Friday, October 29, 2021

The Legacy of SBJ

Salleh Ben Joned reading poetry in 1987
      Salleh reading at the 1987 launch of Sajak Sajak Saleh - Poems Sacred and Profane.

It’s a year ago today that SBJ left the earthly realm for the ‘grand reception in the ecstatic freedom of paradise where all true poets belong” (to quote Antares).  

But he lives on in our hearts and minds. 

November and December will see the release of two new books by international publishers, both dedicated in memory of SBJ.

Killernova’ is a book of poems and woodcuts by Omar Musa, Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet, which will be released by Penguin on 30 November.

The other is ‘Discourses, Agency and Identity in Malaysia,’ an academic text edited by Zawawi Ibrahim, Gareth Richards and Victor T. King, which will be released by Springer on 7 December.

The fact that these books come from such vastly different spheres is an indication of just how far and wide SBJ’s influence was.

We asked the authors to pen a few words to explain the reasons for the dedications and this is what they said.

On the first anniversary of SBJ’s passing, Omar Musa writes ...




 “I will not claim to have been close to Salleh but his mark on me was indelible. I met him at several formative moments in my life as I was finding my way, not only as that strange chimeric creature, a Malaysian hyphen Australian, but as a poet. I think the poem ‘Ingat’, (in which I’ve tried to interpolate some of his own words!), will better capture some of my feelings about him (see images below). As I mention in this poem, when I was seventeen, in 2001, he marked a particular Malay saying in Kit Leee’s book ‘Keli Dua Selubang’, for me to remember, but I didn’t write what the actual saying was. It read thus: ‘permata jatuh di rumput pun gilang’ — ‘a gem will sparkle even in the grass.’ Basically, true worth will reveal itself. I often think sadly of the people I’ve known, outsiders, eccentrics, brilliant true believers who dedicated themselves to art for their whole lives for little pay or recognition, so, so necessary to the sustenance of an arts scene, only to be lost and forgotten in the tall grass of time. Salleh died a few months before I started putting together my new book of artworks and poetry, ‘Killernova’. I know that many people cherish and celebrate Salleh and his achievements, but I dedicated my book to his memory to give my personal thanks, and in the hope that the gem may continue to sparkle.”


On the first anniversary of SBJ’s passing, Zawawi Ibrahim, Gareth Richards and Victor T. King write...


“Our book ‘Discourses, Identity and Agency in Malaysia: Critical Perspectives’ is dedicated to Salleh Ben Joned with this simple and heartfelt inscription:
‘In memory of Salleh Ben Joned (1941–2020), a fearless writer and public intellectual.’

Salleh Ben Joned died not long before we were putting the finishing touches to the manuscript. His death touched us greatly. As we write in the preface of the book, ‘his untimely passing leaves an enormous gap in the world of critical discourse’. For us, Salleh was a rebel with a cause. Through his poetry, essays, plays and much else he articulated an immanent critique of what ailed Malaysia—by speaking truth to power, by questioning the given shape of things. And, in doing so, he offered a vision of another possible world, of a genuinely multicultural society, of a living culture that grows naturally. Many of the essays in our book engage with the critical terrain that Salleh courageously addressed and which will resonate for a long time. Our hope is that a younger generation, equally courageous, will offer creative attention to the legacy of Salleh—that they will continue to explore the hope that our world, if we look differently, if we respond differently, is differently possible.”



Monday, July 5, 2021

Salleh Ben Joned ~ Testing the Parameters (by Alima Joned)

(Photo credit: James Lee)

SBJ would have turned 80 today, the 5th of July, 2021. On this occasion, we thought you might enjoy this article, newly penned by his sister Alima Joned, who was profoundly inspired by her brother’s fearless and unrelenting (but level-headed) pushing of the envelope within a face-saving, speak-no-evil cultural context.


Arguably, Malaysia has stringent censorship laws.  

The most notorious on the long list of these laws is probably the Sedition Act of 1948. The Act expands free speech limitations to cover speech that has “seditious tendency,” a term defined to include the questioning of certain politically-sensitive issues such as the national language, and the rights and privileges of Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. 

Constitutionally, a "Malay" must be a person who professes the Islamic faith, habitually speaks Malay, and conforms to Malay customs. Thus, any discussion regarding the Malays is likely to involve Islam. These two themes, the Malays and Islam, are major motifs in my late brother Salleh Ben Joned’s prose and poetry.  

It may be a mystery to some why Salleh was allowed to deal with these themes without once running foul of the Malaysian authorities. He himself didn’t feel constrained by Malaysia’s stringent censorship laws. In fact, in "Testing the Parameter" (New Straits Times, 5 June 1991), these laws were not Salleh’s main complaint.  

Rather, he was most concerned about the disease of self-censorship that appeared to have afflicted Malaysian writers of his time. So insidious was this disease that even when their periok nasi (rice bowls) were not really at stake, some Malaysian writers felt themselves unable to write freely. In a situation such as this, according to Salleh, the writer’s intelligence and moral integrity are at stake. According to Salleh:

Self-censorship is a universal disease, but I believe its local manifestation is quite peculiar, very “Malaysian” in an unflattering sense of the word. And what’s more, it’s becoming quite insidious. Those infected with this disease don’t always realise it; even when they do, they try to pretend that it’s unavoidable or justifiable. One can understand the self-censorship if the “integrity” of the writer’s periok nasi (rice bowl) is really at stake. But when it isn’t and yet he still censors himself, one questions not so much his moral integrity as his intelligence. Basically, it’s a question of perception –  perception of what constitutes risks or dangers and the problem with our writers and literary middlemen… is that too many of them tend to perceive dangers too readily.    

Perceiving Dangers Too Readily

Salleh himself was at little risk of being accused of perceiving dangers too readily. Throughout his career, Salleh wrote on two taboo subjects: race and religion.  

The fact that his popular column, As I Please, appeared in an establishment newspaper indirectly controlled by the government was evidence that, handled correctly, these two themes can be a subject of public discourse. 

I, too, am trying to avoid readily perceiving dangers when expressing my opinions, notwithstanding a couple of insulting and discouraging personal experiences. I list two examples: 

In 2007, I was invited to speak at a seminar to honour the late Professor Tan Sri Ahmad Ibrahim. The host, the Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia, as planned, subsequently published the seminar papers in a book. My paper was excluded from the collection. Why my paper was excluded was not entirely clear to me.  

Perhaps the IKIM leadership had been troubled by my introduction, in which I described the image I had of this giant of the Malaysian legal world in the following words:

….[T]he picture of the late Professor with his songkok instantly came to mind.  Indeed, the beloved late Cambridge-educated Professor Ahmad was never seen in public without his songkok. His constant wearing of songkok coupled with Western-style attire [of shirt-and-necktie] suggested both cultural and religious significance as well as the co-existence of the secular and the religious in his mind. Regardless of what it could suggest, the image surfaces whenever I think of secularism in the Malaysian context.

Or perhaps the IKIM leadership did not like my position that, notwithstanding the claims of successive Malaysian political leaders, Malaysia was not an ‘Islamic’ country; and that no matter how we look at it, the canvas of Malaysia was one that showed a picture of the secular and Islam existing side by side. Either - or something else - might have been perceived as a threat to the periok nasi of the IKIM leadership.

My own (modest) periok nasi was certainly not threatened. Although surprised, I was not upset when told about the exclusion of my paper. The paper was easily accepted for publication by the Universiti Malaya law faculty’s journal instead.

This same journal also recently published an unsparing critique I made of a certain judgment of the Malaysian apex court. In my view, this judgment could not be supported by fundamental legal principles, and if left uncorrected would undermine the rule of law and further confuse the line between the secular and the religious in the Malaysian Constitution.

My Legal Analysis of the Bin Abdullah Case

Last February, the full panel of the Federal Court handed down its decision in Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara & Ors v A Child & Ors (Majlis Agama Islam Negeri Johor, intervener), the case commonly known as the bin Abdullah case.

Readers may recall that children’s and women’s advocates were dismayed when the Federal Court left a Muslim infant without a patronymic as is customary for the Malays in Peninsula Malaysia. 

The bin Abdullah case began when a Malay child, a boy, was born less than six months after his Malay parents’ marriage. 

Father MEMK and mother NAW subsequently registered the child’s birth. 

When the birth certificate was issued, MEMK and NAW discovered the Registrar-General of the National Registration Department had changed their child’s name. Instead of having his father’s name as the child’s patronymic (as his surname), the child was given the patronymic “bin Abdullah.”

Upset and distraught, the parents requested the Registrar-General to make the necessary corrections. The Registrar-General refused on religious grounds. 

(Apparently, the understanding of the Registrar-General was that under Islamic law, a child is illegitimate if born less than six months after the marriage of his/her parents, and thus the patronymic `bin Abdullah’ or `binti Abdullah’ - depending on the gender - should be given to that child.)

The parents applied for judicial review in the High Court.

Undeterred by the High Court’s dismissal of their application, the parents appealed to the Court of Appeal. 

There the parents prevailed. The Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that the Registrar-General had acted outside of his statutory powers. In essence, the Court of Appeal ruled that at issue was the duty of the Registrar-General to register births in Malaysia, which was governed by a specific federal statute. This statute provided the Registrar-General no powers to change the name of any child, according to the Court of Appeal. 

The Court of Appeal was correct in my view. 

However, on further appeal by the Registrar-General, the Federal Court ruled, in a narrow majority of 4:3, that Islamic law governed in this instance.

I wrote a commentary on the Federal Court’s decision, critical of the majority opinion and once again this was published in the Universiti Malaya law faculty’s journal.

My critique was also leveled at the Registrar-General, the bureaucrat who had no business to take it upon himself to be a law enforcer (Islamic or otherwise), never mind that he was using his official time to calculate when exactly the boy was conceived. Nothing in the statute that created his office gave him power to do what he did. 

My modest success in getting the bin Abdullah commentary and the tribute to the late Prof. Ahmad Ibrahim published, leads me to conclude that it is entirely possible to initiate and engage in public discourse on the subjects of race and religion, if we do so in good faith and our views are well-grounded. 

Controversy is Good for Malaysia’s Intellectual Development

When it comes to banning books about race and religion, Malaysia’s record is mixed. Kassim Ahmad’s Hadith: Satu Penilaian Semula (Hadith: A Re-evaluation) is one book that was banned. Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma was initially banned, but the ban was subsequently lifted. However, Dr. M. Bakri Musa’s The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia was never banned.

There can be more than one theory to explain the mixed record. In Malaysia, controversy is likely to ensue when writing about race and religion. But people like my brother Salleh Ben Joned continued to write despite the risk of controversy. 

He was of the school of thought that understands that controversy in the form of discussing opposing views, is in fact good for Malaysia’s intellectual development. He believed such discourse should be welcomed unless it could cause a riot or bad feelings among the races. And this deeply-held belief guided Salleh in his writing career as a poet and an essayist. 

Many people were surprised that my brother was allowed to write essays and columns on taboo subjects and to do so openly in an establishment newspaper like the New Straits Times. In the Preface to As I Please, a collection of his select writings published in 1994 by Skoob Books (London), Salleh responded to this surprise:

The fact that an intelligent man and a Malay (it’s worth noting), was chief editor of the paper explains the freedom I was tacitly granted. Not a few readers praised me for my so-called ‘courage’; I personally didn’t think it was a matter of courage. Commonsense – 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.

Salleh opined that if self-censorship in Malaysia was bad for the general intellectual development of Malaysia, it was worse for the development of Malaysian literature. Rather than being sentimental, emotional and unprofessional, writers – Malay writers especially – have the responsibility to use their craft to tackle these taboo subject matters, notwithstanding the discomfort or the controversy the subject may engender. 

* * *

My brother was always testing the parameters. He survived Malaysia’s stringent censorship because he was extremely well-read and a gifted writer. Using his art craftily, so to speak, and with poetic playfulness, he was able to exploit the limited freedom that existed in Malaysia while staying true to his calling. In encouraging others to also always be testing the parameters, he wrote: 

We all know that our censorship laws are very stringent. But while hoping (and fighting?) for greater liberalism, it’s not impossible to learn to live with them while we have to. You would be amazed what can be done within the existing restrictions. It’s up to writers and publishers to exploit the limited freedom that exists. In other words, to “test the parameters” – or the perimeter of the permissible.

I am not a writer. I also live abroad. But I, too, despite setbacks and insults, continue to test the parameters. In my own field of law I have been inspired by my brother’s call for all of us to care for Malaysia’s intellectual development and do our best to contribute to it. Privileged with some education, I feel a certain obligation to do so.

My brother was a champion of kebudayaan rojak (multiculturalism). He was a patriot with a vision of a united Malaysia where Bangsa Malaysia lives in peace and harmony. If we share this vision, we too should test the parameters. Together, we can help build a truly functioning democracy that would be the envy of the world. 



Alima Joned
is a lawyer in private practice in Washington, DC. 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Tributes - radio, newspapers and magazines

SBJ's passing in October 2020 sparked an outpouring of tributes and analysis that he would never have imagined when he was alive. Here are a few ...


SBJ has left the earthly realm but lives on in our hearts and minds

In the small hours of 29 October 2020 SBJ passed away but this blog celebrates his life and work, with tributes, articles by the man himself, photos, audio and video and much more - check out the other posts. And don't forget to join the ongoing conversation on the the SBJ Facebook Page

(Graphic by Fahmi Reza)


Thursday, October 29, 2020

AstroAwani TV report 29.10.20


Mengenang Salleh Ben Joned: Humor, kritikan kepada budaya dan seni (interview with Raja Ahmad Aminullah)

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary on SBJ

Not long before SBJ died daughter Anna Salleh produced a two-part podcast on his life for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. You can listen online or download from the ABC here:


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Salleh Ben Joned and the Art of the Pantun (by Alima Joned)



By Alima Joned

My brother Salleh and I are as different as night and day. At 5’ 11” he is tall for a Malay, with the rugged sexy looks of a Mick Jagger. In contrast, I am no Malay beauty, and I am also so short that Salleh once teased I must have stopped growing at the age of four.

We have different temperaments. And we pursued totally different career paths. He found his calling in poetry, I found a career in law.

A poet first and foremost, Salleh was also a columnist and essayist, writing the popular column ‘As I Please’ for the literary page of Malaysia’s major newspaper the New Straits Times in the 90s.

In introducing Salleh’s collection of essays and columns, Nothing is Sacred, Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam wrote:
More than anyone else, Salleh contributed to the rapid success of the [literary] page. Readers recognised immediately his wit, ironic humour, biting criticism, the rare capacity to entertain and verbal vigour. Here was a man who had much to say and he said it in a style that made his words bring to the reader his very presence. But if it were only a matter of style, however provocative and highly entertaining As I Please was, it would, of course, have turned out to be of passing interest. What it was about would by now be passé, eight years down the road into a new century.  But the many things Salleh had to say were then, and still are, important and relevant.

Salleh lives and breathes words, while I simply use them to make a living. So while I enjoyed his columns, back then I couldn’t say the same about his poetry.

But all that changed recently after I re-read a couple of his old columns that helped me rediscover the beauty of pantuns.**

Rediscovering the beauty of pantuns

The first column, titled "Brother Henri, Honorary Malay," was on the French writer, Henri Fauconnier, whose semi-autobiographical book The Soul of Malaya, is interspersed with pantuns and Malay proverbs.

Salleh considers the book to be the best book ever written by a European about the Malays – their psyche and sensibility.

He notes in particular how Rolain, Fauconnier’s main character in the novel, ruminates on the nature of the Malays, the uniqueness of the Malay language, and the aesthetics of the pantun form.

I had already read the book some years before, but picked it up again to see what Salleh was talking about.

Growing up as a kampong girl myself, I was familiar with popular pantuns, but in Fauconnier’s book I found unfamiliar and at times naughty pantuns that drew a smile to my face.

In another column, "Salacious Pleasures of Pantuns," Salleh argues if people read a pantun properly, sensitive to the semantic and cultural resonance of key words, they would see more than the surface evocation.

For these reasons, pantuns were much beloved by the late renowned translator, poet and scholar Burton Raffel. Unfortunately, as Raffel notes in The Art of Translating Poetry, the pantun is a kind of poetic form that “has not travelled well.”
Due to the nature and the uniqueness of the Malay language, pantuns are not easy to translate.  When translating a pantun, in Raffel’s view, it is difficult for a translator to capture “the true thrill of the form’s careful, subtle variations.” Raffel seems to say the job is almost impossible, even if the translator is himself a poet with the mastery of both languages.

Yet, I think Salleh has managed to do a pretty good job at meeting this challenge. Consider two translations of the opening lines of this classic pantun:

Tanam padi di Bukit Jeram
Tanam keduduk atas batu
Macam mana hati tak geram
Menengok tetek menolak baju

In Fauconnier’s book, we are given a literal translation.

Planting rice on Jeram hill
Rhododendrons on a rock
However, could my heart keep still
Seeing her breasts move beneath her frock?

To retain the thrill of the original, Salleh translates this classic as follows:

Plant the padi with a thrust
Stroke the seedlings with dew
It drives you crazy with lust
To see the tits tilting the baju (blouse)

Salleh’s translation of the first two lines is a very free rendering of the original.

Readers who appreciate the fluidity of Salleh’s translation would forgive him for taking liberty with the translation so that the thrill and beauty of the original language can be retained.

I had so much fun reading this classic pantun after discovering it in Fauconnier's book, especially when reading it aloud to my sisters – who have become increasingly religious in recent years.

But beyond fun, Salleh argues pantuns are a way of understanding the Malay sensibility:
The central word for the pantun, hati (literally liver, but the English equivalent here would be heart), is also the key word in Malay folk physiology. The liver to the Malays is traditionally the seat of the passions. (This was also the case in ancient English belief: you can find it surviving in Shakespeare’s plays and poems.) The hati, the organ that conceals the secret of the Malay as a creature of feelings and passions, is vital to any attempt to understand the race. If you want to know what the hati is to the Malay, soak yourself in the pantuns.

Salleh’s use of the pantun form

Salleh also writes poetry in pantun form himself. Many of his pantuns are witty and playful. But they can be serious at the same time – noting unpleasant truths about his race and country. There’s a “courageous seriousness,” according to Margaret Drabble in her introduction to the first collection of Salleh’s columns, As I Please, “beneath the wit and the invective of Salleh’s writings.”

Below is Salleh’s poem in pantun form inspired by the Anwar Ibrahim imbroglio of 1998, which appears in his book Adam’s Dream:

What makes the parrot a very queer bird?
Its talent to mimic and its hooked bill.
Alima & Salleh in 1977
 
What makes the shrill patriot a cringing turd?
Because he has the brain of a mandrill.

Why does the katak love its tempurung?
It’s so cozy and good for inbreeding.
What do we always confuse right and wrong?
Because of our refined Malay upbringing.

Why do pigs really love to wallow in shit?
Because they are pigs and true to their kind.
Why do we swallow whole those affidavits?
Cause we have an ape’s mouth and a mouse’s mind.

Why do the gullible value snake vomit?
Because old superstition taught them to.
Our Anwar as seditious sodomite?
Those Front buggers swear to it; it must be true.

When is a cabinet very valuable?
When you have bits of skeletons to hide.
When does a DPM become dispensable?
When the PM says he is a Jekyll-and-Hyde.

Why do snakes love so much to slither in slime?
Because that is where they get their best feed.
“Ministers get sucked” all the bloody time?
What a revealing typo that was indeed.

Why are all the sawah full of tikus?
Because the harvest’s such a miracle.
What makes our Mahashita think he’s Zeus?
Thanks to our media that’s so farcical.

katak – frog
tempurong – coconut shell
sawah – padi field
tikus - mice

Many of Salleh’s pantuns are expressions of love – for his wife Halimaton, his children and friends.

Salleh’s poetry has drawn fans and detractors alike

It is not my place to comment on his contribution to Malaysian literature but I am curious what lovers of language and poetry think about his musings on pantuns.

And, if, like me, you had no education in poetry, nor any natural talent for it, this Malay form may be the perfect starting point for gaining a better appreciation of poetry – and Malay culture.

After a decade in a foreign land, my brother came back to Malaysia anxious to recover his lost cultural self.

Being a man of words, he naturally made attempts to repossess his mother tongue and began to write prose and poetry in Malay, making innovations in the art of pantun along the way.

Some claim my brother’s work is too Westernised – to the extent that he has betrayed his race and religion, and lost his Malayness.

In some ways Salleh is quite Westernised – he acknowledges this. But he is still very much Malay and so terribly proud of it. In his column The (Malay) Malaysian Writer’s Dilemma, he writes:
I am aware that I am in some ways quite Westernised, and I am not embarrassed by it. In fact, there are elements in my Westernisation that I am quite happy about, 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 ‘Bumiputraness’) and in the cultural heritage of my race that I am terribly proud of. That’s why I like Lin Yutang’s unusual definition of patriotism (or eating, it doesn’t really matter which) 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 cencalok (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.  
My brother is also “incorrigibly” Malay as far as the pantun is concerned. In their simplicity and directness, pantuns are indeed beautiful and elegant. Through his artful and skillful translation, my brother enables native and non-native speakers of Malay, poets and non-poets, to truly appreciate the aesthetics and the beauty of classical pantuns. In writing his own pantuns, making innovations along the way, he uses the form to speak on weighty matters with lightness no one else could. Either way, my brother has made the art of pantun not only travel well, but travel further.

31 December 2018


_______

Alima Joned is a lawyer in private practice in Washington, DC. 

** The pantun is a classical Malay poetry form with four line verses, usually with the rhyming scheme of a-b-a-b. The first two lines are linked in some way to the second two. As long as the form is followed, a pantun can be on anything, from an irony of fate to words of advice to an expression of love.
 







Friday, November 1, 2019

Salleh Ben Joned and Nation Building (by Alima Joned)

Unity in Diversity (photo courtesy of the New Straits Times)
By Alima Joned

Salleh Ben Joned is a philosophic pragmatist who believes multiculturalism, colloquially known as ‘kebudayaan rojak’, is good for nation building. His sister Alima Joned reviews four of her brother’s essays on this theme, written nearly 20 years ago, after the unveiling of Malaysia’s Vision 2020 in 1991. She muses about her brother’s visions in the context of Malaysia today. 

After the publication of my blog piece titled "Salleh Ben Joned and the Art of the Pantun," I received a message that reads in part:
I enjoyed reading your post on LinkedIn about your brother’s poetry …. Wonderful demonstration of your love and admiration for your brother, and for your country of origin and culture. I particularly like this quote from his writing, “That’s why I like Lin Yutang’s unusual definition of patriotism (or eating, it doesn’t really matter which) as love for the good things one ate in one’s childhood.” We would be so much better a person if we all thought of “patriotism” in those terms. Beautiful piece.
I, of course, was thrilled that this high-priced lawyer (based in the United States, no less, and totally lacking knowledge of the cultural references made in my article) took a few minutes from his billable hours not only to read, but to make comments. Beyond giving me this (cheap) thrill, the comments affirm the universal appeal of the poetic language; it enables us to best make sense of our deep emotions, such as love for our country

Patriotism vs. Nationalism

I also like Lin Yutang’s food-based definition of patriotism. In this moment of the world we live in, this definition of patriotism is all the more important as the term is often confused with nationalism.

Consider, for example, how these terms are defined by The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Online. “Patriotism,” in this dictionary, is a “love of your country and willingness to defend it.” The term “nationalism” is defined as a “feeling of love for and pride in your country; a feeling that your country is better than any other.’’ Not everyone can see the distinction between the two.  Many do. 

Unlike patriotism, nationalism has political dimensions and implies superiority, often racial superiority. In today’s politically-charged climate in the United States for example, nationalism is associated with white nationalism, an ideology that entails a sentiment of superiority of the white race, and a belief that politics should advance the interests of white people at the expense of non-whites. This ideology runs counter to democratic ideals. Nationalism may be useful to unite a country when faced with external enemies, perhaps. Domestically, however, it can be divisive.

For Malaysians, the appeal of Lin Yutang’s idea of patriotism as love for the good things one ate in one’s childhood is unmistakable. What’s not to like about it? The love for Malaysia is the love for nasi lemak (coconut rice), roti canai (flat and flaky pan-fried bread) and char kueh teow (wok-fried flat noodles) – the foods we grew up with, and we feel this love no matter where in the world we end up.

Vision 2020 and the Challenge of Nation Building

In 1991, Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir articulated the vision that by 2020 Malaysia would be a fully developed nation “economically, politically, socially, spiritually, psychologically and culturally.” By 2020, the Prime Minister added: “[W]e must be fully developed in terms of national unity and social-cohesion, in terms of our economy, in terms of social justice, political stability, system of government, quality of life, social and spiritual values, national pride and confidence.” (Malaysia: The Way Forward - Vision 2020)

Having articulated this vision, the Prime Minister identified nine challenges that had to be overcome in order to realize this vision. The first of these was the challenge of establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of shared destiny. This had to be a nation at peace with itself, territorially, and ethnically integrated, living in harmony and full and fair partnership, made up of one 'Bangsa Malaysia' with political loyalty and dedication to the nation.

In response to a call by the Prime Minister for critical discussion of his Vision 2020, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology of Universiti Kebangsaan published a booklet called Wawasan 2020 dan Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia (Vision 2020 and the Creation of the Malaysian Race).

This booklet, the outcome of a dialogue by a group of UKM academics in 1991, was the focus of Salleh’s column with the curious (but delicious) title, Rojak is Good for Nation Building (1st July 1992).

Rojak is a spicy fruit or vegetable salad and also a term meaning ‘mixture’ or ‘eclectic mix’ in Malay; kebudayaan rojak is a colloquial expression for multiculturalism or cultural pluralism.

Rojak is Good for Nation Building

According to Salleh, the UKM academics argued two reasons why a true Malaysian nation had failed to emerge. He took issue with both arguments.

The first argument was that a united nation had been hampered by the unwillingness of the majority of non-Malays and a section of the Malay elite to show a genuine and full commitment to the National Language. These recalcitrant Malaysians generally favoured the English language, allowing the language of our former colonial masters to dominate our public life. It really saddened these academics that a sizeable section of the Malay elite, especially businessmen, preferred to speak in English, not only to non-Malays, but also amongst themselves. Worst still, so the complaint went, “they even think in English!”

Salleh was also amused with the concern expressed by one of these academics that the widespread use of English, left unchecked, would have a fearful outcome: Bangsa Malaysia in the year 2020 may even be fluent in English. “I didn’t know that to be fluent in the lingua franca of the world is a bad thing,” Salleh wittily retorted.

Salleh’s position on the use of English is well-known. For him, English has an important role within our multi-ethnic society, not just as a tool to communicate with the outside world. In a column titled Once Again, English, Our English (5th January 1994), he argues in speaking English, Malaysians will not lose their Malaysian identity or their Malaysian soul. He says the English we speak belongs, not to the Mat Salleh (colloquially, ‘white men’), but to Malaysians themselves. He writes:

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.

In another column titled Be Sophisticated and Silly All the Way (12th January 1994) Salleh discusses the then controversial policy shift to place emphasis on English while maintaining the National Language policy and the problem of translating English text books into Malay. There Salleh considers it a privilege, not an ideological shortcoming, for Malaysia to be bilingual.

The second argument made by the UKM academics was that a united Malaysian nation had failed because of the persistence of kebudayaan rojak - despite the demands by the Malay literati for a full implementation of the National Cultural Policy.**

The concern regarding the persistence of kebudayaan rojak is of special interest to me. As I live abroad, and live as a minority, I have become convinced more than ever of the value of multiculturalism - for both my country of residence and my native country.

Malaysian rojak (from lifestylefood.com.au)
It is obvious from my visits to Malaysia that the society is more divided then ever and the truly united Malaysia in Vision 2020 remains elusive. The reasons are many and complicated but the persistence of kebudayaan rojak is certainly not to be blamed for the failure of Malaysian nationhood. Still, back in 1991 the UKM academics argued just this.

As Salleh explains, the UKM academics at that time were troubled that the Government allowed English to be visible in many areas of public life and failed to apply the National Language law forcefully. So troubled they were that they proposed legislation, a National Culture Act to “ensure the end of kebudayaan rojak.”

Salleh makes the point that a law to end kebudayaan rojak was futile. Instead, he suggests, we should embrace cultural pluralism fully so that the vision of Malaysia developed in every aspect could be realized. In Salleh’s words:

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.

Indeed, unity in diversity, oneness notwithstanding different races, ethnics, faiths, languages will only make Malaysia all the richer in every sense.

Writers and Nation Building

2020 is now just around the corner. Yet we are no closer to meeting the challenge of building a united country, as envisioned by the Prime Minister back in 1991. Writers, like everyone in the nation, have a responsibility to help here.  In fact, as many of Salleh’s essays suggest, they have an awesome responsibility.

For example, in Different Lamps but the Same Light (9th September 1992), he calls on his fellow writers (the sasterawans) to use their art to promote racial and religious harmony. The essay was inspired by the dance performance of Mavin Khoo (along with Ramli Ibrahim and Guna) of Varnam, said to be the most challenging dance in the Bharata Natyam repertoire. Salleh found the dance dazzlingly beautiful and spiritual as it captured the intercourse between the “heavenly body and celestial earth,” enacting and celebrating the “concord between man and man, tribe and tribe, us and them, god earthy and God transcendent.” Writers, Salleh suggests, should meditate on the ultimate Truth, the One, and invoke the One - the Word- because they (the writers) can unite “words that divide.”

He writes:

Sasterawans of Malaysia, consider truly the unity of Truth, of Tawhid, and let your God-given imagination truly live in the many-in-the-one, and ultimately in the One-in-the-many; in the very breadth of God-the-Creator-God-the-Destroyer-God-the-Regenerator. Indeed, there is no god but God. Think of Mavin, Guna, and, of course Ramli behind them. Oneness of Being manifests itself through the vessel of their bodies. Why can’t the reality they affirm in the sacred dance of the body be similarly affirmed in the sacred dance of speech? The Word that unites words that divide – my fellow sasterawans, we must together meditate on it. 

So, he asks writers to use their imagination and their art for the unity of Malaysians, creating Bangsa Malaysia. He pleads with them not to use hurtful words in their writings. His exact words:

And [writers] please try to think twice, thrice, a hundred, even a thousand times, before you throw around words like murtad (apostate), kafir (infidel), syirik (polytheism), munafik (hypocrite) so indiscriminately, so self-righteously, sanctimoniously - and, may Allah be my witness, so un-Islamically.

(As a lawyer and a Malay who cherishes the best in my traditional and uncorrupted Malay upbringing, I, too, urge writers and all, especially those in the position of power, to be mindful of their language.) 

Malaysian literature, Salleh adds, needs poets and writers who are truly liberated from the constrictions of rigid doctrines and laws and who open their hearts and minds to the vision of the great Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi in his poem The Song of the Reed. If we can hear the Reed, he says, we will appreciate the truth affirmed by Rumi in another poem, the Masnawi:

The lamps are different, but the Light is the same: 
It comes from the Beyond…

This is one Truth that is true.

***

Deeply rooted in his Malay heritage, my brother has no fear about losing his Malay identity or his Malay soul simply because he also writes in English or promotes bilingualism. He also believes a writer must take the long view all the time and be alert to temptations that can compromise his art and the independence of his mind. He is a cultural pluralist, pure and simple. He is a Lin Yutang patriot, one who cares deeply for his country - for a united Malaysia that is at peace with itself and ethnically integrated, living in harmony and in full and fair partnership, made up of one Bangsa Malaysia. That is the vision the Prime Minister had back in 1991. That is the vision most of us share.

December 2019

-------------------------
Alima Joned is a lawyer in private practice in Washington, DC. 

** The National Culture Policy was put in place in the aftermath of the 1969 political crisis and was originally intended to encourage national unity, but subsequently emerged as an initiative to encourage national identity through the arts. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Untuk Cikgu yang sangat dihormati (by Dawn Morais, 2016)


SBJ always spoke very highly of his former University of Malaya student, Dawn Morais now in Honolulu, Hawaii. It turns out the feelings are mutual. Dawn subsequently dedicated a whole chapter on SBJ's contribution to Malaysian literature in her PhD thesis. She wrote this piece after listening to some the recently-posted 'smart phone' recordings of SBJ reading poetry on his home verandah.

I just listened to a recent recording of Salleh Ben Joned reading from two of his poems. Hearing that familiar voice, the same boyish chuckle, the sly irreverence, was like traveling in a time machine. I was back on the campus of the University of Malaya as an undergraduate, listening to Salleh teach us, by example, how to break the rules!

It says something about Salleh’s gifts as a teacher, that despite being a fairly conventional Catholic student who took few risks, if any, I found lessons for a lifetime in the things he said and did – some of which have become the stuff of urban legend. Except the legends are (mostly) true! To this day, I cannot read the poetry and prose that came out of his self-confessed “stinking big mouth” without both laughing and agreeing.

Nearly four decades after I first entered his classroom as an undergraduate, and worked behind the scenes with him as he directed our student production of Brecht’s “A Man’s a Man,” I remain deeply grateful that Malaysia has been blessed with a voice - a Malay voice - that speaks for who we can be as Malaysians. It is an earthy, devil-may-care voice that no amount of censorship can ever silence because too many Malaysians have heard it, and responded to it, and own it as theirs to treasure and share.

Sajak-sajak Salleh give us hope that we are better than our pemimpin tell us we are. His defiant poems and essays mock the idea that we are not supposed to use the “akal yang di beri oleh Tuhan” (God-given intelligence) for anything other than “cari makan” (making a living). Next to the mind-numbing processed cheese of the “Malaysia Truly Asia” tourism campaigns, he gives us a rich spread of pungent introspection and salty observation. He is a gift and a guide who goes off the officially approved track to give all who want to know and understand the Malaysia that lies beneath the shame-covers and the faux piety of our so-called leaders - a glimpse of what we once were, and could be again.

Yes, we were a “kebudayaan rojak’ - with all its tangy complications. Salleh Ben Joned’s work is a key that helps unlock the cells of ethnic isolation that politicians keep trying to trap us in. He is the antidote to the tedium of what passes for making a living. He challenges us to get beyond “menjilat jari” (finger licking) as we eat “Ayam Kentucky” and drown in the mindlessness of TV. He points to the spice we could all put back into our lives if we stop accepting what is handed to us; if we allow ourselves to think, and breathe and walk into each other’s homes without fear of tainting ourselves with the touch of our neighbors and the aroma of their kitchens, and what’s cooking in their pots. It smells good, and tastes even better. We would be a better country and a better people if we would only, once again, allow ourselves to sit down and eat with our neighbors as we once did. Salleh writes to make us remember. Because forgetting is fatal.

~ DAWN MORAIS

Photo Gallery #1

'Semangat Keris' by Salleh Ben Joned
One of his many tattered notebooks

Lat's famous one-line review of 'Sajak Sajak Saleh'

The young poet on a pilgrimage to James Joyce's Dublin (late 1970s or early 1980s)

Somewhere in Europe, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s
SBJ had these namecards printed & loved handing them out to serious people
With Australian poet & essayist A.D. Hope in the early 1990s
In exuberant form at the launch of The Amok of Mat Solo (2011)

SBJ's charcoal portrait of his hero Chairil Anwar