IIAS Newsletter 32


A Postcolonial Poet with a Quest for Identity
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 thinker.

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 poetics.
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. I transcribed 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.

MSY: How 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 and participated in conferences 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 the writer.
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.

MSY: I 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 to negotiate.
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, our land 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 translations.
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.

MSY: Malaysia 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 a desire 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 its style.
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 time 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.

Prof. Md. Salleh Yaapar is the current holder of the European Chair of Malay Studies 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 both. 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 publication.

Two Poems by Muhammad Haji Salleh

si tenggang’s homecoming


the 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.


it’s 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.


but look,
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,
still malay,
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.


i’ve learnt
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
from you;
the people and cities
of coastal ports
taught me not to brood
over a foreign world,
suffer difficulties
or fear possibilities.

i am you,
freed from the village,
its soils and ways,
independent, because
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,
sins collected
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.