Datuk Dr Mohd Anuar Rethwan or better known with his pen name Anwar Ridhwan is the country’s 10th Sasterawan Negara ( National Laureate).On this coming Oct 20th, The Yang di-Pertuan Agong will present this award officially to 60 year-old novelist who is currently the Dean of the Writing Faculty of National Heritage, Culture and Arts Academy (Aswara). His literature career began in 70’s where he began penning poems, short stories and novels. He produced his first novel Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (The Last Days of An Artist) in 1979. The novel has been translated into English, Japanese and French. To date, he has produced four novels, four collections of short stories, three dramas and a book of poetry. His works has been translated into 15 foreign languages.
He spoke to Bissme S about his dreams and his hopes for the Malay serious literature scene
Some people felt you have not produced enough work of literature to deserve the Sasterawan Negara title. So what is your comment?
Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (Deputy Prime Minister who was the chairman for the panel that was selecting this year Sasterawan Negara) answered this question perfectly and I like his answer very much. He said the panel was more impressed with the quality of my works.
What is your opinion on the serious Malay literature scenes and what kind of changes you like to see taking place?
There are certain audience for serious literature in every country and Malaysia is no different. But I am happy the older generation writers and a few young writers such as Faisal Tehrani, Nisah Haron, Mawar Shafie and SM Zakir, to name the few, are still producing serious literature. I would like to see more people especially the youngsters producing serious literature.
Why do you think people stay away from writing serious Malay literature?
That is the influences from the popular culture. Today, people want recognition fast. People want better royalty. So they prefer to produce popular literature than serious literature. When you write serious literature, you have to be patient before recognition comes your way.
It is also inter-related with our school system, our reading habit and the discussion environment in our 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, environment and culture.
You pointed out our school system has not come to an intellectual level that could stimulate good writing. So what is so wrong with our school system?
They are very exam orientated. Students memorized to get better grades. They use less of their creative mind to discuss issues. We have to move away from being too exam orientated. I believe the education ministry realized this mistake and is seriously looking into rectifying the situation.
You strongly opposed of teaching Math and Science in English. So what do you have against English language?
I have nothing against English or any other language. I always say the Malays must not only learn English but also learn Arabic, Mandarin and Tamil. Then, they must try to master other foreign languages such as French and Spanish
I believe Malaysians should learn 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 knowledge 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 Malay languages because it is our national language and it should have a proper place in our society. A few months ago, I read in Harakah who predicted that my chances to get Sasterawan Negara is slim because I was constantly criticizing government over teaching Maths and Science in English. But as a writer I felt I have to express my opinions, no matter what is the consequences .
You preferred term Bahasa Melayu compare to Bahasa Malaysia. Why are you against the term of Bahasa Malaysia?
Bahasa Melayu has been existed thousand years ago. I do not see the 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's English, German's English and New Zealand's English. The language is still known as English, no matter where it goes.
The term Bahasa Malaysia was coined more for political reasons and I dislike that fact. I think the government copied what was happening in Indonesia. They (The Indonesian government) called Bahasa Melayu as 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 hundred ethnics. But we are not so huge like Indonesia and our ethnics are not so diverse like Indonesians. Therefore we do not need to change the term Bahasa Melayu to Bahasa Malaysia.
Why do you think there are so few non-Malays in Malay literature scene?
If you want the non -Malays to master the language, it has to start from the school. You must be playful with the language... You must be creative with the language, so the students of all races would like to express their emotions, their feelings and their intellectual thoughts in Bahasa Melayu. But this is not happening at schools.
Certain individuals such as Uthaya Sankar SB, Jong Chian Lai and Lim Swee Tin has taken an extra effort to master this language on their accord and I really applaud their effort.
Some people say discrimination exists and as a result the non- Malays preferred not to dabble in Malay literature scene. What is your comment?
I do not believe any discrimination exists. I had been with Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka (DBP) for more than 30 years and we have organized many literary contests. We read all works that comes our way regardless of one's race, religion and ethnic. Lim Swee Tin and Jong Chian Lai (both are well known Chinese poet and novelist respectfully who writes in Malay) got The S.E.A. Write Award (Southeast Asian Writers Award), and all the juries 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 so far no non Malay has won a Sasterawan Negara title. Why is that?
There is movement by Uthaya Sankar SB ( Non Malay writer who actively 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 national language to get this title. We have many good talents and we just have to wait our turn.
Serious literature works from India and China have been gaining international stardom. But Malay literature has not got this fame. Do you think Malay literatures don't have the quality to appeal to international market?
Mark Twain was saying this : Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising!
We have very good Malay literature works. But producing good works is not enough. You need to translate these works 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 this country.
Some people felt DBP is not playing an active role in promoting Malay literature scene. What is your comment?
To be fair, DBP is trying to be effective. But their staffs are mostly very young and try to gain experiences. I believe they should work with outside publishers so the quality of their books can 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 published 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) starting from 2012. So DBP has to prove they can be an efficient book publisher and produced many science and technology books in Malay. Here the government is indirectly telling to DBP :“Look we are giving you a second chances so you better deliver the goods, otherwise we have to go back to teaching math and science in English.’
What is your opinion on popular literature?
Every genre of literature has their own readers and the readers have the right to read what they like. But I believe as the readers get older, they will not only read popular literature. They want to read something more substance. That is when they pick up serious literature.
People say we are not reading society. Do you agree with this notion?
Yes. Reading is not cultivated in our society. In the European society, they have a long reading history before the pop culture and electronic media enter the scene and dominated their minds. So the reading habit has been deeply rooted in their soul.
In our society, our reading history is rather short before pop culture and electronis media enter the scenes and dominates our mind. So the reading habit has not been deeply rooted in our souls.
Reading habit must cultivate from homes. If the parents are not reading, how can you expect the children to be readers?
What is your advice for young writers out there?
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 trend of the writing style. The most important of all, the writer must always be alert and sensitive with various phenomenon happening in the society, which can be projected in the literary works.
So you believed writers should write stories with aim of changing the world into a better place?
ASAS ’50 (Generation ’50) writers write stories with aim of changing society. Bertolt Brech do the same through his non-realisms theatres. Frankly, literature alone is not enough to change the world. It is just one of the element. There are other factors involved from political situations to the education system needs to change if we want a better world.
What is your main message in your works?
In my work I am trying to defend the positive culture and the good values we inherited from our ancestors. With the emerging of global cultural tsunami, the positive culture and good values are fast disappearing from our society. ‘The World is Flat’ says Thomas Friedman, and towering personality is not only for the West and its white peoples.
Tell more about yourself and how did you get the reading habit?
I was born in Sg Besar, Selangor. It is very remote place. Only in the 70's my town had electricity and pipe water. My dad was a farmer. I had four brothers and one sister. I am the youngest in the family. My brothers read a lot and my mother love 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 all began in one day when I was in the school library, looking all the books on the shelf. I said to myself if I write a good book, it will be in the library forever – to be borrowed and read. It is like I am living behind a legacy for new generations.
What do you think of our Prime Minister One Malaysia campaign?
1Malaysia is quite a good concept for our society. But so far, it seems that the jargon is only highlighting inter ethnics integration – which is of course very vital in our multi-racial society. I would like to see the concept covers multi-racial collective effort in creating more civil society where the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values – that can be reflected in our education, politic, social, economy system and so on and so forth.
What is the next book that you working on?
My fifth novel will be published at the end of this year or early next year. Now I am writing five monodramas.