Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sasterawan Negara : Baha Zain

I had the opportunity to interview the recently elected Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate). He shares his views on the Malaysian literature scene and The Malaysian National Language. This article appeared in theSun newspaper on Wednesday April 3. Here is the full article.   

Writing for unity
By Bissme S 

DATUK Baharuddin Zainal, better known as Baha Zain, was recently honoured as the 12th Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate). Prior to this, the 74-year-old poet, short story writer and literary critic has been the recipient of such prestigious awards as the SEA (Southeast Asia) Writer Awards in 1980 and the Anugerah Penyair Gapena (The Federation of Malaysian National Writers Associations Poet Award) in 1988.
In this exclusive interview, Baha Zain talks about the recognition bestowed upon him, the literary scene in the country today and what inspired him to become a writer.

* What was your first reaction on being named Sasterawan Negara?

"I was grateful to God. My generation is different from yours. All we wanted to do was to contribute without expecting anything in return. We wanted to enrich the national language and the Malay literary scene. However, if the title was given to me five years ago, I would have rejected it.”

* Why is that? 

“I was against the PPSMI (the teaching of Science and Maths in English). I am not against the English language. If I was, I would not have sent my three children to further their studies in England. 
“I just want to develop the Malay language as a language of knowledge. If you do not teach Science and Maths in Malay, how do you expect the language to be developed as the language of knowledge?  
“Japan and Korea are so much more advanced than us and yet they do not teach Science and Maths in English. If you want Malaysian students to master the English language, this is not the way. 
“I’m happy to see the government has decided to have Science and Maths taught in Malay, again. 
“I will not deny that a lot of scientific terms in Malay are borrowed words. But even in English, there are many borrowed words from the French and German language. There is nothing wrong in enriching the vocabulary by borrowing words.”  

* No women writers have won the Sasterawan Negara title. Do you think there is a Malay male dominion for the award?  

“I was on the selection panel for the candidates for this award for several years. We did not base our selection on gender or race. We looked for candidates who have contributed significantly not only towards the development of the language and literacy but also towards society.   
“For example, Keris Mas, Arena Wati, Usman Awang, and A. Samad Said were journalists who fought for independence through their pen. 
“They should not be spending all their time in the library, living in their own world and forgetting about the society around them. They should be socially-committed writers. They cannot just write about nostalgia. Their works should spark critical thinking. As a writer, you need to be connected with the society. You write because you want to express yourself.”

*Some people think you do not deserve this title. What are your comments?    

“I can be equally cynical and hit back at my critics but I will not do so. It can be counter-productive. In Islam, you are encouraged to be patient. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.”   

*What changes would you like to see taking place in the Malay literature scene?  

“We should find ways to incorporate more non-Malays in the Malay literature scene. The national language is no longer the language for Malays. I am happy to see that Karim Raslan (who usually writes in English) is now contributing to Dewan Sastera (a leading Malay literary magazine). 
“In the 70s, there were conscious efforts among artistes of different races to use the national language in literature to cut across the racial barrier. If you read Dewan Sastera in those days, you will find many non-Malay artistes like Krishen Jit and Redza Piyadasa contributing articles in Malay. In fact, a handful of non-Malay artistes have translated my poems into visual form. But today, I see less of such collaborations between artistes of different races.”  

*Why do you think there were more collaborations between artistes of different races back then?   

“The May 13 incident (1969) just took place, with the whole nation confronted with the tragedy. Artistes of all kinds, from writers to painters, believed they should come together and use their art to promote unity … to understand each other. Today, we have taken our peace for granted. What’s happened in Lahad Datu (Sabah) recently could be a wake-up call to teach us not to take anything for granted.”   

* What do you see lacking in our society today? 

“Our moral and ethical development are not on par with our physical and economical development. For example, we will not think twice about throwing rubbish on the road, polluting rivers, cutting down trees that provide oxygen, etc.” 

*What inspired you to become a writer?  

“I was born in 1939. I have lived through the traumatic times in our history – from the Japanese Occupation to the communist and Emergency period, right through the racial riot of May 13, 1969. 
“I had experienced eating rice only with potatoes and bananas. I did not have running water in my house. Poverty was everywhere. 
“I wanted to write about these difficult times to create an awareness. I wanted to tell people not to take our peace for granted and be grateful for what they have today. 
“But today is not the era of literature. People do not give importance to literature – they are too busy chasing wealth. One must remember that ultimately, it was literature that made us human.”