Plight of Malay literature

I chanced upon this interview that was published in the Sun on 06 March 2008. It was an interview with A. Samad, and the topic was about Malay Literature, and how it was being led to the gallows by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, and to an extent, by the current government itself. It was interesting to read the views of someone who is very much of an insider in the world of Malaysian Literature, and how he feels that it is no longer what it used to be.

This, I feel, comes hand-in-hand with a previous entry I posted here, about how the Education Ministry is now looking to introduce English Literature in Primary School. Like I’ve said before, it’s a good idea. But let’s not even touch on this issue, before we look into what has actually happened to Kesusasteraan Melayu.

Interview with A. Samad

What is the biggest challenge you face as a Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate)?

To get real recognition, to have all your work accepted, especially in school. As a writer, you usually want your books to be accessible to students, who will be your audience in the future.

There was recently a news report that two years from now, books by national laureates would not be included in the school curriculum. What is your opinion on this matter?

Some clever guys in the Education Ministry have said Sasterawan Negara books shouldn’t be included in school because they are difficult. During my school days, we studied William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Lord Byron. They were hard. But we had good teachers as intermediaries … to help us understand the text. When you are 18 or 19, you already know these famous literature figures.

So you don’t agree with the move?

I think what they are doing is insulting. Usman Awang, Keris Mas and Shanon Ahmad have been writing for almost 50 years.

You cannot just say all the work of Sasterawan Negara are difficult. There are bound to be one or two books that are suitable.

You can say my poem Al-Amin is very difficult. But I have another poem Kita Ini Tetamu Singgah, which has been made a song. That poem is easy.

You must have teachers to help you understand the text, so you have some knowledge of good literature.

When Anwar Ibrahim was the Education Minister, and then when he was Finance Minister, he took care of this. He respected literature. He remembered writers. He even sent me books … good books … to read. He would invite Sasterawan Negara to read poems and their work for his office functions. This is rarely done now.

He even invited W.S. Rendra from Indonesia to read poems for his functions. He encouraged reading.

Even in Tun (Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad)’s time, he sent me books. He wrote “Samad, you should read this.” They (Mahathir and Anwar) created situations where you love literature, where you loved writers.

So you believe fewer youth will develop the reading habit as a result of the move?

Yes. With the help of the Education Ministry, this will happen. Just think of these students two decades from now. They are not exposed to good literature.

If you start saying the work of Sasterawan Negara are difficult at school level, then don’t expect them to touch these books when they leave school. You are sending out a clear message – do not read the work of Sasterawan Negara. Everything should start in school. We are not creating a situation where people will read good literature.

In America the students are studying To Kill A Mocking Bird, and in England they go for Lord Of The Flies. All are difficult books. If you want simple books, then just read ABC all the time.

What is your view of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP)?

They have no tongue. (Writers association) Gapena (Gabungan Penulis Nasional) has no tongue now. They have not shown any reaction to this school situation. Their silence shows that they agree with what the ministry is doing.

Do you think the country will ever learn to appreciate you?

When you are no longer here, then they will appreciate you. They will sing praises of you. They will say we have lost a shinning star from the sky. They will say you are so good. They will say hilang tak dapat diganti. (what is lost cannot be replaced)

This, I’m afraid is very true. Just this morning, another great writer left us. Rustam A. Sani has left us two books which have yet to be launched. But he has also left us an array of other writings and opinions. But how many of us really know of such a man, until this morning when they read the newspapers about how we lost another gem?
My condolences to his surviving family.

You could write in English. Why don’t you write in that language?

People have in the past advised me to write in English, so I will get a bigger audience. But I want to create Malay literature. When I die, I want to leave behind a khazanah Melayu (Malay heritage). You can have my work in English after you translate it. A lot of writers in the world write in their mother tongue and have their work translated into English.

Some say you see English as a colonial language and as a result dislike English and refuse to write in it.

(feigning disapproval) Yes. I dislike the English language. Yes, I don’t like it that you write in English … You have no alternative because English is the language of the world. Most of what I have read is also in English. As I said earlier, I want to create Malay literature.

So why haven’t we translated your work as well as that of other Sasterawan Negara in English so the books can be sold in the overseas market?

You should ask this question to DBP and the National Translation Institute. That is their work. I wonder what the function of the institute is if they don’t translate work.

Do you think the media is supportive of serious Malay literature?

They are not helping. Malay newspapers do not have a specific literary editor … I don’t know about English language newspapers. As a result, good books get ignored. Bad books get advertised and supported. Good literary events don’t get reported.

Some people believe this is zaman kejatuhan (the era of the downfall) of serious Malay literature. Do you agree?

I do not think literature has jatuh (fallen). There are still new young writers such as Faizal Tehrani and Nisah Harun who are writing serious literature. If I can fall down, they too can fall down. But I always tell them to continue to write no matter what. But there is no appreciation for what you have given them. I would say this is zaman kejatuhan penulis (the era of the downfall of writers).

Did you ever imagine that serious literature would be in the doldrums when you first started writing?

Never. When I started writing (in his 20s), I thought the writing scene would have a vibrant and marvellous future. But I was wrong. If they don’t want to read my books, what can I do? If they don’t want to read books, what can I do? They will be stupid because they don’t read.

What is your advice to budding writers who want to dabble in serious Malay literature?

I have no more advice for writers. They no longer need my advice. They know Malay literature will not be supported.

Full article here.


It’s sad, isn’t it? To have someone as dedicated as himself to feel this dejected about the current state of literature and writing in Malaysia.

If the Education Ministry is really considering to include English Literature into Primary School syllabus, then please make sure that they study Malaysian Literature as well. Nothing is more depressing than knowing that we are not appreciating our own people.


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