Put Malay Literature on the Web
M. Bakri Musa
In a recent speech honoring the late Syed Hussein Al-Atas, Raja Nazrin urged Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to do more to disseminate the ideas of the nation’s foremost public intellectual specifically and literary works in Malay generally.
The Prince lamented that he still could not get a copy of Ishak Haji Mohammad’s (Pak Sako) Putera Gunung Tahan (The Prince of Mount Tahan) and Anak Mat Lela Gila. (The Son of Mad Mat Lela).
I share his lament. While I could readily secure Harry Aveling’s excellent translations, I have difficulty getting the original works of our Pejuang Sastera (Literary Warrior), as well as of our other writers. Lamentations alone however, even of a Crown Prince, will not achieve anything. We need specific programs aimed at creating and disseminating literary works in Malay.
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was tasked way back in 1956 with this important national mission. However, over half a century and many billions later, we still cannot get books by one of our most celebrated writers. It is time to consider fresh strategies.
One, post such works on the web with free access. Two, encourage through generous rewards the translations into Malay of seminal books and articles. Three, subsidize the mailing of books and publications in Malay so someone in Ulu Kenawit could order them without incurring shipping costs that would far exceed the value of the mailed materials.
Such endeavors would effectively expand the intellectual horizons of Malay readers and wean them off the parochialism of Utusan Melayu and titillations of Kosmos. Exposing Malays to a wider spectrum of views and opinions would truly trigger a revolusi mental (mental revolution); a genuine one, not the mindless sloganeering version of the 1970s. Syed Hussein was rightly dismissive of that pseudo-intellectual fad.
In his book Intellectuals In Developing Societies, Syed Hussein advocated an assertive role for intellectuals. He considered that essential if for no other reason than “W[w]hen the intellectuals go down, the fools go up.” Then they (the fools) would end up becoming ministers and leaders, running and ruining the country.
At the height of the Islamic civilization, as provided for in the Syaria, scholars provided this crucial and fundamental checks and balances on the powers of the rulers. With ‘modernization,’ this crucial role of the scholars was gone.
It is this glaringly absence that produces self-professed Islamic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia that have more in common with fascist Germany and totalitarian Russia, both in the traits of the regimes as well as the tendencies of their leaders.
Apart from scholars and intellectuals taking on this crucial role, we must also elevate the intellectual level of the community, specifically its discourses. That would also reduce the probability one of those fools becoming leader. Increasing the amount and variety of published materials in Malay and easing access to them would achieve this goal. Such a move would also increase the presence of our national language in cyberspace.
Dewan Bahasa need not reinvent the wheel. Collaborate with Google, which has an on-going project to digitize all books in the English language. Or Dewan could do it on its own. The technology is well established – merely scanning the materials and posting them on the web.
“Soft” issues like copyright are readily surmountable. Dewan could compensate copyright owners to induce them to release their works into the public domain. The added bonus for those writers is that their works would now be more widely read, which I presume was their primary purpose in writing.
Some of our enduring Hikayats are already in the public domain, so the issue of copyright does not arise. In posting them I suggest that we retain their original script and spelling but have an accompanying ‘modern’ edition conforming to today’s styles and spellings. To enhance the intellectual value, Dewan could commission some scholars to write an accompanying commentary or critique.
There is already a model for this (www.online-literature.com), which now has nearly 3,000 books online and increasing, as well as an equal number of poems and short stories.
Kassim Ahmad recently posted his Perwatakan Hang Tuah, both the Malay translation as well as his original dissertation, which was in English, on his website (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com). He reached considerably more readers as a consequence of that extra effort, especially among the younger generation. Previously both works were not readily available.
Our universities too could collaborate. Imagine if all their books, articles and dissertations were posted on the web, they would then be readily accessible worldwide by scholars and lay readers alike. That would extend exponentially the reach of our institutions, thereby enhancing their reputation. Right now the results of all those hard work lie unread in their libraries.
I would expand the project to include works by Indonesian writers. Currently it is difficult to buy books written by some of their greatest writers. I challenge anyone to get me a copy of Abdul Muis’ Salah Asohan (Wayward Upbringing), or even later works like Mochtar Lubis’ Senja Di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta). Many of those Indonesian works are still censored. Posting them on the web would effectively bypass that barrier.
Encouraging Published Works in Malay
The government currently has the Translation Institute tasked to do these translations. However that institute is not productive, despite consuming prodigious amounts of public funds.
Disband the agency and use that money to fund directly writers and translators. For every original book published in Malay, fiction or non-fiction, I would pay the author RM 10,000, and its publisher, RM 5,000, or any other appropriate amount. For works in science and technology, I would double the payments; for translated works, I would cut the figure by half. In return the publisher or author would agree to provide a complimentary copy to every public library and academic institution in the country, as well permission to post on the Internet.
Additionally, pay local writers and experts to translate seminal commentaries and essays from leading publications. Dewan could then publish them in Dewan Dunia, a Malay version of Reader’s Digest.
As an added bonus, my plan would provide our woefully underpaid local academics with a potential new and legitimate source of additional income, at least for those productive ones. They would also gain, doubly – financially and through enhancement of their scholarly reputation. At present, the vast amounts spent on the Translation Institute as well as Dewan Bahasa go to administrators and civil servants, not writers and producers. Show me a book that has been written or translated by the head (or any senor staff) of the Translation Institute or Dewan Bahasa!
Today in America I can order online any book at the same price as if I have bought it at the local store. With US Postal Service subsidies, the cost of mailing is so cheap that vendors like Amazon.com often absorb it to encourage you to buy from them.
Our Post Office could similarly subsidize the mailing of printed materials in Malay. Imagine the booming of sales of Malay publications with such an initiative. That would encourage publishers of Malay books and periodicals as their market would immediately be vastly expanded. It would also nurture the reading habits among Malaysians far more effectively than all the exhortations of our ministers and teachers.
I would respectfully suggest to Raja Nazrin to go beyond simply lamenting. He should use his considerable influence to effect these changes. He could begin with the University of Malaya where he chairs the governing board. Encourage it to post all its dissertations and books on the web. I would love to read Ungku Aziz’s seminal The Fragmentation of Estates or his paper on establishing Tabung Haji. Who knows, Raja Nazrin may finally get to read his favorite Pak Sako’s novels.