Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thus Spake the Great Malay Minda

Government-sponsored guardian of language & literature

On November 14, Utusuan Malaysia, the leading Malay daily, carried a report of a talk given by the professor-poet and Sasterawan Negara Muhammad Haji Salleh. The report was headlined: Kikis sikap rendahkan sastera Negara (Don’t look down on the nation’s literature).
National laureate Prof Muhammad Haji Salleh
According to the Professor: “The perception that the nation’s literature is not as impressive as the literatures of Britain, France and Japan is not accurate.” He went on to claim that “Malay literature is as impressive (sehebat) as the literatures of other countries”. (Note the change from “the nation’s literature” to “Malay literature”.) I wonder why the Professor suddenly decided to join the chorus of mindless self-congratulation that has been making itself heard loud and clear this past year; at least since a minister, launching a book at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, proudly declared that Malay literature had produced writers worthy of winning the Nobel prize – yes, the Nobel no less.

Coming from a minister, whose speech was probably written by some goon whose head was full of semangat kebangsaan (spirit of nationalism) but little else, the declaration only amused me. But when similar statements come from someone like Muhammad Haji Salleh, who should know better, being familiar with the literature of the world, it is quite worrying. Before I go any further on the matter, let me make a few things clear. This is to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding by sasterawans (writers) of my actual attitude to Malay literature.
For a long time the Malays were noted for a virtue whose effect on the character of the race was regrettable. That virtue is embodied in the phrase rendah diri which usually means “self-abasing”; thus merendahkan diri, “to abase or humble oneself.” Sometimes rendah diri is used interchangeably with rendah hati to mean “modest,” “unassuming,” or “unpretentious.” I think rendah diri should be distinguished from rendah hati; the former restricted to mean “self-abasing”; the latter to mean “unpretentious” or “modest.” Unpretentiousness or lack of self-importance is a genuine virtue, but not self-abasement. There are a number of Malay sayings and pantuns recommending unpretentiousness or discouraging self-importance or bluster – for example: Laksana buntal kembung, perut buncit dalamnya kosong (like a puffy old box-fish, with a bloated belly and nothing inside). But the sayings and pantuns on the virtue of unpretentiousness are not as many as those that recommend self-abasement and modesty of behaviour or ambition.
It is revealing that in the hikayats, a character when talking to another, especially someone of a higher social class, always refers to himself as hamba (literally “slave” or “servant”). This self-suppressing feudal mentality of the ancient Malay was reinforced by the many sayings recommending the dubious virtue of self-abasement or modesty of behaviour and ambition – sayings such as Baik membawa resmi ayam betina (it’s better to follow the disposition of the hen), or seperti cebol gilakan bulan (like the dwarf longing for the moon), or pantuns like Tebok awan berkelok-berkelok/ Tepi dijahit dengan renda/ Kayu besar jangan dipeluk/ Kalau gagah melucut dada (briefly, don’t try to embrace a big tree if you don’t want your chest to be abraded).
Clearly there is a big difference between self-abasement and lack of self-importance, or between ambition that is cripplingly modest and ambition that is based on realistic estimate of one’s ability and resources. When the president of Umno, in his speech to the party’s recent General Assembly, told the Malays to “think big,” he was not talking of mindless ambition like that of Mat Jenin (the famous character of Malay folklore). Thinking big is fine if one has one’s feet firmly on the ground, not like Mat Jenin the dreamer whose feet were on a slippery coconut trunk. And thinking big with feet firmly on the ground is not quite the same thing as the talking big that our sasterawans and their political patrons tend to do.
I’ve always believed that being self-critical, both as an individual and as a nation, is a healthy thing, provided it’s not carried to extremes. I believe that the ability to be self-critical is necessary to any worthy ambitions or ideals, but those ambitions and ideals must be grounded in an honest and unclouded perception of one’s ability, resources and what one has achieved so far; all that, and a clear-eyed understanding of the social and cultural milieu and traditions informing it. Being intelligently critical of the achievements of one’s country’s literature is not the same thing as looking down (menghina) on the literature, or belittling it (memperkecilkan), or, in the words of Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh as reported by Utusan Malaysia, merendah-rendahkan martabat hasil karya sastera negara. The word menghina (which can mean “to insult” as well as “to look down on”), is interesting in this context; its usage by our sasterawans when reacting to criticisms of Malay literature suggest a touchiness that amounts to a complex – a “hina complex.” The sasterawan as a type is a creature of contradictions – he can be full of self-importance and boastful of his achievements or those of his country’s literature, and at the same time he can feel hina very, very easily.
My view of Malay literature (both modern and pre-modern) is that it has produced some interesting works, a few of them quite remarkable and which could be considered major in status. But by no stretch of the imagination could it be considered as impressive (in Prof Muhammad’s word, sehebat) as the literature of England, France or Japan. To anyone familiar with the literatures of the world (both east and west), the claim is so ridiculous that it is not worth rebutting by reciting chapter and verse. I realize that literary and aesthetic values cannot be divorced from their cultural context, and that notions of literary greatness are not totally universal. A particular literary work in any particular culture and therefore can only be fully appreciated by someone familiar with the literary tradition of that culture. This is particularly so if we are talking about literary traditions as linguistically and culturally wide apart as those of Europe and Asia.
If the someone who is familiar with the literary traditions of a particular culture is a foreign scholar, then he must be able to transcend the values of his own native literary traditions and look at the subject of his study on its own terms, which means those of the literary tradition to which it belongs. If he can do this he won’t easily dismiss a work regarded as a classic by a particular culture as worthless as Sir Richard Winstedt did with the Malay classical romance Hikayat Hang Tuah which he called “an uncritical farrago of legends” and not much else. But this observation about the relativity of literary values is really applicable to traditional or “classical” literatures; that is, if we are talking about Malay literature, for example, it can only apply to its pre-colonial past.

In terms of form, modern Malay literature is largely influenced by the West. The short story, poetry, the novel, modern drama – they are all Western in origin. From the post-war craze for fictional realism to the current pursuit by one or two novelists of realisma majis (magic realism) – it’s all Western (including Latin America). This formal influence has been reinforced by the influence of Western tradition of literary criticism. There is not a single Western critical or theoretical idea that Malay critics haven’t heard of and applied with relish to local works. Thus, given the universality of modern literary forms and the critical values they imply, we can talk of essentially “universal standards” when judging the achievements of any particular literature (at least the post-colonial or modern part of it). I would still maintain this despite all the talk that has recently been heard about freeing our literary values and forms from the neo-colonial prison of “Western-centricism.” That talk is mainly noise - full of unexamined assumptions, contradictions and fashionable fantasies.
Talking of fantasies, I’m reminded of the recently concluded “fantasy event” called Kuala Lumpur World Poetry Reading (November 20-23). This poorly organized second-rate event (even the Malaysian papers criticized it) that was billed as a potential rival of well-known world poetry festivals such as those of Rotterdam and London, is another example of our sasterawans’ tendency to talk big but know little.

2 December 1992


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