The Poet in Malaysia: Wong Phui Nam, Muhammad Haji Salleh

Part 3.3 of Poetry in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Rajeev S. Patke, DPhil (Oxon.) Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Poetry in English from Malaysia is a two-sided coin: one Malay, the other Chinese. The Malay poet celebrates community; the Chinese either seeks to conserve it from dissolution or laments its tribulations. The Malay self expresses identity through community, in a lyric tone which falls back on symbols like earth and blood, to affirm a bond with tradition and continuity, in a voice of lyric simplicity. The Chinese poet speaks ironically and bitterly of dereliction, suffocation and repression. He is not unaware of the depredations of urbanism, but his attachment to place is a more sober, even sombre one, wary of any naive or simple affirmation.

The Malaysian 'Baba' Chinese were 'at the nexus of three competing traditions - the Malay language, the Chinese heritage, and the Anglo-colonial political culture (Koh, 1993, p.131): the effects of this struggle mark all Chinese-origin poets from Malaysia, especially Wong Phui Nam. In a personal statement made at a conference in 1984 (Offprint Collection), he lamented a predicament made problematic by his sense of triple alienation: a) from the Chinese tradition (by virtue of being a descendant of migrants) as well as the Malay tradition (by virtue of being Chinese); b) from an urban, materialist culture which was the product of colonial exploitation and opposed to any kind of spiritual freedom; and c) from the English language whose traditions he could neither access properly nor altogether do without. It is no wonder that he should fear that poets like him 'might end up with a pile of rubbish' (Singh, 1987, pp.215-17). His productivity has been sparse and intermittent: there are the early poems, written from the late 1950s to the early 1960s (collected in How the Hills are Distant, 1968. The later ones are collected in Remembering Grandma and Other Rumours (1989). His anxieties about using the English language are one among several features that separates him from Thumboo; just as his decision to stay on in Malaysia distinguishes him from Ee Tiang Hong.

Muhammad Haji Salleh exemplifies the Malay poet in this case study. He has written several volumes of poetry in Malay, and one solitary volume, Time and its People, 1978), in English. He evokes what is essentially the same world that Wong Phui Nam refers to, but it is experienced very differently. Ee Tiang Hong notes how Muhammad Haji Salleh celebrates 'a social structure set in a rural community, based on tradition, homogeneous in its values and beliefs, cohesive and involving face-to-face contacts' (Ee 1982, p.44). Chin Woon Ping elaborates a reading with a more sharply explicit, though no less scrupulous, recognition of how the Chinese element in her interacts with the Malay element in Muhammad Haji Salleh:

The preoccupation with ancestral roots and with cultural purity stems from Muhammad's overriding concern with the preservation of traditional Malay customs... he defines a healthy society as one in which traditional values withstand... universal urbanism... It is significant to note that he equates the traditional society exclusively with the Malay one... (Chin, 1983, pp.30-1).

In 1984 Ee Tiang Hong added:

The nationalist perspective extols a past that extends beyond existing political boundaries, and predates the intrusion of the Western powers and the migrant groups who came in their wake. The singular conception integrates legend and fact in a format consistent with the tradition of early Malay writing.... Muhammad's... definition of national identity... is exclusive (Ee, 1987, pp.14-15).

A non-Malaysian reader will have to consider these refractions in coming to a balanced perspective on the poetry in English from post-colonial Malaysia.

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