This essay is primarily concerned with exploring the problems of internationalising community literatures, using the multicultural situation in Malaysia as a sort of model. Some Malaysian literary works have, of course, already gained international access through translations and through the languages the writers themselves have used. A bilingual reader, say in Paris, may pick up a Malay novel and seeing its relevance to French society may decide to have it translated for a wider readership. Or a work originally written in English by a Malaysian may find a place in college or university postcolonial literature courses. This form of making a community literature available to other communities elsewhere comes from individual and institutional enthusiasms. A more reliable means of doing so happens when countries design and act on mutual cultural exchange programmes. This, I know, has happened between Malaysia and Australia. Funds have been allocated, expertise recruited, and text selected so that Malay works can be translated and made available to Australian readers and vice-versa.
These ways refer us to one aspect of internationalising
community literatures: it is the making available of literary works in a
physical, touristy way. Readers are given samples of what they can expect
from a particular community, but their appetite to continue reading into
that tradition may not be met because a consistent flow of translations
cannot be kept up for various reasons. If the works are originally in English,
this problem is considerably reduced, but still depends on the vagaries
of book marketing and other commercial priorities.
While this aspect of internationlisation is a necessary part of the chain of influences between countries, the more important aspect is what is made available through the literatures themselves. What images of the individuals or the cultures within a multicultural society are offered to readers in any part of the world? What relationships are to be found between these cultures? What boundary-breaking experiences are dramatised in the fiction? The questions are endless, but what seems relevant at this point is to examine the perceptions individuals and cultures have of themselves and of each other in the present so as to speculate on the direction individuals, particularly writers, and communities can take in the future. This is done in the hope that the investigation will take on an objective perspective so that what is discovered will, in some sort of way, have implications for social structures elsewhere in the world.
The Role of Histories
In order to do this one has to return to those periods in history which have had formative influences on individuals and communities. The realities of history, I feel, can often be intercepted in such a way as to accommodate the many fears, anxieties, ambitions and visions of cultures and societies. The cultural and social landscapes that emerge tend to feed the desired image of man while glossing over his deeper and more complex nature. Can the more leisurely, meaning here the time needed for the vital expression of an attitude or process, development of culture(s), be interfered with? What kind of historical and literary perceptions in the communities of a particular country does such a self- or community-created conception of culture engender in the people or peoples?
The three periods in Malaysian history that have always fascinated me are the immediate post-World War II years, the immediate post-Independence years, and the period extending from the 1970s to the present. The first, I see as a period when Malaysians, highly traumatised by the Japanese occupation of the country, rediscover their potentials and a sense of themselves; the second is characterised by the driving force to shape a multiracial country into a nation with a common sense of identity; and the third, as a time when Malaysians have the choice to either entrench themselves more deeply within their own cultures, or to come out from them and reach out to the world.
The Japanese occupation of the country, between 1942-1945, caused, among other consequences, what can be called a `cultural disrobing and displacement.' The enforced obeisance to the Japanese flag, Japanese visions and values (more than brutally distorted under war conditions) compelled Malaysians to forego any thought of emphasising their cultural sense. It was individual survival that was uppermost in their minds, not an insistence on correct cultural niceties and practices. With the end of the war came the shock, albeit a pleasurable one, of finding themselves back on their own cultural shores. More than a cultural levelling had taken place during the war years. The impotence and the absence of the British, during their defenceless years, may well have provided Malaysians with the opportunity to review their own cultural positions and vulnerabilities.
The negotiations conducted between the various communities in the pre-Independence period were, I think, really based on their sense of the vulnerable and the secure. In a recent meeting of the major component of the ruling party, this sentiment was expressed: if the party `failed to carry out such reforms, Malays and bumiputras would be humiliated and have to submit to others again' (The Star, 11 October 1996). With the colonial master about to depart, Malaysians must have cast a closer look at themselves, and realised that they had to work out their own destiny. There had to come into play a sense of mutual respect and regard for each other. With the birth of nationalism, the sense of community was further defined: the migrant communities would work in partnership with the indigenous community to steer the country towards the realisation of a Malaysian nation.
The government and the relevant bodies then undertook the task of developing a common Malaysian identity. This was attempted through linguistic, educational and economic policies. Under the `language as unifier' approach, the National Language, Bahasa Malaysia, has been gradually extended to various fields, from its use in official letters, radio and television broadcasts, through to commercial areas, and the courts. It has become the language of communication between the various communities when they meet in the shops, at official functions, and on the streets. Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction in schools and tertiary institutions, has acquired its intellectual and academic thrusts. Non-Malay students as my experience in sitting in on the Faculty Board of Examiners Meetings reveal are bagging firsts in Malay Studies. The present generation of students in the schools speak and read Malay with a proficiency that couldn't have been matched by the visionary or nationalistic zeal of the immediate post-Independence generation. The syllabi in schools too, have shifted their focus from a colonial to a postcolonial and nationalist outlook; more attention is now given to Malaysian history as opposed to English and European history during colonial times. Through the economic policies, attempts have been and are still being made to correct the imbalance in the economic standing of the various communities, and one can say that more than a measure of success has been achieved.
Other strategies have been designed and implemented, especially after the 13 May 1969 racial disturbances in the country, to reduce the distance between the various races, and produce a more integrated Malaysian society. The vision, after these disturbances, was to go even beyond this and create a common Malaysian race. While there will always be a gap between the vision and its execution, one has to go behind the policies and their implementation to see what really has happened. What kind of socio-cultural boundaries and territories have these policies defined?
The Contextualising Philosophy
Malaysians have always been tolerant in their outlook. Over the years, this outlook has come to articulate the attitude, `Live and let live.' This is a constructive attitude to adopt; it gives one the freedom to pursue one's ambitions without interference from any quarter. After the unfortunate racial confrontations mentioned above, the need for greater tolerance and a sense of togetherness were seen as the remedy for this particular social ill. On closer examination, one finds these twin elements have been gradually woven into a pragmatic philosophy for living within a multicultural society.
This philosophy has, over the years, developed within Malaysians an `accommodative space' that accounts for their peaceful co-existence. It contains within it the sense that the three communities have experienced history in different ways, and that this would fashion different attitudes among them. Two of these communities are migrant communities, and would therefore view life from a different sense of ambition; the remaining, indigenous community would view its life as more closely bound to the land. The suggestion here is that the former communities would be materialistic in their approach to the country, the latter more cultural.
Is there a tacit recognition behind this philosophy that it would be impossible to produce a common Malaysian identity because of the diversity of cultural attitudes and practices? That only a sense of togetherness could be generated among the multicultural population? What is this sense of togetherness? It is the feeling that the people of the country are living and working for a common objective; that they are seen to be living side-by-side, achieving goals side-by-side. But there still remains the feeling that this side-by-side divide need not be eroded or removed. It becomes an acknowledged frontier, a necessary barrier.
The following extract from a daily publication indirectly comments on this philosophy, and expresses another, more deep-seated need: `I have lived in this country all my life and I have come to accept minority status,' says Mahabratha, in a letter to the Sunday Star, 3 September 1995. Later he comments, `there is so much talk about national integration and racial unity but apart from the near Hollywood scale productions of Visit Malaysia Year and the National Day celebrations, whose sole purpose, in my opinion, is to attract tourist dollars, one sees hardly any effort towards creating a Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian Race).'
Though rather sensationally put, this letter to the editor nevertheless identifies the desire in the citizen to be assimilated into a much more seamless Malaysian society. It also carries the implication that the various communities have become cultural enclaves.
Usman Awang, one of the national laureates, voices a similar discontent in Sahabatku (My Friend. For Dr. M K Rajakumar), 1979/1982 [quoted in the Sunday Star, 8 September 1996]:
The one, free
nation we imagined,
Remains a distant truth,
My anger becomes bitterness,
When we are forced apart,
The distance ever wider,
Now that I am proclaimed `bumiputra'
and you are not.
[ bumiputra means prince of the soil or an indigenous citizen KS]
In multicultural Malaysia, the inner and outer worlds a person perceives may not possess a one-to-one relationship. Malaysians do possess common goals such as economic and materialistic security and success, the desire for relatively high educational achievements, but there isn't a common reality accessible to its citizens, who come from different cultural backgrounds.
This sense of being of the land, referred to in Usman Awang's poem, and of those only living there for its material rewards is touched upon in my story, Haunting the Tiger, first published in the New Straits Times in 1990. Consider the following passage:
"I know what's wrong," Zulkifli says. "There's something foreign to the tiger's nose. He won't show himself until the smells are gone."
"What smells?" he says.
"Mind and body smells," Zulkifli says.
Muthu is offended and turns away from him.
"Not in the way you can't go near a person," Zulkifli says, confronting Muthu. "The clothes you wear, the thoughts you think. Where do they come from?"
"They're just clothes and ideas," Muthu says.
"They must fit into the place where the tiger lives."
"Why must they fit in?" Muthu says. "I only want to break out from my father's hold on me."
"So you brought a purpose with you?" Zulkifli says. "And a way of thinking. How can you get into the tiger's stripes and spirit?"
"I can make the leap," Muthu says, thinking of the chameleon.
[Haunting the Tiger: Contemporary Stories from Malaysia, London: Skoob Books Publishing, 1996, p.45.]
The `tiger' represents the land, Zulkifli the Malay, and Muthu the Malaysian-born Indian. Muthu never makes the `leap' for he is confronted by more than the sense of discretion for the other's nationalistic yearnings that tolerance implies. There are, then, two ways to identify with the land: the way of the tiger, and the way of the chameleon. The way of the tiger is the continual and ritualistic immersion into the spirit of the land so as to he reaffirmed; the way of the chameleon is the blending into whatever economic, intellectual and social landscapes that are available. The leap is not made into a common culture for this common culture has not yet been evolved. What Muthu discovers is that he has to cling to an inherited sense of culture, that is, Indian culture and, at least for him, this has tragic consequences, and he dies unfulfilled.
Pragmatic tolerance has, at its most constructive level, generated mutual respect and the love for peace between and among the various races. The citizen and the communities have benefited from this sense of respect; it has brought the stability needed for a sustained economic growth and, subsequently, the opportunity to be economically well-off. However, this has also meant that each community remain within it cultural territory, and try not to transgress into the cultural domains of the other communities. This could be an attractive feature of the country: the colourful variety of the side-by-side existence of different cultures. But it also makes for a `cultural entrapment,' a reluctance to enter into the perspectives offered by other cultures.
The Foundations of a New Diaspora
The world as we know it now is going through a redefinition of ethnographical regions or territories; while the original cultural bases remain, the migration of peoples from one country to another for intellectual, economic or political reasons, has changed the periphery. We now talk of diasporas, and the double or triple spaces temporal, cultural, spatial they occupy. Multiplicity in thought, memory and space seems to define individuals and societies everywhere. It is no longer possible to retain the view that you come from a single-strand dominant culture. The majorities define the minorities as much as the reverse; in other words, the changing periphery causes alterations at the centre, if there is still a centre.
Put within this larger framework, a country that supports cultural purity and loyalty, directly or indirectly, may invite certain risks. One deadly risk, as I see it, is the isolation that a celebratory sense can bring to that culture and society. And this isolation, in turn, causes a closing off of its borders of awareness. How can this happen in an age of information technology and cybersurfing? Technology can be used as much for controlling as for informing; technology can be used as much for educating as for perpetuating unrealistic images of ourselves.
It can be seen from the foregoing that Malaysia does contain the potential to be a model for internationalising communities. It has already been internationalised, to some extent, through its trade relations and as a tourist destination. But we are concerned here with socio-cultural frontiers, and a cosmopolitan attitude. While a businessman is a businessman everywhere, how does the ordinary citizen, native or diasporic, become internationalised? I must say it is literature that can perform this function.
Having said this, I must also say that the literary situation in Malaysia suggests two ways through which communities came become internationalised. The first is through satisfying the ever-present curiosity about how individual communities have remained uninfluenced or retained their purity within a multicultural situation. In other words, this responding to literatures within a multi (hyphen) cultural situation. You read and experience Malay literature, either in the original language or through translations, to enter the Malay sense of the world; you do the same with the Tionghua (Chinese) and Tamil literatures produced in the country. This kind of reading strategy can be applied to the literatures of any multi (hyphen) cultural society in any part of the world.
For the just initiated reader, the experience of reading such texts would be somewhat like Columbus taking his first step into a foreign land; the exhilarating sighting and entry into a whole new world. He is perhaps accompanied by the feeling that he is the chosen one; that what he is about to experience is no less than life at its source, with all its primeval beauty, purity and mystery. He may revel in its very foreignness for a while, and all the suppressed questions may come flooding out. "Where is that original insight into reality?" he may ask. "Where the complexity? Where the transformation of leaden consciousness into the knowledge that supasseth all understanding?"
Perhaps the reader may not ask these questions; he may just enjoy what had not been previously accessible to him. Writers, however, are invariably confronted by this sense of dissatisfaction. This brings us to the second approach to literatures in multicultural societies, the one that carries the desire to investigate how the various communities relate to one another within that multicultural structure. Here there is a coincidence of impulse in both the reader and the writer. To understand this coincidence of motivation, one must explore the concept of minority perceptions.
While this may have been taken as ethnic minority perceptions, there has also come into being, perhaps stimulated by the earlier one, a different and more comprehensive kind of minority perception. This is evident from the debates and discussions, sometimes rising to the level of controversies, conducted in the local newspapers and journals.
The main thrust of these discussions reveals a dissatisfaction with literary activity that is concerned only with a single community or monocultural focus or outlook. A. Samad Said, a veteran journalist and member of "ASAS 50," a group of Malays who fought for independence in the 1950s, and whose motto was "the pen is mightier than the sword" comments in a recent interview that "Malay literature has not come of age. It seems to be operating within its own community, it is too sheltered and there is no free development" (Sun Magazine, 15 August 1996, p.3). This is equally true of the other communal, that is, Tionghua and Tamil, literatures. There is, for instance, in Tamil literature the desire to see itself as an extension of Tamilnadu literature.
This exclusivist attitude is criticised in a letters to the editor column in another Malaysian newspaper. Khadija Ismael responds in the following manner to a previous letter sent to the same column:
[The previous letter writer] also says that "anyone who hopes to evaluate Malay literature has to have the perception and imagination of the Malays one has to talk, thin, dream and even procreate in that language. I can safely assume that [the previous writer] is not an Englishman and I dare him to claim that he has the perception and imagination of the Englishmen. From his letter, I doubt that he thinks or dreams, let alone procreate in English. Yet he presumes to show that Shakespeare writes badly. (New Straits Times, 10 January 1996, p.9)
The criticism here exposes an extreme, even absurd, form of cultural loyalty: that its literature can only be approached from its own sense of the imagination. Where the imagination needs to be taken as the universalised power of perception, the exclusivist attitude calls for a reductionist and localised view of literature. Kassim Ahmad , a writer and socialist, attributes this attitude to a frightening trend. He says, in advising how critics could awaken writers to their fuller roles, that
[The critic] should not confine himself to deploring and criticising cultural close-doorism; he should more particularly criticise the cultural imperialist trend that is really at the root of some writers' cultural exclusivism. But positively he must celebrate cultural patriotism in order to also promote internationalist-humanist culture. (New Straits Times, 10 January 1996, p.9)
The "cultural patriotism" referred to here has to be taken in a broader sense: it implies, I like to believe, a faithful representation of the realities found in the multicultural country. It would embrace the depiction of all the available cultural realities, major and minor, and even a review of these two terms. But what is more important her is the reference to "cultural imperialist trend". Kassim Ahmad seems to suggest that there has been and there is a movement from without to impose upon the various peoples of the country the culture of politically more powerful countries. Remove this desire for producing self-glorifying, cultural images, he seems to be saying, and then you will have a more realistic and accommodative literature.
He, together with the non-ethnic minority group, is aware of the emergent voice that could be a more representative voice of the country. This is also sensed by other writers functioning from within a monocultural centre. Says Samad Said, a novelist and another national laureate: "A writer must unravel the complexities withinhuman nature and he must answer to his conscience. He must also be exposed to literature from around the world. Writers of Malay literature need to experiment, transform, grow and mature together with the issues related to culture, ethnicity and the changes happening within our country" (Sun Magazine, 15 August 1996, p.4).
There is, then, a community, comprising literary and non-literary people, that is concerned with not only the way literature is defined and written, but also with the quality of thought and life that can be made available to the populace. While it is difficult to find a term that describes community adequately, it is not so difficult to identify its hopes and ambitions. The members of this new minority community come from the various racial groups in this country. They are insiders and outsiders at the same time; they know that they are conditioned by their individual cultures, but at the same time they will not let themselves be circumscribed by them.
Their approach to individual, historical and socio-cultural developments is markedly different from that of the cultural loyalist; they will not subscribe to the concept of pragmatic tolerance discussed earlier. Nor will they rely on a vision projected from fruition some time in the future. For them the society of the future is already here.
This society is seen as comprising individual cultural bases developed from several responses to the country's history, but the new minority will not accept the great divide between the cultures. It seems unnecessary and fruitless to flog the dead horse of colonialism; nor is it necessary to play up to an ethnocentric nationalism. A more pragmatic and constructive approach would be to accept the beneficial aspects of history and to see it in a context that would include all the communities' contributions to the development of the nation.
Albeit, this is a minority without power, it does not seek to influence through power; it chooses to negotiate through the more persuasive imaging of a vision in the present, both through its lifestyles and literature. It is relevant to identify, at this point, its departures from the canons of cultural behaviour and, consequently, its involvement in the production of a more liberated literature.
Though it is not uncommon to find the educated and more affluent Malaysian urbane in his outlook, what members from this minority group represent is not such a rare and accidental cosmopolitan attitude. Partially defined by their culture, they inhabit different, more objective intellectual, cultural and imaginative spaces.
To begin with, they are, in a sense, exiles in their own homelands. It is through this exiled sense that they are able to see more objectively and comprehensively. This places them in the paradoxical position of being within reach of heir cultures and yet of not being able to effect changes to them. One is reminded of the distance that migrants put between themselves and their own cultures when they live in another country. But that distance is not altogether unconstructive; it compels the migrant to live out, in memory, the culture he has been forced to leave behind. And often the culture that comes filtered through that distance is a remembered and strengthened one because the sense of uprootedness that accompanies the migrant allows him to choose only those aspects that can be effectively merged into the lifestyle he adopts in the new land. This kind of cultural memory also functions within the exile-at-home.
Just as the migrant has continually to adopt an accommodative sense and hybridise his approach to life in the new country, so too the exile-at-home. The latter, somewhat like the chameleon referred to earlier, seeks to inhabit, simultaneously, different intellectual, cultural and imaginative spaces. He is not only aware of his own culture but also of the cultures around him, and of those inherited through his education and reading. He therefore occupies several cultural spaces just as he does several imaginative spaces; and add to this his tendency to expose himself to and assimilate various forms of philosophical and literary discourses, and you have an almost complete profile of what I would like to call the new diasporic man.
Unlike the traditional diaspora, the new diaspora consists of men and women dispersed among various cultural communities, and who seek another, more liberated cultural community. Exiled within their own homelands, they construct and live within a common mental and imaginative space. This common mental and imaginative space is not arbitrarily or mechanically put together; it evolves from the recognition that man has been artificially categorised into a monocultural, ethnic and political being when multiplicity is his true nature. It is this multiplicity that the new diasporic man is trying to regain.
In Malaysia, and in countries with similar political and social structures, the struggles of this minority group are steadily becoming apparent. These struggles are being, even if minimally and indirectly, recognised by those in power. Salleh Ben Joned, one of Malaysia's outspoken writers and critics, says:
I wonder what these boys [followers of the culture of fear] think of that remarkable speech Anwar [Deputy Primes Minister] gave at the opening of the recent international World Malay Symposium. He said something there that must have disappointed the Malaysian Malay participants of the symposium. Especially those who were possessed by the lurid fantasy of "global Malay civilisation." What did he say to them? According to the New Straits Times (24 September 1996): " reject ethnocentrism and continue to maintain solidarity in a multicultural world." (Journal One, October 1996, p.112.)
And referring to another speech, namely the Prime Minister's, Salleh says:
One more thing Dr M said in that speech which needs to be highlighted and intelligently debated. Talking about the West in relation to the challenge of becoming a democratic and developed nation "in our own mould", he nicely said: "We choose the best from everywhere and reject the bad even if it comes from within." (Journal One, October 1996,p.112.)
While cultural loyalists may practise what is termed in the Malaysian context the "culture of fear," the new diaspora does not seek to be reassured by an imagined cultural stability. It is prepared to adopt and extend the chameleon outlook, that is, live within an ever-widening sense of the world. The cultural patriot may want to insist upon the tiger approach to living within a multicultural situation, but not the new diasporic man.
The writing intended to reveal the true nature of any society must therefore come from this diaspora for it depends on an interstitial perspective, one which can define the interfaces of cultures and beyond. The writers of this new community are as yet few in number, but they are already upholding the attitude David Malouf, the Australian writer, sees as the most courageous and at the same time the most frightening: "Writers have to be naïve naïve is the wrong word but in a state of innocence when writing. Everything you think you know you have to let fall out of your head, because the only thing that's going to be interesting in the book is what you don't yet know."
First given as a keynote address at the Internationalising Communities Conference, University of Southern Queensland, Australia 27-30 November 1996
Later published in: Donald H McMillen ed. Globalisation and Regional Communities: Geoeconomic, Sociocultural and Security Implications for Australia, University of Southern Queensland Press, 1997, pp.18-23.
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