I just heard the popular academician Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz Abdul Hamid has passed away a few hours ago. My condolence to his family. I have the privilege to interview him years ago. The article was published on Aug 8, 2011 in theSun. I am reproducing the article I have written. He talked about his childhood years, the Japanese occupation and his love for the Pantun.Suggested Headline : Waxing Poetry '
Royal Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid’s love for poetry led him to learn how to use a computer in order to write a book on it. The 89-year- old former Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor talks to Bissme S about the uniqueness of Malay poetry and the shortcomings of our education system.
*Your book Pantun and Kebijaksanaan Akal Budi Melayu – what led you to write it?
For the past 10 years I have been working on the idea of putting together something on pantun (poetry). I have collected newspaper and magazine cuttings and books on it. I hope to awaken Malaysians, especially Malays, to the fact that pantun is unique. I want them to rediscover its history and the evolution of the Malay language. I had to learn how to use the computer just to write this book! In the past, I always had secretaries to type out whatever I needed. (laughs). Now I have 16,000 pantun in my database. In this book, I chose to highlight mostly those that dealt with the Malay traders.
I wanted to show that Malay traders existed long before Western imperialists came here and wiped out their trading centres, and created their own trading ports. The Malay traders went into the jungle and collected stuff they could barter with traders from China, India and other countries. They sailed around these waters and even had a compass they called pedoman. So the East was already civilised and we had Malay entrepreneurs long before Westerners came into the picture.
* Is pantun still popular with Malaysians?
It is not in the school syllabus. The younger generation come to know of pantun only during wedding ceremonies, and in these ceremonies, people always repeat the same clichéd pantun. I have arrogantly pointed out in my book that pantun and the Malay language had existed long before Old English (the Age of Chaucer). Pantun existed at least 400 years before Shakespeare was born. You can say it is a kind of nationalism on my part to point out these facts.
* What is your view of the progress of the Malay language?
We have a lot of people challenging the whole idea of Malay as the national language. I have to admit that if Malaysia wants to progress, we need to be hooked up with the modern language, which is English. But the future of Malaysia depends on national unity and national unity means you need to have one common language that unites us, and that language has to be Malay.
* Do you find it strange that after more than 50 years of independence, some of us can’t speak the national language properly. Have we gone wrong somewhere?
We compromise a lot. We get into something and then half way through, we don’t complete it because it offends certain people. If you look at the education policy, we are not firm. Our education system has no focus. A good example is the Interlok issue. A certain group wanted to meet the deputy prime minister and they have said that if he refuses to meet with them, they would not vote for Barisan Nasional in the next election. In the end, it became a political issue. Interlok has gone through many changes and I have read all the versions. If you do not want to use the book, don’t use it. But don’t vandalise the text.
*Will you be coming out with another book on pantun?
Yes. My next book will be called Hikmah Dalam Pantun Melayu (wisdom in Malay poetry). If you read pantun, you will find beautiful advice on many issues such as love, marriage, peace and happiness. The values are universal and they can apply to any race. The book will be published next year.
*Do we tend to look down on our pantun?
We have not learned to look up. We are always looking down. We have this attitude that pantun is old fashioned. I remember once a bright lady asked me “why don’t we have modern pantun?”. I told her the values in (old) pantun are universal. Maybe some day, people will write pantun in the modern language that have more universal values. But for the time being, it will be great if we could just recover what we have before it is lost.
* Tell us about your childhood and teenage years?
My mother died when I was four. My dad was sick for most of his life and died when I was only 17. I had been a lone ranger most of my life. I was about to get a scholarship when everything stopped because the Japanese came in. Even though I come from a royal family, I wasn’t going to ask anyone for help. So I worked. My first job was to carry rocks. I had to walk to work – those days if you had a bicycle, the Japanese soldiers would take it away. You had no choice but walk to work. Then, one Japanese soldier asked me if I could write, and when I said yes, they asked me to keep records. So I became a mandur (foreman). I had carried rocks for a week when they made me a mandur, so it wasn’t so bad. I saved enough money to buy a book on the Japanese language and started to learn it. There were times when I became an interpreter for them. When the war ended, some people accused me of being a Japanese collaborator. But I was not.
* Did you get into trouble with the British authorities because of that?
No. The British would have thought twice about arresting me because I had connections with the (Johor) royalty.
*You come from a royal family. Why didn’t you ask for help?
I was not on good terms with one of my uncles. He said I talked too much, and I had too much of pride to ask for help. But towards the end of the war, I became close to another uncle (the late Umno founder Datuk Onn Jaffar). I remember at the time there was a huge clash between Malays and Chinese. It all began with the Chinese communists who wanted to collect taxes from Malays, but the Malays refused to pay. As a result the communists went to the nearest mosque and got hold of an imam who was praying. They hung him upside down and slaughtered him. They even slaughtered pigs in the mosque. That angered the Malays, who went to the nearest Chinese village and killed everyone there. The communists thought they could control the Malays with that incident. Instead the Malays went amok and a racial war began. So you would find the Chinese going to the Malay villages and wiping them out and vice versa. The Japanese didn’t want any fighting between the Malay and Chinese – they had enough on their plate battling the British. They wanted my uncle (Onn) to solve the problem and I was his interpreter then. That brought us close to each other. I began to stay in his house and we talked lot. He would go to the Malays and say to them that he could persuade the Chinese not to attack them, provided they didn’t attack the Chinese. Then, he would give them rice. The following day he would ride his motorcycle into the Chinese village and tell them that he had secured a promise from the Malays not to harm the Chinese, provided they did not provoke the Malays. He would give them rice too. Somehow his plan worked out brilliantly and the racial clashes stopped. He was a brave man to have put his life in danger in meeting both parties. Anything could have gone wrong.
* Speaking of unity, are we more united now?
We have tolerance but not unity. Malaysians are tolerant, till something goes wrong and then we go mad. The word is amok. It is the only Malay word in the English language. Every time we have an election, we bring outogres of disunity. For example, the same people who say they are Malaysian demand a Chinese education. They could have said we wanted a better Malaysian education system. If you want a Chinese education, please have it. Chinese is a beautiful language, it has lasted four thousand years, it united the people of China. I will give you absolute freedom to have your Chinese education. But don’t pretend to be other than what you are. I don’t think in the next 50 years to a 100, we will have a generation of Malaysians who are like the Caribbean people. Most of them are from Africa, but they do not say they are Africans. They would say we are Caribbean. I do not think we are necessarily violent people. Now we have got a political culture of having demos here and there.
* So you are not for demos. Why?
I think demos will be more interesting if they were more ideologically oriented.
*You have a fascination for visual art.
Yes. Pablo Picasso is my favourite artist. I have more than 40 books on him and his work. I spend a lot of money to attend any of his exhibitions around the world. I could spend hours just looking at his work. He survived a very important period in the change in western culture. His paintings were unique – almost every day of his life, he painted. Just like M.F. Husain (Indian artist who died in June). I bought two of his works when he was a nobody. He was just a poor artist in Calcutta then, so poor that he would draw on cardboard. When I met him again years later, he was a famous artist. He was putting up an exhibition on his mural paintings that were worth a million dollars each. He wanted to buy back his early paintings from me – he said he would in return give me any of his new mural painting that were worth one million each. But I didn’t want his mural paintings, I am not interested in money. Art is for my enjoyment, I have never collected art for money.
* Do you paint?
No. I don’t write pantun, I don’t play music, which is one of my biggest regrets. Somebody wanted to teach me the violin, but my father discouraged me. He said you cannot earn money being a violinist. I was 13 then.
* You once said our universities have become factories that produce graduates. Why?
We are not even producing good products in our Malaysian factories. When we started Universiti Malaya, we thought we would start two or three good universities. But now almost every state has a university. Some even have two or three. In Japan, they have an education policy where national universities have a high standard. It is very difficult to get in. Once you graduate, you are sure to get a good job because you are highly-trained. For the masses, they have state universities. They call these lunchbox universities. Today in Malaysia, we have open universities. Who supervises the students? When I lectured, I knew every student by name. Today, we have lecturers who don’t know the names of their students. We have students making notes and passing them to their course mates. We need to have some universities that pursue quality. Now we even have people who say “we have voted for you, now give us a university”! Of course the government has to comply. So they start opening up universities all over the place like mushrooms. Quantity destroys quality.
* Have you to come to a stage where people are afraid to criticize you and your suggestions?
Yes. I have heard one person say “If I am a lecturer and I criticise Ungku Aziz, my promotion will be lost and my contract will not renewed”. I have heard many times people saying only Ungku Aziz can say that and get away with it. I think that is ridiculous. What am I? The last man standing? I feel there are many who don’t like me and criticise me. You can say anything you like, why the hell should I care? Let the dogs bark. I am not hopeful of getting any promotion, any bonus or anything from anybody. I am not saying this out of arrogance; it is just a fact of my life. My life is very simple. I have had these trousers for probably 10 years. I am not into the latest fashion.
* You have been outspoken. Have you got into trouble for voicing your views?
Yes. Once, the police interviewed me for seven hours. But I won’t give you any of the details ......