Sunday, July 25, 2010

Anwar Ridhwan

Today I am highlighting an interview with Malaysian National Laureate who speaks about the literature scene in Malaysia.
The article appeared in the sun dated Oct 8 2009

Headline : A Man Of Letters

Datuk Dr Mohd Anuar Rethwan, or Anwar Ridhwan, was announced the 10th Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate) last month. The Dean of the Writing Faculty of National Heritage, Culture and Arts Academy spoke to Bissme S about his dreams and hopes for the Malay literature scene.

Some people felt you have not produced enough literary work to deserve the Sasterawan Negara title. What is your comment?
(Deputy Prime Minister) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (who chaired the panel that selected this year’s Sasterawan Negara) answered this question perfectly. He said the panel was more impressed with the quality of my work.

What is your opinion of the Malay literature scene and what kind of changes would you like to see taking place?
I am happy that a few young writers such as Faisal Tehrani, Nisah Haron, Mawar Shafie and SM Zakir are still producing serious literature but I would like to see more youngsters doing so.

Why do you think youngsters stay away from writing serious literature?
That is the influence from the popular culture. Today, people want recognition fast. People want more royalty. So they prefer to produce popular rather than serious literature. When you write serious literature, you have to be patient before recognition comes your way.
It is also related to our school system, our reading habits and the level of discussion in society. All of them have not come to an intellectual level where it stimulates good writing. So it is difficult to get writers who can think seriously about life, people, the environment and culture.

So what is wrong with our school system?
It is exam-orientated. Students memorise to get better grades. They use less of their creativity to discuss issues. We have to move away from being too exam-orientated. I believe the Education Ministry realised this mistake and is seriously looking into rectifying the situation.

You are opposed to teaching maths and science in English. So what do you have against English?
I have nothing against English or any other language. I have always said the Malays must not only learn English but also learn Arabic, Mandarin and Tamil. Then, they must try to master other languages such as French and Spanish.
I believe Malaysians should learn as many languages as they can and it will be good for them. But in any country, there must be one national language that is used by everybody ... used in the school system ... used to unite people.
In many rural areas, many students cannot understand English. So I think it is better for lessons to be taught in their mother tongue and national language.
Most people think I am ultra Malay because I fight for this cause. I fight for the Malay language because it is our national language and it should have a proper place in our society. A few months ago, I read in Harakah that my chances to get the Sasterawan Negara title was slim because I was constantly criticising the government over the teaching of maths and science in English. But as a writer I felt I have to express my opinions, no matter what the consequences.

Why do you prefer the term Bahasa Melayu instead of Bahasa Malaysia?
Bahasa Melayu has been around for a thousand years. I do not see any valid reason for changing the term. Look at English. The language has gone into many countries. You do not hear the language being called differently. You do not hear English being called Australian English, German English or New Zealand English. It is still known as English, no matter where it goes.
The term Bahasa Malaysia was coined more for political reasons. I think the government copied what was happening in Indonesia. They (The Indonesian government) called Bahasa Melayu Bahasa Indonesia for political reasons. They wanted to use the term to unite their people as their country has a huge geographical area and has more than a hundred ethnic groups. But we are not so huge and our ethnic groups are not so diverse. Therefore we do not need to change Bahasa Melayu to Bahasa Malaysia.

Why do you think there are so few non-Malays in the Malay literary scene?
If you want the non-Malays to master the language, it has to start from school. You must be playful with the language ... You must be creative with the language, so that students of all races would like to express their emotions, their feelings and their intellectual thoughts in Bahasa Melayu. But this is not happening in schools.
Certain individuals such as Uthaya Sankar SB, Jong Chian Lai and Lim Swee Tin have taken an extra effort to master this language of their own accord and I applaud their effort.

Some people say there is discrimination and as a result the non-Malays prefer not to dabble in the Malay literary scene. What is your comment?
I do not believe any discrimination exists. I was with Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka (DBP) for more than 30 years and we have organised many literary contests. We read all works that came our way regardless of race, religion and ethnicity. Lim and Jong (a well-known Chinese poet and novelist respectively who write in Malay) got The S.E.A. Write Award (Southeast Asian Writers Award), and all the judges in the panels were Malays. DBP even formed a inter-ethnic writing committee to work with non-Malay writers.

You say there is no discrimination. Yet no non-Malay has won a Sasterawan Negara title. Why?
There is a movement by Uthaya Sankar SB (a non-Malay writer who writes Malay short stories) to nominate Lim Swee Tin for the next Sasterawan Negara. It is not impossible for a non-Malay who writes in the national language to get this title. We have many talented writers and we just have to wait our turn.

Serious literature from India and China has been gaining international recognition. Do you think Malay literature can appeal to the international market?
We have very good Malay literary works. But producing good work is not enough. You need to translate these into English and other foreign languages, and most important of all, you need to promote and advertise these works. We have been translating some works but we have not been promoting these books aggressively outside the country. Mark Twain said, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

Some people feel DBP is not playing an active role in promoting Malay literature. What is your comment?
To be fair, DBP is trying to be effective. But most of their staff are young and inexperienced. I believe they should work with outside publishers so the quality of their books can be improved.
They should not only work with Malay publishers and distributors. They must also work with Chinese and Indian publishers as long as these publishers are willing to publish books in Malay.
I have worked with DBP and I know the responsibility put on DBP is very heavy. They must have good in-house training for their staff. They must also learn to work fast. When they get a manuscript they must publish it within three to six months. But this is not the case. Some writers have to wait from one to two years to see their work published.
The ministry is going to abolish PPSMI (teaching of maths and science in English) from 2012. So DBP has to prove it can be an efficient book publisher and produce many science and technology books in Malay.
The government is indirectly telling DBP: “Look, we are giving you a second chance so you better deliver the goods, otherwise we have to go back to teaching maths and science in English.’”

People say we are not a reading society. Do you agree?
Yes. Reading is not cultivated in our society. In Europe, they have a long reading history before pop culture and electronic media entered the scene and dominated their minds. So the reading habit has been deeply rooted in their souls.
In this society, our reading history is rather short before pop culture and the electronic media entered the scene and dominated our minds. So the reading habit has not been deeply rooted in our souls. The reading habit must be cultivated from home. If the parents are not reading, how can you expect the children to be readers?

What is your advice for young writers?
I hate advising young writers. But if you want to be a serious writer, you must read a lot. The writing techniques are always changing, becoming more modern and complicated. A writer must always keep up with the changing writing styles. Most important of all, the writer must always be alert and sensitive to phenomena in society, which can be projected in literary works.

Do you believe writers should write stories with the aim of changing the world into a better place?
Yes. But literature alone is not enough to change the world. It is just one of the elements. There are other factors involved, from political situations to the education system which need to change if we want a better world.

What is your main message in your work?
I try to defend the positive culture and the good values we inherited from our ancestors. With the emerging global cultural tsunami, positive culture and good values are fast disappearing from our society.

Tell us more about yourself and how you got the reading habit?
I was born in Sungai Besar, Selangor. It is a remote place. Only in the 70’s my town had electricity and piped water. My father was a farmer. I had four brothers and a sister. I am the youngest in the family. My brothers read a lot and my mother loved reading syair (Malay poems). That is where I got my reading habit from.

Did you always want to be a novelist?
I wanted to be a writer since my primary school days. It began when I was in the school library, looking at all the books on the shelves. I said to myself if I write a good book, it would be in the library forever – to be borrowed and read. It is like I am leaving behind a legacy.

What do you think of the 1Malaysia campaign?
1Malaysia is a good concept for our society. But so far, it seems that the jargon is only highlighting inter-ethnic integration – which is of course vital in our multiracial society. I would like to see the concept cover multiracial collective effort in creating a more civil society where the arena of uncoerced collective action revolve around shared interests, purposes and values – that can be reflected in our education, political, social, economic system and so on.

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