Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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.


Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 87


An Interview with Anwar Ridhwan:

A Malaysian National Laureate

Nurul Fateha Aziz and Mohammad A. Quayum1

International Islamic University Malaysia


Anwar Ridhwan was born on 5 August 1949 at Parit Satu Timur, Sungai Besar,

Selangor, Malaysia. The youngest in a family of six children, his early education

began at Sekolah Kebangsaan Sungai Besar, where he studied from 1956 to

1962. After that, he went to Sekolah Menengah Sabak Bernam (now Sekolah

Ungku Aziz, Sabak Bernam) from 1963 to1967, and attended Sekolah Alam

Shah, Kuala Lumpur from 1968 to 1969. In 1970, he enrolled as a student in the

Malay Studies Department at University Malaya (UM) and received his Bachelor

of Arts degree in 1973, Master’s in 1983 and Ph.D. in 1988, all from the same



After graduating in 1973, he worked as a temporary officer at Dewan

Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) for three months, after which he was accepted as a

Literary Research Officer there, on a permanent basis. He was on the Editorial

Board of Dewan Bahasa and Dewan Budaya at DBP. In 1982, he took a

management and book publishing course at New York University, Manhattan,

USA. In 1986, he attended the International Writing Program at the University

of Iowa, USA. Later, he became Head of the Literary Development and

Expansion Unit at DBP. From April 1997 to March 2000, he was a Visiting

Professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. In 2001, he was

appointed the Director of Publication, DBP until his retirement in 2005. Since

July 2008, he has been the Dean, Faculty of Creative Writing, Akademi Seni

Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan Malaysia (National Academy of Arts, Culture

and Heritage, Malaysia).


He began his literary career at UM where he founded ISUM, Literary

Association of University Malaya. He also wrote for the culture column of the

campus newspaper, the Mahasiswa Negara. His short story “Perjalanan Terakhir”

(The Last Journey) won the Hadiah Sastera Malaysia (Malaysian Literary Prize)

in 1971, the youngest to have won such a nationally acclaimed award. In 1976,

his first collection of short stories, Parasit (Parasite), was published. The second

anthology was published in 1978, entitled Sesudah Perang (After the War). He


1 Nurul Fateha Aziz is a postgraduate student in the Department of English Language and

Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia, and Mohammad A. Quayum is a professor

in the department.

An Interview with Anwar Ridhwan

Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 88

also won the Hadiah Karya Sastera Malaysia (Malaysian Literary Award) on

three other occasions, respectively for his stories Sesudah Perang(After the

War) in 1976, “Sasaran(Target) in 1982 and Sahabat(Friend) in 1983. In

1992, his short story Dari Kiev ke Moskova(From Kiev to Moscow) won the

first prize in a short story writing competition organised by Dewan Bahasa dan


His first novel, Hari-hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (The Last Days of an

Artist), published in 1979, won the first prize in a Novel Writing Competition

organised by the Sabah Foundation and GAPENA (Federation of Malay

Writers Association). It has been translated into English by Harry Aveling,

Japanese by Tatsuo Hoshino and French by Monique Zaini Lajoubert. His

second novel, Arus (The Current) published in 1985, also won the Hadiah

Sastera Malaysia. It has been translated into French and Thai. His latest novel,

Naratif Ogonshoto (Tales of Ogonshoto), published in 2001, has been translated

into Russian.

His plays include Orang-orang Kecil (Little People) and Yang Menjelma dan

Menghilang (Those Who Appear and Those Who Disappear), published in 1990.

Both have been translated into English by Solehah Ishak. Yang Menjelma dan

Menghilang won the first prize in a Drama Writing Competition organised by

Yayasan Seni (The Art Foundation) and the Malay daily Berita Harian. He also

has an anthology of poetry, Tercipta dari Tanah (Created from Clay), published in


In 2002, Anwar Ridhwan received the SEA Write Award from Thailand. In

2009, he received the most prestigious literary prize in Malaysia, Anugerah Sastera

Negara (the National Laureateship). He is the tenth Sasterawan Negara (National

Laureate), after Keris Mas, Shahnon Ahmad, Usman Awang, A. Samad Said,

Arena Wati, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Noordin Hasan, Abdullah Hussainn and S.

Othman Kelantan.

Your reading habits were cultivated in childhood. Would you like to elaborate on it?

It was spontaneous. The awareness was cultivated when I figured out that for a

poor village boy reading acted not only as a companion but also as a source of

education. Therefore I loved to read widely. I could say that I had read each and

every book at the library when I was in primary school, which were not that

many really; there were around fifty books per shelf, but they were plenty. That

was how it all sparked, because reading opens up the mind and expands our

understanding of the world.

What were your favourite books back then?

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Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 89

As a child, my favourite was of course story books like those published by

Pejabat Karang-Mengarang (Department of Writing, established at the Sultan

Idris Teacher Training College), such as the translated and abridged works of

Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, and then there were the animal tales and the

Thousand and One Nights. Indirectly, this was my early exposure to Western and

classical Arabic literature.

Did the environment at home encourage your reading habit?

We didn’t have many books at home, so my brother and I liked to borrow from

the school library. My mother liked to buy her own favourite books of syair2 and

hikayat,3 which she collected. I often read her collection of syair and hikayat.

Abang Lang, my third brother who studied in Maahad el-Ehya al-Sharif in

Gunung Semanggol, Perak had a whole shelf full of reference kitabs. Those

kitabs had beautiful covers. I always browsed through them with regret and envy

towards him, because they were in Arabic and I couldn’t understand them.

You have been writing for 40 years. What made you write the first time around? What

motivates you to write? Could you explain to us about your creative process?

I was motivated by having an idea that could be shared, and sharing not in the

form of conversation that would leave no impact but in a creative and

imaginative form, published in the shape of a book, all written down. I am

talking about ideas transferred into a book, in writing, because when I first read

the library books, I got the impression that if someone has talent, is able to

write and the writing is published, then it would be an immense contribution to

others and that contribution might possibly last for a long time, depending on

its quality and its exposure to society. The life span of works as such is longer

than the writers. So when I was small, I had dreams of becoming a writer so

that my work would be published, read by people and would stay for a long

time at libraries. That was my childhood vanity (laughs)!

So at that point you hadn’t thought that you would become a writer?

Not yet. It was all just dreams. I was yet to know how to write a literary work.

It was only through reading that the dreams developed into an ambition. A

well-kept ambition! In secondary school, I started thinking about writing.

2 A Malay poetic form consisting of a series of quatrains and an ongoing story.

3 An Arabic word that literally means “stories.” It is a form of classical Malay literature, which

recounts the adventures of heroes of Malayan kingdoms, or royal chronicles. The stories they

contain, though based on history, are often romanticised. It has some similarities with epic poetry.

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Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 90

Through reading, I learnt on my own how fiction writers set the narratives in

motion, introduce the characters, begin and put the plot into action; also, I

scrutinised the narrative style, the language used and so on. That was how I first

learnt how to write fiction, because there was no school in my place at the time

that taught writing or offered writing courses like the way we have now.

I “officially” began writing when I was in my first year at University

Malaya. My lecturers introduced me to a number of terminologies and tips for

good writing. It turned out to be easy for me because I had been studying it on

my own since secondary school. Initially I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the

heavy terms and jargons, but with time it all fell into place.

What is your view of globalisation? How would you describe your worldview?

I believe the modern global society has become very complex. Nonetheless,

every individual or society should understand this complexity and try to find a

common ground that can be used as a basis for creating a harmonious world. If

we look for differences, of course there would be a lot, with all the various

cultural, political, social, religious and geographic backgrounds of people around

us. And political demagogy would often go for the exclusivist and divisive

option for the sake of power.

If I am asked about worldview, I would say, let’s look for similarities that

we could share to live together happily, without any unnecessary war and

carnage that puts us in a vicious, unremitting cycle of devastation and

destruction. It is better for us to leave behind a safer and more peaceful world

for the next generation than its opposite.

In your opinion, how could globalisation help or harm the growth of literature in Malaysia?

If during the colonial era, when we were restrained in so many ways and were

forced to believe that the West was the centre of the world and culturally

superior to us, globalisation has started to deny that and allow the emergence of

cultures and cultural products from other nationalities. Thus, literary works as a

nation’s cultural product has the potential to develop globally, through

translation and so on. And in Malaysia, there are works by established as well as

young writers that could be transferred to the global stage. However, literary

works, including those by Malaysian writers, must be of a really high quality to

be accepted and recognised globally.

Globalisation could also harm the growth of literature in Malaysia in

several ways. The first enemy would be the writers themselves, if they fail to

produce magnum opus from time to time, while the public has access to works

of high quality from other countries. Globalisation could flood the local book

market with works from other countries, and crowd the sphere of literary

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Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 91

theory and criticism from extraneous sources, which we should have owned and

controlled ourselves. I think, local authors and critics realise this and are

constantly trying to produce excellent works. So as not to be terrified by the

consequences of globalisation, our only option is to produce and provide

readers with high quality literary works. That is no other alternative.

How do you think a writer could help to create a better world to live in?

This is a good question. Writers could, through their works, help to create a

better world. However, writers should not be overly egocentric and think that

they alone could help in the attainment of a better world. There are others as

well who could contribute towards this goal: thoughtful and ethical politicians,

rural and urban planners, economists, sociologists, intellectuals, religious

scholars and so on.

I believe that since the time of Socrates and Plato a significant body of

serious writings have had its own epistemology and subtext that aspire for a

more humanistic society, with an improved liveable condition for the species.

Writers generally love peace not war, harmony not conflicts, a healthy not toxic

social environment, and humanity not bestiality in mankind; they love love itself,

not hatred. I think writers could help to create a better world by continuing to

produce ethically and aesthetically appealing works, and not forgetting the

epistemological and pedagogical aspects in their writing, although I realise that

there are writers who refuse to be bound by the concept of epistemology in

literary works. One’s purpose of writing would determine his level of awareness

about his society and the world. The level of a writer who writes for money and

popularity would certainly be different from one who is aware of the social

issues that should be woven into his work. This awareness comes with inner

vision, regardless of whether a writer is young or has matured with age and


Who are the writers who inspire you most? We understand that you admire the works of Keris

Mas, Shahnon Ahmad, Hemingway and Faulkner. What distinguishes them from other


Generally, the four of them excel in their narrative skills; their works are wellordered

and contain rich thematic and artistic elements. They know their

language well and manipulate it very creatively. We are taken on a journey,

observing people and their every day experiences in a way that is vivid and

convincing. We are invited to experience their physical world and partake of

their (the characters’) spiritual and emotional spheres. There are also

philosophical and educational subtexts in their works which help to enhance the

An Interview with Anwar Ridhwan

Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 92

intellectual experience. Thus, in their works, we not only get to observe

characters and events, but also experience profound ideas.

You also like the works of the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Anata Toer. Is it for the same


Yes, for the reasons I mentioned above. Furthermore, if we compare him to the

other four writers, Pramoedya’s life was far more difficult; he was politically

oppressed and incarcerated. In spite of all that, however, he held on to his

idealism and poured it all out into his writings, to the extent that we could see

his life in his work.

I also like Pramoedya because of the affinity of his narrative prose to

Bahasa Melayu. It is not Indonesian like that of most contemporary young

Indonesian writers. In some of his works, the language seems very much Malay,

clear and well-ordered, like the narrative language of Keris Mas – and of course

clear writing comes from a clear mind.

Why do you prefer writing novels and short stories over poetry? Do you find the composition of

poetry more complicated?

To me, a short story is like the lake and a novel like the sea. It is easier to set sail

in a sea because it is wider and has more room. However, relatively, both of

these genres provide a large canvas to the extent that, especially with novels,

narratives on people, events, and ideas could be presented with more details and

depth. Perhaps people think that writing poetry is easier than writing short

stories or novels but for me, writing poetry does not come with ease. Yes,

indeed, I find writing poetry more complicated because of its limited space.

Poetic language has to be concise and adorned with metaphors and imagery, its

substance involves intellect, a way of thinking and philosophy. But other writers

may find writing poetry easier than short stories or novels.

What do you think about the present state of Malaysian literature, not only in Malay but

also in Mandarin, Tamil and English? How has it developed so far, in your opinion?

About Malaysian literature in English, I once heard an opinion voiced by Wong

Phui Nam, a writer and a scholar in the field. He mentioned that English

writing in Malaysia is in its deathbed. I have no idea why he said so, perhaps

because there are no young talents after himself, K.S. Maniam, Lloyd Fernando

and others.

About Chinese and Tamil literature, it’s a pity that I can’t read them, except

those that have been translated into Malay or English. Nevertheless, I am aware

that Chinese and Tamil literature in Malaysia will continue to grow because

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Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 93

every race would always keep their culture alive and produce their own cultural

products like literary works. I believe, like most literary works, Chinese and

Tamil writers also support the humanity concept (at least based on their poetry

and short stories I have read in translation). I am not sure if they have any

“underground” works that are not translated for some reason.

It is an irony that we know of Western, Eastern, African, Latin-American

writers, but in the Malaysian context, we do not know the works and writers of

other races – those whose homes are much nearer to ours. My hope is,

especially for writers of the new generation, that they would get to know more

of these writers. Non-Malay writers and people should also get to know Malay

works and talented writers.

Who are these young writers you have in mind?

I am thinking of, among others, Zaid Akhtar, Faisal Tehrani, Nisah Haron,

Mawar Shafie and S.M. Zakir. They write with a clear literary awareness and

vision. They are different from a number of other writers who crave for

popularity by writing pop fiction.

Since you mention pop fiction – what do you think of Malay romance novels which are in

abundance in the local bookstores?

Well, we cannot enforce on the public what they should or should not read.

Different people have different tastes. There are people who may not like to

read serious novels, or perhaps not yet, but my view is, they are at least reading.

Most popular novels talk only about people and events, very little on ideas, and

if there’s any, there’s no multilayered meaning in it, everything is explained in a

straightforward way. But at least it encourages them to read and to want to

understand people and events other than their own. My hope is that when these

readers grow older, their tastes will change and they will look for something

else, in a different genre. And the same goes for the writers. If they are in their

20s and 30s, they might be writing romance novels, but when they grow older

they will be switching to something more serious to keep up with their readers

who would have by then grown out of the romance genre.

What about censorship? Does it hinder the growth of literature?

We must admit that censorship still exists in our country. Specially for

government and IPTA publishers whose financial resources come from the

government. They are totally under the thumb of the government. I do

understand why there is censorship, but I do not necessarily agree with it.

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Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 94

Things however have started to change. The government is becoming

more open. There are alternative media out there now. If the government

doesn’t show flexibility, it only brings harm to itself. That is why there are more

anti-establishment publishers now, such as the one who published Faisal

Tehrani’s Perempuan Politikus Melayu (The Malay Woman Politician) and

numerous other works with political themes. Apparently, there are issues that

the government tolerates but not when it comes to Muslims’ aqidah (faith), racial

unity and national security.

Censorship, especially that restricts freedom of expression in the arts,

could indeed hinder the growth of literature or growth of a society. Writers can

no doubt circumvent the censorship rules through various literary strategies in

their narratives, or through the incorporation of symbols, metaphors and other

figurative devices in their work. This was what I did, for instance, in my novel

Naratif Ogonshoto. However, not all writers are comfortable in doing so. They

want to convey a clear message, like an arrow that would hit right on its point

of aim.

What sparked the idea for Naratif Ogonshoto?

The idea for this novel came when I was working in Japan. I was there for 3

years. When I was far away from my country, it came to be so close, especially

with political conflicts involving such a scholar as Anwar Ibrahim, economic

problems and all these tittle-tattle about cronyism, corruption etc. However,

when I was planning for the novel I saw many of the developing countries

going through an acute political crisis. Politics in a number of developing

countries happens to be a toy for some people for their power and the wealth

that comes with it.

This dilemma is not only Malaysia’s. It is also true for most of the

developing countries in Africa and Asia. The idealism to see politics as a

medium for developing mankind and civilisation is being overshadowed by the

presence of too many vile political figures. Therefore, in Naratif Ogonshoto I did

not want to merely write about Malaysia, but about problems that are universal

in the so-called third world. That’s why I invented a new country with an

imaginary setting – the Republic of Ogonshoto.

The name itself sounds Japanese. Was it because you were in Japan that you chose such a


There are indeed Japanese influences in the novel. My memories in Japan have

been woven into the book. The Republic of Ogonshoto has three active

volcanoes, whose flowing lava at night looks like fluid gold pouring into the sea.

If I were to give the novel a Malay title, it would be Kepulauan Emas (The Isle

Nurul Fateha Aziz and Mohammad A. Quayum

Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 95

of Gold). In Japanese, ogonshoto refers to gold. That’s what I meant. But as you

know, this narrative is allegorical. At its core, there is an earthquake which

creates an amok and a tsunami which brings punishment for the deserving.

What is your view of race relations in Malaysia?

I am worried because there is no real attempt to bring the races together, such

as through a cohesive educational system or a strong language policy. In

Indonesia and Thailand, the governments have taken various measures to build

bridges between the races and yet we hear of racial conflicts from time to time

for various ethnic and economic reasons. In Malaysia, the attempt to bring the

races together is merely superficial. I am worried that when politics fails to

function to the best of its ability (because Malaysian politics generally is built on

the fulcrum of race), then something will explode and push the society to the

brink. This troubles everyone, including writers. Let us hope that race relation

in Malaysia remains free of troubles forever.

What do you think of “1Malaysia”?

I wrote a poem on this concept, about this 1Malaysia “mayhem.” The poem

begins with these lines:

It is like a maiden suddenly appearing

at a robbers’ lair.

It is like a gentleman suddenly materialising

at the nuns’ hut.

Everyone wants to possess it

in the name of lust, love or hypocrisy.

It should be remembered that “1Malaysia” is a kind of a catchphrase for the

current Prime Minister of Malaysia, for in the tradition of Malaysian politics it

appears every prime minister must have his own catchword. Usually, this

catchword would be forgotten once the prime minister was no longer in office.

“1Malaysia” was introduced to give a voice and character to the current Prime

Minister. Many see it as a catchphrase with a political motif, mainly to

strengthen the current government at whatever cost it takes. As a result, a lot of

people end up fighting for the importance of their own race and culture.

“1Malaysia” is also used as a postmodernist tool to disrupt an existing norm.

For those who honour the constitution and the country’s language policy,

“1Malaysia” could have dangerous implications if the concept is not clearly and

properly elaborated by the Prime Minister himself.

An Interview with Anwar Ridhwan

Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 96

You support the reversal of PPSMI (Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English).

Would you explain why?

Firstly, PPSMI itself is at odds with Articles 152 (1) and 152 (6) of the Federal

Constitution. One wonders how the Mahathir government put PPSMI into

practice when it is at odds with the country’s constitution.

Secondly, Bahasa Melayu has been used for years as the language of

modern knowledge in Malaysia; its pinnacle was the establishment of Universiti

Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in which all the courses are conducted in Malay.

Thirdly, a particular knowledge is easier to learn in one’s mother tongue.

When primary school students, especially those poor students in urban and

rural areas are forced to learn science and mathematics in English, empirical

studies show that many of them fail to cope. If this policy goes on, a lot of

students will suffer in their studies and in their future careers.

Fourth, Bahasa Melayu should be the language for racial unity and

solidarity in Malaysia. The PPSMI policy is troubling not only because it pushes

aside Bahasa Melayu as a medium of education, but also as a language for racial

unity. Our students are already in different school streams, and lack in Bahasa

Melayu usage, so what would happen to racial unity if this policy is pursued?

This is why I mentioned that the existing method of education should be

maintained by improving the teaching modules and curriculum – including the

English subject. If the teaching of English is improved, our students would

have no problems in referring to books in English. And if we work more on

translating works in foreign languages that would help to strengthen the human

capital in the country.

One of the problems in Malaysian literature is that the writers are overly racially oriented.

How could these writers contribute to the process of national unity?

What is meant here, I believe, is that there are many writers who write in their

respective mother tongues. This is the consequence of our educational system

which allows national schools to run side by side with Tamil and Chinese

vernacular schools.

However, I believe that no literary work seriously talks about issues that

can be seen as “racial,” for literature generally tends to be humanistic. This is

what I observed when I read Chinese and Tamil short stories translated into

Bahasa Melayu in the project “Titian Sastera” organised by DBP, and in the

works of other ethnic writers.

When our literary writers are set apart by their creative medium, then the

best way to bring them together is through translation. A Malay proverb says “if

you know not, then you love not” (tak kenal maka tak cinta). By knowing how

Nurul Fateha Aziz and Mohammad A. Quayum

Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 97

other races think and what their aspirations are, we could understand each other

better. Journalistic and other topical writings should be done with utmost

responsibility. The pen is not a sword in the hand of the brute, but a tool to be

guided by a sound mind.

There are disputes voiced over your laureateship. How do you respond to that?

I am open about this. It is true that there are some who have been writing

longer than me, but have not yet received the award. I have been writing for

about 40 years, and those who are grumbling have been writing for a longer

period. However, we do not evaluate ourselves. We are evaluated by a panel of

judges. The report from the panel mentioned that I have not been a prolific

writer but that my works have created impact. The judges look for quality more

than quantity. Although I have not published many titles, my works have won

prizes in the short story, drama, and novel genres. For example, I have won the

SEA Write Award and Hadiah Majlis Satera Asia Tenggara (MASTERA).

Do you think the national laureateship should be made open to Malaysian writers who write

in English or other languages?

This is quite a sensitive and delicate question. In my opinion, a national award

should be based on a country’s national policy – in this context, it is the national

language policy. All countries hold on to this principle. In the Federal

Constitution, Article 152, Bahasa Melayu is named as Malaysia’s national

language. This language has been the lingua franca in this region for thousands of

years, and has produced major works in the fields of literature, philosophy and

knowledge. Malaysian national language did not just come into existence in

1957 with the country’s independence. It has been there for thousands of years,

compared to English which come with the colonisers in 1824. By saying that, I

have no intention to demean Malaysian literature in English, for the task of

writers towards mankind remains the same no matter what language we use. It

is only in the context of your question that I was saying that the national literary

award should be based on the country’s national language policy.

Do you think non-Malay writers who write in Bahasa Melayu should be awarded the

national laureateship?

Of course that is a possibility. I would like to mention two Chinese writers who

have won the SEA Write Award, a prestigious award among Southeast Asian

countries. They are Lim Swee Tin and Jong Chian Lai. There are other Chinese

and Indian writers as well who write creatively in the Malay language.

An Interview with Anwar Ridhwan

Asiatic, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 2010 98

What is your view about the state of translation in Malaysia? Are you satisfied with the

translation of your own works?

Translation was marginalised for a long time for lack of a clear direction, limited

financial resources, competition by English books, and lack leadership of the

translation institution itself. However, for the past two years I have observed an

extraordinary dynamism at Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia (ITNM)

(National Translation Institute Malaysia). They have outlined a clearer direction,

the number of translated works including literary works have increased, and

they have started to build smart partnership with international publishers to

publish and distribute Malaysian translated works in the global market.

As for my works, I am satisfied with their translations into English, and I

say that after having read the works myself. But I am not so sure about the

translations into other languages – such as Indonesian, Arabic, Dutch,

Hungarian, Japanese, German, Korean, Macedonian, French, Russian, Tamil,

Urdu and Vietnamese – because I can’t read these languages. However, my

hope is that the target readers in these languages would find my translated

works satisfactory in their language.