As a Malaysian who was steeped in Malay-Islamic culture before being exposed to “Western” ideas, I may be able to contribute a useful perspective on Salleh Ben Joned’s writings.
Salleh’s newspaper column As I Please (the main source of the selected writings on this blog) has enraged some and delighted others. It would not be accurate to say that “some” refers to Malay-Muslims and “others” to Malaysians of other races and creeds.
True, several Malay-Muslim writers, academics and assorted individuals have lashed out at Salleh through the media and other channels. Incensed by his blithe disrespect for totems and taboos, they have pinned various labels on him, the mildest being Mat Salleh – the Malay nickname for an Englishman. But in private debate, many from the same community admit that they enjoy the idol-toppling and that Salleh is salutary for Malaysian society.
For “Western” readers, Salleh may be reminiscent of the child who exclaims, “The Emperor’s not wearing any clothes!” In Malay folk-tale terms, Salleh is Si Luncai, the peasant boy who shocks the palace by comparing his father’s bald head with the king’s. Salleh appeals to that part of the Malay psyche which loves to laugh at the stupidity of Pak Pandir, the self-deception of Pak Kaduk and the greed of pseudo-pious Lebai Malang. As the other communities of this land have similar traditions, Salleh’s irreverent wit is very much in tune with the spirit that has kept Malaysians sane.
A growing number of Malaysians share Salleh’s fear that pompous self-righteousness will smother this lively spirit. He sees his Malaya (the name of the peninsula before Malaysia was formed in 1963; the word, as Salleh has discovered to his joy, means “freedom” in Tagalog, a language related to Malay) being shackled and shaped into a humourless society. And he states what he sees with a child’s devastating candour.
A child whose vision remains unblurred by schooling and socialization, he sees through fallacies wherever he meets them, in “Western” as well as “Eastern” thinking.
Though Salleh claims just “a little knowledge” of Islamic thought, he has read judiciously in the field and has used his “God-given mind” well. His style of analysis, though learnt in the “West,” is surely common to honest thinkers the world over. In him, intellect and intuition merge. The result is an understanding that cuts through dogma to the essential idea of the Compassionate Creator.
Despite years of staying and studying in the West, Salleh is very much part of the rural Malacca earth that gave him life. His roots have always been with him; he never had to look for them. His Malay, in poetry as well as everyday speech, is Malaccan in its earthy exuberance.
Hence his protest against the prudish prettifying of the pantun, that most “sensuous” poetic vehicle of a vital and “hedonistic” people. And hence his horror at the transformation of his native tongue into a jargon-ridden monster bristling with bombastic words borrowed from English. His parody of the grandiose literary-academic style in Transformasi of a Language is one of the most brilliant items in this book.
This selection of Salleh’s essays and articles comes seven years after he first burst upon the Malaysian literary scene with his volume of Poems Sacred and Profane. Reading (or re-reading) the two collections side by side has been quite an experience.
The variety is tremendous, as is the energy, which explodes barriers between East and West, mind and feeling, the spirit and the flesh, the sacred and the profane. The overwhelming impression is of a free spirit that rebels against deadening conventions in a passionate celebration of life.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia