Sunday, 19 September 2010

Found in Malaysia

It was perhaps fitting that something titled "Found in Malaysia" would be launched on Malaysia Day. 16 September 1963 was when Persekutuan Tanah Melayu became Malaysia, after Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined (the latter seceded a few years later). Some forty years later, it seems the idea of a "Malaysia" is still kind of hazy.

This country appears fond of pigeon-holing us into firmly defined circles to satisfy some strange sense of security: The Other easier to spot if it is marked as different. Really? What about China, where everyone looks the same? For a more contemporary reference, read some of the recent headlines. We are, it seems, our worst enemies.

Found in Malaysia is also the title of a series of interviews by online editorial "The Nut Graph". When some Umno man called non-Malays "pendatang" or squatters, it was the reporter who reported it that got (briefly) detained as a security threat. The book is a compilation of some fifty "Found in Malaysia" interviews that have been published online. One aim, is perhaps to show that even though there may be a little pendatang in all of us, we're Malaysians first, thank you very much.

The launch of the book at Leonardo's Dining Room & Wine Loft, along Jalan Bangkung, was officiated by The Nut Graph's editor, Jacqueline-Ann Surin. A panel discussion about politics and Malaysian literature followed. Journalist and lit-critic Umapagan Ampikaipakan moderated the panel, made up of author Chuah Guat Eng, scholar and poet Eddin Khoo, lawyer and poet Cecil Rajendra, and politician Zaid Ibrahim, who arrived a bit late.

Chuah Guat Eng tentatively laid some blame on the education system for the current state of literature in the country. I remember fondly the English literature classes during my school days - who knew that the Education Ministry pulled the subject out of the curriculum, when Anwar Ibrahim was in charge?

Chuah also said the general Malaysian population don't seem to "get" fiction as much as they do non-fiction - something to do with the lack of imagination, I think. "When I wrote in the first person, it was assumed to be 'autobiographical'," she recalled, speaking of her book, Days of Change. "When I wrote as a Malay male, they assumed that I once had an affair with one."

Did I hear that right? I had a voice recorder with me that day, but the battery went flat. I could have sworn I recharged it less than a month ago...

Cecil Rajendra was even more blunt where our lack of a reading culture was concerned. "About ten percent of Malaysians read", he thundered, "and out of that ten percent, about 0.01 percent read poetry." He recalled people reading in airports at Dublin and Abu Dhabi, but when he returned to KL, "nobody was reading" - "culture shock," he called it.

With regards to imagination, Eddin Khoo noted that the need to dream or imagine is stronger in oppressed countries. "Works out of post-communist Russia came nowhere near what was produced during, say, Stalin's time," he said. During the Suharto regime, one could be jailed for 25 years just for having a copy of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Bumi Manusia ("This Earth of Mankind"). Malaysians, he remarked, are more fortunate. "We're not oppressed enough." I hope nobody from the Special Branch were taking notes.

Khoo also touched on the tendency of some Asian writers to overly romanticise their past, "trotting out their grandmothers," as he said. "Rice mothers, Japanese lovers, mangoes falling from my grandma's tree... ." I empathised with that sentiment. After flipping through a few pages of Rice Mother some time back, I didn't feel like reading the rest.

Earlier, Khoo also said that the home is where the habit can be nurtured. This probably explains why my reading preferences have always leaned towards non-fiction. I grew up reading encyclopaedias, issues of Reader's Digest, and later, stuff such as TIME and National Geographic. Why do we need other worlds, anyway? Looking glasses, magic wardrobes and intergalactic vessels, as I understand, are hard to come by. As a Discovery Channel slogan goes, "The world is just awesome." Despite its flaws, it still is.

Chuah was almost livid when the others were done painting a depressing picture of Malaysian literature. So what if there are stumbling blocks, political consciousness, and the like, she asked exasperatedly. "Can't we use our imagination to write around them?"

She gave one example: Lloyd Fernando's 1976 novel Scorpion Orchid, which was extensively written about. On the surface, it seems to be about racial conflict, but Chuah contended that it was about nationhood, a discourse on social integration in the 1970s. To see things like that, she said, one has to be trained to look at how writers write.

Even though he's a politician, I found a lot of Zaid Ibrahim's responses and replies disappointingly "safe" and politically correct.

So who can save Malaysian literature? How do we create readers and writers? "Institutions can play a role, but we cannot completely depend on them," was Khoo's reply to an audience member's question. "The autodidact, the person who educates himself, is the most important educator."

It was an interesting discussion, and Khoo made what I thought was a pertinent point. With our so-called leaders playing power games and our institutions seemingly sliding further down international rankings, perhaps it falls upon each and every one of us who can to learn, not just to read and write, but to better ourselves as well.

But I also wonder: Do we really have what it takes?

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