The Problem with Literature in New Malaysia

Click here to read this article in Bahasa Melayu. Klik di sini untuk baca rencana ini dalam Bahasa Melayu.

I have to be honest: we have a problem with our literature, and frankly, I do not have the solution. However, before we attempt to address the issue, it is essential that we openly acknowledge what the problem is. The hope is that, by being honest and self-reflective, we can, collectively, fix some of the problems afflicting our literary scene.

There are several issues, but I want to focus on two for the moment. I hope that soon, within the next five or ten years of the monumental change that the people of Malaysia made happen on 9 May 2018, we’ll overcome these problems. Otherwise, we may be forced to wait another 60 years to rectify the situation.

National Literature

The first problem? The dilemma presented by the notion of National Literature. Because Malay is the National Language, literature written in Malay occupies a special position as National Literature in Malaysia, in comparison to literature written in other languages. Yet, in our hearts, we know that good literature is good literature, regardless of the language it is written in. Why should there be a language criteria? Further, we repeatedly affirm that literary works are at their purest when expressed in the writer’s mother tongue.

And it is here that the friction arises, for our National Language is not the mother tongue for many of us. For those born and raised in ethnic Chinese or Indian families, it is possible that their language is Mandarin, or Cantonese, or Tamil, or Urdu; and that does not include our friends born and raised in Iban, Dayak, Melanau or Kadazan families. They each have their own mother tongues. We also have many writers who were born and raised writing in English, the one language that slips most comfortably off their tongues, that flows off their fingers. We should not condemn them.

Yes, Malay is a National Language, we read it in school and use it in our daily lives. However, literature is the sense of touch, thought, knowledge and culture. And if all of that stems from the non-Malay languages, then are the works written in these languages non-national?

Yes, we are back to the starting point. This is a matter supposedly discussed and resolved with the National Cultural Policy or Culture Congress, decades ago. Not true. It remains unresolved. Few amongst us were present, represented at the time the congress was held, and the policy introduced.

And so, those who wrote in Mandarin migrated to Taiwan and created a name for themselves there, in the field of literature. Among the Malaysians who have created a name for themselves in Chinese literature overseas are Li Yongping, Ng Kim Chew, Chang Kuei Hsien, Ho Sok Fong and Li Zi Shu. Their works are valued for their high quality. Few Malay readers would have read their works, and so, we’re unable to judge the standard of the works ourselves. While these Manhua works – literature written in Mandarin by Malaysians – may be denied the acknowledgment of being Malaysian literature, these writers still hold Malaysian passports.

I am not aware of Malaysian Indians who are trying to make a name for themselves in Mumbai, but Malaysian writers who write in English have already attracted the attention of the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. Names such as Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, and Preeta Samarasan are no strangers in the West.

Do we accord them recognisation?

If one day, a Malaysian author who writes in Mandarin, or English, wins the Nobel Prize for literature, would they be considered a Malaysian writer?

Islamic Literature

Related to the conundrum of our national literature is the question of Islamic literature. Since the acknowledged National Literature in Malaysia is literature written in Malay, many of its writers are Malays. The Malaysian constitution, unfortunately, stipulates that all Malays must be Muslims.

When Malays becomes more devout, Islam becomes entwined with cultural identity, resulting in such writers then being seen as Malay-Muslim writers. From this processes emerges the sub-genre we call Islamic Literature. This same literature has now been elevated to become synonymous with National Literature.

I remember when I taught one of Associate Professor Dr Mawar Shafie’s class at the National University of Malaysia several years ago. I asked those who read literature to raise their hands. Then I questioned the students one by one, asking them what they read. An ethnic Indian student told me he did not read Malay literature.


“Because I feel uncomfortable reading a work full of da’wah, Quranic verses, the hadiths of the Prophet and the Arabic terms that have been Malayised and nationalised. Imagine how Malays who, let us say, live in India, are required to read compulsory literary texts full of Hindu elements? Remove Islam from national literature.”

I was stunned. Since then I have removed Islamic allusions from my literary works. Instead, I now emphasise the foundational Islamic teachings that I believe are more universal in nature. I wrote Bagaimana Anyss Naik Ke Langit, about deforestation and its impact on the Penan natives, as well as the systematic rape of the same community. My other novel, Professor, addresses human rights and the daily lives of the LGBT community. I regret writing Tuhan Manusia but I can’t go back to fix the past. I can only use what future opportunities there are still available.

In my opinion, the problem with Islamic literature is made more complex by the fact that the function, claim and criteria of Islamic literature is to bring about good (makruf) and to prevent evil. The question is, when Malaysia was hit by the vile corruption and financial scandal under ex-PM Najib Razak, where were our Islamic authors writing to prevent evil? They were, in fact, largely silent.

Islamic literature is still stuck in the realm of chaste love relationships, embellished with religious phrases and cheeky sexual innuendos.

It does not venture into discussing practices such as negative feudalism, nor does it examine complex Islamic discourses and the question of sectarianism. Neither does it advances themes about human rights. Islamic literature is drowned beneath religiosity, caught in anticipation of meeting God, and never ventures down to address earthly matters.

Institute of Language and Literature and the Translation World

It is easy to blame the two problems raised here on the Institute of Language and Literature (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka), as it is the main national agency responsible for language and literature for the failures that we don’t know how to fix.

The disarray is further complicated by the aridity of our translations scene. Not only do we not translate the great works from abroad into Malay with speed and precision, we also are not dedicated enough in translating our own works and marketing them well. We’re thrilled and self-satisfied when our writings are translated by ITBM (The Malaysian Institute of Translation & Books) and supposedly sell a hundred and two copies at international book festivals that we attend each year, more to sightsee.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that we do not translate Mahua literary works, or Tamil literature, or English works by Bernice Chauly or Dina Zaman for example, into the National Language, or Malay language. Hey, they are Malaysians too!

As a consequence, we don’t know about these works. It becomes difficult for us to know. We do not want to know. We become immersed in ourselves. We only see ourselves.

This is our problem. I have been honest from the very beginning, I do not know how to solve it. I really do not know. It is not a problem for just me alone to ponder and solve.

But I am worried that it will not be resolved, and will deepen over another 60 years. Literature must be a bridge of unity. Malaysian literature today however, as I mentioned, is like literature that belongs to individual communities.

Maybe it works. Maybe it is not even considered a problem. Because why would it be a problem when we are content to live separated, focused on our own individual selves.

But is this the “New Malaysia” that we want?

This article has been translated from Bahasa Melayu into English by Kathy Rowland and Nur Athirah Binte Abdullah.

Faisal Tehrani is the pen name of Faizal Musa, a fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Read Faisal Tehrani’s interview with ArtsEquator.

Faisal Tehrani. 2014. Bagaimana Anyss Naik Ke Langit. DuBook Press. Selangor.

Faisal Tehrani. 2017. Professor. Buku Fixi. Petaling Jaya.

Faisal Tehrani. 2007. Tuhan Manusia. Al-Ameen Serve Holdings Sdn Bhd. Kuala Lumpur.

1 thought on “The Problem with Literature in New Malaysia”

  1. We are in a stage of develoent when the writers are trying hard to hide the authenticity of life after independence. They seem to be ashamed of the austerity & boast their equality with the West in their lifestyles. The is the post colonial problem.
    Until we become comfortable with the authenticity of our situation, we will continue to imply the inferiority complex of our situation in the 21st century.
    It is the meaning of the auster struggle our fore fathers endure & succeeded in bringing us up with happiness aware of the prejudices of affirmative action. As a result, we worked harder & excelled in our specialities as a beneficiary of prejudice!

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