Rereading two national laureates — Wong Soak Koon

DECEMBER 19 — The recent rise in unreflective, unthinking communalism from some quarters prompted me to reread two volumes of poems from our National Laureates (Sasterawan Negara), Usman Awang and Muhammad Haji Salleh. I recall how their sanity, their calm self-critical reflexivity allowed for valuable insights into the challenges of identity and belonging in a multi-racial nation.

Usman Awang's embrace of a multiracial Malaysia must have been aided by his personal encounter with the kindness of an Indian family in whose home he hid during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. Running away from enforced labour under the Japanese, he was sheltered from harm by his Indian hosts. These words from the Indian wife of that family, who housed him for months, must have been etched in his memory: “Usman, treat this like your own home. We are all the same.No difference between Malays and Indians. Our blood is the same red colour. What makes human beings different is wealth and poverty, goodness and evil”.

Never didactic, always gentle and with keen obsevations of everyday life in our multiracial land, Usman Awang describes scenes of racial harmony in poems such as the memorable, Anak Jiran Tionghoa (My Chinese Neighbour's Child). Two children, Ah Chew and Iskandar, teach us that if we retain humility and let go of cynical, self-serving arrogance we can come together again even after tiffs. The powerful last stanza of this poem, which I translate, reads:

                    Beloved land imbue them with your sacred guidance

                    their heart is your sky

                    their blood your rivers

                    their breath, your air.

The poet's appeal to the spirit of the land to succour and teach these two children can also apply to  adult citizens like us, regardless of race, as we struggle to carve out a harmonious multiracial nation.

In Pemuda dan Gadis Tionghoa which is dedicated to his Chinese friends as they celebrate the Lunar New Year, Usman Awang reminds us of the loyalty one owes to one's country of birth. To the Chinese youths Usman Awang says:

                   Upon your first cry at your birth in this land

                    till the last second of breath as you take your final step

                    Strongly sing out our love for the land

                    together in the cool or the heat of a free country.

Perhaps the plea for multiracial unity springs from his honest, sane acknowledgement that hardship and pverty knows no racial boundaries. In his acute obervations of Malaysian sociey, Usman Awang records the suffering of the poor, both urban and rural, without recourse to racial stereotyping. In poems like The Drinks Seller (Penjual Air Batu) and other verses on those who struggle to eke out a living, he does not even mention the race of his subjects.What he does record, very clearly, is the call to equal justice for all in lines like the following:

                  When laws become protection,

                  Everyone, regardless of caste, receive justice.

 The well-known  and oft-quoted poem,Pak Utih, encapsulates Usman Awang's life-long concern with inequity. Pak Utih ,the iconic poor farmer, continues to toil on his small patch of land while the rich and powerful, of all races, are motoring in limousines to yet another national event. This short yet powerful poem, captures Usman Awang's insightful awareness of the need to pause and reflect on what development means. The rhetoric of progress so often trotted out at political rallies, should be scrutinised anew. This kind of self-relexivity does mandate a critical look at our own group and community.

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer, whose novels have earned much international praise, has good advice for us. He speaks of the need for a meaningful relooking at ourselves and our communties. He reminds us that his own Ibo past, with its traditions, its customs and practices, was not simply, “A techicolour idyll”, glorious and perfect. Every group has its own imperfections and human failings. In his play, A Warrior Dies”(Matinya Seorang Pahlawan), Usman Awang makes us rethink traditional archetypes, in this case, the classic heroes Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, not disrespectfully but courageously. By so doing, Usman Awang invites us into fresh illuminations about loyalty and struggle. Is this disrespect for the traditional, or is it paradoxically, a more genuine respect for the past? We must all decide for ourselves.

The courage to relook at one's traditions and the past also fuels the poetry of Muhammad Haji Salleh, another National Laureate. Like Usman Awang, he is never stridently dismissive of the traditional. Rather, he reveals an astute relooking at himself, his village and his community in a caring yet critical manner. In Si Tenggang's Homecoming, Muhammad reworks the connotations embedded in the achetypal figure, Si Tenggang so as to see Si Tenggang as not simply an unfilial, even ruthless, son who denies his lineage and heritage. In the original version, Si Tenggang refuses to acknowlege his parents because of his shame that they are naïve, backward village folk and so Si Tenggang is turned into stone.  In Muhammad's reworking, Si Tenggang's problems stem from his having traversed cultural boundaries in journeys to many lands. His desire to bring new cargoes of knowledge is unsettling to others (those who had never left). In this line, “they have never brought to consideration, the wife that I began to love in my loneliness, in the country that alienated me, they enveloped in their pre-judgement”. There is pre-judgement of what he has become, of his new knowledge of the world so his kin folk do not heed his promise that “the contents of these boats are yours too, because I have returned”. They are wary of his “cargo”. It is human nature to suspect the new, the foreign or to look askance at those different from us. Yet are they that “different”?

In this globalised world, we are all a little like Si Tenggang. We are global citizens and many young people believe in this slogan, “Have IPad will travel”. The more so then the need to reread these two National Laureates to see how, in their sane way, they both affirm their cultural roots and yet courageously embrace the good in other cultures. Usman Awang and Muhammad Haji Salleh reassess tradition, not to demolish it but  in order to reaffirm the best traditional elements. For me, they demonstrate the truest, most meaningful approach to identity and belonging.                 

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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