It is true that English writings have made phenomenal advances in many of the postcolonial societies in the last fifty odd years, so much so that Salman Rushdie made the controversial claim that English writing has been more prolific in India in the post-independence period than literature in its sixteen “official languages” and that “'Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.” Rushdie's claim might sound a bit audacious, but certainly countries like India, South Africa or even neighbouring Singapore can profess to be literary centres so far as English writing is concerned because of the sheer volume and quality of literature they have produced in the language. But can Malaysia be included in this league? Does it have a body of writing substantial and challenging enough to make it into a literary hub in English? The answer is not so clear because Malaysia has produced an oeuvre of writings in the language and yet the growth of literary activity in the medium has not been steady, substantial and continuous as compared to other countries. This is of course not to blame the individual writers because Malaysia has produced some very good writers in English, who are comparable to the best writers in Singapore for example, but the socio-political-cultural circumstances have dogged the English literary scene, including the careers of its most established writers, from the beginning.
I'll come to the sorrows of the tradition or challenges faced by writers in the English language later, but let me first point out its glories or what the tradition has accomplished in the last sixty odd years. In an article published in 2003 in Kunapipi (an Australian journal),I discussed the achievements of Malaysian English language writers and pointed out that Malaysia has produced a body of writers who deserve serious critical attention. These include EeTiang Hong, Wong Phui Nam, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Salleh Ben Joned and Shirley Geok-lin Lim in poetry; Lloyd Fernando, Lee Kok Liang, K.S. Maniam and Shirley Geok-lin Lim in fiction; and K.S. Maniam and KeeThuanChyein drama. These are writers who have written substantially as well as meaningfully, with sufficient craftsmanship and depth in their work to make it worthy of critical attention. Some of these writers have earned considerable recognition and in some instances, literary prizes from home and abroad. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, for example, was the first Asian and first woman writer to receive the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1980, for her collection of poetry Crossing the Peninsula and Other Poems; KeeThuanChye won the Australian Cultural Award in 1994, and K.S. Maniam was honoured with the Raja Rao Award for Fiction by the Indian Sahitya Academy in 2000. Shirley Lim also won the Asiaweek Short Story Competition Second Prize in 1982 and American Book Award for her acclaimed memoir Among the White Moon Faces: Asian American Memoir of Homelands in 1997, and K.S. Maniam won first prizes in The Straits Times-McDonald and The Straits Times-Shell Short Story Competitions in 1987 and 1990 respectively. However, what is noteworthy is that two of the writers in the list have already passed away and those living are in their sixties and seventies, with KeeThuanChye, the youngest of the lot, in his fifties (almost sixty).
I also listed a second group of writers in my article. These include Adibah Amin, Nirmala Raghavan, Che Husna Azhari, Chuah Guat Eng, Rehman Rashid, Karim Raslan, Amir Muhammad and Dina Zaman. However, their achievements are often limited to one or two books as in the case of Chuah Guat Eng and Rehman Rashid; or they show more interest in journalistic writings than serious literary works such as fiction, poetry and drama, as with Karim Raslan, Amir Muhammad and Dina Zaman. Some of the writers, such are Adibah Amin and Nirmala Raghavan, are also bilingual which affects the volume of their output in the English language. However, this list too, like the previous one, includes few younger writers, which is where, I think, the problem lies with Malaysian literature in English: there has been a lack of continuity in the tradition and it has failed to flourish at a steady pace as with Indian and Singaporean literatures. The strong tradition started by the first and second generation writers has become sporadic, sluggish and aimless for lack of comparable writers in the new generation.
I think the English language literary scene in Malaysia has improved somewhat since I wrote the article, but I don't think the change has been significant enough to keep pace with the literary activities in other postcolonial centres. 2002 and 2003 saw the publication of three novels, one collection of plays, two volumes of occasional-journalistic writings and an anthology. The novels include Lee Kok Liang's London Does Not Belong to Me, the story of a young law student in England, probably written in the 1950s but published eleven years after the author's death (1992); K.S. Maniam's Between Lives; and Rani Manicka's The Rice Mother, the story of four generations of women in a Malaysian family spanning most of the twentieth century, for which she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, in the regional category, in 2003. KarimRaslan's Journeys Through Southeast Asia: Ceritalah 2 and Farish Noor's The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia's Subaltern History were both published in late 2002; Huzir Sulaiman's Eight Plays also in 2002, and Petals of Hibiscus: A Representative Anthology of Malaysian Literature in English, which I co-edited, in 2003. 2005 saw the publication of Rani Manicka's second novel, Touching Earth and Tash Aw's debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory (which won the Whitbread Book Award as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel for 2005), while Wong Phui Nam's first play, Anike, Shirley Geok-lin Lim's second novel, Sister Swing and KeeThuanChye's fourth play, The Swordfish, Then the Concubine, were published in 2006. TashAw'ssecond novel, Map of the Invisible World, was released in May 2009 to critical acclaim, and his latest novel, Five Star Billionaire, was published in 2013 and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.Tan Twan Eng's epic debut novel, The Gift of Rain, set against an atmosphere evocative of British Malaya just before and during the stormy years of World War II, came out in 2007 and was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize; and his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, published in 2012, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and won the Man Asian Literary Prize as well as the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2012
There has also been a steady stream of edited anthologies by Silverfishbooks, Maya Press, MPH and other publishers, but these volumes sometimes include stories by writers from Singapore and Australia as well. These are obviously exceedingly heartening and sure signs of progress, but still many of the publications are by the early writers of the tradition and some by writers who have crossed the national borders and taken on the identity of Malaysian diasporic writers (or in Wong Phui Nam'swords “run-away writers”).
As mentioned earlier, there are obvious socio-cultural-political reasons for the relatively slow and interrupted growth of English writing in Malaysia. The most formidable of these are the country's language policy and the uncompromising notion of what constitutes its “national literature.” I believe the policy of having a national language itself is socially-culturally beneficial as Malaysia needs a common language to create a semblance of unity and harmony among its culturally and racially diverse population.
Bahasa was therefore not a wrong choice as the national language for this newly emergent nation. It was the pre-colonial language of the land and the language of majority of its population in the post-colonial period. The choice of Malay as Malaysia's national language makes more sense than India's choice of Hindi, which was just another regional language with no better historical claim than Bengali or Tamil, for example; or the attempt by the founders of Pakistan to elevate Urdu to the country's national language, when it had several indigenous languages of its own and Bengali was spoken by the majority of its citizens. One might accept, albeit somewhat grudgingly if one belonged to a Malaysian minority community, Mahathir Mohammad's argument in The Malay Dilemma that as immigrants to the US or Australia are required to learn English and accept it as the “national” languagein order to get citizenship, a similar principle of national unity could also be adopted in this newly independent, multi-racial, Southeast Asian nation.
However, although the policy itself was not divisive and exclusionary, its rigid definition and binary method of implementation has thwarted the growth of English writing in the country. In Malaysia even to question the status of Malay as the national language is considered seditious, which is obviously excessive compared to the policies in the US or India, where greater flexibility is allowed in people's attitudes to the national language. Moreover, in Malaysia, as a continuation of the language policy, only literature in Bahasa Malaysia is accorded the status of national literature. In fact, since the introduction of the Language Act in 1967, Malaysian literature has been divided into two categories, “national literature,” or literature written in the national language, and “sectional literature,” or literature written in English and the country's other ethnic languages. This exclusionary approach, which translates into the withholding of support from the government institutions if a writer chooses not to write in the national language, has caused severe repercussions on non-Malay writings, including English, in the country. It has led to the pampering and protection of mediocrity and rejection of fair competition among writers, which is again different from the practices in India and Singapore, where writers in all its major languages are treated equally and considered for national support and national prizes.
This monolithic view of national language and the consequent reductive definition of national literature has been the main stumbling block for the growth of literary activity in English. First and foremost, it has pushed writings in English (together with writings in other ethnic languages, i.e. Chinese and Tamil) to the margins of national culture, forcing some writers to forsake English as a literary medium and frustrating others who could not but continue writing in the language. For the first- and second-generation writers who were educated in English schools in the colonial era, English as a medium of literary expression was not a matter of choice but one that was determined by their environment. The options left for them in the face of this essentialist political development were either to continue writing in spite of the consequences, migrate to a new land where they would be more at home with their tongue, or just stop writing. Lee Kok Liang and Lloyd Fernando chose the first option and stayed with their medium and in the country; EeTiang Hong and Shirley Lim chose the second option and emigrated to Australia and the US respectively; and Wong Phui Nam chose the third option, albeit temporarily, before deciding to write again after a considerable period of silence. Only native speakers of the language like Adibah Amin, Muhammad Haji Salleh and Salleh Ben Joned managed to branch out into Malay and straddle two languages.
(To be continued)