Wednesday, February 17, 2016

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

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