English in Malaysia and Singapore | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 22, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:52 PM, March 13, 2015

English in Malaysia and Singapore

English in Malaysia and Singapore

Mohammad A. Quayum

There is also the problem of confidence for young writers, who could hardly see the value of their writing even in a positive environment. The problem is greatly compounded when the threat of rejection is palpable to them, and when they cannot even properly figure out whether it would be worthwhile to write and publish in English in a country where literary activities in the language are deliberately marginalised and treated with the reduced status of “sectional literature.” Dina Zaman sums up the problem of English writing in Malaysia, especially for younger writers:
I suppose my writing in English initially unsettled a few scholars and academics. When I began writing in the 90s academics kept asking me why I wrote in English and not Malay. I'm Malay and I should write in Malay…. In general, writing in Malaysia tends to be the domain of Malay writers. I have to admit when I think of writers, I think of Pak Samadetc first, then K.S. Maniam. This has nothing to do with the quality of their writing, but because of what we were told/informed.
The pressure to write in Malay is of course not on Malay writers alone but on all Malaysian writers, although the Malay writers feel it more acutely owing to the risk of being singled out as traitors to the culture. After all, the logic goes, Malay is the national language and there are so many personal benefits for the writer, from economic to cultural, for writing in it, so why should a Malay writer choose not to write in the language? And the extent to which writing in English involves marginalisation and invisibility is obvious from Dina's statement; a writer in English herself, she cannot help but think that a writer in Malaysia means a writer in the national language first. That is how the political and cultural machinery works against the writers in English in the country and the net result is, as I have suggested earlier, the “othering” and exclusion of writings in English and an interrupted, slow growth of the tradition.
There are many other challenges faced by writers in Malaysia, such as the censorship laws which prohibit writers from venturing into so-called politically and culturally “sensitive subjects”; social and religious taboos on topics of literary interest such as love, desire and sex; and a general apathy towards literature in an environment that glorifies material and technological developments. But these are problems encountered by writers in general and across the spectrum and do not necessarily contribute to the subordination of English writing within the national culture. I have discussed some of these issues in a separate article published in the CRNLE Journal in 2001.
1. Thematic Trends in Malaysian Literature in English
Malaysian literature in English is rich and diverse in its thematic scope; it encompasses sundry social, political and cultural issues intrinsic to the local society. Malaysia is a unique country with a unique set of problems and possibilities. For one thing, it is a newly independent nation. It had never experienced nationhood before the departure of the British in 1957. Besides, Malaysia is a polyglot and pluralistic society, with many races, cultures and languages coexisting within its borders. It is an old as well as a new society; some of its population have inhabited the place for centuries, while others were brought over during the colonial period. It is also a grappling ground for tradition and modernisation; much of its life-style is bound by tradition but there are also the new values introduced from the West by its rapid modernisation. All these issues and complexities are represented and reflected in the works of writers in English. However, the primary interest of these writers seems to be nationalism and nation formation. They often critique Malaysian culture with a view to establishing a fair and equitable society and a nation that is inclusive and accommodative in spirit. They are keen to dismantle hierarchies in caste, class, sex and race so that a harmonious, balanced and humane society could be established in Malaysia. Their overwhelming sympathies are for the subalterns and the socially disadvantaged, and they seek to dissipate all forms of prejudice, exclusivism and bigotry in their imagination of the nation. One could argue this thesis in all the genres of this tradition, but let me examine a select body of its fiction for the purpose of this discussion.
Poetry came first in the Malaysian Anglophone tradition, followed by short stories in the sixties and novels in the seventies and eighties.

(to be continued)

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