triumphantly proved that one must never, never censor oneself, and that one should always, as they say, “test the parameters.” Malaysian writers need to be reminded of this all the time - and I am sure the situation is not much better in many so-called Third World countries. 

Many people have expressed surprise that I was allowed to get away with saying things I said in As I Please in a country like Malaysia and in an establishment newspaper like the New Straits Times. The fact that Kadir Jasin - an intelligent man and a Malay (it’s worth noting) - was Group Editor of the paper explains the freedom I was tacitly granted. But that freedom would not have meant much if the Literary Editor (Kee Thuan Chye) had not been what he was - committed to “testing the parameters.”

Not a few readers praised me for my so-called “courage”; I personally didn’t think it was a matter of courage. Common sense - that’s basically what’s needed. That, and a real concern for the intellectual state of the country. I was furious when V.S. Naipaul - interviewed while in Malaysia researching for his book, Among the Believers - so casually said that mine was a “country without a mind.” But I knew what he meant, and if we confine that remark to the contemporary scene I couldn’t help but agree with him.

I’m a stinking big mouth, I know. But I really can’t stand the parochialism of my fellow Malaysian, especially Malay (or Bumi) writers. The contemporary Malay writer as a type (which means there are exceptions) is an utterly predictable, cliché-clogged, slogan-sloshed pretentious, sentimental, deadly solemn and therefore humourless animal. He takes himself so, so seriously - and for all his intellectual pretensions, he knows nothing about the big world. The Malay word for writer is sasterawan (Sanskrit in origin), and I must admit in my polemical usage the word has acquired a prejorative connotation. And thus the charge against me that I have blasphemed against the Holiest of Holies, the inbred figure of the Malay sasterawan, the shrill articulator of the Soul of the Race (race, not nation, mind you), that pious and sentimental defender of the glory of the Great Malay Minda (from the English “mind”- you see, we don’t even have a word for mind!). Blaspheming as I please against the sasterawan doesn’t take much courage - and it can be fun. But I must admit my pieces on Salman Rushdie, especially the last one, (Speaking Up for a Writer’s Right, December 15, 1993) were a little reckless; my wife thought this time I was really asking for it. But Allah the All-Knowing, All Compassionate apparently didn’t think I had committed any mortal sin (no lightning has struck me yet). There was, however, a flood of correspondence (one was ten pages long), and all of it very fiery and very condemnatory, consigning me to hell with pious enthusiasm. The one from the Iranian Embassy Press Attaché came very near to demanding that I, a freelance writer, be “sacked” [sic] from the New Straits Times and be compelled to apologise to the government and people of Iran and the Muslim Umma (community) for insulting the memory of the Ayatollah. This letter was among those that were published before the correspondence on the subject was promptly closed by the Editor; but the paragraph containing the “demand” had unfortunately been edited out.

Writing a literary column in a country like Malaysia can be quite trying. The issues that matter keep recurring again and again, and when you want to be positive, to have the nice feeling of praising a writer or some writing for a change, there isn’t very much to shout about. Thus my self enforced soul searching, soul saving, khalwat from the column every month. The word khalwat, incidently, is of Arabic origin and it means “spiritual retreat.” In Malaysia, it has come to mean “retreat for immoral purposes” or sexual “close proximity,” a crime-sin which is punishable by the syariah law (it only applies to Malay-Muslims - so much for the special rights and privileges of the Malay-Bumis).

This obscene, nay, sacrilegious transformasi of the word khalwat is a perfect figure for the general perversion of values, of the spirit, intellect, heart, life and inevitably language - all in the name of an abstract piety (in this case, religion; in another, race). If I were asked what motivates my writings, I’d say simply: the crying need to say “No! In thunder!” to this perversion. No, in the name of Yes-to-life. Yes!
 Salleh Ben Joned 
Aldie, Virginia, U.S.A. 
 22 May 1994

Introduction to 'As I Please' by Margaret Drabble

Dame Margaret Drabble CBE (portrait by Ruth Corney)
Anybody who wants to understand cultural politics today should read this book. Anybody who wants to understand Malaysia today should read this book. And anybody who wants an insight into confrontations of East and West, of Islam and the secular or Christian world, should read this book.

Salleh Ben Joned, poet and journalist, is an excellent guide through the minefields of misunderstanding that await the traveller at home or abroad. The articles and essays cover a wide range of issues, from the question of the National Language (and National Literature) of Malaysia to the death of Lorca, from the soporific dullness of hot Sunday afternoons in Kuala Lumpur to the Rushdie Affair, from erotic verse to the implications of the Fall of Granada in 1492.  Salleh is a joker and a satirist, and he can make one laugh aloud, but beneath the wit and invective is a courageous seriousness. Ridenten dicere verum quid vetat?  As Horace said – or “Who says I can’t joke while telling the truth?” - Salleh’s jokes are often very near the bone, as are those of the best jesters, and he probably annoys his friends as often as his critics.

He writes in a political climate which is, to say the least, challenging. Malaysia should be grateful to him for communicating to outsiders so clearly and enjoyable its condition as it approaches the Millennium – though I suppose gratitude is what it always feels. After reading these essays, one has much more understanding of what is actually happening in a country whose relationship with Britain has recently been very vexed.

One can even pick up, from this volume, a few words of the language – it was Salleh himself in Kuala Lumpur who taught me the provenance of the word “amok”, and from these essays I have now learned that in Malay, breasts are tetek, a word which he lovingly describes as completely expressive of itself, and more evocative than any English version, literary or vulgar. His translations of Malayan pantuns, sayings and terms of abuse also make one long to know of the language. It is clearly a fine tongue for invective.

Born in Malacca, Salleh had a Western education in Australia and Tasmania, and is now widely travelled, but he remains a Malaysian and a Muslim. He is uniquely well placed to explore what has recently become a dominant cultural conflict of our time. Like Rushdie, he has lived, day by day, and tried to make sense of it.  His responses are instant, off the cuff, sometimes hasty – and that is one of the virtues of this volume of occasional pieces. It has a great immediacy. The debate is with society, and he shows us a mind unable to censor itself. He explores the Quran and the Hadith, finding there mercy and compassion: he challenges the dictators of religious orthodoxy on their ground, pleading for a tolerance which he assures us has scriptural authority.

This is a brave agenda. The word “blasphemy” and “sacrilege” and apostasy understandably haunt him, and he says that his typewriter has a curious habit of producing the word “scared” instead of “sacred.” His courage in trying to interpret one side of his heritage to the other, and hence to us, is exhilarating. 

Salleh is bilingual, and writes in English and Malay:  he supports strongly the right to write (and teach and be taught) in English, but he also has a strong feeling for Malay. His games with words in both tongues reveal his knowledge of James Joyce, of whom he here writes with admiration – making, incidentally some interesting comparisons between Irish nationalism and Malaysian nationalism. He is sensitive to the grey area where religion fades in which literature itself can be co-opted, abused and misinterpreted. He votes for multi-culturalism, but he also understands its dangers. 

Exhilarating, too, is the infectious enthusiasm with which he writes about writing. His friends and heroes, ranging from the Australian poet and trickster James McAuley to Octavio Paz, Ibsen, Chairil Anwar (“the first and probably the only true bohemian and rebel the Malay literary world has produced”) and journalist and novelist Isako San, are celebrated with generosity.

Above all, he arouses our curiosity. He makes us want to understand. For this alone Malaysia should give him a few medals. Who would have thought I would find myself reading an article on a Bumi writer’s dilemma with such interest? Until I came across Salleh Ben Joned, I never even knew what a Bumi writer was. This book challenges us all to find out

Margaret Drabble
May 1994

Margaret Drabble is a novelist and critic. Her first book A Summer Birdcage, was published in 1962 to be followed by several others, including The Garrick Year (1964) The Needle’s Eye (1972) and The Radiant Way (1987). Her book The Millstone (1966) won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize. She is editor of The Genius of Thomas Hardy (1976) and the Fifth Edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985) and author of a critical biography of Angus Wilson. She was awarded a CBE in 1980.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Once Again, English, Our English

All the Malay and English newspapers, except one, gave it banner headlines. And so they should. It was one of the most important speeches the Prime Minister gave in 1993. It announced a significant shift in the Government’s policy on the use of English as a medium of instruction in the universities. Once again Dr Mahathir showed quiet determination not to allow sentimental pieties over language to be a dead weight that slows down the country’s march towards the dream year 2020.

The commitment to the total use of Bahasa Malaysia (Malay Language) in every area of learning, especially in science and technology, has turned out to be problematic. Shortage of qualified teachers capable of teaching in BM, of competent translators who could make available essential texts existing only in English – these are among the major factors that have made a slight change in strategy necessary, without, however, compromising fundamental commitments and principles or the sense of national pride.

Permitting the use of (or a return to) English as the medium of instruction in such technical subjects as medicine, engineering and computer science is the logical thing to do under the circumstances. The language is already there, part of our colonial inheritance; what is needed now is to make that particular inheritance whole and healthy again, and to undo the damage done to it (a serious decline in standards mainly) by fanatical nationalistic enthusiasms over the decades since Independence. And to do this without feeling any guilt, of being assailed by the sense of having betrayed our sacred identity as Malaysians (for the chauvinists, “identity as Malays,” no doubt). The slogan Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa (language is the soul of the nation) does have a degree of truth in it, so long we are not too literal or rigid about both “language” and “soul.”

The Government’s decision may be entirely pragmatic in its motivation. The concern behind it is the pursuit of progress. In particular, the target of the fully developed, highly competitive nation respected by the world in the year 2020.  It has become a compulsive ritual now that every time a good word is said about English, immediate assurance about the sacred status of the National Language is given. No one wants to be misunderstood, least of all a politician, and on such a sacrosanct matter too. It has happened before (remember last year, when the Prime Minister’s very faith in BM was questioned?) – and there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.

So the Prime Minister again gave his assurance and to make double sure, his new Deputy also gave his. “In 1993,” he said, “we are more confident of the strength of Bahasa Malaysia (note, he said “Malaysia” not “Melayu”)… There should be no cause for concern if we want our younger generation to improve their English.” Anwar even reminded Malaysians that the Nineties are not like the Sixties – that decade of tension when he was a troublesome student leader in University Malaya. (Remember?). Outside the area with which the Prime Minister’s speech was immediately concerned, the place of Bahasa Malaysia as the first language of the nation is secure – even if only in the public sector, not the private. This officially-sanctioned return of English for a specific practical purpose is not only not a threat to the status of Bahasa Malaysia; it will also, said the Prime Minister, benefit the National Language itself in the long run.

The idea that giving English its proper and necessary place in our life can even help BM is something new in Dr M’s thinking and public utterance on the question of language. “We are of the opinion,” he said, “that once we emerge as a successful race (nation?) our language will also be successful and will gain respect.” This opinion was echoed by a number of academic and public figures - the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (Malaysian Agricultural University) being one of them. So “success” is the keyword – key to everything, including the attainment of that position which compels the respect of the entire world.

The reactions from the academics and intellectuals to Dr M’s speech have been generally favourable. A few voiced anxiety that the move would be at the expense of Bahasa Malaysia. A group of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia lecturers wrote a very pertinent letter to the New Straits Times (January 1) saying that, while they are not opposed to the necessary shift in policy, it’s not enough for the Government to do just that. The whole education system, they rightly say, needs to be reformed, particularly as it applies to the teaching of English Language vis-a-vis the “Soul of the Nation.” Successful Malaysia in the 2020’s with have her “soul” expressed in BM, helped not a little by a judiciously pragmatic use of the world’s lingua franca and most convenient means to economic and technological competitiveness. But what kind of “soul”? And will this Malaysian soul be expressed in purely secular material terms? If you asked the president of Gapena he would probably say, absolutely, yes – i.e., if he could forgive the Mahathir government even that minimum role granted to English.

I have argued in this column more than once that English was playing and would continue to play an important role not only in our relations with the rest of the world, but within our own multi-ethnic society. And that role is by no means merely economic, scientific or technological. After more than three decades of independence, and despite the National Education Policy, English is still used widely in our country. And what’s important, that use cuts across ethnic boundaries. Now, with the slogan or motto Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa in mind, would any unblinkered Malaysian say that our “Malaysian soul,” however ill-defined and ambiguous it may be, can only be expressed in the National Language? A language belongs to those who speak it. It’s as simple as that. Given this fact, and that language communicates experience and is capable of transcending the boundaries of the culture of its origin – given all this, then the English we speak in Malaysia today belongs to us. It’s our English; along with BM it expresses our “soul,” with all its contradictions and confusions, as much as our social and material needs.

The idea that true nationhood is impossible without a native language to express the sense is not always true. Just look at Ireland. Much of the spirit of her rebellion against England was expressed in the English language. Ireland in fact made the language of her colonial masters her own, and defined herself in that language. In the process, she produced some of the greatest writers in English. Though Ireland and Malaysia do have certain things in common (most of them not very nice), the two countries are very different otherwise. For one, unlike the virtually dead Gaelic (the native language of the republic), BM is very much alive. Unlike poor Ireland, therefore, we Malaysians have more than one language in which to express our “Soul.” Isn’t that all the better?

5 January 1994

The (Malay) Malaysian Writer’s Dilemma

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Colombo Plan Scholar in the Land Down Under (1963)

An intelligent and morally sensitive Malaysian of Malay origin to whom self-respect and the dream of the brotherhood of man are as vital as the air he breathes is not an enviable creature in the age of NEP (New Economic Policy). The Government’s attempt to get his fellow Malays out of the “Malay dilemma” has put him in a new one – the Bumi Dilemma. Bumi is short for Bumiputera, literally, “son” or “prince” of the soil, i.e., the Malays and other natives. It can be somewhat pejorative term, at least when used by non-Bumis especially in the post NEP era.
The “Bumi Dilemma” afflicts only a tiny minority among the Bumiputeras. Under certain circumstances, or at its most acute, it can be in some ways almost Hamlet-like in its neurosis. To be or not to be part of a “protected species”: that is the question.  Whether it is nobler in the mind to “opt out” for the sake of necessary pride and independence and fidelity to ideas that transcend barriers of ethnicity – that, or to commit some kind of moral suicide by accepting unquestioningly those convenient pieties about ethnic survival and dominance. The Bumi afflicted with this dilemma may accept the rationale of the NEP as a time-bound historical necessity. And he may be able to see and acknowledge how, like other similar good-intentioned “correctional” policies, it can be abused. He may even be willing to admit that, though he as an individual doesn’t need the protection of such policies, directly or indirectly, whether he likes it or not, he is beneficiary. But, because of the kind of individual he is, the situation he can find himself in as a result of being a member of a “protected species” is not an enviable one. It is especially unenviable if he is a writer.
As I see it, the most serious problem for the Malaysian writer of Malay origin has to do with the question of fidelity or loyalty. And this question, because of its peculiar implications and of the pressure of certain stubborn ethnic realities, raises the question of a proper audience for the writer. The phrase “Malaysian writer of Malay origin” that I use here refers to a tiny, very tiny minority within a much bigger group. The majority of this group can’t be bothered with fine semantic distinctions between “Malaysian writer of Malay origin” and simply “Malay writer”. In fact, it’s a matter of pride and ideological principle with many of them the latter is used without question, just as they hardly ever question the givens of ethnicity and religion that make an innocent term like “Malay writer” bristling with divisive connotations. And what is truly, chillingly disturbing is that these givens seem to be becoming more and more set, more shrill. The shrillness is the most immediately disturbing; it’s the shrillness of ideological atavism that, I believe, is death to the creative principle.
The vast majority of Malaysian writers of Malay origin are, I believe, untroubled in any serious way by the question of audience. They just know who constitutes their audience, and they don’t have the slightest doubts about it. One sometimes gets the feeling that they deeply believe and rather like it that things will remain unchanged, the solidarity of their audience guaranteed, written into the Constitution as it were, which, in a sense it is. Similarly, the question of aesthetic, intellectual and moral fidelity doesn’t trouble them. Fidelity to them is mainly a question of being true to certain ethnic pieties; truths and ideals not narrowed by the myopia of race and religion don’t concern too many of them. The best way to make the problem of audience and the issue of loyalty something that can be concretely felt is for me to talk about it from my own personal experience.
SBJ: bright young lad from Malacca
I feel, in fact, I know in my blood and my bones that I belong to the tiny minority. Every time I sit down to write, I am bugged by these troubling questions: who am I writing for, in actual fact and ideally speaking? What am I supposed to be loyal to? In my pessimistic moments, I even wonder if I have any audience to write for; if the element of stubbornness in my notion of loyalty and fidelity have not condemned me to a no-man’s land. It’s quite easy for my conscious self, the self moved by the will and governed by intelligence, rationality and ideals of common humanity, to say that as a writer I recognize only one loyalty: loyalty to truth and beauty, justice and freedom as I perceive them with all the honesty I can muster, with an informed mind and an informed heart.
But in this country, “loyalty” is a very difficult business, and if, like me, you happen to be a writer somewhat alienated by your education from the dominant values of your ethnic kind, a writer who stubbornly persists in trying to see through and beyond the inherited blinkers of race and religion, what you call “loyalty to truth and beauty, justice and freedom” can be considered a betrayal. And for the Malays, this “betrayal” is a form of apostasy. People like me, bilingual and untroubled by sentimental pieties, are particularly vulnerable to the damning charge of “apostasy” – apostasy from the religion of race, which can be a worse charge than apostasy from the religion of the race.
When I came back to Malaysia after a decade in a foreign country, I made a conscious attempt to recover my lost cultural self. Being a man of words, the attempt naturally took the form of repossessing my mother tongue. But, as everyone who has gone through it knows, such attempts can at best be only partially successful. So was mine – and I don’t regret it. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to recover my original cultural identity in its fullness and purity. The idea of recovering something of the “purity” of Malay language itself might appeal to the poet in me, but not those values whose “purity” or “Malayness” cannot be distinguished from atavism. I am aware that I am in some ways quite Westernized, and I am not embarrassed by it. In fact there are some elements in my Westernization that I am quite happy about it, which I’d like to believe have made me a better human being and hopefully a better writer. But I also feel I am still, in some things, incorrigibly Malay. And I don’t regret that either. In fact, there are things about “Malayness” (not to be confused with “Bumiputeraness”) and in the cultural heritage of my race that I am terribly proud of it. That’s why like Lin Yutang’s unusual definition of patriotism as love for the good things one ate in one’s childhood. I am quite certain that these things, in my case sambal belacan (Malay delicacy) and cincalok (Malay delicacy), both literal and metaphorical, inform my writing, especially the poetry. Directly or indirectly, they give much of whatever energy my writing can claim to have.
Because this energy is inevitably life-affirming, its source cannot be “exclusively Malay.” The streams that water my being, my life, my dreams, my writings are many and various, though the central one is no doubt Malay. I am a human being as much as I am a Malay Malaysian; Malaysia is my country and so is the world. Actually, my true country is not the world, but world literature. I am told that in Tagalog, a cousin of Malay, the word “malaya” means freedom or consciousness. Well, that’s the “Malaya” I love to inhabit and feel terribly loyal to, a country that has no border with that other one – the country called World Literature.
An Austrian friend once gave me a poetry book called Song of Malaya by Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek. No it’s not about our country; it’s about a prostitute, for the word “malaya” means that in Swahili. When I get depressed or angry because of the atavistic fantasy of “Malaya” and “Melayu” befogging the already blinkered minds of our sasterawans (writers). I think with bitter cynicism of that Swahilli word. There are many forms of prostitution. To me, the worst is when the writer uses his talent to prostitute a collective ideal. It is made even worse by his conviction that no prostitution is involved; it’s all in the name of bangsa (race) and semangat kebangsaan (Spirit of ethnic nationalism), you see. (We must really do something about that kebangsaan word; as long as we use it to mean nationalism or nationality, we’ll continue to be trapped in the dark alley of atavism).
The Austrian satirist Karl Kraus (a Jew, of course) once ringingly announced his crusade as a writer by describing language as “a universal whore” which he must “turn into a virgin.” It’s a big dream, a mammoth crusade, that one. But I believe every writer worth his/her salt must commit himself/herself to it. Otherwise, he/she might as well resign from the community of writers – and of human beings. 

In other words, commit literary hara kiri.
1 January 1992

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Be Sophisticated and Silly All the Way

Gabungan Persatuan Penulis Nasional
or National Writers Association
It was a use of words that an alert observer would call ambiguous, if not confusing. A political scientist would probably call it skillfully ambiguous. This is the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement on the language issue after a meeting with members of the Kongres Cendekiawan Melayu (KCM), or Congress of Malay Intellectuals last Friday: “I have explained (to the KCM delegation),” said Anwar Ibrahim, “that while existing policy with regard to the use of the National Language will be continued, there will be greater emphasis on English.” (My italics.) Some people wouldn’t consider “greater emphasis” the same as allowing the use of English as the medium of instruction in the limited area specified. Emphasis would merely suggest that the generally accepted status of English as an important second language would be given a fuller practical meaning, and that more strenuous efforts be made and more effective methods used to ensure that our students acquire a better command of the language. I wouldn’t have thought that Anwar’s words of assurance would satisfy those Malay nationalists who had earlier opposed the limited return of English as announced by the Prime Minister of December 27 and reconfirmed after last Saturday’s meeting of the Umno Supreme Council.

I don’t know whether those words of Anwar as quoted in the New Straits Times (January 8) reflect what he actually said to the Malay intellectuals at the two-hour closed-door meeting. In any case it’s good news that the delegation of anxious intellectuals including the President of Gapena, were satisfied with Anwar’s assurance that there would not be any change to the Government’s “policy”. Which must mean they’ve dropped their earlier opposition to the Government’s move. Move is, I think, more accurate here than “change of policy,” however slight or peripheral that alleged change may be.  The decision to allow a return to English for the limited area specified was probably meant to be taken (though Dr Mahathir didn’t say so) as a stop-gap measure – that is, English would be used until there are enough lecturers fully-qualified to teach science and technology in the Malay Language, and enough text and reference books on those technical subjects have been competently translated into that language. I hope the reported acceptance by the KCM of the Government’s assurance will be followed by similar acceptance by other groups, academic and intellectual. But it is just a hope, probably without much basis.

The curious case of the KCM aside, I’ve been led to believe that, in my column last Wednesday, I’d underestimated the resistance to the Government’s move. This was after learning that my passing reference to the group of UKM (University Kebangsaan Malaysia) lecturers who wrote a letter to NST was not quite accurate; one of the signatories to the letter told me I was wrong in saying that those lecturers were “not opposed” to the apparent “policy shift.” (He did acknowledge, however, that I can’t really be blamed for the error; due to editorial cuts, the letter was not crystal clear on the issue and could easily be read the way I read it.) It seems that there are not a few academics and intellectuals who either remain suspicious of the Government’s intention or are simply opposed to the return to English, temporary or otherwise, for the teaching of science and technology.

Rustam A. Sani
Take the Utusan Malaysia columnist and ISIS Fellow, Rustam A. Sani. This highly vocal scholar feared that, what was described by the NST writer who interviewed him as a “peripheral adjustment in the language policy,” was perhaps “the beginning of more.” And he sadly wondered if it didn’t signify that “the cultural programme that came with the National Language policy has failed,” and that the Malay language cannot cope with progress.” (NST, January 2) In his Utusan column of January 3, Rustam elaborated on this question of double “failure.” It’s an interesting piece and quite passionately argued. And I must admit that, though I’d taken this son of a noted nationalist to task for the unfair attitude to our English-language writers he expressed, I found his article last week strangely quite moving. Yes, I did say “moving.” You see, I am not anti-Malay as some sasterawans think. (How can I be when I write in both Malay and English?)  It’s just that I’m not ideologically rigid about language and national identity, and very much an incorrigible pluralist in cultural matters. I consider it a privilege, not an ideological shortcoming, for our nation to be bilingual. Other countries not so well-blessed and not sentimental about their native languages must envy us.

I don’t suppose it’s any good to tell Rustam Sani that the Government’s “peripheral adjustment” to the language policy is not necessarily “the beginning of something more.” But I’d still like to share with him my modest thoughts about some of the reasons for the apparent “failure” of the project of modernizing BM, of transforming it into a language fit for a nation striving to be fully developed and industrialized by the year 2020. (I won’t say anything about the other “failure,” that of the “cultural programme that came with the National Language policy.” This is because the “cultural programme” Rustam referred to is not something that I as a pluralist would endorse.) First, let me say it out loud and clear that I agree with Rustam that the apparent “failure” of the project of modernizing our country through the Malay language is not due to any inherent fault of that language. Having agreed with Rustam on this general point, I must now say where and how “we” have failed. Since the “we” here includes bilinguists like me, I’d of course dismiss any contention that one of the reasons for the “failure” is the continued widespread use of English. I believe we can be bilingual and at the same time committed to the modernization of BM.

Now, why has the modernization of BM for the purpose of making it a fit medium of instruction in science and technology failed? For reason of space, I’ll only deal with this failure as it is manifested in the vital project of translation and, to a much lesser extent, as it is manifested in the current fate of the Malay language in the hands of Malay academics and writers themselves. I’ll say it bluntly: the translation project has largely failed because incompetent people, without proper training, qualification and experience, have been chosen to do most of the translations. This has been made worse by sheer bureaucratic short-sightedness and incompetence that have made the realization of the vital project incredibly slow – so slow that three-and-a-half decades after independence our university libraries can only boast a very, very tiny percentage, not a few are hopeless, either inaccurate or simply unreadable, because they are so badly translated. The responsibility for this lies mainly with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, since it is entrusted with the translation project. I’d describe the approach to this project – that is, the attitude behind it – as cincai (a Malay word of Chinese origin, meaning, “casual, done in a shoddy manner and readily accepted, however shoddy”). This attitude, as we all know, is typically Malaysian, if not Malay.

Now this cincai attitude goes very well with another tendency of our academics, intellectuals and sasterawans. And that is the tendency to corrupt that very language whose honour they are so noisily concerned with. They are so easily seduced and befuddled by the sound of new words and jargon of English origin or old Malay words refurbished for flashy rhetorical purposes, that they end up by making Malay so ugly or unreadable or both (see my next piece). When these academic corrupters of the Malay language or their pupils do translation, God help us! If the original English is barely readable (as in books or academic articles on the latest Western literary or sociological theory, or philosophy of science), they make the translation worse than unreadable. To use a refurbished old Malay word, they are so desperate in wanting to sound canggih (sophisticated) that they sound awful and don’t make such sense. Ironically enough, the word canggih is so popular now (Rustam has “moden dan canggih” [sophisticated and modern] in that column of his,) used to mean the opposite of what it means now. Kamus Dewan (1984 edition, terribly out of date) obviously has only one entry. 

What is it? Believe it or not, that single entry saya canggih means terlalu banyak bercakap (talks too much, or in one word, “bullshit”). That’s a characteristic of intellectuals and politicians, isn’t it? Someone who knows Javanese told me that in that language it means or used to mean “gaudy” (like having too much cheap make-up). In Wilkinson’s Malay-English Dictionary (1903), there’s no canggih; but there’s chenggeh, which must be a northern dialect variation of canggih. The meaning? “Affected, dandified.” Now, isn’t that very interesting? So, scribblers and bullshitters of Malaysia, unite! In one homogeneous voice, be canggih and cincai all the way to the year 2020. You have nothing to lose but your brains. 

12 January 1994

The Transformasi of a Language

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle there is an odd character, Dimitry Sologdin, an engineer in a “special prison” built by Stalin for highly qualified political prisoners. Sologdin is obsessed with the purity of his beloved native language. He is disgusted with the habit of many Russian writers of polluting the Russian language with the indiscriminate fashionable borrowings from the West. The disgust is so strong that when he catches himself inadvertently committing the offence, he makes a tick on a sheet of paper. The ticks are penalty marks, and he punishes himself according to how many there are. I don’t fancy Sologdin’s masochism, but I do share his disgust with the habit of borrowing foreign words when there is no need for it.

All languages borrow from others, but the borrowing should be dictated by necessity, not fashion, laziness, pretentious-ness, or any other self-indulgent motives. Bahasa Malaysia writers in general are prone to this habit of indiscriminate borrowing from English. This is not a recent phenomenon; it has been with us ever since Independence. The ironical thing is that the worst culprits are not the English-educated whose Malay vocabulary is poor and who are too lazy or too uninterested to do anything about it. No, the worst culprits are the Malay-educated, especially those who make a lot of noise about the sanctity of the National Language. 

These writers, especially the literary critics, borrow, in some cases kidnap, English words not because they are desperately poor in BM vocabulary, but because they are desperately in need of ego-boosting, or something with which to dress up the poverty of their ideas. When you have nothing to say, big foreign words, the more abstract the better, can be quite handy. I think it is the Indonesians who taught them, or encouraged them in this pernicious habit. Indonesian writers have always been thoroughly indiscriminate in their borrowing of European words. (That lively Indonesian weekly Tempo is for me quite painful to read, despite its solid critical content.) Malay writers who have always looked up to their cousins across the Straits cannot resist copying them. They have always felt inferior when dealing with them; witness the way they ape the Indonesian accent when reading poetry or when speaking to Indonesian writers. Even those who should know better can’t resist the temptation to pollute the language. One distinguished novelist, I remember, thought that the simple Malay word petikan (quotation) was not distinguished enough; so he coined a new word, kotasi. It was this same novelist who came up with the inspired BM term for playwright, pelirait. This one never became popular, presumably because its unintentionally obscene sound. The whole business is really quite absurd (pronounced “absood”), to borrow a wonderful transformasi (transformation) of “absurd” by a theatre enthusiast.

It is revealing that the most commonly borrowed English word in Malay puisi (poetry) is also a ghastly mistake. The word is antologi which has become a standard word now. Malay poets use the word to mean collection or selection of poems by an individual poet. “Anthology” in English means a collection of poems or writings by various writers. There is a good Malay word for a collection or selection (kumpulan, pilihan), and when a Malay word for a real anthology is required there is that wonderful word Bunga Rampai or Rampaian. Bunga Rampai is literally a posy, which is interesting because the word “anthology” itself is from the Greek anthologia meaning a flower-gathering.

The worst polluters of the Malay language are, of course, the critics or kritikus (this one I like; it’s unintentionally apt – apt because tikus in Malay means rat). I remember one hyperactive kritikus in an article on drama trying to numb his readers with obscenities like mistikus, audienisman, mentransformasikan, pengkonsenterasian (he must have nearly choked on that one). And this is how one academic kritikus writes about the poetry of one of our most sensitive poets:

“... dalam hubungan konteks pada proses exteriorization dan interiorization lahir perilaku-perilaku osilasi dan stasis organisme... (... in the context of the process of exteriorization and interiorization, emerges features of oscillation and organic stasis...”)

Talk of critics mauling and pulverizing poetry! If much of what goes under the name of literary criticism in English today is quite unreadable, in Malay it’s even worse. Malay literary critics love theories and the horrible jargon spawned by them; when it comes to Western literature most of them seem to read nothing but theories and criticism, not the creative works themselves. I have often been struck by the ease with which they co-opt the latest structuralist or post-structuralist jargon (not always accurately), and by their ignorance of specific Western poems, play or novel.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the year 2020, we get a “writerly” (poststructuralist jargon, this) kritikus from one of our universities with perhaps a Ph.D. from the University of Buffalo, writing like this:             
“Situasi sastera kontemporari Malaysia memanifestasikan sindrom-sindrom dan episteme kekrisisian; sindrom yang dominan ialah sindrom alienasi yang bermultilevel, bermultidimensi dan berkontradiksi antara sinkronisasi dan diakronisasi – alienasi sosial, alienasi kultural, alienasi komunal, alienasi intelektuil, alienasi metafisikal, alienasi literalisma; totalitinya adalah konsekuensi kontradiksi dan tensyen antara tradisi dan modenisasi, osilasi stasis antara pretensi dan mediokriti, autentisma dan autisma…” (“The situation of contemporary Malaysian literature manifests the syndromes and epistemes of crisis; the dominant syndromes being those of alienation which are multilevel, multidimensional and full of contradictions between synchronization and diachronism – social alienation, cultural alienation, intellectual alienation, literalistic alienation; the totality of which the consequence of contradictions and tensions between tradition and modernization, static oscillation between pretension and mediocrity, authenticity and autism…”

What a wonderful way of bermastibasi (masturbation) and berbulshitasi (bullshit)! You’d need a Ph.D. from University Kerbau (Buffalo) to be able to do that.

12 June 1991

In Praise of a “Wild Beast”

Mural found in Jakarta commemorating Chairil Anwar

Two Sundays ago, April 28, at about 3 p.m., I had a “visitation.” Sort of. It was one of those boring suburban Sunday afternoons, and oppressively hot. After a heavy rich lunch, I felt like having a good siesta, which I often do, in the good old tradition of my lazy ancestors. But the noise of the telly from my next-door neighbour (probably a repeat of some excruciatingly silly Drama Swasta (TV Drama) was unusually loud; it was impossible to sleep. The heat, the boredom, and the damned silly telly – it was enough to drive you mad. In fact, for a spilt second, I almost felt the onset of vertigo. I had a flash of a vision, of myself leaping across the room like a tiger, snatching the ancestral kris gathering dust in the corner of my study, storming into the street running amok. I didn’t do it.

The threatening vertigo mercifully passed. I covered my ears with a pillow, and tried to retreat into my own world. Then a line or two of a poem by a long-dead Indonesian poet unsurprisingly came to mind: “Aku ini binatang jalang/Dari kumpulannya terbuang…” (I am a wild beast/ Driven from the herd...) I thought of a poem of mine, written at one sitting a few years ago, on a Sunday afternoon exactly like April 28, a poem with the same title as the Indonesian one, Aku (“Me”), its opening and closing lines in fact parodying those of that poem. My Aku was actually an “updating” of the other Aku. If the Indonesian Aku (written in 1943) was the defiant cry of the individual spirit, its sheer refusal to conform, my Aku is just the opposite. It’s the aku of the era of the NEP – a good pious, patriotic “Bumigeois” who sits in front of idiot box every Sunday afternoon, and every evening, his mouth gaping wide, a box of KFC in his lap, drooling and finger-licking his existence away and dreaming of going on like that for another thousand years. (The closing lines of the Indonesian poem read: “Dan aku akan lebih tidak peduli/ Aku mahu hidup seribu tahun lagi.” (And I don’t care a damn/ I want to live another thousand years.)

Thinking of the two Aku’s, I suddenly felt a rindu (nostalgia) for the long-dead poet. It had been years since I last read his stuff. So I went into the study and pulled out the yellowish disintegrating copy of the book that I had been carrying around with me ever since my school days. With the pillow still covering my ears I went through the poems again, and flicked through the few pages on his life and times. It was then that I noticed the date of his death. April 28, 1949. The coincidence wasn’t quite earth-shaking, but it was, I felt, a bit uncanny. Chairil Anwar, my much missed brother, was the coincidence a sign of some kind? Yes, Chairil Anwar – that’s the name of the poet. Chairil Anwar. Lovely name. The best of lights. Chairil Anwar.
Chairil Anwar by Toto Haryanto
His poetry, believe it or not, used to be studied in our schools; he has been translated into English (notably by the American Burton Raffel); and for a long time after his death he was a figure of legend. Yet I am sure there are many people in our country today who have never heard of him, let alone read is poetry. Among Malay sasterawan, dilettantes and literary hangers-on, the name Chairil Anwar is still spoken of in some awe. They can recite lines and whole poems by Chairil – especially the notorious Aku. I doubt that what Chairil stood for, and what poems like Aku are saying, really means very much to these people. After more than 40 years, the defiant absolute honesty of Chairil Anwar is still a challenge. A lonely figure in the Forties, when his country was fighting for its independence and the poet for his, he remains without peer, or true spiritual descendant in the history of modern Malay-Indonesian literature. He was the first, and probably the only, true bohemian and rebel the Malay literary world has produced. (Our own Latiff Mohidin is the nearest to a bohemian we have had; at least he was one until a few years ago, and in a sense he still is, in spirit at least, despite what appearance might suggest.)

Being a “bohemian,” like a bourgeois, is more a state of mind and spirit than that of your bank balance. The true bohemian treasures his independence in every sense of the word. It’s just an unfortunate fact of life that this independence often means a poor bank balance, or no balance at all.  Chairil Anwar literally lived from hand to mouth in the Jakarta (or Batavia) of the 1940s. He was a familiar of prostitutes on one occasion (so legend has it), he had to sell his last shirt to pay for his nasi bungkus (cheap rice dish): and he died of not one dreadful disease but four – tuberculosis, typhus, cirrhosis of the liver, and of course syphilis. He was only 27.
I think it is at least arguable that the health and vitality of a nation’s literature can be gauged by the existence or otherwise of non-conformists among its writers; non-conformists who may have to be sick in body, due to deprivation, but alive in spirit. I am not, of course, suggesting that in order for our literature to be more alive and exciting than it is today, we have to have a few amoral bohemians who fornicate with total abandon in pursuit of that elusive poetic masterpiece, snatching what crumbs of rice he can on the way dying of syphilis (or AIDS, as it would be today) with the bloodstained, pus-stinking manuscript of his final poem in unrepentant hands.

That bit about having to be sick in body for the sake of being vital in spirit was, of course, just a manner of speaking. It’s the willingness to suffer for the sake of fiercely-held values that matters; and the suffering doesn’t have to mean being incarcerated in prison, or even literally starving in some stinking squatter hut. Willing to suffer and at the same time able to enjoy life, to affirm its essential worth despite all its contradictions, pains and frustrations. That, I believe, was what Chairil Anwar somehow managed to do. Here’s one or two anecdotes that suggest the spirit of pure spontaneity that was Chairil Anwar. A contemporary remembers him perched precariously on the edge of an open car, and shouting the poems of Walt Whitman or Rilke into the wind and the polluted streets of Jakarta. Another remembers him hiring a whore and making love to her in a park, just to know what it was like to make love in public. Dreadful behaviour, but forgivable, I think in a poet like Chairil – he can get away with it. There was something recklessly noble, beautiful even, in his personality. As a poet and polemicist, his voice could be harsh and grating, but was also capable of incredible tenderness. Read the prose pieces addressed to Ida, as well as the poems of his relationship to women and to God.

On the subject of women and God, and death too, Chairil could be searingly honest. None of the sentimentality and predictable pieties with him. And the language and form, refreshingly revolutionary for its time, perfectly match the honesty of mind and heart. On the subject of the inscrutable God: “Ku seru saja Dia/ Sehingga datang juga/ Kami pun bermuka-muka… Ini ruang / Gelanggang kami berperang/ Binasa-membinasa/ Satu menista lain gila.” (Di Masjid). “I screamed at Him/ Until he came/ We stare at each other, face to face... This/ Is the ring where we must fight/ Destroying each other. One spitting insults, the other gone mad.” (At the Mosque). The double meaning in “bermuka-muka” inevitably lost in translation, is characteristic of the fierce honesty of Chairil; the Malay phrase means both “face to face” and “pretending,” or “putting it on.”

Charcoal sketch by Salleh Ben Joned
On the subject of women and love, have a look at Kupu Malam dan Biniku (A Whore and My Wife) and Bercerai (Parting). He wrote a second Aku which I believe not many people know of. “Ku jahui agama serta lembing katanya/ Aku hidup/Dalam hidup di mata tampak bergerak/ Dengan cacar melebar, barah bernanah/ Dan kadang satu senyum ku kucup-minum dalam dahaga.” “I keep away from preachers and their holy words/ so unsparing, drunk on sins/ I live/ in the very eye of the day/ whirling at the centre/ pox gaping, boils festering/ And now and then a smile blooms which I kiss/ From which, in my thirst, I drink.”
Chairil Anwar, I claim you as my brother. May your spirit live another thousand years. And may you do something to inject some sign of life into this dreadful, deadening smugness and complacent conformity that is much of our literature today. 

17 May 1991

Rojak is Good for Nation-Building

Rojak buah - a popular Malaysian salad

The first of the nine challenges posed by Vision 2020 is that of creating by the second decade of the next century a united Malaysian nation which is ethnically integrated and harmonious. This amounts to an admission by the Government that, more than three decades after independence, we are still not a nation in the full sense of the word. Those of us who would agree with this belong to two main categories. There are non-Bumiputeras who believe that the officially sanctioned “Bumi/non-Bumi” dichotomy is the root of most of the obstacles to the emergence of a true nation. And there are the Bumiputeras who claim that we are not a true nation because we don’t have linguistic and cultural unity. It is not my intention here to discuss all the reasons that have been offered to the absence of true nationhood. I only want to look at the linguistic reason advanced by the Bumiputeras, and to discuss it in relation to literature. Since literature is part of culture, what I have to say may have some bearing on the thorny issue of “national culture.”

One of the many responses to our Prime Minister’s call for a critical discussion of his Vision 2020 is a booklet I’ve just read called Wawasan 2020 dan Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia (Vision 2020 and the Building of a Malaysian Nation). Published by the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia), the booklet is the result of a dialogue held last year by a group of UKM academics. The views expressed in it can be considered representative of the dominant thinking among the Malay intellectual elite.

All the academics in the dialogue more or less agree that the two main reasons for the failure of a true Malaysian nation to emerge are (1) the unwillingness of the majority of non-Bumis and a section of the Bumi elite to show a genuine and full commitment to the national language; (2) the persistence of cultural pluralism despite demands by the Bumi literati for a full implementation of the National Cultural Policy. The academics are particularly concerned about the continuing presence of the language of our former colonial masters. They lament the fact that English is still very visible everywhere in this country; on TV, in the print media, in all forms of advertising, on shop signs, at the cinemas, in bookshops and other places. In the private sector, English is the dominant language of communication. Private colleges with English as the medium of instruction are allowed to function freely.  These academics further complain that even the younger generation of non-Bumis who were educated in the National Language prefer to speak English or their own language when there is no official compulsion or expectation for them to speak in the National language. With TV-watching  constituting a large portion of their leisure time and English newspapers, magazines and books their preferred reading material, it is not surprising that English is their usual medium of communication.  But what the UKM academics are really sad about is the fact that a sizable section of the Malay elite, especially the businessmen, prefer to speak in English not only to non-Bumis but among themselves too. What’s worse, they even think in English!

The Government is taken to task for compromising on the issue of national language; for allowing English to be so visible in many areas of public life. The Government, it is repeatedly stressed in the dialogue, must apply the law rigorously to ensure that only the National Language is used in situations where such use is legally enforceable. It is even implied that the Government should extend its legal powers, presumably through new acts of Parliament or amendments to the present National Language Act, to ensure that the status of Malay as the sole official language is respected. The implication is strengthened by the proposal that there should be a National Culture Act to correspond with the National Language Act. Such an act, it is argued, would ensure the end of kebudayaan rojak (Salad culture) – a colloquial expression for “cultural pluralism” or “multiculturalism.”

One of the academics is sceptical about the fifth challenge posed by Vision 2020, that of creating a liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians respect each other’s creeds and customs. He wonders if this is not an approval of kebudayaan rojak.  Another even more uncompromising academic actually accuses the Prime Minister of inserting the dangerous idea of “democratization of culture” in his Vision 2020. This same academic categorically asserts that “nasionalisme Malaysia bererti … nasionalisme bumiputera, dan Wawasan 2020 perlu dikudung oleh nasionalisme bumiputera ini.” (“Malaysian nationalism means … Bumiputera nationalism, and Vision 2020 must be buttressed by this Bumiputera nationalism”) He also prophesies that if the present widespread use of English is not checked, “bangsa Malaysia pada tahun 2020 ialah bangsa yang fasih dalam Bahasa Inggeris.” (“the Malaysian nation in the year 2020 will be a nation fluent in the English language”) (I didn’t know that to be fluent in the lingua franca of the world is a bad thing.)

The booklet as a whole strikes me as a rather regressive document which shows that ethnocentric thinking is still very strong among the Bumi intellectual elite. They are not yet psychologically liberated to use a phrase from Vision 2020. The document weakens even more the little faith that sceptics like me have in our ability to meet the challenges of creating a united nation which is ethnically integrated, and a mature democratic society which is psychologically liberated, liberal and tolerant. The suggestion in the booklet that non-Bumis who don’t speak the National Language all or most of the time are ipso facto not Malaysian in spirit, and those Bumis who are bilingual are renegades, is nonsense. And the allegation that the non-Bumis are more conscious of their ethnic identities than their identity as Malaysians is only worth entertaining if the UKM academics are prepared to be honest about the Bumis’ own sense of identity. Aren’t they also like the non-Bumis in this respect? One of the academics actually admits it, and I commend him for his honesty.

On the question of cultural pluralism, we must be realistic. As realists have often pointed out, kebudayaan rojak is inevitable given the multi-ethnic nature of our society in which no one race truly dominates in terms of numbers. Anyway, what’s wrong with kebudayaan rojak? Malaysians like rojak. It’s good for them, and it helps nation building. Unity in diversity is certainly better for the vitality of our cultural life than the imposition of an artificially conceived national culture through legislation. A living culture, as everyone knows, grows naturally; it cannot be programmed or legislated according to an abstract recipe. And it is disingenuous of the UKM academics to blame linguistic diversity, in particular, for the failure of a true Malaysian nation to emerge. There are other factors, mainly political, which are really responsible.

As far as English is concerned, its widespread use can, under the right conditions, be good for the nation because like Bahasa Malaysia, English cuts across ethnic differences. Why regret the fact that our country has more than one lingua franca? Isn’t it better for unity and integration? I’d even be reckless enough to argue that in the present state of affairs, English is perhaps a better medium of integration, certainly among the middle and lower middle class Malaysians, than even the National Language. Why? Because it is not identified with any particular ethnic group. And if we confine ourselves to the middle and lower middle classes, more non-chauvinists are found among English-speaking Malaysians than among speakers of the other languages.

This is something that could make our English language novelists, poets, dramatists and essayists more sensitive to the dream of true nationhood and more alert to the evils of chauvinism. The ability of the National Language to bring about national integration is not in question here. But national integration is a very slow process; we could do with any help we can get in making it less slow. The English language, I think, can be a help here. And it doesn’t really matter that English is largely the language of the elite and its potential as a medium of integration is mainly confined to the middle class. This is after all the class from which most of our leaders come. And in the slow process of true nation –building, our leaders must show the way instead of being led by the masses in the name of political expediency. 

1 July 1992

Monday, February 15, 2016

Jebat and Certain Feudal Matters

Jebat vs Tuah
During the Malay Literature Week held in London in September 1992, Usman Awang’s play Matinya Seorang Pahlawan (Death of a Warrior), about the amok-rebellion of the notorious Hang Jebat (a celebrated amok-rebel in traditional Malay literature, who defied his sultan for unjustly condemning his brother warrior, Hang Tuah, to death), was staged. The production was in the original language, but an English translation of the play, published on the occasion of the Literary Week, was made available for the non-Malay-speaking audience.
Those Englishmen who happened to have blundered into the theatre where Jebat’s amok-rebellion was staged, and got a copy of the English version of the play, must have recently wondered about the Malay mind. By “recently” I mean in the wake of the news about Douglas Gomez and the Sultan of Johor which I hear was splashed in all the major papers in Britain. I hope the British Press also reported that Gomez didn’t take the alleged royal assault lying down; that the man who had the guts to speak up about the fate of hockey in Johor, for which he was allegedly assaulted by His Royal Highness, also had the guts to go to a police station and do what any self-respecting citizen of a democratic state would or should do.

Sultan Iskandar of Johor (1932-2010)
I hope the British Press noted that not all Malaysians are wimps. By lodging a police report against someone hitherto thought untouchable, Gomez has made history. Never mind that the poor fellow, his face all badly bruised, had to wait for signals from the right quarters before he dared to lodge a report; the fact that the report was lodged is the significant thing. And don’t forget that by doing so, Gomez most probably put himself and his family in danger. A taboo has been broken, and hopefully this historic moment will lead to the removal of the last vestiges of feudalism that still cling to our political system. From the way all the newspapers have been going on and the things that some leading Ministers have been saying about the Gomez affair, you would think a “revolution,” a mental one at least, had taken place. The floodgates to long-suppressed sentiments have certainly been opened. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many members of the rakyat (people), of all races and faiths, who feel secretly envious of Gomez and the royal treatment he was alleged to have experienced at Istana Bukit Serene (The Sultan’s palace). It’s not often that one has the chance to lodge a police report that will go down in history. If you can’t be a Hang Jebat, a Hang Gomez will do. Who knows, a thousand little Gomezes might just one day make a mighty Jebat.
I think the time is right for us to talk about old Jebat again. Jebat as the archetypal rebel in Malay literature and the changing perceptions of him in the imagination of the Malays – that will be the same theme of my sermon today. For a long time Hang Jebat was a much-maligned name. in the feudal mind of the Malays he was the epitome of treason and violence. The text which gave rise to this negative image of Jebat is the classical romance Hikayat Hang Tuah (probably written in the 16th and 17th Century). In one form or another the Hikayat must have been a favourite text for recital both in courts and kampungs, for the reading aloud of hikayats was very much a feature of the essentially oral culture of the ancient Malays. Thus the negative image of Hang Jebat was imprinted for generations on the minds of the Malays.
In the Sixties there emerged a number of writers with more or less liberated consciousness who were impelled to reinterpret or rewrite the myth of Hang Jebat and turn the wild warrior into a rebel hero. I say “myth” because the figure of Jebat from the Hikayat held over the centuries acquired the status and resonance of a myth. But the Jebat of Hikayat Hang Tuah is based on what is genrally believed to be a historical person. Jebat is one of the five famous warriors of Malacca in the part-historical, part-legendary classic Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). But the curious thing about this account of the five “Hangs” (Kasturi, Leir and Lekiu, apart from Tuah and Jebat) is what it wasn’t Jebat who committed the act of amok or “treason”; it was Hang Kasturi. There have been a number of theories to explain the discrepancy: one of them suggests that Kasturi and Jebat were originally the same person who later got his identity spilt in two. Quite an intriguing speculation, that; I suppose the Malays can use it to claim that some unknown Malay genius anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theory of the split ego by a few centuries.
I’m more intrigued by the fact that both the names Jebat and Kasturi have to do with smell: jebat (from Persian and Arabic zabad or zubad) means that the strong musky perfume known as civet – thus musang jebat, the civet cat; kasturi or kesturi (the sour lime; citrust acida), bunga kesturi (the scorpion orchid), and also musang kesturi (civet cat, again). Musang jebat and musang kesturi – same animal; that should support the idea that Jebat and Kasturi were originally one person. I find the musky odour linking Jebat and Kasturi intriguing; musk is universally associated with passion and sexuality because of its reputed power as an aphrodisiac. It’s also interesting that the names of the two warriors are linked to the same animal, one with a powerfully distinct smell. The idea of a powerful smell suggested by his name reminds me of Jebat’s resounding line from Hikayat Hang Tuah about his name becoming famous through the ages because of his act of defiance against the sultan. In other words, the odour of the blood, sacrificial blood if you like, spilled by Jebat would haunt the Malay mind for generations. The odorous name of Jebat also reminds me of my favourite scene in HHT (Hikayat Hang Tuah): of Jebat reciting a hikayat, his voice so bewitching that the Sultan falls asleep in his lap and the maids of the palace literally lust after him.
I have always thought that the Jebat of HHT is more of hedonist-anarchist than a purposeful political rebel. I disagree with Kassim Ahmad’s 1960’s reading of this Jebat as a rebel against the feudal order, a prophet of modern Malay nationalism, even a democrat of sorts. I think the then-leftist Kassim’s interpretation is a case of ideological wishful thinking which does violence to the text. Although it’s true that the immediate motive for Jebat’s amok is revenge for the unjustly condemned Tuah, and that the alleged act of “treason” is the defiance of an unjust and irrational sultan, it can only be called a rebellion in a limited sense. And that sense doesn’t quite include the political in the strict meaning of what word. Jebat’s act is a highly individual gesture in the name of friendship, not of the oppressed rakyat. How could it be in the name of the rakyat when hundreds of innocent people (bystanders and the women of the place) are butchered by him in his amok frenzy? And he is boastful of his butchery, too, confident that it will make his name infamous for generations to come.
Although Usman Awang’s play also makes Jebat a rebel hero, a martyr for justice (keadilan), his is a legitimate refashioning of the myth of Jebat. Legitimate because it is a play, a work of creative imagination, not an academic thesis which Kassim’s little book is. But even Usman’s Jebat is in one basic way not very different from that of HHT. Although in his simple but tightly constructed play he focuses on Jebat as a sort of political rebel, and makes his hero truly human and humane (for example in his relation with the Sultan’s favourite concubine, Dang Wangi, who he has made his own), Usman’s Jebat still echoes a crucial line of the original Jebat, a line that boasts his butchery and determination to take as many innocent lives as he can with him.

The Hikayat Jebat says: “Sepala-pala jahat jangan kepalang; kuperbuat sungguh-sungguh.” (If I am really to do evil, I won’t do it half-heartedly.) Usman’s Jebat says “Buat baik berpada-pada, kalau jahat, jahat sekali.” (If you want to do good, don’t overdo it, or do it within reason; if you want to do evil, do it thoroughly.) Usman’s line is in fact a reversal of a well known pantun: “Orang daik memacu kuda/ Kuda dipacu deras sekali/ Buat baik berpada-pada, kalau jahat, jahat sekali.” (The second couplet means: “Do good within reason/ And don’t do any evil at all.”)
But Kassim’s ideologically slanted interpretation of HHT and Usman’s recreation of the Jebat myth aside, it has to be said that the original Jebat of the hikayat is a figure of tremendous importance in the slow process of the mental liberation of the Malays. In other words Jebat’s rare act of defiance was ultimately liberating. The blood he spilled was sacrificial blood. We have to realize that given the social and spiritual milieu of the old sultanate, in which the sultan was a demi-god whose daulat (a mysterious sacred kingly power) was so forbidding that any act of defiance, however mixed or ambiguous in motives and nature, was an event of immense importance. Defying the daulat is called durhaka (treason), a word with connotations as cripplingly powerful as daulat. The idea of durhaka was, and perhaps still is, so unthinkable to the Malay mind that Jebat, who was so consumed by sakit hati (brooding angry feelings, an amok symptom) because of the Sultan’s unjust treatment of the loyal Tuah, was driven to run amok.

Amok, yes! It’s a much misunderstood phenomenon, amok is. Commonly seen as an insane motiveless frenzy, it in fact has, deep down, its own, peculiar rationality. Often a man runs amok (women don’t; they latah instead because of some perceived insult to his dignity and sense of manhood, or even the dignity of someone very dear to him. I imagine when the amok is in the grip of his sakit hati, of its brooding sinister stillness, all kinds of defiant images must be criss-crossing his tortured mind. Jebat in his sakit hati must have gone through sometime like that. And that Adam fellow too, perhaps. Remember Private Adam? The poor guy who ran amok with a rifle in Chow Kit Road a few years ago? Adam, yes! His name too has a mythic, archetypal resonance. Like Jebat.

16 December 1992