|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