A Postcolonial Poet with a Quest for
Interview with Malaysian Laureate, Muhammad Haji Salleh
Muhammad Haji Salleh is a leading poet of Malaysia, one who has
been conferred the title of National Literary Laureate. Writing both
in Malay, the national language, and English, Muhammad has devoted
himself to the development of the Malaysian literary tradition from
the time of his youth right into his advanced age. He has not only
distinguished himself as a poet but also as a literary scholar and
By Md. Salleh Yaapar
As a postcolonial poet and a professor of literature with an early
Western orientation, Muhammad is known for his passionate quest for
identity and roots. He first started writing poetry in English and
Malay when he was studying in Britain in the early sixties. Having
established himself as a writer, he virtually stopped producing poems
in English, and henceforth exerts his creative energy mainly on writing
poetry within the national literary tradition. However, he profusely
translates his own poems into English. Concurrently, as a scholar/thinker
Muhammad also devotes his time to the difficult search for Malay
With the colonial heritage as a springboard, Muhammad the poet embarks
on a homeward journey in quest for identity and roots. In fact, this
quest is the hallmark of his poems as reflected especially in the
outstanding collections of Sajak-sajak Pendatang (Poems of the Outsider,
1973), The Travel Journals of Si Tenggang II (1979), Time and Its
People (1978), Sajak-sajak dari Sejarah Melayu (Poems from the Malay
Annals, 1981), Dari Seberang Diri (From the Other Side of the Self,
1982), and Rowing Down Two Rivers (2000). To the poet, it is necessary
for one within a society in transition to be as open and international
as possible. But, in being open it is important not to abandon one’s
tradition and lose one’s identity. The ideal is to strike a
balance, i.e., to be open and international, yet rooted in one’s
own society, culture and tradition. Muhammad’s poems reveal
that negotiating such a balance in defining oneself and one’s
roots could be a difficult and painful process.
Prof. Muhammad Haji Salleh was in Leiden from 1993 to 1995 as the
first holder of the European Chair of Malay Studies. Last May he
was back in the city presenting a paper on Malay poetics at the International
Seminar on Malay Literature. The seminar was jointly organized by
the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden and
the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. During
the seminar’s opening ceremony at the Faculty Club, Rapenburg
6, Muhammad read a selection of his Malay and English poems, including
one in which he recollects fond memories of the city and friends
that he left more than seven years ago.
In between my chores as convenor of the seminar, I had an opportunity
to interview him at the Faculty Club while he was sipping coffee
among friends and catching up with old times. The following is an
excerpt of the interview.
MSY: The last poem that you read just now seems
to reflect your fond memories of Leiden, the university, the IIAS,
and the many friends
and colleagues some of whom are here today. Could you highlight
some of the significant observations and experience during your
stay here as the first holder of the Malay chair.
MHS: I came to Leiden as a teacher and as a poet,
and I wanted to write as academic and poet, and I was lucky being
able to do both.
the Sulalat al-Salatin, worked on the translations of my poems, which
were published in Beyond the Archipelago, and wrote quite a few papers.
My fondest memories were both working in the KITLV and University
libraries. While it rained or snowed outside, I was quite warm and
enisled with my manuscripts and books. These are two of the best
libraries in my field.
Leiden and its surrounding is beautiful town with a natural and man-made
lakes, polders and rivers. I especially love the polders and the
farms, for they were, as it were, my backyard in Merenwijk. My Dutch
colleagues have been wonderful – many of them helping me to
know the soul and the shores of the country. Professor’s Teeuw’s
diligence, Prof. Maier’s exuberance and Dr. van der Molen’s
humility are scholarly lives that I noted with a great interest.
did the experience impact on or relate to your career as a professor
of literature, and of Malay Studies in general.
MHS: When I arrived in Leiden in 1993, it was
not the first, nor the second. I have often spent time in the libraries
here. Dutch scholarship in Malay-Indonesian studies is a branch of
the general scholarship in the humanities, and very dynamic. Interest
in new theories was subsequently reflected in these studies. Thus,
studies on quite rare themes equally benefited from contemporary
theoretical considerations. In this manner deconstruction, `the other’,
post-colonial perspectives, and feminism became natural parts of
their works on the Archipelago. In Leiden I was more theory-conscious,
of the contemporary ones on the one hand, but on the other also the
Malay and Indonesian, the mode and material of Southeast Asian thought
on literature. My book Puitika Sastera Melayu (Malay Literary Poetics)
partly grew from this consciousness.
MSY: Now, about your poetry. From my reading, the
theme of the quest for identity, of defining oneself, seems to be
central to your poems.
This could be observed not only in those poems written in Malay,
but also in your English poems. To me, this quest or search is interesting
but rather problematic. It is difficult to express, and many readers
have difficulties in understanding you. How do you respond to this?
MHS: I have lived in many countries - Malaysia,
Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, the U.S., England, Holland and Germany.
These countries, their
literary cultures, languages have seeped into my natural desire to
get the best out of them. At the same time, being for a long time
a foreigner, I had to always define myself – not only in ethnic
terms, but as a citizen of a bigger world. One does not appreciate
one’s uniqueness when one lives in the home country. But, when
one lives somewhere else, especially in the former colonial countries,
one searches hard for one’s uniqueness, difference, and possible
contribution to the world. These are the more colourful aspects of
the culture that one wears on one clothes, words and ways. They are
one’s best sides to show off – or at least as a statement
of identity. It is interesting that I learnt more of Malaysian worldviews,
theory of literature, rare manuscripts, in Europe, Japan and Indonesia,
as I was always in the process of analyzing myself – the curse
of the poet and student of literature, but also a fertile act of
So to begin with, it was not a simple life that I led, and the person grown
on these different earths was equally complex or even confused. Images and
metaphors came from as far away as the desert towns of Morocco, the mountains
of Norway and the villages of India or Nepal. They subconsciously intermix,
combine and recombine all the time in my Malaysian jumble of a personality.
When I was director of the Institute of Malay World and Civilization my whole
life was directed towards defining the Malay – searching out his epistemology,
his sense of beauty and poetics. Therefore, finding and defining an identity
almost became full time a profession. It was a good time to search for it,
for the whole world, broken down by post-colonialism, was also looking for
it. Suddenly my own search confluence into a bigger and more universal concern.
This search was also embarked on by the other part of me, the poet. My favourite
works in Malay-Indonesian literature are the proverbs, the pantuns and Sulalat
al-Salatin – these are the works of individual or collective genius of
the Malaysians and Indonesians. Thus, I searched out my roots among their pages
and words, learning from their unique use of metaphors, their closeness to
nature and the episodic and subtle styles. As you know, I have written a whole
volume of poems based on the chapters of Sulalat al-Salatin, reworking and
reinterpreting passages, characters and situations. I have also appropriated
the metaphor and legend of the prodigal son, Si Tenggang, not only for my own
predicament, but, I think, also for those who must face both the new and the
old in order to be a modern person. Other poems describe the daily struggles
of the little man, wherever he may be, in the Chinatown in Bangkok, on the
burning and packed streets of Surabaya, the villages of Luzon, and closer to
home, the traditional markets of Sabah and the like. Like many other poets,
I discover as I write – not only the culture but myself. This is of course
not the usual theme for readers who seek simple and happy poems. However, the
new problematic man must be defined, given words and thoughts.
I think my life have too many settings and scene, too many countries as backgrounds
and starting of points, so that they present some difficulties to some readers.
But I guess with a little more background it should not be too difficult.
am still fascinated with your autobiographical volume, The Travel
Journals of Si Tenggang II. As you may remember, I have written
about it twelve years ago. In this stimulating collection, you
invoke the image of Si Tenggang, the rebellious son in Malay-Indonesian
folklore. According to legend, having left his poor and ugly parents
for years the lost son returned to his native village at a command
of a ship, and with a beautiful wife too. Rejecting his parents,
he was cursed by his mother, and together with the ship, he was
turned into a stone. You consider yourself the second Si Tenggang.
Like the legendary figure, you too travelled extensively abroad
to gain experience and new values. In the lead poem “si tenggang’s
homecoming,” you declare yourself a stranger who is freed
from the soil, one who has found oneself. However, compared to
the original Si Tenggang, yours is not a total assertion. To me,
the poem reveals some inner conflict. I know in a developing society
like that of Malaysia it is not easy to assert one’s identity.
Could you comment on this?
MHS: Thank you for the opportunity. This poem is used in the Malaysian
schools, and since then I have been going to schools too having to
explain my sins! The Tenggang we are dealing with is not the first
generation, but the fictional son, left behind in another country.
This son, Si Tenggang II, is partly a traveller like his father,
but he was not a merchant, rather a student, one interested in the
cultures, in similarities and differences, in identities, and fortunately
also in contributing to his homeland. He came back as a person with
larger horizon, though he was no longer fully Malaysian, in the traditional
sense, but fortunately, he may be seen as a Malaysian of the future.
All of us are Si Tenggang II , in a way of speaking – for we
have come away from the village, the original home and learning other
ways, and not returning home whole, as traditional villagers. It
is this dilemma of trying to get the best of the two worlds and at
the same time also be still sane, that is the difficult part he has
As you may have guessed, Si Tenggang II is partly I too, as I wrote
the poem on my return from the U.S. In that country I had to define
myself as a Malaysian, now on my return I had to again to define
myself – the new person, the new Malaysian, who was proud of
his roots, but proud too that he has been part of a bigger world.
I am in fact sometime known as Si Tenggang, for good or for worse,
the metaphor that I have chosen also for myself. But, this poem reflects
also, as you say, the inner conflict, or perhaps the difficult mix
that is me, and that is the new Malaysian. It may be seen as a poem
written in self-defence and self-definition.
MSY: This search for one’s roots and the needs for defining oneself,
why is it so important? Has it to do with the colonial experience,
or the post-colonial situation, and the fact that the Malay society
is undergoing a rapid change?
MHS: I think you have put your finger on two of the most important
points. Firstly, as a colonised people, we were a conquered people,
and ways were looked down as inferior. Our language was replaced.
Our traditional works were not taught in school, and our civilisation
put on ice.
It is also quite ironic that I was awaken to feelings of anti-colonialism
in England, in the US, and also the Netherlands. In these countries,
you find a greater freedom to think and act compared to what was
granted to us when we were under them. Here people were almost equal,
at least, or more equal. Here too voices against colonialism and
repression were allowed and heard.
While in Malaysia I was taught that the greatest literature was English,
but in England itself, through English I discovered other literatures
as great – those of the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and without
prejudice, literature in the Malay-Indonesian languages. But, at
the same time I was enthralled by the experiments of the Latin Americans,
writers such as Borges, Neruda, Paz and Valenzuela. In England and
western countries, I was dismantling the colonial superstructure
built through colonial education in my mind and emotions. It was
then I felt free and all the richer because I have crossed borders
and found great literatures from less known countries. Ironically,
I could do this because I knew English and could read the English
While I was a student in Singapore, my poems were fighting ones,
in trying to define the Malays, but also the Singaporeans, vis-à-vis
the British. They were ideological or political poems. It is a shame
that before we could even define ourselves this great new tsunami
of globalisation almost swept us all away – not only the Malaysians,
but almost every one. Multinational corporations, American arrogance
and self-interest, scheming international banks and bodies, western
media and points of view daily rain down on us – relentlessly.
What little gain we made we are going to lose in the next generation.
Sadly we have become mere crass, consumers par excellence, more insensitive
(than the American and the Europeans) and have even marginalised
our languages and cultures to make way for English and pop music
and pop fashions.
is a developing, post-colonial society. You have your roots in
the Malay tradition, but you were educated mainly in the
West or in the modern, western manner. Am I right in referring
to you as a postcolonial poet, one who is intensely engaged in
a dialogue with his colonial heritage, and negotiating, so to speak,
between the periphery and the centre?
MHS: For a long time I considered myself a poet who wrote about what
he thought and felt. But as I have always been interested in theories
and have written about postcolonialism in Malaysian literature, and
through insightful writing by scholars like you, I have come to realise
that I was and am quite involved in deconstructing the colonialism
within myself, my past. I have reacted quite strongly against the
stifling British education, its language and values. You might have
known that I stopped writing poetry in the English language as a
political statement of my total return to the language that was marginalised
and humiliated by the British. The British educational system considered
that Malay could only be used for the primary school level, after
that the only language that could take you to higher levels of education
was English. So I was disconnected from the language, my intellectual
language was English, and it has stayed there for a long time until
I taught myself to write new modern Malay – over at least forty
years. A choice of a mother tongue over a colonial language is a
traumatic choice for people like me who went to school in that language.
Many of my poems return to the 15th century Melaka, the contemporary
traditional village, the market, which still keep the character of
the Malaysians. These are postcolonial poems, or results of a postcolonial
stance – the poet who has been colonised has come home, and
found himself there. Some of my poems deal directly with England
as in “England in the Spring” in Rowing Down Two Rivers.
I think I have another side of the postcolonial. As a student of
literature I worked out projects to retrieve the important achievements
of the west – I collected and am still collecting pantuns,
especially in northern Malaysia and the Archipelago, seek out traditional
concepts in life and literature, transcribed some old and rare texts.
These I think, humbly, are acts of postcolonialism.
MSY:You are also known for your nationalistic stance and your dedication
to the culture of the Malay world. In fact, there are people who
think that your frame of reference is purely Malay, not Malaysia.
MHS: As I mentioned earlier the involvement in Malaysian culture
was both a journey of return to Malaysia and Malaysian roots, and
to work, research in fields that I notice are of great importance
but yet not worked on – theory of Malay literature, the pantun,
the great books etc.
It is ironic that among my English readers I am considered very Malay,
but among my Malay readers I am considered among the most westernised
- though I write of local themes and texts etc. I guess I have both
the Malaysian and the western in me. Sometimes I cook up a concoction
from these too potions, and at other times I am closer to the purer
form on both sides. The Sajak-sajak Sejarah Melayu Poems from the
Malay Annals, would be attempts to be closer to the traditional roots
while Aksara Usia (Time’s Alphabet) is more contemporary in
But I want to be known as a Malaysian writer rather than just Malay,
because though my references are mostly to the Malay, who is a subject
of my study for over forty years, I often deal with the other ethnic
Malaysian groups -- the Ibans and Kadazans, the Indians and the Chinese.
I plan to write more for Malaysians as a whole represent them more,
express their unique worlds.
MSY: One of your newer volumes, Rowing Down Two Rivers, reveals your
true nature as a Malaysian poet with a global outlook, and one who
has been enriched by both tradition and modernity. Would you like
to say something about the circumstances in which some of the poems
in this volume were written?
MHS: This is a selection from my poetic output – since 1973.
Things I want to preserve.
Perhaps reading through these works one can feel the horizon of the
poet – and find answers to the questions of tradition and contemporariness.
I tend to go in and out of tradition, am inspired by the new language
and tone of international writing, which I feel I am a part, as I
go to many poetry readings at home and overseas. But, the music of
old Malay sings within me, influence the sounds I string on paper.
I have been writing since 1963 – so exactly 40years now, having
started in England when I was a student there and was deeply influenced
by Eliot, Auden and R.S. Thomas. These earlier steps were taken in
general imitation of the style of the 1960s, but added to that were
my personal feelings, slant on life and a language that was also
sensitive to what is good in the Malay language, but was not present
in English, and that I wanted to include in my English poems.
I have initially a split loyalty – to both languages, it is only in the
1970’s that I returned totally to the Malay language. All languages have
their own personalities, tones and music, and these two languages are indeed
very different in their almost contrasting characters. So when I wrote in English
I tended to be grittier in tone, with less emotional content. In Malay the
reigning value is a more harmonious surface and music. Though I experimented
with both, finally I wrote poems that combined these two traits – my
English is lighter in its emotional content, and grittier in its sounds, but
of course less so than the English poet.
MSY: Finally, what is the future of national literature, or a literature written
in the national language, in a post-colonial, developing nation like Malaysia?
MHS: Unfortunately, Malaysian literature in the national language is falling
back from its earlier passion and popularity. Reading is not a chosen past
for many of the young, who tend to choose the computer and the films. This
is a sad global phenomenon and bound to have its effects on the future generations.
There is surely a need to get closer to the reader, to read their needs and
desires. But, I will not go all the way and wish for merely popular literature,
which now means romances, fantasy and escapism. I was in Japan last year, and
was alerted to the same problem in a country well known for its readers and
reading cultures. Like many of the scholars and writers I have interviewed,
I have come to believe that good literature will be always written, because
it is the significant speech and thought of the nation, and the democratic
and level representation of reality. The number of readers will be lesser though,
but we hope that it will be a quality audience too. In the meantime, we must
write better, find themes that are more contemporary and experiment more.
Md. Salleh Yaapar is the current holder of the European Chair of
at the International Institute for Asian Studies,
Leiden. Prior to this, he was Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research & Development),
Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia. His area of specialization
is Malay and Comparative Literature. His publications include Mysticism
and Poetry: A Hermeneutical Reading of the Poems of Amir Hamzah and
Ziarah Ke Timur (Pilgrimage to the Orient).
Biodata of the Poet
Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh (b.1942) grew up in Penang, Malaysia,
but studied in various schools in the country. He went to the universities
of Singapore, Malaya and Michigan for his tertiary education, obtaining
a PhD in Comparative Literature in 1973. He has taught at various
universities in Malaysia as well as in Michigan, North Carolina,
Leiden and Hamburg, and was a Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University
of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the University of Kyoto.
Muhammad has also held various posts at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia,
including the director of the Institute of Malay World and Civilization
for about five years. At present, he is professor of literature
at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.
Muhammad’s uniqueness partly lies in his ability to write
equally well in both Malay and English and he also translates from
As a poet, critic, translator, editor and professor of literature
he has published more than 35 books in all, in both Malay and English,
while also being for more than 25 years the Chief Editor of Tenggara:
Journal of Southeast Asian Literature. He has published twelve books
of poems: Sajak-sajak Pendatang (Poems of the Outsider, 1973), Buku
Perjalanan Si Tenggang II (1977), Travel Journals of Si Tenggang
II (1979), Time and its People (1978), Sajak-sajak dari Sejarah Melayu
(Poems from the Malay Annals, 1981), Dari Seberang Diri (From the
Other Side of the Self, 1982), Kalau, Atau dan Maka (If, Or and Then,
1966), Watak Tenggara (Characters of the Southeast, 1993), Beyond
the Archipelago, (1995), Sebuah Unggun di tepi Danau (A Campfire
by the Lake, 1996) Aksara Usia (The Alphabet of Time, 1996), Rowing
Down Two Rivers (1999).
Muhammad has won many national prizes for his poetry and criticism/theory,
and was named Literary Laureate of Malaysia in 1991. Among his international
awards are ASEAN Literary Award 1977, S.E.A. Write Award 1997, MASTERA
( Southeast Asia Literary Council) Award 2001. His most recent theoretical
writing is Puitika Sastera Melayu (Malay Literary Poetics, 2000).
Besides, four manuscripts are with the different publishers waiting
Two Poems by Muhammad Haji Salleh
physical journey that i traverse
is a journey of the soul,
transport of the self from a fatherland
to a country collected by sight and mind,
the knowledge that sweats from it
is a stranger’s knowledge,
from one who has learnt to see, think
and choose between
the changing realities.
true i have growled at my mother and grandmother
but only after having told of my predicament
that they have never brought to reason.
the wife that i begun to love in my loneliness,
in the country that alienated me
they took to their predecisions
i have not entirely returned, i know,
having been changed by time and place,
coarsened by problems
estranged by absence.
i have brought myself home,
seasoned by confidence,
broadened by land and languages,
i am no longer afraid of the oceans
or the differences between people,
not easily fooled
by words or ideas.
the journey was a loyal teacher
who was never tardy
in explaining cultures or variousness
look, i am just like you,
sensitive to what i believe is good,
and more ready to understand
than my brothers.
the contents of these boats are yours too
because i have returned.
travels made me
a seeker who does not take
what is given without sincerity
or that which demands payments from beliefs.
the years at sea and coastal states
have taught me to choose,
to accept only those tested by comparison,
or that which matches the words of my ancestors,
which returns me to my village
and its perfection.
the ways of the rude
to hold reality in a new logic,
debate with hard and loud facts.
but i too am humble, respecting,
man and life.
i am not a new man,
not very different
the people and cities
of coastal ports
taught me not to brood
over a foreign world,
or fear possibilities.
i am you,
freed from the village,
its soils and ways,
i have found myself.
england in the spring
the arctic winds howl through the crotch of march
wildly sweeping the night’s litter.
newspapers with faded truths
plastic containers unmanaged by civilization
let the city’s dust and sin
settle over the streets’ gravel and ancient drains.
time has lost its sun.
i come to north london
passing by cold chaotic indian sundry shops
that sit precariously on the edge of finchley,
a bright japanese mini-market
is made up by the advertisement’s moods.
the wind that chases
among the dark lanes
scratches the city’s self,
turns our eyes that we may see ourselves,
we who always examine with disillusionment.
in the dim lanes
i meet a stranger from a continent
built by the sun,
history and need
brought him here,
making him a sceptical british
the shops and the bright saris
are reminders of a past century,
a history and times edges
blending sand and currents,
flow and move like the oceans,
dashing limestone cliffs and river mud,
chaining jamaicans to boats
bestowing dreams on hong kong coffee shop owners,
or a quiet exile for ugandan cloth merchants.
time’s ditch rushes in between.
now on the lanes of the municipal houses,
a caribbean boy falls in love with a punk girl,
a welsh is hugging a punjabi women.
all make love in cockney.
greek children queue up
for the oily chinese fried rice.
in the restaurant the father steals meat
from his shrinking souvlaki.
northern Indian tandoori perfumes a whole street,
merging into the odour of fish ‘n’ chips.
promptly he curses the smell of spices.
the grey eyes of the english stare
upon the fog and history’s break-point,
they have learnt to be angry or accepting
that history must be paid with history,
in a hundred island and states,
must be expiated in the centre of london,
in the dirty mills of birmingham
or the news-stands of oxford.