by: Okky Madasari

A room inside the Woodlands Regional Library is full of new and aspiring writers, as well as several established ones, on a Saturday afternoon. They’re discussing various issues faced by Singapore’s Malay writers.

In my home country of Indonesia, a gathering of writers anywhere across the archipelago would be dominated by millennials aged between 15–25 years old. In Singapore, this gathering in the northern part of the island is attended by a group of middle-aged adults and elderly citizens, most of whom have established careers in other professions.

Of course, it’s a gathering of Malay Singaporean writers, writing in Malay in a Chinese-dominated country. But it still shows that writing in Malay in this city-state, which still recognises Malay as its national language, is something of an afterthought. Even with the presence of big names in the community—such as S.E.A. Write Award and Cultural Medallion winner Suratman Markasan, and three-time Malay Literary Award recipient Hamed Ismail—the event failed to attract more attendees from the younger generation. There’s concern that Malay-language writing is a dying craft in Singapore.

When the National Book Council invited me to be a judge for the Malay section of the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize, I’d no expectation of the kind of fiction I would encounter. Apart from a few members of the “old guard”, such as Isa Kamari, I didn’t know if there were many other quality Malay writers. 

I hesitantly agreed to the offer, but then got excited, thinking that there must be a significant pool of people writing Malay fiction in Singapore for the National Book Council to have a special prize for Malay literature. But as I dug further into the country’s literature, my earlier doubts as to the number of books written in Malay was confirmed. While English-language fiction is far from short in supply—and actually performing fairly well in bookstores across the country—Malay writers are few and far between. In fact, there were even fewer Malay-language books than I’d expected. By my count, not more than 10 notable Malay literary books have been published in the past two years. 

A challenging market

Books written by Malay Singaporean writers were piled up on a desk at the event, in the hopes of piquing people’s interest so they would buy a couple of titles. “Besides being a venue for discussion, this gathering is also a chance to sell our books to each other,” says one writer in an acknowledgment of the struggle to sell Malay books to the Singaporean market. 

Annaliza Bakri, an up-and-coming writer and translator, addresses this in an interview with New Naratif, blaming consumer attitudes and the lack of effective marketing of Malay works. The language profile of young Singaporeans—who are taught predominantly in English in local schools—is also a factor. “Young readers are certainly more inclined to read English books, and as such, use English as the main language.”

There’s concern that Malay-language writing is a dying craft in Singapore

Annaliza, who has edited an English-Malay anthology of Malay poems entitled Sikit Sikit Lama Lama Jadi Bukit, says that there are talented young Malay Singaporeans out there. But many have been forced to be pragmatic and give up on dreams of careers in Malay literature.

“From my limited observation, the Malay community has talents but I guess one needs to have enough food on the table and making sure needs are met,” she says. “It’s just a hierarchy of needs that may limit our representation in the region.”

This also explains why many Malay writers, especially younger ones, might choose to write in English. “They hope that they will get more readers, and can tap on the non-Malays, expecting more exposure and bigger sales,” Annaliza explains, adding that writing and reading in English might also be seen as more prestigious and highly regarded than doing so in Malay.

Of the past, present, and future

The most interesting aspect of the latest Malay Singaporean literary works is the richness in themes, demonstrating the breadth and depth of perspectives and ideas from Malay Singaporean writers. In both poetry and prose, contemporary Malay writers not only reflect their identity, but also illuminate their engagement with the realities of the present and the possibilities of the future.

Hamed Ismail is an older writer who has branched out to work in television—a pop culture product that attracts a larger audience than books do. He has also successfully adapted a TV series into a book, without lacking in literary quality from either the aesthetic or contextual aspect.

In his adaptation of Bunga Tanjong, Hamed presents a story set in Singapore during the 1950s and 60s, with a woman working in a dance club as the protagonist. The story brings up various societal problems, from poverty to patriarchy, moving from the personal to the national. Reading the book in 2018 no only allows us to revisit that era, but also to question how far Malay society—and Singaporean society more broadly—has grown and changed. Is society in a better situation today than before?

While Hamed throws us back into the past, Farihan Bahron and Hassan Hasaa’ree Ali bring us into the future: to a time without identities based on race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or sexuality. Farihan’s book of short stories, Kesumat Sang Avatar (Avatar’s Wrath), was published in 2017, while Hassan’s Souvenir Dari Angkasa Lepas (Souvenir from Space) was published in 2016.

Both Farihan and Hassan are writers from a generation that’s grown up with technology, and being ethnic minorities in Singapore has not restricted their work to only dealing with questions of identity or race relations. Instead, they go beyond these themes to take on global issues and universal concerns, clearly positioning themselves as part of a global community even while writing in Malay. 

Razif Bahari, an academic and chief judge of the Malay category of the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize, says that these works appeal to a young, tech-savvy generation of readers. “We can surely use all the help we can get to entice younger readers to get hooked on reading—especially Malay books,” he says. Both Farihan and Hassan’s books are currently only available in Malay. 

But imagining the future doesn’t mean that these writers have just accepted or forgotten the problems related to their identities and the environment they live in. For instance, while Hassan’s book weaves a futuristic tale, it also produces compelling stories of Malay students living in poverty, and an older generation of Malay fighters struggling to stay relevant.

While many agree that the new generation of Malay Singaporean writers have written about relevant themes and issues that resonate with the young Malay community, others feel that some of the “old guard” have failed to connect with millennial readers. 

Azhar Ibrahim, a senior lecturer in the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore says that the disconnect between senior writers and their younger audience can be caused by diverging historical and social experiences, leading to differing expectations. 

“The senior writers write with loaded nationalistic fervour, while some [are] still in their traditionalistic mode, where the cultural tradition or religion seems to be the only answer to the present predicament,” Azhar says. The work of the older writers might, for example, revolve around issues like the struggle against British colonialism, or their pride as Malay Muslims and related identity issues.

“While the established writers still narrate the conventional themes—though not necessarily bad—the younger ones can’t relate to that kind of heavily didactic and moralistic style.”

Nevertheless, Azhar explains, it wouldn’t be fair to say that the shortcomings are only on the part of older writers. “Living in the context of a global city where English predominates, increasingly the young ones are divorced from the cultural sources of their community.”

Expanding readership

As an Indonesian writer and reader, it’s incredible to see Malay works from Singapore that rival those published in Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Annaliza agrees with my judgement: “Quality wise, I think we Singaporeans have the competitive streak and we have proved ourselves in many areas with works produced by Masuri SN, Noor SI, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Farihan Bahron, Faridah Taib, Khair Yasin, Aqmal Noor and Zulfadli Rashid.”

This is especially remarkable if one considers all the hurdles that make it difficult for the Malay literature scene in Singapore to even survive.

In its current state, the Singapore market for Malay books is simply too small. There aren’t many publishing houses producing books in Malay. While it might be an option for writers to self-publish their work, or collaborate with independent, less profit-oriented publishers, these options have only a limited ability to promote and distribute books. Writing in Malay in Singapore is not at all a promising path to go down.

Annaliza says that Malay Singaporean writers don’t write with financial gain in mind, nor do they write to seek popularity: “Popularity is a rather subjective term and I must say Singapore’s Malay writers do not crave it. They are very conscious of their role in the community. As such, works are published without much care for popularity.”  

Annaliza’s observation may stand for now, but it’s not a sustainable situation. Sooner or later, fewer and fewer people will write Malay books, as talented people are forced to look elsewhere for work that pays the bills. It’s a vicious chain of events that could lead to a drop in the already small pool of readers, and push publishers out of the industry. 

The saddest thing about Singapore’s Malay book industry is that, despite its great potential and quality, it could die.

Expanding the market for Singapore’s Malay books is not a question of choice. It’s a matter of survival

One way to improve the situation would be to look to markets in neighbouring countries. With a population of almost 300 million, Indonesia, for instance, is a promising market for Malay Singaporean fiction. Unfortunately, despite close proximity and membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which should allow for easier transnational cooperation, Malay Singaporean books have not yet entered the region’s biggest economy.

Expanding the market for Singapore’s Malay books is not a question of choice. It’s a matter of survival.

It’s also a situation in which the Singaporean government might have to step in to support the Malay book industry by supporting publishers and writers and promoting Malay Singaporean literature in other markets. After all, if the government is serious about promoting bilingualism, it cannot afford to see the Malay book industry fade away. 

“Singapore’s Malay writers deserve to recognised as Singaporean writers. They have not only written beautifully, but their intellectual endeavour and strong presence of self and soul is extremely underrated,” says Annaliza. 

As I indulge myself with books by Farihan Bahron, Hassan Hasaaree Ali and others today, I can’t imagine what it’ll be like if Singaporeans wake up one day and find that there are no longer any books in Singapore written in Malay.  ***

Published in New Naratif The survival of Malay fiction in Singapore


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