Malaysia Boleh: The Politics of National Literature & Language

From the archives (October 7, 2016):

Talk delivered on September 30, 2016, by Sheela Jane Menon at “Contexts and Texts: Writing and Translating in Malaysia and Singapore,” co-presented by Jini Kim Watson and New York University’s Postcolonial, Race and Diaspora Studies Colloquium, and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, as part of the 2nd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC. Link to Prezi visual presentation here.


Malaysia Boleh: The Politics of National Literature & Language

Good afternoon, and thank you all for being here. Many thanks, especially, to Jee Leong Koh and Jini Kim Watson for making this event possible.

I’d like to open my talk today with a heated exchange between two prominent Malaysian writers. In 2010, Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam wrote a scathing review of a collection entitled An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature, edited by Muhammad Haji Salleh, a Malaysian National Laureate. The anthology, originally published in 1988, was released as a second edition in 2008, and it is this edition that Wong critiques. In his review, Wong argues that the anthology makes “an unambiguous statement of official Malaysian cultural policy. This is that Malay culture is the sole basis of Malaysian culture and, subsumed under it, only writing in Malay or Bahasa Malaysia is considered to be Malaysian national literature” (102). Wong points out that only Malay authors and only works originally written in Malay are included in the anthology. He notes, also, that the anthology does not include any literature published after 1983. Wong concludes with this observation:

If [Malay literature] is considered to be of sufficient weight by itself to stand alone as Malaysia’s national literature, then Malaysia has to be a mono-cultural backwater state that has barely left the 19th century behind, as the cultural nationalists wish it to be, and not a country with a diversity of cultures and a literature that speaks with a multiplicity of tongues that it, in fact, is. (109).

Muhammad Haji Salleh responded with vigor to Wong’s criticism. In doing so, however, he lent further weight to Wong’s arguments. Muhammad argues: “We all need a shared language to communicate with each other . . . This is the national language . . . Should not the national literature of Malaysia be written in Malaysia’s national language?” (156). Writing in English, he goes on to argue that English, as the language of colonization, should not be used as a medium for Malaysia’s national literature. Instead, he suggests that the works featured in the anthology – selected works of Malay literature that are published in their English translation – “try to speak on our behalf. They describe our reality” (158). However, the “our” that Muhammad uses refers, unapologetically, to Malay Malaysians only.

This exchange between Wong and Muhammad demonstrates some of the central tensions in an ongoing debate over language, literature, and culture in Malaysia. It’s a debate that’s really about Malay versus Malaysian identity, and I’ll cover a few key perspectives on that distinction during the first half of my talk. This ongoing tension illustrates how Malaysian literature, like so much of Malaysian cultural life, is organized along rigid racial and linguistic borders. These divisions, unfortunately, are central to Malaysian multiculturalism. Ignoring material differences in the lived experiences of Malaysians, the state presents Malaysia as an exemplary Asian nation – uniquely diverse yet harmonious. However, the reality is that national policy on multiple fronts (including literature and the arts) prioritizes Malay culture over that of Indian, Chinese, Peranakan, and Indigenous Orang Asli/Orang Asal communities. This brand of what I call “exceptional multiculturalism” masks the deep divide between how Malaysia markets itself to the world, and the realities of racial (and literary) stratification at home.

The actual diversity of the writing and publishing scene within and beyond Malaysia offers a much more expansive vision of national literature, which I’ll turn to in the second half of my talk. These writing and publishing realities demonstrate that Malaysian literature is vibrantly multilingual, diverse in genre and readership, and simultaneously local, regional, and global in its scope and circulation. Despite the best efforts of state policy and some national laureates, Malaysian literature persistently crosses numerous borders and boundaries.

The exchange between Wong and Muhammad Haji Salleh implicitly invokes Malaysia’s 1971 National Culture Policy. This policy establishes Malay culture as the “culture of the indigenous peoples of this region” and, therefore, the basis of Malaysian national culture (National Department for Culture and Arts). It states explicitly that minority cultures must be subjected to “review” before they can be deemed “suitable and acceptable” for inclusion within the nation, and it asserts the “indigenous” status of Malays over that of Orang Asli/Orang Asal communities. This definition of both “indigenous” and “national” identities ignores the fact that the Orang Asli were, as Sandra Manickam explains, “part of the first wave of human migration into the Malay Peninsula, ancestors of the first peoples to reside there, if not biologically then at least culturally and linguistically” (2). While Sabah and Sarawak’s Indigenous histories are harder to trace, Barbara and Leonard Andaya note that the Borneo region was likely settled by Austro-Melanesian peoples between 40,000 and 2,000 years ago (10). The National Culture Policy’s erasure of these Indigenous histories and its sidelining of minority communities are the foundation of state definitions of “national literature.”

So, what has this debate looked like over the past few decades? Well, in the 1950s and 1960s, writers at the University of Malaya in Singapore were part of what Philip Holden describes as an “explosion of creativity” by students from across Malaya (58). These “university writers,” including Wang Gungwu, the first published poet of this generation, were invested in “a common political project: the creation of a Malayan nation, in which a Malayan Literature would play a part” (Holden 58). Their hope was for a polyglot literary tradition that would participate in the socio-political transformations happening around them. This hope was crushed in the years following the race riots of May 13, 1969, which spurred the creation of the National Culture Policy.

A few decades later, in the early 90s, Salleh ben Joned famously took Muhammad Haji Salleh to task for his “mindless self-congratulation” of Malay literature. Salleh, as some of you may know, is infamous on the Malaysian literary scene for refusing to endorse Malay as the national language or the basis for national literature. Dawn Morais argues that Salleh’s poetry, essays, and public demonstrations – often employing graphic language and blasphemy in their critique of the powers that be – have made him “very much the outsider, or worse, the apostate” (from the establishment’s perspective) (142). For example, Muhammad Haji Salleh described Salleh’s bilingual poetry collection, Sajak-Sajak Salleh / Poems Sacred & Profane (published in 2002) as “the most traumatic experience for the Malay literary scene” (qtd. in Ng, “The Sacred Profane” 1).

In responding to Muhammad’s 1992 report entitled, “Kikis sikap rendahkan sastera negara” (“Don’t look down on the nation’s literature”), Salleh rejects Muhammad’s assertion that “Malay literature is as impressive (sehebat) as the literatures of [Britain, France, and Japan].” Instead, Salleh asserts that it’s important to be “self-critical, both as an individual and as a nation” and that “being intelligently critical of the achievements of one’s country’s literature is not the same thing as looking down (menghina) on the literature.” Salleh advocates for a robust assessment of Malay literature; one that involves a careful attention to local contexts as well as global aesthetic values. Over a decade later, Wong Phui Nam’s critique of Muhammad’s anthology echoes this line of thinking.

In contrast to the Malay-centric definition of national literature sanctioned by the state, contemporary Malaysian literature actually reflects the complicated diversity of the country and its people. It’s a literary tradition that precedes British rule and one that continues to adapt and evolve. I’d like, now, to offer a brief mapping of key developments in Malaysian literature. I hope this quick sketch of the field illustrates how Malaysian writing is multilingual, diverse in genre and readership, and simultaneously local and international. Before I turn to this, though, I do want to note a frustrating contradiction. In order to give you a sense of the diversity of Malaysian literature, I’m forced to use bounded categories – racial, linguistic, and generational – to situate these authors and their work. My hope is that as this body of literature and scholarship continues to grow, there will be less and less need for these kinds of categories; that we’ll eventually get to the point of talking about MALAYSIAN literature in expansive and less limiting terms.

So, speaking of categories, early Malay literature is a good starting point for this overview. The classics of the Malay literary tradition – Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah – were composed during the 15th-16th and 18th-19th centuries, respectively. Sejarah Melayu details the histories of Malay kings and their courts, while Hikayat Hang Tuah traces the adventures of the Malacca hero, Hang Tuah. Muhammad Haji Salleh has been responsible for important translations and critical studies of Hikayat Hang Tuah, and he’s also written a collection of poems inspired by Sejarah Melayu. Yet, even these examples of classical Malay literature are open to messier interpretations. While Hang Tuah is invoked as the archetypal Malay warrior, some sources indicate that he was of Orang Laut (Indigenous) heritage (Nicholas, Engi, Teh 30). In additition, Andaya and Andaya note that the text repeatedly distinguishes between Malay rulers and Orang Asli subjects, while also suggesting a more intimate relationship between these two groups (49).

Writing around the time of Hikayat Hang Tuah, the “Straits Born” Peranakan community (of mixed Chinese and Malay ancestry) built a significant body of writing in English. Philip Holden describes The Straits Chinese Magazine as one of the most representative examples of this community’s literature. He suggests that the stories in this publication, “negotiate a place for Asians writing in English in the colonial public sphere of the Straits Settlements” (58).

The “university writers” of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as those who followed, imagined their work as contributing to a “linguistic melting point” (qtd. in Holden 58). They began building a body of literature that spanned the independence of the Federation of Malaya from British rule (1957), the formation of Malaysia (including Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak) in 1963, and the separation of Singapore from Malaysia (1965). Writing in English during this period and into the 1990s and early 2000s, these authors included Wang Gungwu, Wong Phui Nam, Ee Tiang Hong, Lloyd Fernando, Salleh ben Joned, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and K. S. Maniam. Some of these authors were linked to important early campus publications like The New Cauldron and The Malayan Underground, and works published in these venues were known for their willingness to experiment with almost every form, language, and style (Chin 260). Some of these authors later felt compelled to leave Malaysia, most notably: Ee Tiang Hong, who made Australia his home, and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, who established herself as an Asian American writer and critic.

Since then, Malaysian writing and publishing has continued to expand in multiple directions. I’d like to offer brief sketches of just a few of those trajectories to give you a sense of the vibrancy of this body of work. First, scholars like E. K. Tan have proposed exciting ways for thinking about contemporary Sinophone Malaysian writers like Vyvyane Loh and Chang Kuei-hsing. E. K. situates these authors within wider regional and diasporic contexts through his theorization of “the Sinophone as translational” (40). He reads these writers as part of “a diverse body of linguistic communities around the globe” – a “network” of local and disaporic communities that are interconnected yet not monolithic (41).

Like Sinophone Malaysian literature, Malaysian Tamil Literature also participates in regional and global networks. In November 2012, P. Rajendran, President of the Malaysian Tamil Writers Association, spoke at a conference on Malaysian Tamil Literature in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The meeting was organized by the Department of Tamil Studies in Foreign Countries at Tamil University. An article in The Hindu covering this event references the 150-year old history of Malaysian Tamil literature, and the 15-20 students at Tamil University who are currently studying this field. Authors and scholars of Malaysian Tamil Literature and Sinophone Malaysian Literature illustrate the vibrantly multilingual nature of Malaysian writing, both within and beyond Malaysia.

Malay and English publishing in Malaysia is also continuing to evolve. Independent booksellers and publishers including Silverfish Books, Maya Press, and Buku Fixi are helping expand the corpus of Malaysian literature. In addition, writers and scholars in Sabah and Sarawak are working to garner greater attention for writing from East Malaysia. While I wish I could talk about each of these efforts individually, I think Buku Fixi offers an especially interesting illustration of the multi-lingual, and multi-generic nature of Malaysian writing and publishing. Its founder, writer and filmmaker Amir Muhammad, has established Buku Fixi as an extremely popular and successful publisher of Malay and English pulp fiction, with a significant fan base among young Malay women. In 2014, Buku Fixi recorded sales in the amount of 700,000 ringgit, and went on to win that year’s “Bookseller International Adult Trade Award” at the London Book Festival (Mayberry). Amir and Fixo Novo (a branch of Buku Fixi) have also been integral to cultivating a new generation of regional writers through a trilogy of Southeast Asian anthologies – Heat, Flesh, and Trash. The trilogy was launched in London this past April, and in Singapore just two weeks ago. The energies, genres, and geographies represented by Buku Fixi and Amir Muhammad suggest that Malaysian writing and publishing is simultaneously local, regional, and international.

The transnational dimensions of Malaysian literature are also reflected in the new generation of diasporic Malaysian writers whose work is enjoying increasing recognition. These include Tan Twan Eng, who is based in Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town; Tash Aw, who was born in Taipei, raised in Kuala Lumpur, and moved to the U.K.; and Preeta Samarasan, who was born in Malaysia, earned her MFA in the US, and now lives in France. These three authors have, between them, accumulated a significant array of awards. The success of these writers suggests the increasingly international scope of Malaysian authors and their work; a trend that parallels the growth of the Malaysian diaspora worldwide.

And finally, I’d like to conclude by pointing to a small but growing body of Indigenous literature that should be part of conversations about Malaysian literature. These include texts such as Highland Tales, published in August 2015 by the Alliance of the Indigenous Peoples of the Island of Borneo (“Highland Tales”). The dual-language (Malay/English) book, published in partnership with state organizations, documents the histories of Orang Ulu communities of Borneo. There are also Indigenous authors like Golda Mowe, publishing fantasy novels that draw on Iban legends, and Jainal Amambing, writing children’s’ books about life in Borneo’s longhouses (Lee). I would also like to suggest that alongside these literary texts, we need to consider Orang Asli/Orang Asal activism and community initiatives – including land rights cases, advocacy workshops, and regional celebrations – as a body of texts and contexts that are central to understanding Malaysian cultural production. I don’t think we can effectively engage the politics of Malaysian identity without recognizing how Indigenous lands, cultures, and communities have been exploited in the name of nation-building.

I see this Indigenous, local, transnational and multilingual mapping of Malaysian literature as being aligned with a definition of national literature proposed by Brian Bernards in his study of the Nanyang in Southeast Asian literature. As Bernards says, “no national literature is an exclusive or completed project” (9). Instead, he notes that it is “continually reshaped by the evolving interaction . . . of the multiple languages . . . and subcultures . . . that together constitute the national culture (Bernards 9). I hope I’ve demonstrated today how Malaysian literature is being “continually reshaped” to encompass multiple languages, subcultures, identities, and geographies. I hope I’ve also indicated some of the ways in which our understanding of Malaysian literature needs to be expanded even further in order to be more critically and creatively inclusive. This approach to national literature requires that we embrace cultural production and multiculturalism in their messiest and most enticing forms: mixed, mixed-up, and unbound. Thank you.


Works Cited

Andaya, Barbara Watson & Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Malaysia. 2nd ed. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001.

ben Joned, Salleh. “Thus Spake the Great Malay Minda.” As I Please: Selected Writings, Skoob Books Pub. Ltd., 1995., 9 Feb. 2016. Accessed 20 Sept. 2016.

Bernards, Brian. Introduction. Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature, by Bernards, University of Washington Press, 2015, pp. 3-28. ProQuest Ebrary. Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.

Chin, Grace V. S. “New Generation Writings in English: Discursive Conditions and Literary Revival in Malaysia, 1996-2005.” English in Southeast Asia: Varieties, Literacies, and Literatures, edited by David Prescott, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, pp. 260-289.

“Highland Tales in the Heart of Borneo Unveiled.” WWF Malaysia, 6 Aug. 2015. Accessed 12 Sept. 2016.

Holden, Philip. “Communities and Conceptual Limits: Exploring Malaysian Literature in English.” Asiatic, vol. 3, no. 2, Dec. 2009, 54-68. JumpStart, Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.

Lee, Daphne. “‘Iban Journey’: A Look at the Culture’s Beliefs and Tales.” The Star, 4 Jan. 2016. Accessed 19 Sept. 2016.

“Malaysian Tamils Urged Not to Lose Identity.” The Hindu, 27 Nov. 2012. Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.

Manickam, Sandra Khor. “Bridging the Race Barrier: Between ‘Sakai’ and “Malay” in the Census Categorisations of British Malaya.” Asian Studies Review, vol. 38, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 367-84. JumpStart, 10.1080/10357823.2014.928666. Accessed 15 Sept. 2016.

Mayberry, Kate. “Niche Publisher Shakes Up Market with Gritty Fiction.” Nikkei Asian Review, 29 Apr. 2015, Accessed 8 Sept. 2016.

Muhammad Haji Salleh. “From the Cave of Denial and Discontent, Darkly: Response to Wong Phui Nam’s Review of An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature.” Asiatic, vol. 4, no. 1, June 2010, pp. 156-160. JumpStart, Accessed 15 Sept. 2016.

National Department for Culture and Arts. “National Culture Policy.” 2016. Accessed 10 Sept. 2016.

Nicholas, Colin, Jenita Engi, and Teh Yen Ping. The Orang Asli and the UNDRIP: From Rhetoric to Recognition. Center for Orang Asli Concerns, 2010.

Tan, E. K. Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World. Cambria Press, 2013.

Wong Phui Nam. Review of An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature, by Muhammad Haji Salleh. Asiatic, vol. 4, no. 1, June 2010, pp. 102-110. JumpStart, Accessed 15 Sept. 2016.


Sheela Jane Menon is an Assistant Professor of English at Dickinson College whose research centers on questions of race and identity in Malaysian literature and culture. Her dissertation, “Rakyat Malaysia: Contesting Nationalism and Exceptional Multiculturalism,” maps the contradictions of Malaysian multiculturalism through integrated readings of Orang Asli/Orang Asal activism alongside Malaysian literature, film, theatre, and political rhetoric. In the classroom, she teaches Postcolonial, Asian American, and World Literature, focusing in particular on how texts are shaped by specific socio-political contexts. Menon’s teaching and research are informed by her upbringing in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Honolulu. She earned her B.A. in English (Highest Honors) and Religion from The University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in English from The University of Texas at Austin. Menon’s teaching has been recognized by awards from UT Austin, and her writing on Malaysian politics has been published by The Conversation and The Malaysian Insider.