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  • Balik Kampung: The Lockdown Offers a Chance for a Sincere Return to Oneself

    But in the time of a global pandemic, when social distancing is required to flatten the cursed curve, what does the ritual of balik kampung now mean to us? A 300KM ride back home along the east-west coast highway connecting Penang to Kelantan usually involves three phone calls to be made: the first, an early morning call to confirm the day’s itinerary, followed by the second ring an hour later for a breaking-fast special delivery order for mamak fish curry, and the third, to check in on my current location. On the couch in front of the TV, my mum is sitting, phone in hand, anxiously waiting for her son to arrive back home. Hari Raya is just around the corner, and Muslims from all over Malaysia will soon begin their balik kampung journeys. I, too, will be spending six long hours in the car, driving into the mists of the Titiwangsa Range and braving the horrendous traffic to celebrate Hari Raya with family and friends and of course, to sample the festive dishes of nasi himpit, ketupat and tapai. But in the time of a global pandemic, when social distancing is required to flatten the cursed curve, what does the ritual of balik kampung now mean to us Muslims? Will Hari Raya be the same as in years before? I write this article midway through the extended MCO period; Penang has been at its quietest for a while now. At every road turning, one is greeted by the police or army personnel advising the public to not make any unnecessary short distance travel; and for the homesick Malaysians, to forget about the inter-state balik kampung journeys. To curb the spread of Covid-19, staying home is now mandatory. The ritual of balik kampung transcends ethnic and religious boundaries, and more importantly, it helps us to rediscover our bearings – after all, home is where the heart is. In Thailand the Thais would lop ban rau to meet their family during the Songkran Festival. A Filipino who is visiting or returning to the Philippines after years of living abroad is known as balikbayan. Every year in Indonesia, people overwhelm the train stations and airports, clogging the Trans-Java toll road for mudik lebaran. Regardless of the occasion, it is the act of returning or balik to something or somewhere that serves as the ritual’s core value. But times are changing, and so are our perceptions and responses toward our surroundings. Balik kampung in the time of crisis, therefore, requires an interpretation beyond the mere tradition of massive exodus during the festive season. Perhaps, the ritual is best described now as the return of human beings to nature; maybe we are in search of the many things lost in modern society, the ability to sit down and listen to each other in conversation is one particular example. For that reason, home may not necessarily be a physical place anymore, but a connection to those who remind us of home through different means. Whatever upheavals caused by the pandemic, we are now given the opportunity for self-reflection. For me at least, it has allowed for ruminations about the long drives back home that I had previously taken for granted. In modern capitalistic life, when attention becomes the resource that people quest for, listening has turned into an expensive trade. Instead of listening and attending to someone, many of us find ourselves in constant battle to be listened and paid attention to. Intimate conversations with friends and relatives have now become scarce. In encapsulating its spiritual meaning, balik kampung thus urges one to take a break from instantaneity, and instead embrace the slowness of life we were once familiar with. The English word “compound”, i.e. the immediate space outside the house that is enclosed by a fence, was in fact derived from our very own kampung. Except that in a kampung, one experiences the heightened sense of being in a spacious, balanced, sustainable and harmonious domain – characteristics that are hardly found in city life. Active social interactions are an intrinsic part of the kampung life. Stepping into a compound or kampung is synonymous to entering an ungated public arena in which conversations and other social activities take place. It is the fluidity of culture and the loose geographical border of the kampung that cultivate a sense of love, care and togetherness. Factoring in work and travel distance, driving back to the land of Che Siti Wan Kembang is hardly ever on my monthly schedule now. For more than a decade, I have called Penang my home, and it has offered me a host of opportunities while doubling as a laboratory for many experimentations, with countless successful and failed attempts. But then again, my relationship with Penang has always been reciprocal in nature. You enjoy everything it has to offer, but more often than not, it also drains you of many things. But Kelantan, the wonder of Malay heritage, would always open its doors for me to take a brief respite. It’s a pilgrimage back to the place where I grew up, with that all too familiar scent of petrichor, the rain quenching the paddy fields after long spells of dry weather. Some things remain as they were when I left Kampung Kuchelong 12 years ago. Young men still play sepak raga in front of my mum’s house, and the old folks occupy themselves with a game of dam haji at the hut, while waiting to break fast. In the kitchens, preparation for the berbuka dishes is underway, and always with extra portions to share with the neighbours. Three days before Raya, my seventy-year-old grandmother busies herself making the tapai and ketupat. I keep her company with my stories, or to just lend her my ear. These traditions have withstood the test of time, and will still be there the next time I visit. Beyond the bumper-to-bumper traffic and P. Ramlee’s famous Dendang Perantau, balik kampung is one’s journey towards understanding the Self, others and nature. But even though most of us this year are unable to leave behind the hustle and bustle of city life, to stow away the electronic gadgets, and to reconnect with those we have not seen in months or years, the spirit of pulang must nevertheless be preserved. We may miss the tradition of “bersalam” for forgiveness; but as the heart longs for those it can’t see, maybe Raya this time around will teach us to be more sincere in forgiving without the presence of others. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, May 2020.

  • Magic in the Malay World

    The difference between divination and the divine is a fine one. South-East Asia is a region with strong beliefs in the spirit world, blending modern rationality and traditional knowledge. There is great reciprocity between the seen and the unseen – from spells to win back an errant lover to communing with the spirits, raising crops, curing illnesses and cursing enemies, magic is everyday practice for some of its polyglot inhabitants. In Myanmar, during British colonial rule, magic practices were rather political: many Burmese used a “weizza”, a semi-immortal supernatural figure in Buddhism, to fight their oppressors. Most of these were however disbanded by the generals who seized power in 1962. The Malay world constitutes southern South-East Asia. It is an expansive region that territorially stretches over what we know as Austronesia and extends to Easter Island in the east and Madagascar in the west. The use of magic was rooted in Malay society long before the arrival of Islam. Even after Islam entered the Malay cultural and social sphere, existing mystical practices were not eradicated but were instead assimilated into religious practices. In turn, Islamic elements were sporadically incorporated into the Malay spirit world. Given the difficulty faced by scholars of Malay studies to provide a proper definition of the Malay realm, defining what Malay magic practices are poses quite a challenge. Dr Farouk Yahya, a Leverhulme Research Assistant for Islamic Art and Culture at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University, sheds some light on the subject during a talk he gave last year, organised by George Town Fesitval and Areca Books in conjunction with the launch of The Arts of Southeast Asia from the SOAS Collections – a book edited by Farouk. What is “Magic”? "Magic’ is a complicated term to define, but it basically involves practices that attempt to alter something through supernatural means,” says Farouk. “The way I define Malay Malay magic in my research is that of magic practised by those who speak Malay as a first language. Therefore, other groups such as the Dayak and Madurese are excluded. However, these societies – together with the Malays and many other peoples in maritime South-East Asia – fall under the Austronesian ethnolinguistic group and thus share certain cultural similarities.” Numerous writings have been produced on what the Malays label as “magic”. Beginning with the expansion of British control in the late nineteenth century, many early visitors, including explorers, traders, administrators and missionaries, collected and reported on Malay rituals and beliefs as well as their language, literature, histories and folklores – which altogether form the field of Malay studies. “Malay studies can certainly include the study of magic and divination, including the texts and images that are contained in manuscripts on these topics,” says Farouk. “The manuscripts often contain numerous images of human beings, spirits and animals, as well as a variety of diagrams and charts. There is also evidence of intercultural connections between Malay society and the wider world. “Although concrete evidence is sparse and further research is needed, we may assume that the many merchants, religious clergy and settlers from India, the wider Islamic world, China and other parts of South- East Asia transmitted their knowledge to the local population through practical demonstrations, oral transmissions and books. At the same time, Malay merchants, pilgrims and students who travelled to other parts of the world would have brought back knowledge with them when they came home. “From my study of the manuscripts, I have found that the texts, images and practices contained within them can be traced to a variety of sources. There is an indigenous Malay tradition, which belongs to the wider corpus of South-East Asian beliefs and practices. In addition to this are techniques that originated from India, China and the Islamic world. However, an important point to make about these foreign influences is that they often underwent a process of localisation, in that they were reinterpreted and adapted to fit into Malay traditions and world views,” says Farouk. A small number of works by local scholars on Malay studies have led Western scholars, particularly orientalists, to dominate the look and understanding of magical practices in Malay society: “Firstly, they collected manuscripts and objects relating to these practices, and the resulting European collections have preserved some early material that would not have otherwise survived the hot and humid South-East Asian climate. “Secondly, they recorded their observations on magical and divinatory practices that were employed in the region. A particularly important book is W. W. Skeat’s Malay Magic, first published in 1900. Skeat’s book is a valuable resource for Malay practices on this topic, as he provides explanations of what techniques were used and how they worked. However, according to Farouk, some analyses by early Western colonial scholars must be used with caution: they often emphasised the pre-Islamic elements of Malay culture and referred to Islam as merely being a “thin veneer” in Malay society. “Scholars now believe that this was not the case. Islam has played a major role in shaping Malay culture for centuries, and indeed many magical and divinatory techniques involve the use of the Quran and pleas to God for help and guidance.” Islam, Science and Magic A new phase of Islamisation in Malaysia has come to dominate almost every part of Malay life: it marks a starting point where Islam, science and magical practices are brought into debate, and their compatibility to integrate with each other has become the main question. In Kelantan, old Malay traditions and practices such as wayang kulit, mak yong, main puteri, menora, bageh and etc. face extinction due to regulations to restrain superstitious elements imposed by the Islamic PAS state government. This resulted in almost all ritualistic and magical practices being turned into performing arts, with the exception of main puteri, a traditional healing method employing the use of music, which is still practiced with the presence of superstitious elements as an alternative to modern medicine. “During the twentieth century there was a marked shift towards modern medication. That said, when modern science is unable to provide answers to various problems, sometimes people may attribute the causes to supernatural forces and thus seek out supernatural remedies. However, there is a trend nowadays on the use of ‘Islamic healing’. This form of treatment employs predominantly Quranic verses and supplications (doa), and prohibits items typically associated with traditional Malay magic such as the use of benzoin and talismans,” says Farouk. In Islam, divination is no less popular. Tables and charts are consulted to determine a person’s fortune in life, and this practice is undertaken by magicians and shamans who orally transmit knowledge to their students. Faal Quran and Faal Nursi are two examples of divination using the Quran that show the integration between elements of Islam and Malay superstitious practices. With the eclectic elements found in most Malay magic practices, it would not be too much to conclude that Malay society has always been cosmopolitan, having been historically connected with various civilizations – contrary to the perception that the Malays were rather late in reaching modernity. Malay magical and divinatory traditions absorbed ideas from a wide variety of sources. The transmissions of knowledge would indeed imply a rather fluid and outward-looking environment that shaped the Malay world as we know it today. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, January 2018.

  • Dancing with Kindred Spirits

    After mixing tradition with the contemporary, Aida Redza brings her dances onto the streets. Dance and theatre fans know Aida Redza for her extraordinary and fearless performances. While grounded in a firm knowledge of the past, Aida’s work marks her out as one of the country’s most forward-thinking creatives and an iconic embodiment of female power. Perhaps her family roots offer some clues for why this should be so. Her father’s ancestors traced their lineage to Minang royal court warriors in Naning, then part of Negeri Sembilan. On the Medan-Mandailing matrilineal side of the family, Aida’s grandmother was an ustazah invited to lead the women’s community in Singapore and married a journalist who helped found the magazine Qalam before moving to KL. She also played the gambus and sang nasyid, a skill she passed on to Aida’s own mother. It’s no surprise, then, that Aida finds it second nature to traverse South-East Asia’s cultural boundaries. The apple never falls far from the tree. As a student at Penang’s Convent Green Lane Aida already nurtured an early interest in the arts and dance. Ironically, her mother forced her to take ballet from the age of 10 because she thought it would help make her unruly daughter more “feminine” and “refined”. “If I didn’t go for arts, I would have gone for rough sports; my dad was a rugby player,” she says. Anyone who has seen Aida’s performances cannot but be impressed by her physical boldness. “There is no boundary in terms of how I make use of my body,” she says. For some, climbing walls, risking yourself on a small boat in the middle of the sea and dancing in a muddy paddy field may seem bizarre undertakings. But Aida, who grew up in an environment where she was the only girl, learned very well how to blend with different sorts of nature. “When I was a kid, there was no difference between me and my brother. We were wild. We used to go out and do things together. I even learned martial arts at that time,” she recounts. All of this of course ran against the current of the time – when middle-class Malay girls were expected to be demure and domesticated. It was a form of “girl power” before its time. Voice of the People Aida is now an administrator for Penang Arts Link and also at the forefront of Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio, a collective of artistes and producers who nurture shifting cultural identities through contemporary performances. Her own artistic voice belongs to the people: she stands for the community, speaking on behalf of the marginalised, the underdog, the poor, and is the voice of the unheard. “It is just in my nature. I have always cared for people, animals and the environment. When I work, I just choose subjects that are ignored, at the margins,” she says. Creative work indeed has an important role to play because popular culture – with the performing arts at its centre – is capable of attracting people’s attention. In the hands of a skilful artiste, dance can be a powerful conduit for transmitting social commentaries. That’s its mysterious power. Dance is a wordless medium that relies on the movement of the body to express potent and complex ideas and emotions. Aida uses this expressive power – sometimes tender and poetic, sometimes physical and insistent – to present social narratives, especially to those who are not familiar with this kind of performance or who feel they don’t have the cultural capital to appreciate it. She decided to perform on the streets instead of in a theatre, using a language of movement that everyone could understand. “I want to cut the hierarchy between rich people’s culture and the poor. Theatre is supposed to be for everyone – it can be played on the streets and costs little money. Here in Penang, we are lucky to have a longpreserved street tradition,” says Aida. Having trained both locally and internationally, Aida’s inspirations are wide-ranging and eclectic. She reserves a particular regard for two great Malaysian mentors – Marion D’Cruz and Krishen Jit. Their example enabled Aida, in her own way, to combine influences from all round the world, to reinvent from the traditions – and then transform them. The result is a dance form that is contemporary, innovative and critical. It is also politically engaged. Female Power An interesting double thread runs through much of Aida’s dance journey: the need to represent female resistance and the notion of Mother Earth as a manifestation of feminine power and spirit. Ta’a was one of her earliest projects, and it has much to say about her passion in advocating women’s issues. Ta’a, which means “obey” or “comply”, was first created as her final-year project at the University of North Carolina in 1993. It was conceived as a form of cultural critique of the patriarchal system that subordinates women to men, particularly in Malay-Muslim society – the assumption of women’s obedience and obligation to their husbands. It questions “women’s lives that have to be given to the men, the father and the children,” she adds. For Aida it is the environment that holds the key to another possible world. Besides reaching larger audiences, it is also the reason she works outdoors most of the time. Each of her recent major productions – River Meets Light, Bridges and Kaki Lima and Cross Waves and Moving Jetties – engages directly with the immediate environment: a river, an urban streetscape, the sea. And this concern lies at the heart of her current production. The Moved by Padi project, born in Balik Pulau and to be brought to the streets of George Town later this year, is a mixed media production that is best described as a creative act. It encompasses visuals, installations and music in an experiential site-specific dance performance honouring the semangat (spirit) of paddy, and the local community’s ways of living with rice – as a source of existence and self. “Because I care for nature I can very much relate to the role of nurturing in both the mother and in Mother Nature,” Aida explains. This is no mere romanticism, but an ethos of how people should conduct their “Because I care for nature I can very much relate to the role of nurturing in both the mother and in Mother Nature,” Aida explains. This is no mere romanticism, but an ethos of how people should conduct theirlives. “I regard Mother Earth as a feminine power and spirit. It’s important for us to raise our children to care for women, to love our mothers – to reduce violence and bullying. At the same time, we must bring them up to care for nature, the mother spirit. I dance the soul of the mother. I am the mother. I am the warrior in the context of my work with nature.” Overcoming Obstacles South-East Asia is a region where various local arts and traditions thrive. Nevertheless, these ethnically specific traditions, particularly those that are practised all over Malaysia, are under considerable strain. Public performances of wayang kulit, mak yong, menorah and main puteri face marginalisation or even extinction. This is mainly due to the introduction of many regulations by the government, as most of these art forms are claimed to be un- Islamic. But it also has to do with the loss of an audience in the face of competing popular entertainments. Swimming against the tide, initiatives such as Ombak-Ombak have organised a whole range of cultural events to promote local performing arts, particularly in urban areas. For Aida, such movements to raise awareness are extremely important. This is especially so in a country where conservative ideas dominate the socio-religious and cultural discourses. “Take Indonesia, for example. They preserve their old arts and traditions even though they are the biggest Muslim country in the world. These arts are our identity and we don’t have to touch them,” says Aida. And places like Penang at least seem to welcome both traditional and modern art forms in a more tolerant way. The biggest obstacle for Aida is time. She has a lot of hats to wear: a wife, a mother, an artiste and a social activist. On top of that, being an artiste in Malaysia is not as secure an undertaking as in Western countries, where the arts receive greater public subsidies and sponsorship. In Malaysia it’s a different story. “The arts don’t pay. I always tell my dance students that they have to start thinking about their future. Being an artiste in this country is not bright and glamorous. It’s an arduous path.” The lack of production companies and producers is one of the biggest challenges faced by artistes, particularly in Penang. “Here, there is no one who can take executive producer roles. I have to do that myself, but it is very hard,” says Aida. Having that capacity is vital to allowing artistes to work in various productions instead of working alone, which could stunt their progress. And to that end, she has recently initiated the Euphoria Penang Modern Dance Ensemble that focuses on developing and empowering a young team to create new dances that are strongly rooted in diverse cultural forms. “I want them to take ownership of our Malaysian cultures and create a new Malaysian dance identity and form,” she says. Despite the obstacles, Aida is determined to explore new ideas with even greater verve and vitality. “We are now in 2016 and I really feel that it is time to do my own creations where I am also performing, including projects I’ve put off.” She is a living embodiment of the truth that performing arts have a unique capacity to inspire. “I want to use dance as means to make change, to raise awareness and to mobilise action. It’s the very core of why I do what I do.” *This articles was first published in Penang Monthly, March 2016.

  • “Melayu” Lewat Kehalusan Bahasanya Sendiri

    Milner sendiri tidak menyelimuti kata ini dengan selendang Inggeris, sebaliknya terus bersanggama dalam kamar tersendiri dengan ketelanjangan kata yang ditatapnya. Mungkin ianya bertitik-tolak dari rasa gelisah; gelisah terhadap pertanyaan-pertanyaan yang terus menerus bercambah dari setiap jawapan yang saya peroleh. Mungkin juga kerana lemas dan ingin lepas dari segala beban penempelan yang dipikul sejak dari lahir. Atau mungkin kerana ada sedikit kerinduan untuk mengenal diri sendiri. Tetapi, yang jelas ianya bukan berhulu dari rasa takut – seperti takut orang akan kehilangan atau menjadi kedana di tanah tumpah darah sendiri – yang mengheret saya untuk menterjemahkan buku berjudul the Malays tulisan Anthony C. Milner. Buku tulisan seorang sejarawan asal Australia yang sering melabuhkan punggungnya di banyak negara di Asia Tenggara ini hadir di meja tulis saya tidak beberapa lama setelah ianya diterbitkan pada tahun 2008. Penerbitannya, baik disengajakan atau tidak, sangat tepat pada waktu. Tahun itu adalah tahun genting dalam sejarah politik negara. Masakan tidak, buat julung kalinya kerusi Barisan Nasional (BN) di parlimen tergoncang. Parti gabungan yang memegang tampuk kuasa selama hampir enam dekad itu gagal menguasai dua pertiga dewan meskipun berjaya meraih undi popular dalam pilihanraya umum ke-12 yang berlangsung pada tahun sama. Sejak dari itu, politik negara beralih kepada satu fasa baharu dengan mematikan sedikit demi sedikit rasa takut rakyat terhadap keadaan hidup tanpa percaturan BN. Ini mungkin gara-gara Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, seorang ahli politik barisan hadapan UMNO, yang menjulang keris dalam perhimpunan agung parti itu tiga tahun sebelumnya. Matlamatnya barangkali untuk menunjuk wira atau membakar semangat orang Melayu supaya berteduh di bawah payung UMNO bagi mempertahankan hak-hak mereka. Apa pun alasannya, tingkahnya itu mengundang kecewa orang bukan-Melayu sehingga terjadilah “Tsunami Politik” yang, pada sepuluh tahun kemudian, telah menamatkan riwayat pemerintahan partinya sendiri. Tidak mengejutkan, politik yang dibentuk oleh rasa takut terhadap nasib kaum ini bukan perkara baru jika dibandingkan dengan usia muda negara ini. Jauh sebelum anak-anak di tanah jajahan merasai merdeka dan mengenal tanah ini sebagai Malaysia, ajakan-ajakan untuk perjuangan nasib kaum sudah-pun digemakan di pentas-pentas ceramah, di warung-warung kopi mahupun di dalam surat khabar. “Kita orang-orang Melayu telah hidup di dalam kegelapan sejak beberapa kurun yang lain. Kita tidak mempunyai peluang untuk mengangkat kepala untuk bersuara bagi menuntut kebebasan. Inilah peluang keemasan untuk kita bersatu memperjuangkan tuntutan kita”, laung akhbar Suara Rakyat pimpinan Ahmad Boestamam yang diterbitkan pada bulan Jun 1946. Ajakan tersebut sudah tentunya dihalakan kepada orang Melayu untuk mengusir penjajah Inggeris yang sudah sekian lama mengurung kebebasan mereka dalam menentukan jalan hidup sendiri. Permintaannya adalah untuk rakyat kemudiannya hidup dan membangunkan tanah air sendiri secara bersama. Namun, jauh selepas negara ini memperoleh merdeka, seruan “hidup Melayu” yang pernah dilaungkan semasa perhimpunan melawan gagasan Malayan Union tujuh puluh empat tahun lalu, kini kembali berkumandang. Tetapi tujuannya bukan lagi untuk menghalau penjajah, sebaliknya untuk membangkitkan semangat melawan sesama sendiri. Sejak dari pilihanraya umum ke-12, UMNO sudah mula menghitung nasib politiknya. Namun, senja politik parti yang berhujung pada tahun 2018 itu tidak semestinya menghadirkan cahaya kepada sekalian rakyat. UMNO kembali mengasah senjata lama yang tajamnya kini bukan kepalang. Dalam politik gaya sebegini, kaum menjadi pertimbangan utama, menyamarkan segala bentuk pengenalan diri lain yang jauh lebih signifikan. Keunikan dan perbezaan yang ada pada diri setiap individu perlahan-lahan diketepikan. Pada hari ini, mengenali aku ataupun engkau, tidak lebih daripada sekadar mengenali seorang Melayu ataupun seorang Islam. Tahun 2008 juga merupakan tahun saya melangkah keluar dari negeri tempat lahir, Kelantan, mengejar nasib di negeri bahagian utara negara. Sudah tentunya, yang saya bawa bersama tidak hanya selonggok pakaian. Malah, penempelan-penempelan seperti budak Kelantan, orang Melayu, beragama Islam, dan penyokong PAS terpaksa dikilik bersama. Beban penempelan-penempelan ini bukan ringan. Kesemuanya berpengaruh terhadap duduk letaknya saya nanti di tempat baharu. Tempelan-tempelan ini mengandung pelbagai jenis jangkaan: seorang Melayu-Islam-Kelantan mestilah sebegitu sebegini dan tidak boleh sedemikian. Maka untuk saya, buku Milner ini hadir pada pertemuan antara kegelisahan saya akan pertanyaan-pertanyaan tentang identiti diri dengan rupa politik negara yang, suka ataupun tidak, semakin mengajak masyarakat untuk membina benteng dan berwaspada dengan kehadiran “yang lain”. *** Setelah lebih satu dekad penerbitannya, saya bertemu Anthony Milner di Kuala Lumpur dengan cadangan untuk menterjemahkan bukunya itu ke dalam bahasa Melayu. Walau bagaimanapun, menterjemahkan buku the Malays, yang asalnya ditulis untuk khalayak pembaca akademik, bukan suatu kerja mudah, apatah lagi jika terjemahan ke dalam bahasa Melayu-nya merupakan cubaan untuk mendedahkan kerja Milner kepada khalayak pembaca yang lebih umum. Walaupun tidak mengesampingkan sumber-sumber rujukan berbahasa Melayu khususnya hikayat dan surat khabar, Milner juga banyak berpaut kepada penelitian-penelitian yang di buat oleh para pengkaji Inggeris yang lebih awal darinya. Milner hanya hadir untuk menawarkan satu sudut pandang lain dengan menyusun kembali bukti-bukti sedia ada. Tidak kurang juga bahawa bukti-bukti ini adalah stereotaip-stereotaip yang datangnya dari salah pandang para pengkaji, yang kebanyakannya adalah para pengembara dan pegawai penjajah Inggeris. Namun, saya menganggap kerja penterjemahan perlu dilayan tidak hanya sekadar satu usaha pemindahan kata-kata dari satu bahasa ke bahasa yang lain. Jika tugasnya semudah itu, sudah tentu banyak teknologi hari ini boleh menggantikan tugas para penterjemah. Paling tidak, penterjemah melakukan usaha untuk menghidupkan sesebuah karya yang dilahirkan dari satu-satu dunia ke satu dunia yang lain. Maka, karya-karya terjemahan akhirnya tidak hanya dapat di baca, tetapi juga dapat dirasai. Penterjemahan adalah pemindahan makna dan rasa melalui landasan kata-kata. Kedua-duanya boleh bertaut sesama sendiri, namun boleh juga terlepas dari satu sama lain sehingga kata-kata hanya disampaikan tanpa kehadiran makna. Tugas penterjemah adalah untuk memastikan beban-beban makna dan rasa ini bergerak pada landasan yang kukuh, selamat sampai ke wilayah-wilayah pembaca berlainan. Bagi saya, menterjemahkan the Malays adalah satu usaha untuk membuka satu pintu lain yang telah memisahkan masyarakat akademik dengan masyarakat umum. Setidak-tidaknya, hal ini saya kira sedang terjadi di negara ini. Pada titik ini juga terletaknya belang si penterjemah, yang hampir sama besarnya dengan belang si pengarang. Penterjemah memilih-milah dan mengatur kata-kata yang datang dari kesedarannya, dan beliau memiliki tanggung jawab sendiri terhadap karya hasil terjemahan. Namun, kadang-kala penterjemah tidak juga bermula dengan semudah memilih-milah istilah. Proses penterjemahan buku yang akhirnya diterbitkan dengan judul Melayu atau Kemelayuan ini banyak melibatkan kerja penggalian, atau lebih tepatnya penggalian istilah-istilah. Payahnya bukan seperti memilih yang terbaik dari timbunan buah tomato di pasar raya, apatah lagi kalau teksnya bergulat pada tema-tema sejarah masyarakat, politik Asia Tenggara, dan juga Melayu. Terima kasih kepada kolonialisme Eropah di Kepulauan Nusantara. Jika kita berbicara tentang tema-tema ini dalam konteks moden, kita akan segera memasuki ranah-ranah yang dikerumuni oleh konsep-konsep dan kerangka-kerangka fikir yang berbau kebaratan. Hal ini tidak hanya terjadi dalam kalangan akademik di universiti-universiti, malah kecenderungan yang sama turut mengambil tempat di pelbagai ruang lain termasuklah dalam hal ehwal pemerintahan dan pentadbiran. Lalu pertanyaannya adalah, apakah yang terjadi kepada konsep-konsep yang terlahir dari konteks masyarakat ini sendiri? Adakah ketiadaan kata juga bermakna ketiadaan konsep dalam sesebuah masyarakat tertentu? Jawapannya boleh jadi ya dan boleh jadi tidak. Terjadinya proses penggalian ini adalah kerana kekayaan konsep dan suku kata dalam acuan Melayu mungkin kebanyakannya telah, dengan meminjam istilah Shaharir Mohamad Zain, terfosil. Lihat misalnya konsep-konsep berkaitan masyarakat. Di sini Milner tidak hanya mempertanyakan keberadaan konsep “Melayu” itu sendiri, tetapi turut sama termenung memikirkan sama ada masyarakat yang cuba difahaminya ini pernah memiliki atau berfikir dalam erti kata etnik, kaum, ras, ataupun bangsa. Jadi, kita tidak akan mampu menemui apa-apa kata yang tepat untuk mencerminkan rasa dan cara pandang masyarakat ini, dan akhirnya memaksakan terjemahan langsung dari kata Inggeris. Mungkinkah konsep-konsep ini juga merupakan konsep baharu yang kita mula bermesra setelah datangnya penjajah Inggeris? Menterjemahkan konsep-konsep masyarakat yang datangnya dari acuan Eropah seperti etnik, kaum, ras, dan bangsa ke dalam konteks masyarakat “Melayu” ini perlu dilakukan dengan penuh hati-hati. Jika kita berjalan melalui denai-denai yang dibuka oleh Milner, kita akan bertembung dengan istilah-istilah ini paling awal hanya di dalam dokumen-dokumen banci yang ditulis oleh para pegawai pentadbir penjajah. Sejak kedatangan penjajah Eropah, bentuk masyarakat sedia ada di Kepulauan Nusantara akhirnya mula berubah. Masyarakat dikelaskan dan seringkali dipaksa masuk ke dalam kategori-kategori yang hampir sama dengan bentuk masyarakat di benua Eropah. Maka, mencari kata-kata yang bertepatan juga memaksa penterjemah untuk melalui liku-liku panjang sejarah yang bermula selepas kedatangan penjajah. Namun malangnya, di penghujung sejarah, kita menemui “Melayu” yang akhirnya telah difahami dalam erti kata sempit seperti etnik, kaum, ras, mahupun bangsa. Milner memecahkan kebuntuan ini dengan mencadangkan jalan keluar bahawa masyarakat yang dahulunya mengenal diri mereka tidak lebih dari sekadar nama tempat atau batang-batang sungai ini tidak pun memiliki kesedaran etnik, tetapi kerajaan atau secara harfiahnya bererti “keadaan memiliki seorang raja”. Masyarakat “Melayu” menurut Milner, tidak mengenal diri mereka dalam kaca mata ethnic, race, atau nation, tetapi bernaung di bawah kekuasaan raja-raja yang kesetiaannya senantiasa berubah arah. Di sini, penterjemah akan berhadapan dengan satu lagi cabaran, iaitu untuk bermain dengan kata Kerajaan. Milner sendiri tidak menyelimuti kata ini dengan selendang Inggeris, sebaliknya terus bersanggama dalam kamar tersendiri dengan ketelanjangan kata yang ditatapnya. Mengukur kata Kerajaan dengan kata Inggeris kingdom akan mengherot-benyotkan cara pandang dan mempengaruhi cara layan pembaca terhadap subjek itu sendiri. Tetapi, bagaimana pula penterjemah teks-teks sebegini melayani istilah-istilah Inggeris seperti king, government, atau polity dalam konteks “Melayu”? Istilah-istilah ini sering hadir untuk berteman dengan kata-kata Melayu seperti raja dan kerajaan yang biasa dipakai hari ini. Di sini kita bermain dengan hakikat bahawa kerencaman dan kecairan merupakan asas bagi makna “Melayu”, dan bahawa “Melayu”, dalam sejarah politiknya yang panjang, telah melalui pelbagai bentuk perubahan. Kata kerajaan perlu diberikan keleluasan untuk berdiri sendiri, terlepas dari sentuhan bahasa-bahasa lain di luar konteksnya. Pada hari ini, Indonesia misalnya paling tepat dalam menentukan tempat duduk istilah kerajaan. Negara republik itu mengambil jalan yang jelas dengan meletakkan Kerajaan hanya di dalam lingkungan istana. Kerajaan dalam konteks Malaysia sebaliknya merupakan satu penjelmaan daripada persetubuhan antara semangat feudalisme dengan demokrasi moden. Malah, ianya dengan mudah telah diterjemahkan kepada kata Inggeris iaitu government, berbeza dengan negara jiran itu yang menggandingkannya dengan istilah pemerintah. Dalam menelaah seterusnya menterjemahkan kata Kerajaan, penterjemah sedang menyaksikan satu proses pentakrifan semula, melihat perubahan kata Kerajaan menjadi kerajaan, dengan k kecil. Jangan-jangan, penterjemah juga sebenarnya sedang meratapi satu kehilangan. Seperti mana karya-karya sastera, penterjemahan teks-teks akademik tentang kajian sejarah idea seperti the Malays turut memerlukan pendekatan yang tersendiri. Penterjemah bergelumang tidak hanya dengan kelainan dari aspek kata dan bahasa, tetapi juga dengan pelbagai bentuk pemikiran dalam masyarakat “Melayu” dan proses perkembangannya yang tidak boleh dipandang enteng. Yang lebih penting adalah, pemikiran-pemikiran ini pula kadang-kala memiliki tempat-tempat ataupun kata-kata untuk berteduh, namun seringkali juga tidak. Maka tugasnya penterjemah untuk sedaya upaya berlaku adil dalam memakaikan makna-makna dengan segala katanya. *** Ketika orang sedang sibuk untuk berkerumun di bawah panji Melayu, Milner tidak hadir dengan mengajukan persoalan siapa, tapi apakah sebenarnya Melayu dengan membahas hubungan-hubungan politik dan perdagangan antara masyarakat-masyarakat dan kerajaan-kerajaan yang pernah ada di kepulauan ini suatu ketika dahulu. Mungkin atas dasar latar belakangnya sebagai seorang sejarawan yang berkelengkapan akademik, maka Milner cenderung untuk memberi peringatan bahawa perlu adanya satu bentuk pentakrifan tuntas sebelum sebarang perbicaraan tentang masyarakat ini dimulakan. Sudah tentunya jawapan yang dicari bukanlah melalui pembuktian biologi, seperti mana yang sering dilakukan oleh para pengkaji lain, tetapi sejarah. Melalui naskah-naskah hikayat diraja mahupun surat-surat tinggalan penjajah, yang beliau temui dalam masyarakat yang pada hari ini dikenali sebagai “Melayu” adalah suatu bentuk kerencaman dan kecairan, baik dari segi budaya mahupun identiti. Menurut Milner, sifat -sifat inilah yang perlu diberikan perhatian utama dalam mengenali apa atau kemudiannya siapa itu “Melayu”. Adanya sifat rencam dan cair itu juga menjelaskan bahawa Melayu perlu difahami dalam makna ketamadunan, lebih daripada sekadar dalam makna etnik dan ras yang istilah itu sendiri terlalu asing malah mungkin tidak mahu didekati langsung oleh masyarakat itu sendiri. Akhirnya, kita akan menyedari bahawa perjuangan melalui kerangka kaum akan berakhir dengan banyak kekeliruan dan percanggahan. Dari situ juga kita akan kembali merindui diri sendiri. Membaca the Malays membuka perspektif baharu dalam memahami masyarakat “Melayu”, namun menterjemahkannya kepada Melayu atau Kemelayuan adalah satu usaha untuk memasuki alam “Melayu” atau alam “kerajaan” lewat kekayaan, keindahan dan kehalusan bahasanya sendiri. *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di jurnal Svara.

  • Covid-19 Exclusives: Journalists are Also Essential Workers During Times of Crisis

    Armed with sheer tenacity and curiosity, journalists must now solely rely on instinct in lieu of proper guidelines that are in place in order to report on the latest developments. Ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, Zaim Aiman Ibrahim, a Penang-based journalist for The Malaysian Insight, has found himself stopped at an increasing number of police roadblocks – both in Penang Island and on the mainland – when on his way to meet with informants (and keeping to the practice of social distancing), many of whom are government officials and healthcare workers. He has been tasked to report on how the deadly virus has been affecting the livelihood of Penang’s many communities. Getting accurate and credible information on this fast-evolving and far-reaching crisis, has become a matter of life and death. In a sense, this has become Zaim’s new normal. On March 20, journalists of local independent news outlets like The Malaysian Insight, Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today were given the mandate to “work from home”. With a final parting message of “take care of yourselves” from editors-in-chief, local journalists doubled down to do their reporting duties. “This is a new situation for all of us – being on the streets, reporting on an unknown and an unseen enemy,” says Zaim. “The only thing we have on for protection is the face mask, but some journalists do also wear rubber gloves. You won’t know if you’ve been infected until the symptoms show, but by then it may be too late.” “It is our families that we are most worried about. Having to treat yourself like a stranger in your own home isn’t fun, but it needs to be done for the safety of our loved ones,” says Seth Akmal, a photojournalist at The Malaysian Insight. He recalls driving down the deserted streets of KL, photographing closed shops, abandoned supermarkets and empty hotel bars. “We have been learning from past epidemic-scale crises, including SARS, Nipah and Ebola to ascertain the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Malaysians.” Armed with sheer tenacity and curiosity, journalists must now solely rely on instinct in lieu of proper guidelines that are in place in order to report on the latest developments. “We are guided by the Malaysian Press Institute’s code of ethics, but at this point in time, when a crisis is at hand, a revision is very much in order,” says Akmal. Financially too, things are looking grim for the journalists. “The pandemic is reminiscent of what happened to Utusan Malaysia and Media Prima last year, when they laid off hundreds of employees.” Akmal says that the fear of not having an income is much greater than the fear of the pandemic itself. Fighting Fake News After being tipped off that visitors to a shopping centre in Seberang Perai had to undergo Covid-19 screening, following news of two suspected Covid-19 carriers within the premises that went viral on social media, another challenge soon emerged for the journalists: to fight the spread of fake news. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, adding that fake news “spreads faster than this virus”. “People seem to prefer fake news rather than information from professional newsrooms,” says Zaim. According to the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, an average of three to five pieces of “weird news” related to Covid-19 have been appearing daily since the virus was first detected. In a bid to contain locally-manufactured pandemic-related fake news, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission launched an official Telegram channel for the portal last March; and in 2017 the fact-checking portal was introduced for Malaysians to verify news and information they received through various channels, especially social media. The popular mobile messaging application WhatsApp also introduced a new limit to the number of messages that users can forward. Messages that are identified as highly forwarded can now only be forwarded to one person, down from five. But the proliferation of many other social media platforms and messaging apps, through which information can go viral almost instantaneously, cancels out the abovementioned initiatives. Fact-checking sites also offer little help, since many believe them to be just another platform endorsing the government’s version of the truth. As a last resort, the authorities have been using specific regulations and laws, e.g. Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, as grounds for arrests of citizens who are liable for creating and disseminating fake news; in fact, similar laws are an often-preferred measure for many governments in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 that was introduced by the Barisan Nasional government was repealed five months later by the Pakatan Harapan government. Be that as it may, the measures taken by the government in fighting fake news have heightened concerns among journalists and local civil society groups, who worry that such actions may eventually lead to the undemocratic practice of censoring fair and critical comments from the public; this refers expressly to the definition of "fake news" that has been widened to include and criminalise legitimate criticisms against the government and its policies. It now falls to professional journalists to save the situation, but in times of crisis, keeping Malaysians up-to-date becomes a much bigger challenge. Covid-19 has not only changed views on personal hygiene, but also the words used to describe the pandemic as well. “Since the government announced the MCO, journalists have been using different terms to refer to the movement restrictions. Many use ‘lockdown’, while some use ‘quarantine’ and ‘self-isolation’,” says Zaim. Combatting fake news for journalists also means managing readers’ emotions, as fake news can all too easily breed fear. Journalists, including photojournalists, are still looking for the right words to use and the best way to frame their stories in order not to stoke fear. Most local mainstream newsrooms, as providers of immediate-term solutions, are doing their utmost to debunk fake news by publishing the list of viral fake news on their respective news portals, as well as collaborating to share and cross-promote stories. This also enables newsrooms to pick up on good information from other news sources and to avoid re-reporting the same stories. Such efforts have been successful in countries like the US. The long-term solution will be to provide the public with media literacy education, which many Malaysian news portals have begun to do. Rebuilding Trust in Mainstream Media The global pandemic has heralded a new reality for the journalism field. Though with no end in sight just yet, there is nevertheless signs that faith in local mainstream media has been somewhat restored. “People have begun to rebuild their trust in us, especially independent newsrooms. But this is a gradual process,” says Akmal. “Equipped with media passes, only professionally-trained media practitioners are allowed to be on the front line to inform Malaysians about the goings-on of the outside world as best we can.” But the explosion of the number of business-driven blogs and amateur news portals, and the popularity of Twitter and Facebook are still the biggest challengers to good journalism. Being able to balance between business and social responsibility is a necessity, urges Zaim. “The public needs to be more critical, be wise and know how to process the information they read, especially on social media.” *This article appeared in Penang Monthly, May 2020.

  • Kisah Bermudik ke Kelantan

    Jikalaulah tiada dipakaikan hatta seurat benang, maka bertebaranlah kereta-kereta di jalan merempuh sesama. Maka tercabutlah serban dan kopiah para ustaz. Bahawa sampailah juga hari mengenang kelahiran Nabi Isa. Maka setelah sekian lamanya tidur dan bangun di negeri yang diperintah oleh DAP ini, terasa rindulah sekali hati untuk berangkat pulang. Hampir satu dasawarsa sudah barangkali tidak menghidu udara negeri yang katanya mahsyur dengan gelar serambi Mekah nun jauh di pantai timur. Negeri yang agama dan orangnya, bagai keris dan sarung, tiada pernah ia berpisah. Adalah agama itu menjadi penonton tingkah laku masyarakatnya. Sedari mata mencelik melihat dunia, sehinggalah ke alam kubur. Diriwayatkan juga laki-laki dan perempuan, muda dan tua elok rupanya, teguh sekali imannya. Hari Jumaat, masuknya Zohor, yang berjual-jualan semuanya bubar, berarak-arakan menuju ke masjid. Maka tiada berani satupun kedai buka, satu batang tubuh lelakipun tiada kelihatan tatkala khutbah berkumandang. Di bulan Ramadhan, tatkala penganut Islamnya semua berpuasa, McDonald’s dan KFC yang tiada beragama itu juga ikut semuanya beribadat, tiada lain selain kerana percaya akan yang minoriti itu harus menghormati majoriti. Di negeri ini juga, orang berbicara agama tiadalah berhenti barang sekali. Di surau-surau, di pinggir-pinggir jalan, di pasar-pasar tani, gegak gempita suara para ustaz bertubi-tubi menumbuk gegendang telinga. Orang patuh mendengar dengan mata terpejam, mengangguk-angguk tiada berani bertanya. Sudah tersebar ke seluruh pelosok alam akan ibu negerinya itu dikenal dengan gelar bandar raya Islam. Tiadalah sahaya tergamak berdusta. Di dinding-dinding pasar malah di pintu-pintu jamban, sudah tertampal pesanan-pesanan akan bandar ini bandar yang beragama, agar tiada sesekali orang lupa apa lagi tersesat. Ketika menyusur jalan-jalan melewati daerah-daerah kecil di negeri ini, sempat juga sahaya memandang iklan-iklan segala macam produk yang peragawan dan peragawatinya kemas pakaiannya menutup tubuh hatta untuk iklan seluar dalam. Maka benar, yang diutamakan ketika berpakaian itu adalah kenyamanan dahulu, baru kemudian warnanya. Jikalaulah tiada dipakaikan hatta seurat benang, maka bertebaranlah kereta-kereta di jalan merempuh sesama. Maka tercabutlah serban dan kopiah para ustaz. Itulah yang tiada dimahukan oleh pemerintah negeri yang Islami ini. Katanya, hidup harus berlandas agama. Tiadalah apa ertinya pembangunan, jika perempuannya tiada menutup pusat. Tiadalah ingin pemimpinnya melihat rakyat sendiri terhumban ke neraka, hanya kerana sebuah panggung wayang. Biarlah tiada bersuka-ria, hendaknya terlepas daripada murka Allah. Adapun rakyat yang masih berlapar, rumah mereka tiada beratap itu adalah kerana belum tertegaknya hukum Allah. Kata menterinya, kelambatan pembangunan di negeri itu adalah barang disengajakan. Masakan mahu dipercepat, tiadalah sanggup melihat orang kampung bermabuk-mabuk arak seperti meneguk air sejuk di tepi jalan. Arakian, maka dibangunlah gedung-gedung yang seni binanya Islami, tiadalah berbeza barang sedikit dengan gedung-gedung di tanah Arab. Tiadalah negeri yang lebih Islam daripada Islamnya negeri ini. Pohon-pohon kurma ditanam merata agar terasa suasana Islamnya, adapun pohon-pohon itu tiada ikut berbuah tatkala pohon-pohon kurma yang di Mesir sudahpun berbuah. Yang berjubah dan berserban itu maka menjadi lebih mulia daripada yang bersarung. Negeri Serendah Sekebun Bunga ini, kata ramai pengembara dan pencatit banyaklah sekali sekolah pondok dan madrasah. Orang kampung yang anak-anak muda tiada ingin menjadi orang dicampaknya mereka ke sini. Maka menjadilah manusia. Begitulah cerita yang sudah menjadi buah mulut orang di seluruh semesta. Negeri yang diperintah parti bulan ini makmur sekali, indah pekerti orangnya, alim sekali para pemimpinnya. Tiadalah orang yang tiada suka akan negeri ini. Maka, sahaya yang tiada mudik sudah sekian lama ini turut berasa senang sekali hatinya. Sungguhpun sahaya mudik itu, tiada juga lepas hati sahaya daripada memikirkan segala perkara yang sahaya dengar akan negeri ini. Maka adalah kira-kira lima jam lamanya perjalanan, sampailah sahaya di kota Islam yang sentosa ini, berdiamlah sahaya beberapa hari di kampung tempat sahaya lahir dan bermain. Suatu petang, ketika sahaya enak beristirehat, didatangilah sahaya oleh seorang tetangga, berkopiah putih, bersarung singkat dan tiadalah ia berbaju. Orangnya rajin sekali dalam parti bulan yang sudah memerintah negeri itu lebih dua dasawarsa. Diceritakanlah akan kedai runcitnya yang tiada lama sebelum sahaya mudik mendapat celaka kerana dimasuki pencuri. Si pencuri Maggi dan Milo itu sudah ditangkap oleh seorang encik yang kebetulan sedang berkehulu-kehilir meronda pada malam kejadian. Tiadalah ingin dia meronda jika tiada kerana marah akan berkampit-kampit baja subsidi kepunyaannya yang turut sama hilang dicuri beberapa minggu sebelum. Tiadalah dapat diberi bukti apakah gerangan pencuri sama yang mengebas baja-baja subsidi itu. Adapun demikian, tiadalah sedikit orang berkisah bahawa itu tiadalah lain daripada kerja anak jantannya sendiri yang sehari-hari kerjanya hanya memerap di rumah. Tiada melakukan sebarang kerja hatta menebas rumput. Sahaya yang sudah mula merasa gelisah dan keliru itu ditubi lagi oleh si tetangga orang parti bulan yang berkeluh-kesah itu dengan cerita akan orang muda-mudi di kampung yang semakin hari semakin bertambah mereka yang tiada kerjanya, namun hidup mahu sahaja ikut bermewah-mewahan. Di kampung sebelah, projek oleh JKKKP untuk membuka sebuah gelanggang sepak takraw tiadalah siap lagi walau sudah lebih tiga tahun hanya kerana simen-simen sering sahaja hilang. Maka mencari akallah orang kampung untuk menjerat si pengkhianat itu. Setelah tertangkap, maka gemparlah orang kampung, merah padam rupa setiap seorang tiada tertahan rasa malu. Tiadalah buruh Indonesia yang membawa bala itu, akan tetapi pemuda kampung sendiri yang tiadalah lain kariernya selain mencuri. “Ini tiada lain kalau bukan kerana pil kuda!”, tengking si tetangga itu. “candu yang dibawa masuk dari Siam. Tiadalah sedikit orang muda yang bercerai-berai rumah tangganya kerana pil setan itu”, sambung ia. Maka melompatlah sahaya terkena sergahan itu. Si tetangga sahaya itu bercerita, nun di hujung kampung adalah sebuah kandang kambing. Di belakang kandang kambing itulah mereka bersuka-suka. “Tiadalah jalan lain untuk menyelamatkan orang kampung selain menghidupkan hukum hudud di negeri ini”, tegas si tetangga itu tatkala menjentik habuk rokok daunnya ke tanah. Amatlah yakin ia akan hujahnya itu. Rasa keliru sahaya berubah menjadi gusar. Bertanya dalam hati sahaya, apakah benar negeri yang sahaya mudik ini? Wajah-wajah Islami yang sahaya bayang-bayangkan sebelumnya tiadalah satu yang mengena. Syahdan, maka adalah dalam antara sekalian perkara itu, ada satu perkara lain yang dikisahkan kepada sahaya, iaitu akan kemalasan orang kampung yang tiada ingin menjaga kebersihan. Tatkala menyusuri jalan-jalan kecil di kampung, lorong-lorong di daerah kota, maka jelas banyaklah timbunan sampah yang tiada berkutip. Adapun yang tua mahupun muda, yang beriman atau yang tiada imannya tiadalah tahu akan agama juga menuntut kebersihan. Di rumah-rumah yang dibangun di tepi-tepi parit dan sungai tiadalah tong sampah, maka dibuanglah sampah di tebing-tebing parit dan sungai atau dilonggokkan di tiang elektrik. Adapun orang kampung tiada sedikit yang beranak ramai, tiadalah mereka tahu membuang lampin anak pada tempatnya. Majlis daerah malaslah sekali geraknya, jarang sekali datang untuk mengutip. Dengan nada mengeluh, si tetangga ini berkata bahawa negeri ini jugalah orang yang terjangkit virus Aids paling ramai jumlahnya padahal sudah diharam berniaga tuak masam, apatah lagi mengadakan pesta-pesta arak. Sudah sekian banyak nama-nama Allah dipacak di tepi-tepi jalan, gedung-gedung pasar sudah dipasangkan kubah-kubah bawang agar tampak seperti masjid, agar orang senantiasa mengingat Tuhan, akan tiadalah juga menjadi. Sahaya diam tiada berbicara barang sepatah. Barangkali, yang mengukur Islaminya tidak negeri parti bulan ini bukanlah berapa banyak pohon kurma yang ditanam, berapa keras para pemimpin lebainya memarahi perempuan yang tiada memakai tudung, atau berapa besar serbannya. Tetapi, berapa makmur ekonominya agar muda-mudinya mendapat kerja, akan kemampuan para pemimpinnya memerintah agar kekayaan dapat dijamah bersama, tiada hanya dibolot oleh sebilangan pemimpin. Mungkin juga yang menjadi pengukur akan Islaminya tidak kita adalah ketika orang yang agamanya bermacam-macam lainlah itu berasa terbela dan turut sama dihormati. Orang mampu berpergian ke sana sini dengan mudah dengan adanya sistem pengangkutan awam yang baik, jalan-jalannya bagus. Bukankah agama juga mengajar agar kita tiadanya merosak alam menebas hutan sesuka hati? Agama tiada hanya menyuruh untuk menghafal, tapi juga untuk menghasil, bukan? Mungkin ada benarnya. Di sebalik citra-citra Islami yang sahaya dengar di Facebook, radio dan televisyen itu, ada citra lain yang memang tiada menyenangkan juga di negeri ini. Negeri ini tiadalah banyak peluang-peluang kerjanya. Tiada sedikit orang muda berkelana mencuba nasib di tempat orang seperti dirinya sahaya. Adapun yang masih tinggal di kampung ini tiadalah juga berani berubah apalagi menderhaka. *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di The Malaysian Insight, 29 Disember 2017.

  • The Warung – A Pit Stop for Refreshment and Some Culture

    No frills, just good old kopi and nasi lemak with kuih on the side – that’s the essence of the Malaysian warung. The moment Pak Mat stands up from his chair, fixing his shabby East Coast batik sarong and reaching for his Kelantanese batik lepas headcloth that has been hanging all day from the mother pillar of his old wooden Malay house, the only words that come out from Mek Yah’s sireh-filled mouth are, “Tubik mlepok la tu!” (“You’re going out to lepak again!”) Pak Mat starts his Honda C70 motorcycle and rides away without replying . She knows he is going to Kedai Dollah, a warung located at the heart of Kampung Kuchelong, for a cup of coffee. It usually leads to hours of Dam Aji (checkers), accompanied with rolls of Javanese tobacco leaf cigarettes. Kedai Dollah has become the most popular warung in the village, frequented by young and old, since the owner hired a dazzling young lady from Narathiwat Province, Thailand, to wait tables; she also happens to be a distant relative. Kedai Dollah is typical of village life: a warung is a place to lepak; every so often it would also turn into a gambling pit where the audience or “commentators” outnumber the players. As a Kelantanese-born Malay, I moved to Penang in 2008 and that was when I first met different people and experienced different cultures. My perception on what we call a Malay warung has since changed: the warung – or kopitiam in Hokkien and cafe in French – is actually a global fashion. Each has its own style but share one thing in common: coffee. Symbol of the Traditional Malay Village The warung is common sight at roadsides, built haphazardly with walls of cheap planks. But it is much more than just a place to eat and drink – it is a facet of Malay society. “People stop at the warung in the mornings not only for food, but also for the simplicity, the convenience and the sense of tradition. Look at how most warung owners run their business – they don’t care if you don’t have enough cash, you can pay tomorrow,” says Sulaiman, a regular customer at Roti Jala Belimbing Cafe at Teluk Bahang. Each kampung has at least one small warung that is comprised of a few areas such as the kitchen, the drinks section, the dining area and a roti canai pit, usually located near the entrance. Most warungs open as early as 6.30am to serve breakfast to villagers returning from Fajr prayers at the nearby mosque or surau, and to workers and school children. Older men in sarong, baju Melayu and kopiah sit together on a long wooden bench, enjoying coffee and a packet of nasi lemak while waiting for the sun to rise. Occasionally, stories of village politics break the morning silence. It is this longing for the good old days that lead people to the warung, drawn by the saccharine sweetness of kuih tepung pelita and the fragrant scent of lepang pisang wrapped in banana leaf. Rapid development has indeed left many longing for the traditional even before it is gone; skyscrapers and shopping malls replace paddy fields and traditional houses, and erases the sense of community bit by bit. For many, especially those living in Batu Uban and Tanjung Tokong, warungs offer “refuge” – a place to reminisce over what is gone. “You can’t take the ‘sense of kampung’ out of a person. Everything is becoming more expensive, especially food. So I go to warungs for my breakfast; at least it makes me think of my mom’s (house) in the kampung,” says Akmal Zakaria, from Parit Buntar. In pre-Independence Malaya, when the literacy rate was still low, the warung served as a place for village folks to gather and “listen” to the news: those who could read would narrate stories from the newspapers. News travelled by word of mouth, circulated at warungs in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and newspapers. Today, the situation is not dissimilar: the warung has become an arena for villagers to spread political gossip; it is also used by local politicians to meet and greet voters. Good Food, Anytime Malaysia has countless varieties of kuihs – bite-sized snacks that can be enjoyed any time of the day. Sold in three-wheeled bikes as in Kelantan and Terengganu, in pickup trucks among the Malay community in Patani, or piled high in baskets in warungs, they are ready to be eaten together with teh tarik or coffee. Kelantan, being next to Thailand, has always seen people crossing the border in both directions. This brings together not only money and goods, but also language and food – and colourful kuih. Nek bat, puteri mandi, akok, bunga tanjung, jala emas and tepung serunai are among the varieties of Kelantanese kuih found in warungs. In turn, the west coast’s kuih keria, serabai, apom telur, roti jala, Iranian-origin confection halwa maskat and Fujianese-style fresh spring roll, the popiah, all reflect their Indian, Chinese, European and Middle Eastern roots. Then there are the favourite Malaysian staples, nasi lemak and roti canai. “I put the roti canai and roti jala pit in the front of my warung so that people can see that they are my specialties,” says Zulkifli, owner of Warung Roti Canai in Kampung Labok, Kelantan. A warung sustains itself by having multiple ownerships, usually shared between the drink-maker, the cook, the roti canai roller and the kuih seller. It is also a local economic hub, by virtue of being the venue for members of the community to sell their products, particularly homemade kuih. In Melaka and Kelantan, with support from the government, kuih-making has become an intensive supporting business, particularly in Alor Gajah and Jasin where kuih selayang, kuih bangkit and tapai are extensively made for export and local consumption. Urbanisation has gradually altered the warung – many have adapted to urban needs. While the warung still retains its traditional facade in the kampung, in many city areas, they have morphed into food courts. Be that as it may, these remain a place for food, for chats and for cultural intermingling. This article was first published in Penang Monthly, December 2017.

  • The Word and the World (Part Two)

    The flourishing of an independent publishing industry in the last few years has gone hand in hand with a renewed interest in the art and craft of translation. Penang has an important place in the history of translation in South-East Asia and has therefore the potential to ride a new wave of literary creativity. By: Gareth Richards and Izzuddin Ramli Penang emerged as a significant print centre during the nineteenth century. In turn, this helped spur the development of a market for all kinds of published materials. And, as we have seen, this included a significant output of literary work, both in the languages of the peninsula and in translation. But its position was eclipsed – perhaps inevitably – in the process of post-war nation building. Pre-war Ferment The years leading up to the Second World War laid the foundations for a newly engaged cultural milieu throughout the Malay peninsula. This was perhaps most obviously articulated in a burgeoning Malay nationalist consciousness, whose embryonic leadership created networks to mould a mass constituency, both in Penang and elsewhere. One remarkable example of this was Sahabat Pena, or penfriends’ league, established by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi’s Penang journal Saudara, which developed into the largest Malay organisation prior to the war. As Tim Harper notes: “It had 12,000 members at its peak, and held its first national conference in November 1934 which drew together large numbers of articulate men and women as self-acknowledged agents for social and cultural advancement.” At the same time, a new language began to take form. Throughout the peninsula, modernisers of various stripes started associations to reform the Malay language and expand vernacular publishing. In 1936 some 10,000 copies of a dictionary, Buku Katau, were printed and then used at the Sultan Idris Training College in Tanjong Malim, which became the key centre for the higher education of Malays in the pre-war period. As Rachel Leow says, the college was “renowned for its radical literary graduates, early innovations in the Malay language, and its interventions into a vernacular Malay public sphere.” This manifested itself in the emergence of a new literary style, notably in political journalism and novels that both celebrated a love of homeland and grappled with the real issues of everyday life. These concerns included economic weakness, political marginal i sat i on and religious reform. While it is true, as Ariffin Omar contends, that the attempt to construct a viable Malay nationalist movement in the 1930s was essentially a “failure”, the foundations for a new political narrative were nonetheless established. Efforts to institutionalise translation work beyond the efforts of individual publishers were also in progress. Sultan Idris Training College was designated as the colonial government’s official translation office, with a mandate for providing texts in Malay for use in Malay schools. Pejabat Terjemah Menterjemah – later renamed Pejabat Karang Mengarang – was under the direction of the well-known scholar-administrator R.O. Winstedt, but the chief translator for many years was the celebrated social critic and linguist, Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad (Za’ba). He came up with a two-year training programme and taught translators himself. Beginning in the 1920s, Pejabat Karang Mengarang oversaw two major translation programmes. The Malay School Series published an eclectic range of titles covering school subjects, handicrafts and even books for Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. The second programme is of greater literary interest. With Za’ba at the helm, the Malay Home Library Service published a total of 64 titles for both children and adults right up to the period before independence. The titles make for fascinating reading: Around the World in Eighty Days, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and more of a similar ilk. Aside from the efforts of the official colonial education system, private presses (including those in Penang) continued to make important contributions. The reshaping of language in this period and beyond owes a great deal to Muhammad bin Hanif, a singular figure in laying the groundwork for the postwar political lexicography and someone who, thanks to the careful research of Rachel Leow, is now better known than he once was. Muhammad bin Hanif was in important ways a product of Penang’s rich intellectual milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, who took advantage of the relative religious and press freedom there compared to the situation in the Malay states on the peninsula. Literate in Malay, Arabic and English, he read and contributed to a range of local newspapers. He was in a position to observe the role of Penang within the empire and its status as a regional trading entrepot, as well as the relative dominance of Chinese merchants in that trade. He was also exposed to the flow of ideas, publications and writers from across the Straits of Malacca. The political language Muhammad bin Hanif helped forge would find new expression after the traumas of the Japanese occupation and war. Fashioning a New Language Muhammad bin Hanif wrote a great deal in the immediate aftermath of the war. But of greatest significance was his Kamus Politik, a dictionary of politics published by one of the leading Malay-language presses of the day, the United Press located on Jalan Dato Keramat in Penang. Written in Jawi, Rachel Leow calls the Kamus a “compelling and uniquely modern text”. There were some precedents from the Dutch East Indies, but they were romanised and tended to be translated from European dictionaries and encyclopaedias. As she records, Muhammad bin Hanif was “prompted to personally compile his dictionary because of the number of political terms entering Malay, which were little understood by most Malay readers.” The dictionary was therefore as much a sketch of a language coming to terms with a rapidly changing world as a narrow exercise in lexicography. It contains definitions of over 700 words considered “new” in the Malay peninsula, including political concepts drawn from the experience of world war. “There is also a deep intellectual engagement with empire,” with lengthy definitions of words associated with colonial rule – “mandate”, “trusteeship” and “Commonwealth” – as well as glosses of words from the Arab world and India. Taken together, this was, as Rachel Leow concludes, one of the most important contributions to “the language of new politics in a nation extricating itself from colonial rule”. And in this sense, Muhammad bin Hanif can be considered as an exceptional individual who connected the wider world to very specific, local interests, combining both a cosmopolitan and parochial sensibility. The post-war Malayan world was also deeply affected by the Japanese occupation in all kinds of unexpected (perhaps unintended) ways, and more in terms of form than content. Japanese ideological education – its rhetoric and propaganda – found all kinds of resonances in Malay thought and culture. And as Tim Harper highlights, “important networks of journalists, actors, film-makers and propagandists were formed in the war”. Above all, Nipponisation had taught that “language held the key to power”. Culture Wars Unsurprisingly, much of the literary output of the post-war period was devoted to the process of nation building, both before and after 1957. This meant a shift of publishing and translation activities to the federal capital, Kuala Lumpur. The founding of the national language planning agency, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, in 1956 (which moved from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur a year later) was the most obvious sign of this institutionalisation. In many ways, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka took on the role that Sultan Idris Training College had pioneered, by continuing the practice of translating and publishing Malay books for schools and later for higher education institutions. In doing so, it also created an authorised Malay literary canon. Inevitably, publishing and translation activities became deeply implicated in the culture wars that simmered sporadically in the 1950s and 1960s and that would flare into full-scale antagonism after the passing of the National Language Bill in 1967 and especially in the aftermath of the National Culture Congress of 1971. And at the centre of the culture wars was the question of language. On the surface, the purpose of promoting Malay was to release Malaysian minds from the fetters of colonial rule and supposed elitism, embodied above all in the English language. But the language policy was also directed at circumscribing the official use of languages other than English. Article 152 of the Federal Constitution had guaranteed the right of all ethnic communities to use, maintain and develop their mother tongues. In practice, however, the sustained aim of successive governments was to create a Malay-based national language, culture and education system. The plurality of the linguistic landscape was to give way to the privileging of Malay as the sole official language of postcolonial Malaysia. Under the energetic directorship of Syed Nasir Ismail, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka set about pushing back “the tide of English” and establishing Malay as a modern language capable of being used in government, science, politics and literature. It was situated firmly at the centre of the postcolonial policy direction, as it pressed ahead with efforts to select, translate and publish books to be consumed throughout the education system. By 1967 the National Language Bill passed by Parliament rejected official status for all languages other than Malay, though the final version of the bill outlined some exceptional instances and hedged on the question of multilingualism, allowing for Malay translations of documents from other language communities, including English, Mandarin and Tamil. In any case, these compromises satisfied no one. Malay language activists accused Tunku Abdul Rahman of “having sold Malays down the drain”. After all, Syed Nasir had already threateningly declared: “those people who advocated the principle of multilingualism are treading on dangerous ground and adopting a very unhealthy attitude which is very dangerous for the people of this country”. Meanwhile, champions of the Chinese language were equally affronted by its exclusion from official discourse. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka redoubled its efforts to promote Malay as the language not only of education and government but also of a “national literature”. And it was not to be any kind of “debased” Malay but bahasa Melayu tulen (unadulterated Malay) or Melayu halus (refined Malay). The possibilities for linguistic pluralism and hybridity were effectively shut down in the name of an authoritative purity. By the early 1980s Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka formally established a dedicated translation department in order to institutionalise its programmatic activities that had been present since its inception. The translated titles ranged across academic disciplines, including literary publications. It is clear that those titles chosen for publication precisely reflected the perceived developmental needs of the country – in entirely instrumental ways – and, above all, the locked-in trajectory of the national language policy. Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Negara The further institutionalisation of officially sanctioned translation work saw the establishment of Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Negara (ITBN, National Institute of Translation and Book Production) in 1993. The institute effectively took over translation matters previously handled by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Its rationale was straightforward enough: “to increase the translation and publication of quality knowledge-based material into Malay, to increase efforts in the translation and publication of important national work into foreign languages, and to support the government policy and interested parties in the field of translation and book publication.” Well over a thousand translated titles were produced over the next two decades. There has been a modest emphasis by ITBN on the translation of literary work, both of local literature into foreign languages and vice versa. To this end, there have been some interesting collaborations, and some surprising ones. In conjunction with the Goethe-Institut, Lat’s Kampung Boy came out in German as Ein Frechdachs aus Malaysia, while Goethe’s celebrated collection of lyrical poems, West-östlicher Divan, inspired by the great Persian poet Hafez, was published under the title Sajak-sajak daripada Diwan Barat-Timur. IBTN’s programme with the publishing company Les Indes savantes has seen the works of national laureates translated into French, including Anwar Ridhwan, Keris Mas and A. Samad Said. IBTN has also taken responsibility for republishing some wellknown Japanese novels, including Desi Salji (Snow Village) by the celebrated Yasunari Kawabata. Meanwhile, the recently published Antologi Cerpen: Malaysia-Taiwan, done in partnership with the Taipei Chinese Centre PEN International, marks a breakthrough in Malay-Chinese cross-translations. The New Wave Government-sponsored translation work continues. But it is still constrained – as it has been for more than four decades – by conservatism, coercion and censorship, and the law. The notorious level of official proscription across a whole range of artistic forms – film, theatre, television, music, the press, cartoons as well as books – is well known. Silverfish Books, the independent bookshop in Bangsar, reports that censorship or outright banning has applied to literary authors as diverse as Milan Kundera, Khalil Gibran, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Anthony Burgess and Irving Welsh. It is quite a stellar list. Malaysian writers like Faisal Tehrani and the award-winning cartoonist Zunar have also been subjected to the red pen and even charges of sedition. Given the ever-present threat of suppression, it is perhaps a bit surprising that both commercial and independent publishers have ventured into the field. The former are obviously attracted by Malaysia’s market potential where books originally written in English (and not translations into English from other languages) predominate. But mainstream publishers are also notoriously allergic to literary fiction in translation. It should be remembered that the global market for literary translations – comprising fiction, poetry, drama, children’s books and creative non-fiction – is absolutely miniscule (for example, about three per cent of total publishing output in Britain). One telling example makes the point. The Penang-born writer Tan Twan Eng has received universal acclaim for two brilliant novels: The Gift of Rain (2007), which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), which won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The first book has been translated into a whole raft of European languages, including Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Czech, Serbian, French, Russian and Hungarian; while the latter has been translated into Mandarin (in Taiwan), Thai and Korean, among others. But bizarrely neither novel has appeared in Malay, and according to Tan it is not for want of trying. A similar neglect is the experience of other critically praised writers such as Preeta Samarasan or Tash Aw. In light of this inattention, where commercial publishers fear to tread, it has been the independent publishers who have really encouraged a new wave of literary translation. Whatever other motives they may have, there is no doubt that they position themselves as a site of resistance to authority-defined conceptions of culture, including what some see as the dead hand of agencies like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Two long-standing pioneers deserve special mention. Raman Krishnan set up Silverfish Books as a bookshop in 1999 and its publishing house two years later, as a direct response to what he saw as the mediocrity of much Malaysian literature. Today it stands as a leading publisher of Malaysian writing in English, though there has been much less attention given to work in translation with the exception of important historical texts. Optimistic about the future, Raman says in relation to contemporary writing: “Much is happening, but there is much more to be done. There is courage to push boundaries and a hunger to learn.” At around the same time as Silverfish was born, Chong Ton Sin set up Strategic Information and Research Development Centre and its sister organisation GB Gerakbudaya in Petaling Jaya, driven by a more overtly political agenda to prise open democratic space. While the majority of titles on the SIRD list are non-fiction, Chong has also made a commitment to publishing some fiction and poetry titles, and has facilitated translations into and from Malay, Mandarin and English. Equally importantly, GB Gerakbudaya acts as the nationwide and regional distributor for nearly all Malaysia’s independent publishers – the indispensable cog in the book trade. Of all the independent publishers that have made a mark over the last few years, pride of place must surely go to Amir Muhammad’s Buku FIXI, founded in 2011. The imprint has published over 150 titles in Malay and English, specialising in original, edgy, urban fiction. In recognition of its impact, Buku FIXI won The Bookseller International Adult Trade Publisher Award at the 2014 London Book Fair. A more recent development offers yet more creative scope. Under the Fixi Verso imprint, Amir has ventured into literary translation, with Malay-language versions of work by best-selling authors such Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, John Green, Haruki Murakami and others. “I wanted to spread happiness!” Amir says. “These are writers I enjoy reading, so I assume (or hope) that readers who are more comfortable with Malay would enjoy them too.” A translated anthology, Malay Pulp Fiction, is on the cards for release in London in 2017. While publishing a book or at least a story in an anthology may appear to be the Holy Grail to all aspiring writers, it is also true that literary magazines have long been the launching pads for great writing and big ideas. The emergence of a new generation of independent magazines reflects both a crisis and an opening. There has been a falling away of publishing new and experimental writing in institutionally based journals or even commercial magazines and newspapers that used to carry fiction in their pages. Into that vacuum have stepped all kinds of interesting new initiatives, both online and in print. Two of the very best magazines give pride of place to literature in translation. Based in Langkawi for the last nine years, Jérôme Bouchaud is at the forefront of the new wave of literary translation. He has written numerous travel books and translated novels, short stories and poems from English to French. He currently curates Lettres de Malaisie, a Frenchlanguage webzine dedicated to literature from and about Malaysia. He is also the founder of Editions Jentayu, a small publishing venture focusing on pan-Asian literature and literary translation. Its main publication is the eponymous Jentayu review, a biannual literary review dedicated to writings from Asia translated into French that has published close to a hundred writers so far. Bouchaud is philosophical about the vitality of making connections across borders: “Literary translation is to me of utmost importance in today’s world. Living in a globalised world unfortunately doesn’t mean that we understand each other better and that we are willing to open our eyes and empathise with other people’s lives, be they close or far away from us.” For him, literature – “the art of telling stories” – is one of the most potent tools available “to express the particularities and ambiguities of life … to find ourselves in a world that’s at the same time strange and relatable.” The new bilingual literary journal NARATIF | Kisah, recently launched to critical acclaim at the Kuala Lumpur Literary Festival, speaks to the same need. One of its editors, Pauline Fan, has long been involved in the subtle arts of reading, reimagining and translating foreign fiction and poetry. Featuring both established and emerging literary voices from Malaysia and South-East Asia, the journal seeks “to explore the idea of the narrative – through reimaginings, retellings, experimentations with form and genre, as well as through literary translation and visual narratives.” It is a platform that fills a gap, for, as Fan says, “the confluence of oral traditions and written expression is something we come across too rarely in our region.” Future Conditional Literary translation has a long and rich history in the Malay world. And Penang has had a significant place in its development, notably as one of the first print centres in the nineteenth century and in the social and political ferment of the pre-war years. But it is also true that both literary production and the publishing industry have largely shifted to Kuala Lumpur. The gravitational pull of the commercial, political and cultural centre has been irresistible. Nonetheless, Penang is still relatively well positioned to take advantage of a more fluid and more dynamic literary scene, one that may come to rely less on physical location. Local publishers such as Areca Books, Clarity, Entrepot and the state agency George Town World Heritage Incorporated have put out books with high-quality production values, though, with the exception of Clarity’s children’s titles, they have so far steered away from literature. The annual George Town Literary Festival is now firmly established as the country’s premier literary gathering, and a unique opportunity for writers from round the world to gather and exchange ideas. Universiti Sains Malaysia offers a wellregarded graduate programme in translation studies. And Penang itself has an aspiration to rebrand itself as a cultural hub, a dynamic environment conducive to creativity. None of these ambitions will be easy to sustain. A censorious and increasingly intolerant politics of culture is evident in everyday discourse, perhaps worse than ever. Reading habits are changing, less sustained, though the death of fiction has been grossly exaggerated. Sustaining publishing in the long term is a tough business. The regard for language itself is also shifting, becoming more instrumental, less vital, less loved. And writers, especially young writers, will have to abstain from navel-gazing and cast an outward glance onto a world worthy and in need of intelligent, sensitive and engaged writing. Writing that people want to read, in any language. Further Reading Harper, T.N., The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Leow, Rachel, ‘Being modern in Penang: Muhammad bin Hanif and the Penang story’, paper at the Penang and the Indian Ocean Conference, Penang, 16–18 September 2011. Leow, Rachel, Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Leow, Rachel, ‘What colonial legacy? The Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (House of Language) and Malaysia’s cultural decolonisation’, in Ruth Craggs and Claire Wintle, eds, Cultures of Decolonisation: Transnational Productions and Practices, 194 –70, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. Sakina Sahuri Suffian Sahuri and Fauziah Taib, ‘The role of translation in education in Malaysia’, in Asmah Haji Omar, ed., Languages in the Malaysian Education System, London: Routledge, 2016. *This article first appeared in Penang Monthly, December 2016.

  • The Word and the World (Part One)

    The emergence of a flourishing independent publishing industry in the last few years has gone hand in hand with a renewed interest in the art and craft of translation. Penang has an important place in the history of translation in South-East Asia and is well positioned at the forefront of a new wave of literary creativity. By: Gareth Richards and Izzuddin Ramli Transmitting Culture through Translation Translators are the unsung heroes of the literary world. Their products are widely enjoyed and consumed but their names are, perhaps for obvious reasons, less renowned than those of writers. And yet literary translators help write the world’s books for new readers. They do not just craft changes from one language to another – though this in itself requires great skill and sensitivity. Rather, they bridge cultures from different parts of the world. They are the transmitters of thoughts and ideas that connect and move human civilisations. And for that alone their work should be recognised and celebrated. Located where the monsoons meet, the Malay peninsula has long been at the heart of global history and long-distance connectivities. Initially the peninsula was a meeting point for seamen and sojourners, troops and traders, migrants and magnates, arriving (and departing) from the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. By the beginning of the sixteenth century European states and their armed chartered companies were also expanding into Asian waters. The peninsula and the wider archipelago became a crucial arena for competition and, sometimes, cooperation. This was the world in which modern Penang was born. It is arguable that the port cities of South-East Asia were as plural as any on earth at that time, and more so than most. It is well known that Penang’s early development was driven by trade (in spices, opium, textiles, tea and tin) and imperial competition. But the island also quickly established itself as a regional cultural centre. As the historian Sunil Amrith puts it: “A rich exchange of ideas and language was the result of transient encounters or cross-cultural relationships.” And the word – spoken, in manuscripts and printed – played a vital role in absorbing a wide range of cultural influences, acquiring new languages and spreading novel ideas. Above all, “command of language” was crucial for the consolidation of new communities and identities. An Emporium of Languages: Devotion and Commerce In fact Asian translation traditions were already established long before the various East India companies gained footholds and fortresses on South-East Asia’s littorals. After all, translation was vital in this world of strangers. Countless translations left their traces in one way or another, from the outside but equally importantly within the region itself. As the lingua franca of much of the archipelago, the role of translations from and into the Malay language can be best illustrated in two complementary ways. On the one hand, translations of Arabic texts,including the Quran, helped disseminate Islam through the region and Malay became the mediating language of devotion. Equally importantly, key religious works, royal genealogies and semi-historical epics originally written in Malay criss-crossed the archipelago and influenced other languages with a long writing tradition of their own, such as Javanese and Sundanese. In analogous ways, European travellers observed of the Tamil Muslims that “the Chulyars are a People that range into all Kingdoms and Countreys in Asia.” As a result, they “doe learne to write and Speake Severall of the Eastern languages.” Similarly, Chinese merchants had been trading down to South-East Asia for centuries, sojourning – and sometimes settling – during the course of their voyages. In contrast to some other languages, however, it is striking that very little Chinese written culture was introduced to the region. The Qing government had forbidden its subjects to teach Chinese to foreigners. As Lucille Chia notes, “Indeed, of the myriad commodities carried by Chinese junks in the Nanyang trade, books may have been the one item that was largely missing.” This would change with the large-scale arrivals of immigrants in South-East Asia in the nineteenth century when, as we shall see, a major local publishing and translation practice did emerge. The study and translation of Malay in Europe date back to the very first voyages to South- East Asia. As Annabel Teh Gallop – who as lead curator for South-East Asia at the British Library has done more than anyone else in recovering and interpreting early manuscripts – says: “Command of languages was an essential business tool for both merchants in search of spices and missionaries in search of souls.” The earliest Malay book printed in Europe is a Malay-Dutch phrasebook by Frederick de Houtman, published in Amsterdam in 1603, and an English version of this Dutch work became the first Malay book printed in Britain in 1614. It was only in 1701 that the first original Malay-English dictionary was printed in London, the work of Thomas Bowrey (1650-1713), an East India Company sea captain. He explained in the preface the urgent need for such a publication: “I finding so very few English Men that have attained any tollerable Knowledge of the Malayo Tongue, so absolutely necessary to trade in those Southern Seas, and that there is no Book of this kind published in English to help the attaining of that Language; These Considerations, I say, has imboldened me to Publish the insuing Dictionary.” After Bowrey’s pioneering work, it was not until the early nineteenth century that British studies of Malay developed in earnest, through the efforts of colonial scholar-administrators. This endeavour had a direct connection with Penang through the efforts of Thomas Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd, who both worked for the East India Company and first met on the island. For his part, Raffles collected vocabularies from all over the archipelago, including a Malay wordlist which appears to be in the hand of his Penang scribe Ibrahim; this volume is especially valuable for also containing an early register of inhabitants of Penang, listed by street name, with details of origin, occupation and family members. The Print Revolution If the early efforts at translation belonged largely to Asian oral and manuscript traditions, and printing in Europe, colonialism helped create print centres in South-East Asia itself. Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies was the first. But given what Rachel Leow calls “the unusual linguistic diversity to be found in Penang,” it is not surprising that the first print centre on the peninsula emerged there, more or less at the same time as in Malacca. Early pioneers systematically experimented with various printing technologies – xylography, lithography and letterpress – and acquired roman, Arabic and Siamese fonts as they geared up for ambitious publishing projects. The first printing facility was set up by an independent printer, Andrew Burchett Bone, who brought his own press to Penang in 1807; it was used in the service of the East India Company to publish governmental and commercial materials for traders and administrators. The following year, the French Catholic Missions Étrangères de Paris also established a printing press to disseminate its religious materials, and Protestant missionaries followed in their footsteps in 1819. Since the missions ran schools, they printed elementary texts on spelling and reading, in both Malay and English, as well as biblical translations. The new demands for Chinese printing in Penang offered an opportunity for another missionary, Samuel Dyer, to pioneer and introduce Chinese t y p e - f o u n d i n g in the Straits Settlements in the 1830s, which offered a cost-effective alternative to existing xylographic practices.1 From these modest beginnings, the print revolution – and the attendant explosion of translated works – took hold through the course of the next century and beyond. Printed materials were produced in every conceivable form: books of all kinds, religious tracts, reference works, pamphlets, periodicals, reports and newspapers. Printing technologies also had a direct impact on language itself. Malay was printed in both the modified Arabic script, Jawi, as well as romanised script, Rumi, and the medium encouraged the move towards the standardisation of orthographies. Similarly, printing technologies had a long-term impact on Chinese typography – a process that persists today with the variety and refinement of Chinese character systems in use. Two Exemplars of Early Literary Translation A rapid flowering of the publishing industry took place as a result of the print revolution. Ian Proudfoot distinguishes three streams of print publishing in Penang and the other Straits Settlements for the century or so beginning in 1820. These are the European presses, Straits-born Chinese (Peranakan or Baba) publishers and Muslim publishers. One characteristic feature of printed material that was produced and circulated in abundance in Penang and elsewhere was the sheer variety of genres and subject matter, including both fiction and poetry. And much of this material appeared in translation. This is best demonstrated in two fascinating exemplars of this eclectic publishing world: the development of literature in Malay by Chinese Peranakan, illustrated in the literary translations of Chan Kim Boon; and the work of the Muslim intelligentsia, led by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, who would be the harbingers of later nationalist struggles. The emergence of a distinctive Peranakan translation tradition can be traced to the last decades of the nineteenth century, when a significant proportion of educated Chinese were reading romanised Malay. A very interesting figure among the early Peranakan translators was Chan Kim Boon (1851-1920), born into a merchant family in Penang and who went by the pen name Batu Gantong (Hanging Rock). He attended Penang Free School, where instruction was in English, and also had a good command of Malay and Chinese. After moving to Singapore to work as a bookkeeper, he began publishing his monumental Sam Kok (Sanguo), a 30-volume translation of the Chinese classical masterpiece Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the 1890s. It is not just the sheer scale of the undertaking – at 4,622 pages – that is impressive. He also offered telling insights into the very process of translation: he included lists giving Chinese expressions in the Malay version, with a translation in Malay and sometimes in English; he provided footnotes for explanations; and for the later volumes specified the Chinese characters for proper names, titles and functions. And the books were beautifully illustrated by drawings rendered in the style of woodcuts to complement the story and heighten the visual appeal. Chan evidently had an appreciative audience. A Malay scholar, Mohamed Salleh bin Perang, wrote in 1894: “I was very fond of reading Chinese tales, my favourite being the story entitled Sam Kok for this work contains much that is of value, including allusions and parables which should be heard by officials in the service of kings.” Though there were a few other notable translators during this period, such as Tan Beng Teck and Lim Hock Chee, there is little doubt that Chan Kim Boon became the dominant figure in the small Peranakan Malay publishing industry. Apart from Sam Kok, he also translated two other Chinese classics: Song Kang (Water Margin)and Kou Chey Tian (Journey to the West), and other texts that have unfortunately not survived. After his death, the translation of Chinese stories into Malay declined, due in part to the Peranakan community’s increasing preference for English-language books. In exactly the same period of the late nineteenth century a vibrant Muslim press and publishing industry also flourished in Penang. It is more accurate to describe this maturation as Muslim rather than Malay, since many of the leading personalities in the publishing world had mixed ethnic backgrounds, including Jawi Peranakan with Indian and Arabic antecedents. The sheer number of printers and publishers is quite astonishing. They included the Freeman Press (Acheen Street), Muhamadiah Press (Hutton Lane), United Press (Dato Keramat), Persama Press (Acheen Street), Bahtera Press (Acheen Street), Al-Zainah Press (Pitt Street), Percetakan Sahabat (Penang Street) and Al-Huda Press (Dato Keramat). All these presses were integrally involved in the production of religious texts, including translations that found a ready market in Penang’s local Muslim population as well as among hajj pilgrims, in addition to historical texts such as Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa and Al-Tarikh Salasilah Negeri Kedah. Even more significant was their role in circulating the ideology of Islamic modernism and reform that would lay the foundations for the later emergence of Malay nationalism. As Abu Talib Ahmad describes them, they were “forward-thinking” and became “crucial agents of change” in pre-war Malay society. Perhaps the leading carrier of the modernist message in the early decades of the twentieth century was the iconic figure Syed Sheikh al-Hadi (1867-1934), author, translator, educator, publisher and founder of the Jelutong Press. Born near Malacca, al-Hadi’s early life illustrates just how cosmopolitan the experiences of early Muslim reformers could be: he spent formative years in the literary centre of Penyengat, Riau, having access to a wide range of Arabic and Malay texts, books and newspapers in the royal library; he received a religious education in Terengganu; he travelled to Egypt and is reported to have met the leading reformist intellectuals Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, whose work he later translated; he was in Singapore as an editor of the modernist journal Al-Iman and as a teacher in a madrasah; and moved to Johor Bahru where he worked as a religious lawyer for private clients. Al-Hadi was, in short, a true organic intellectual. All this was a prelude to his time in Penang. In the mid-1920s he established the Jelutong Press, started his own monthly journal, Al-Ikhwan, the leading voice of Islamic modernism in Malaya, and then the weekly newspaper, Saudara. In an echo of an earlier age, its news reports, serialised stories and articles on religious reform – including translations of Abduh’s religious exegesis of the Quran – were read throughout the peninsula, southern Thailand and the Dutch East Indies, and by Muslim students in London, Cairo and Mecca. Translation activities were in large part motivated by the fight against orthodox Islamic teachings and were thus a means of influencing the wider reformist debates in Malaya. What is less well known is that the Jelutong Press also published a large number of works of fiction, including those of al-Hadi himself, which ranged from romantic stories to his monumental Hikayat Faridah Hanom, which was “read from one end of the Peninsula to the other”, and his series of Rokambul detective adventures. Hikayat Faridah Hanom, adapted from an Egyptian love story and characterised as the first “new hikayat”, is a fascinating and daring treatment of the quality of “human-ness”, the basis for a compassionate concern for others and a new morality. It became a benchmark for what came to be known as “cherita saduran”, with saduran implying not just translation but adaptation to the context of the Malay society of the time. Detective fiction was one of the most popular genres with the early reading public. And the most famous crime stories were al-Hadi’s Rokambul series. He took on numerous episodes of the intrepid criminal-adventurer-detective hero, Rocambole, created by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail, most likely from Arabic translations rather than from their French originals. It has even been suggested that the portrayal of outsiders in detective fiction was an attempt to instil a culture of resistance in their readers, albeit on an imaginative level – a kind of “hidden transcript” as a critique of power. As an interesting aside, numerous Rocambole stories were also translated into Malay by Lie Kim Hock in Batavia and published in the early years of the twentieth century. It remains an open case whether al-Hadi – working some 20 years later – perhaps knew of Lie’s translations. Communities of Imagination The literary output of Chan Kim Boon and Syed Sheikh al-Hadi in the transformative decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrates just how important Penang was in the dissemination of the written word, in sustaining nascent publishing industries and in bridging different languages. Of course, Penang was by no means alone in this domain. The other Straits Settlements – Malacca and Singapore – also supported thriving print centres, while the Sultan Idris Training College became the leading incubator for Malay writers and work in translation. As we have seen, all this activity was grounded in much older practices of literary production – in which the archipelago made extensive use of and was in turn shaped by Arabic, Indian, Chinese and European source texts of all kinds. These provided the materials for a sophisticated Asian translation tradition. Nonetheless, the impact of European colonialism – accompanied by modernising dynamics such as formal education and the print revolution – initiated a qualitatively new phase of literary production and translation strategies. The print revolution was, of course, a necessary precondition for this flourishing. But more important than the technology itself was the profound impact that print had for moulding people of disparate linguistic traditions into “deep horizontal comradeship” and communities of imagination, as Benedict Anderson memorably puts it. In the period leading up to the Second World War, translated work – both fiction and non-fiction – found a new readership in the rapidly changing world of Penang and the Malay peninsula. It represented a process of acquisition, incorporation and adaptation – one that would help form the post-war cultural milieu. *This article first appeared in Penang Monthly, November 2016.

  • Merdeka Sekali Lagi

    Melawan dan merdeka dari keakuran dan keterpesonaan terhadap politik sosok adalah tujuan baharu pada hari ini. Merdeka bermakna berdaulat. Manakala berdaulat bermakna bebas daripada penjajahan dan mampu untuk berdiri di atas kaki sendiri. Lebih enam puluh tiga tahun yang lalu, kata merdeka dan segala maknanya inilah yang ingin dirangkul oleh rakyat pelbagai etnik, budaya, dan agama di Tanah Melayu. Tidak ada tujuan murni lain yang diinginkan, selain untuk memerintah dan mentadbir diri sendiri. Matlamat itu akhirnya dicapai dan diraikan secara simbolik pada 31 Ogos 1957. Jalannya sudah pasti tidak pernah lurus. Ada keringat yang dititiskan. Ada darah yang tertumpah di setiap selekoh perjalanan. Kini, kita menjenguk kembali sejarah. Kegilaan kita menuntut kebebasan dari cengkaman penjajah bukan baru terjadi semalam. Tahun 1445 ke 1500, orang Melaka dan Pahang sudah membina benteng melawan penjajah Siam. Orang Johor sudah membantu Belanda melawan Portugis sekitar tahun 1600 hingga 1641. Kemudian, kita juga diperkenalkan dengan pahlawan-pahlawan seperti Tok Janggut, Dol Said, Lela Pandak Lam, Mat Kilau, dan Mat Salleh yang berjuang menentang penjajah British pada abad ke-19 dan ke-20. Dari tahun 1926 ke 1957 pula, gerakan kebangsaan Melayu melawan Inggeris pula mengambil tempat. Namun, kemerdekaan mungkin tidak akan diperolehi tanpa adanya baja yang menggerakkan anak-anak tanah jajahan. Baja ini tidak lain tidak bukan adalah keinginan yang berterusan untuk bebas dan semangat yang berkobar-kobar untuk melawan. Baja lalu menjadi waja. Hari ini, ianya kita kendong ke mana-mana. Politik Melawan Sebagai satu tindakan politik, menentang dan melawan bukan juga baru. Malah sebelum kita mengenal demokrasi, perlawanan sudah berlaku. Wujudnya juga dalam bermacam bentuk, baik yang sifatnya agresif dan defensif, ataupun yang mengambil bentuk nyata dan tidak nyata. Kembali lagi kepada sejarah, kita akan bertemu dengan kisah-kisah orang lari dari pusat kekuasaan, menebas belantara baru. Itu yang terjadi jauh sebelum penjajah Inggeris tiba, ketika rakyat di Tanah Melayu masih di bawah naungan raja-raja. Pada tahun 1811, sultan Perak mengeluh kerana lebih separuh orang Perak lari ke wilayah raja lain. Pada abad ke-19, sultan Deli dikatakan malu kerana rakyatnya berpaling tadah bencikan perangai sultan. Begitulah juga caranya orang Dayak bermain tolak-tarik dengan pemerintah. Jelik dengan tingkah laku pembesar, rakyat kemudian berpindah, bertukar pemimpin, atau memilih untuk tidak dipimpin. Setiap zaman memiliki bentuk dan tujuan perlawanan rakyatnya sendiri. Kita melawan, sekalipun dengan menulis. Setidak-tidaknya itu yang dilakukan oleh para wartawan dan sasterawan ketika menuntut kemerdekaan Tanah Melayu dari Inggeris. Menulis mengasuh mereka untuk kemudiannya memimpin gerakan-gerakan masyarakat. Kemunduran Politik Pengunduran British menghadirkan harapan baharu kepada tanah yang baru dirampas kembali ini. Kuasa untuk memerintah dan menentukan nasib tanah air kini diserahkan kepada rakyat. Kita mencuba dengan demokrasi bagi mengangkat seorang pemimpin. Rakyat sudah bebas memilih wakil melalui pilihanraya. Tetapi, dalam sistem politik baharu ini, yang diambil kira bukan hanya pengundi tetapi juga suara-suara. Malangnya, perubahan sistem politik tidak berdampingan dengan perubahan sikap dan pemikiran rakyat. Malah, perubahan-perubahan yang berlaku di sekeliling kita sentiasa ditanggapi secara berbeza antara satu sama lain. Ini termasuklah perubahan struktur politik yang telah membuka pintu untuk kita memainkan peranan lebih dalam membuat keputusan. Politik pada titik ini menjadi tidak lebih dari sekadar percaturan elit-elit politik yang berunding kuasa antara satu sama lain. Politik watak atau sosok mendominasi mulai bergerak menuju ke pusat politik. Hasilnya, awalnya demokrasi yang menuntut setiap warganegara supaya lebih giat menyertai, berubah menjadi ruang subur untuk mencambahkan keakuran. Keterpesonaan terhadap watak ini juga yang kemudiannya menjadikan kita akur bahawa elit-elit politik sebagai pemain utama. Malah, tidak sedikit daripada kita yang merasakan bahawa mereka juga adalah penyembuh bagi masalah-masalah peribadi. Di majlis-majlis, kehadiran wakil rakyat penting sebelum apa-apa acara dapat dimulakan. Begitulah dalam hal-hal lain. Kita berbicara tentang naratif atau penceritaan yang membentuk fakta dan mempengaruhi pemahaman kita terhadap realiti. Naratif adalah tentang makna bukannya kebenaran. Biarpun demikian, naratif juga yang menggerakkan massa. Lalu naratif bagaimana yang sedang dipaparkan dan sedang menyaingi yang lain? Maka, memahami dan peka dengan naratif yang cuba dipaparkan oleh elit-elit politik adalah penting dalam hal ini agar. Melawan Politik Sosok Di sini merdeka menuntut makna baharu. Melawan dan merdeka dari keakuran dan keterpesonaan terhadap politik sosok adalah tujuan baharu pada hari ini. Inti dari demokrasi adalah untuk membebaskan masyarakat dan melahirkan warganegara yang lebih aktif. Maka, sudah tentu peranannya bukan lagi milik seorang, tetapi setiap individu. Matlamatnya adalah untuk membina naratif kolektif baharu yang lebih pelbagai, dan yang pulang ke rakyat. Jauh dari hal ehwal orang atau parti, politik adalah tentang pemikiran dan falsafah, tentang dasar, dan tentang jalan keluar bagi kemaslahatan umum. Benar kita akhirnya memilih sosok di dalam pilihanraya. Namun, prosesnya tidak bernoktah di situ. Kita perlu merdeka sekali lagi. Kali ini merdeka dimaknai dengan membebaskan diri dan melangkah melampaui politik watak atau sosok. Kerana pada akhirnya tugas orang politik adalah untuk berkhidmat kepada rakyat, bukan sebaliknya. Selamat hari merdeka! *Esei ini pertama kali diterbitkan di Naratif Malaysia, 31 Ogos 2020.

  • Watak Perwira dan Politik Malaysia

    Wira datang mengirim pesan yang lebih mendalam bahawa ada keinginan yang belum tercapai, ada pelbagai harapan yang sudah ternodai. Jika tidak melalui panggilan telefon, pesanan dan pertanyaan baik daripada orang yang dikenali dan tidak dikenali juga diterimanya di laman Facebook. Ramai daripada mereka belum tentu membawa hajat yang jelas. Dalam deretan panggilan dan timbunan mesej itu, ada yang sekadar menyampaikan khabar diri sendiri. Tidak sedikit yang membantu untuk bercerita nasib kurang baik orang lain di sekeliling mereka. Di laman sosial seperti Facebook, Instagram, dan Twitter, perhubungan menjadi lebih mudah dan pantas. Di tempat yang waktu seakan-akan tiada lagi itu, orang berkeluh-kesah, cuba mencuri telinga, mencari bahu, dan berkongsi berita. Sepertimana kita, ruang itulah yang digunakan oleh Ebit Lew — sosok yang sejak akhir-akhir ini menjadi buah mulut orang di mana-mana — untuk mendengar dan turut bersimpati. Namun, lelaki yang sentiasa bersama kopiah putihnya itu bukan sekadar personaliti media sosial. Dia tidak terpesona dengan rasa asyik memiliki jutaan peminat hanya dengan memperagakan pakaian-pakaian berjenama mewah. Lew, sebaliknya, menitiskan keringat di jalan dan di ceruk kampung, menyantuni mereka yang masih merangkak untuk hidup. Dalam kesempitan hidup pada waktu wabak, dia hadir sebagai wira. Kendatipun begitu, kisah “perwira” seperti kisah Lew bukan terlalu asing buat kita. Tidak lama dahulu, kita mengenal dan mengagumi Syed Azmi, seorang jurufarmasi yang memilih untuk keluar daripada keselesaan dan berbakti kepada kelompok masyarakat terpinggir. Begitu juga dengan Kuan Chee Heng, atau lebih dikenali dengan gelaran Pak Cik Kentang. Seperti yang lain, Kuan senang bersimpati dengan nasib masyarakatnya. Dia membelanjakan sebahagian hartanya kemudian diraikan sebagai seorang wira oleh penduduk setempat. Kita takjub mendengarkan kisah watak-watak perwira sebegini sama seperti orang Inggeris melihat legenda Robin Hood atau orang di sempadan Kedah-Siam pada awal abad ke-20 mengagumi Panglima Nayan. Sudah tentu bahawa cerita dan pengalaman watak-watak perwira ini berbeza antara satu sama lain. Namun, kita tidak memaknai wira sebagai dongeng atau sekadar watak penghibur seperti lelaki dan perempuan perkasa yang kita tonton di dalam filem. Dalam kehidupan peribadi ataupun bermasyarakat, wira datang mengirim pesan yang lebih mendalam bahawa ada keinginan yang belum tercapai, ada pelbagai harapan yang sudah ternodai. Lompang dalam Politik Sedari awal, ketika manusia mula membangun peradaban, kita membangun bersama kisah-kisah keperwiraan. Baik ketika berkeliling menghadap unggun api di dalam gua sehinggalah di kamar sebelum tidur, kita mendengar dan diperdengarkan tentang kisah-kisah sang perkasa yang membela nasib orang teraniaya. Tetapi apakah tujuan dan erti keterpesonaan kita dengan kisah-kisah wira ini? Mungkin ada yang sekadar mengambilnya sebagai hiburan. Ada yang meneladani. Namun wira juga dilahir, ditulis, dan kemudian diceritakan untuk mengubati jiwa. Lew, sepertimana wira-wira masyarakat lain yang kita kenal, hadir untuk mengisi keperluan ini. Sosok seperti dia menyembuh luka-luka yang datang daripada rasa takut dan putus asa masyarakat. Dalam setiap kepayahan, kita merasa bersama. Namun Lew, orang yang meyakinkan kita bahawa harapan tidak pernah mati ini, bukan watak asing. Dia bukan ahli politik yang dipilih setiap empat atau lima tahun sekali, tetapi lahir dalam kalangan kita. Seperti warganegara yang lain, Lew tidak menggenggam tanggungjawab rasmi politik. Lalu, luka-luka apa yang mahu disembuhkan Lew? Dari sisi lain, dia dan watak-watak wira yang dianggap datang dalam kalangan kita ini menjadi bukti bahawa ada kelompangan dalam politik atau cara kita menguruskan masyarakat. Rasa resah dan putus asa kita bermuara di sini. Kemarahan dan kekecewaan terhadap para elit politik dan keresahan terhadap perubahan-perubahan sosial yang berlaku secara mendadak inilah yang terjadi di pelbagai belahan dunia. Seringkali, keputusasaan berakhir dengan pergolakan, malah menggugat norma dan institusi yang sedia ada. Masyarakat menuding jari terhadap para wakil mereka ketika politik menjadi hanya sekadar ranah perebutan kuasa dan mula memundurkan. Watak-watak “anti-wira” kemudian muncul apabila politik kita sudah kering dengan watak-watak wira, dan kita kemudian beralih kesetiaan. Lew ialah watak yang tidak terelakkan dalam politik yang gagal memberikan kepastian. Dia hadir dengan menawarkan keinginan dan kerinduan masyarakat terhadap rasa kasih dan prihatin yang tidak diperoleh daripada para wakil yang mereka pertanggungjawabkan. Watak-watak sebegini menyedarkan kita bahawa adanya kelemahan dalam cara kita memastikan bahawa peluang pendidikan yang baik sampai kepada segenap lapisan masyarakat. Lew membongkar kegagalan politik kita dalam membahagikan kekayaan dan membanteras kemiskinan. Ia menyerlahkan bahawa pada waktu kemelut, ketika ada yang masih kelaparan, birokrasi seharusnya lebih mempercepatkan bantuan dan perkhidmatan, bukan lebih memperlahankan. Politik Sosok dan Demokrasi Sejauh kita mendambakan dan menyanjung watak-watak wira dalam kehidupan, kita juga bertembung dengan ironi. Dalam politik yang mengharuskan setiap warganegara berupaya menentukan nasib sendiri, kita sebaliknya terus mencari-cari sosok yang boleh disandarkan tanggungjawab secara sepenuhnya. Kita mengharapkan watak-watak seperti Lew ada pada wakil-wakil politik yang kita pilih. Namun, apa yang diperlukan oleh demokrasi untuk berjalan dengan baik adalah bukan sosok wira, tetapi warga yang bebas, berdikari dan aktif menuntut hak-hak mereka. Kekuatan demokrasi tidak terletak kepada individu-individu tertentu, tetapi kepada masyarakat, struktur-struktur politik yang kukuh, dan penghormatan terhadap institusi-institusi negara. Tadbir urus yang baik tidak memerlukan wira. Yang diperlukan adalah perubahan-perubahan institusi yang bermatlamat untuk menambah baik kemampuan pemerintah dalam menyampaikan perkhidmatan yang berkualiti. Maka, menggandingkan Ebit Lew dengan para wakil rakyat yang dipilih melalui pilihan raya untuk menguruskan hal ehwal kemasyarakatan sudah tentu tidak adil. Kita tahu bahawa seseorang wakil rakyat menggalas peranan yang jauh berbeza. Tanggungjawab hakiki wakil rakyat adalah untuk menggubal dasar baik pada peringkat negeri mahupun negara. Mengharapkan wakil-wakil ini untuk sentiasa turun menjenguk longkang yang tersumbat di belakang rumah kita misalnya adalah tindakan yang tidak kena. Budaya mendambakan seorang watak perkasa —orang yang akan sentiasa hadir untuk menyelesaikan kesulitan-kesulitan sekalipun yang bersifat peribadi — sudah berakar sejak lama. Malah, tidak memeranjatkan bahawa tidak sedikit daripada wakil-wakil politik yang senang dengan sanjungan sebegini. Namun, pada titik ini hubungan politik yang seharusnya bersifat formal menjadi tidak formal. Kata “tanggungjawab” mula digantikan dengan “tolong”. “Berkhidmat” kemudian difahami dalam erti kata memberi “kebajikan”. Pengurusan hal ehwal negara dan masyarakat diandaikan seperti mengurus sebuah keluarga. Pemerintah dianggap sebagai “penjaga” atau “abah” yang wajib untuk memastikan kebajikan “anak-anak” terjaga. Setidak-tidaknya itu yang sedang terpapar dalam politik negara ini. Sudah tentu bahawa hal ini berpenghujung pada kekuasaan. Namun, jika tidak dibendung, kita hanya akan terus melahirkan masyarakat yang pasif dan berserah. Maka, watak wira seperti Lew penting selagi ia mampu untuk menjadikan kita sentiasa awas.

  • Wabak, Kesepian, dan Tanya

    Bagaimanakah kita merawat kesunyian dan memenuhi keperluan untuk tetap terus meneroka di kala terkurung? Tidak semua dan tidak selalunya orang senang dengan kesepian. Hidup terasing, terpisah, malah sekian lama tidak bersentuhan (atau bersalaman dan berpelukan) dengan orang lain kadangkala mencemaskan. Sebab itu, sebagai makhluk sosial, kita terus-menerus mencari jalan untuk berhubungan bagi memecah kesunyian dan untuk sentiasa merasa ada. Kesepian, seperti yang terpapar setiap hari, mampu membunuh biarpun ramai menemui ketenangan, ilham, atau kesucian dalam kesendirian. Pada waktu wabak, kesepian ternyata semakin memperkuatkan kedua-duanya. Malah, kesepian seakan-akan bukan sesuatu yang boleh dipilih-pilih, tetapi dihadapi dengan wajah yang bengis dan menanti untuk dilawan. Ketika sempadan-sempadan dikunci, pergerakan menjadi terbatas, dan dunia kita hanyalah ruang terpencil di rumah, kesepian mengintai-intai seperti seekor serigala yang menunggu untuk menerkam mangsanya. Jalur lebar dan media sosial sudah tentu membantu kita untuk terus berhubung dan mendapat perkhabaran tentang hal yang terjadi di sekeliling. Di situ, cerita dan berita tidak putus-putus datang untuk menghiburkan atau menimbus kesunyian. Namun, ironinya, kita juga tahu bahawa ruang-ruang maya tempat orang berkeluh-kesah itu turut sama memperkuat kesepian. Kita terjunam ke dalam telaga tanpa dasar, melewati rantaian pekikan yang tidak habis-habis menagih perhatian. Lalu, bagaimanakah kita merawat kesunyian dan memenuhi keperluan untuk tetap terus meneroka di kala terkurung? Sudah pastinya, jalan tidak hanya satu. Setiap orang memiliki cara atau sumber kekuatan tersendiri untuk tetap bertahan. Ada yang gemar bersendirian menjejak denai-denai di hutan atau menapak ke pantai. Ada orang yang lebih suka bersama buku, menonton filem-filem di Netflix, atau berbaring melayani muzik. Saya mencuba kesemuanya—terpulang kepada gerak hati. Dengan melakukan hal-hal sedemikian—mengulang atau menyambung baca buku-buku yang bertindan di atas meja, menghabiskan deretan filem yang selalunya saya tonton separuh jalan, atau memutar-mutar piring hitam setiap kali selepas makan malam—saya tahu bahawa sekurang-kurangnya saya memacak perhatian terhadap sesuatu. Kesepian hilang ketika dendangan lagu atau hidangan cerita pada helaian-helaian buku menggerakkan sepenuhnya fikiran dan tubuh. Daripada sumber-sumber tersebut kita dibawa meneroka, singgah di wilayah-wilayah yang tidak pernah atau tidak mampu kita capai dengan tubuh. Kita berkenalan dengan segala khayalan yang dihadirkan melaluinya oleh orang lain. Namun, sekuat mana asyiknya “pembacaan”—baik melalui lidah, mata, ataupun telinga, sudah tentu tidak memadai jika ianya sekadar dilakukan untuk mengalih perhatian atau menjadi suatu pelarian. Alih-alih, kesepian kembali menjengah setelah kita puas dan kehausan. Maka, jauh dari tujuan untuk mengalih perhatian atau melarikan diri, kesunyian dipecahkan dan pengembaraan bermula dengan pertanyaan; dengan rasa ingin tahu; dengan kegelisahan yang membuak-buak di dalam diri terhadap rasa tidak tahu tentang banyak hal. Hidup berlamaan dengan keresahan sememangnya tidak menyenangkan. Tetapi, seperti setiap langkah yang kita ambil ketika berjalan, pertanyaan adalah titik mula yang membawa kita meredah jalan-jalan dan pintu-pintu lain yang tidak pernah kita temui. Begitu hidup menyepi baik secara jasad mahupun maya pada waktu wabak. Ia mengajarkan, atau paling tidak, mengingatkan saya untuk menjadi seperti seorang anak kecil yang dunianya sentiasa penuh dengan pertanyaan. Di mata seorang anak kecil, dunia bukanlah hamparan jawapan-jawapan yang sudah pasti, tetapi maklumat-maklumat yang menuntut untuk dipersoalkan. Bagi kanak-kanak, dunia adalah hal yang tidak pernah selesai dan dengan demikianlah mereka menjadi dewasa. Sekilas pandang, mungkin tidak ada apa yang pelik atau terlalu istimewa dengan pertanyaan. Tindakan merenung kemudian mengajukan soalan-soalan kadangkala terjadi tanpa disedari atau tidak memerlukan banyak usaha. Hampir setiap hari kita bertanya. Kita bertanya khabar kepada mereka yang dekat, atau bertanya arah jika ke tempat-tempat yang tidak pernah kita kunjungi. Kita bertanya, baik kepada orang, ataupun pada hari ini kepada telefon pintar. Namun, kita tahu bahawa pertanyaan—sama ada dengan kata kunci apa, bila, di mana, bagaimana, dan siapa—tidak semestinya terbatas kepada hal-hal keseharian seperti itu. Pertanyaan boleh juga diajukan untuk perkara-perkara yang lebih mendalam, tentang realiti atau kenyataan yang sudah mapan misalnya. Pertanyaan-pertanyaan—biar secetek atau sedalam mana pun ia—mampu menghadapkan kita kepada pelbagai kemungkinan kenyataan dan sudut pandang alam. Malah, melalui pertanyaan yang terus-menerus diajukan kepada diri sendiri atau orang lain, kita akhirnya tahu bahawa kebenaran juga berubah-ubah dan tidak hanya satu. Malangnya, tidak seperti anak kecil, keghairahan terhadap dunia sekeliling barangkali melemah apabila kita meningkat dewasa atau semakin tua. Pertanyaan-pertanyaan semakin mengecut; cukup sekadar untuk hal-hal mudah seharian; hal-hal yang sifatnya lebih praktikal dan memberi untung segera. Pada titik ini, dunia sudah kehilangan misteri, atau lebih tepatnya kita sudah tidak tertarik untuk memecah segala misteri. Tambahan lagi, kerja berfikir dan menyoal tidak lagi dianggap sebagai tanggungjawab setiap orang. Sebaliknya, ia secara umum diserahkan kepada negara atau institusi seperti universiti (kalaupun masih berlaku). Mungkin kehidupan hari ini yang menuntut sedemikian. Apatah lagi ketika media sosial semakin menguasai. Di media sosial, kita tetap bertanya. Tetapi, jika tidak semua, sebahagian daripada kita cenderung untuk mencari jawapan mudah atau percaya dengan apa yang sudah dihidangkan. Di kala wabak, menghamburkan segala macam pertanyaan adalah salah satu jalan yang menghidupkan. Buat saya, ia memberi semangat serta kekuatan apabila dunia sudah menjadi semakin tidak menentu. Jangan-jangan pertanyaan tidak hanya sekadar membawa kita mengembara, tetapi juga menguasai. Masakan tidak, setiap kali ke Facebook—tempat orang melombong data itu—kita pertama-tama diajukan dengan pertanyaan: “What’s on your mind?”

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