Friday, October 16, 2009

Malaysian Writing in English is Dead!

Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam declared Malaysian writing in English dead yesterday at a press conference to publicise the Singapore Writer's Festival, held at MPH Midvalley (about which more later) :
We should be looking at young writers - their absence shows that the tradition of writing in English is dead. ... Why are writers in English dying out in this country? In 10-20 years time Malaysian writers in English will be an adjunct to Singaporean writing.
He also talked about how other writers in English had "run away" from Malaysia, and how the greatest of them was Shirley Lim.

I respect Phui Nam very much (An Acre of the Day's Glass is the Malaysian poetry collection that has most excited me, and I wish that they made more writers in his mould!) but I don't agree with him on the above. I don't just think it is a case of me being unrealistically optimistic - perhaps it is more a question of perspective.

In organising Readings@Seksan, I am constantly coming into contact with Malaysian writers (new and not so new, young and not so young) whose work excites me, and who work confidently and well in English. Writers in English are not even an endangered species, I'd say. (What do you think?)

And as for the overseas writers having "run away" ... well, anyhow, I have already blogged all I have to say on the topic here.

Something else that Phui Nam said that was very interesting :
I am not writing in English. I am writing in EMS : Educated Malaysian English. We speak the language in a different way, a subdialect of the English language.
Malaysian English of the acrolectal variety (linguistic term for standard educated form of a language) is a distinct variety of English and should be every bit as acceptable internationally as any other (UK, American, Australian, Indian etc). I wrote about the issue in this interview for The Star.

Postscript :

Daphne Lee also blogged (very powerfully) about this, and concludes :
Wong spoke about how Malaysian writing (in English) is stillborn, a result of our education system. Having identified this problem, I should think Wong has his own theories about how the deadening effect of our schooling can be countered and/or reversed. Does he and others like him have a part to play in helping aspiring authors produce writing that has a chance to grow in effectiveness and beauty? Perhaps Wong just does not think it is his battle to fight.
BTW there is an interesting comment on the blog about how Readings@Seksan could be perceived as "cliquey". I responded at length and would value your (honest) comments too.

(Someone else did yell at me not so long ago "What does Readings achieve? Nothing at all.")

Postscript 2:

Zedeck Siew at Klue magazine writes about Phui Mam's speech :
Doom and gloom, then. But we're sorry if these dire pronouncements sound bitter to us. Yes, official support for English-language writing is practically non-existent. That said, things seem to be on the mend, actually.

Writers are soldiering on. Brian Gomez's excellent pulp -- but supremely relevant - novel Devil's Place was published last year. This year, Kow Shih-Li's Ripples and Other Stories was shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor Award - the most lucrative prize for short fiction. Further back was Kam Raslan's Confessions of an Old Boy.

How about the anthologies: Silverfish Books' regular efforts, or the queer collection Body 2 Body? And non-fiction, such as the excellent (and bilingual) New Malaysian Essays series? Literary readings happen with acceptable regularity: Readings and CeritAku; or Say Goodnight, Twitterverse. Amir Muhammad (of Matahati Books) has hosted organised the KL Alternative Bookfest twice, to much success.

There is a second problem with Phui Nam's complaint. KLue itself is an English-language publication - but even we don't prize the lingua Brittanica's purity that much.

The Malay-language book business is booming, from mainstream romance to the fringe. Its literature is in rather ruddy shape: new small (but significant) ventures like Oxygen Press are springing up all over the place. Sang Freud Press's works deploy an urban form of Malay that doesn't shy from displaying its obvious syncretism.

The language of this region has always been a Creole, mixing Bahasa Melayu, English, the Chinese dialects and Indian languages. Phui Nam appeared aware of this when he said that "we speak [English] in a different way." He, of all people, should know - since his full name is Mohammed Razali Wong Phui Nam, and his latest plays Malay/Cambodian takes on Antigone and Medea. No need to be so precious lah.


lainieyeoh said...

maybe he meant young EMS writing is dead (to him) :P

I tend to suspect people who can't find it, just don't know where to look.

Argus Lou said...

He is quite wrong. Malaysian writing in English in the past 10 years has been stronger than in the 10 years before that - in terms of new writers emerging as well as established ones writing more and getting republished.

Baronhawk said...

I am rather put off by this most pompous declaration, made I believe out of synch and out of touch with what is the real sitrep when it comes to English writing in Malaysia, or out of respect to the elderly gentleman, in ESM.

But before I begin my litany of invectives I took stock and decided that maybe he is:

1) Really out of touch with the writing scene and not being active in the rekindling and reaching out to those writers there are. A crime in itself akin to abandonment, for to stake such claims speaks of ownership, but to own literary scene which he says is dead means he must also take responsibility for it.

But Such is understandable, for often writers are solitary creatures, who observes the entirety of the naked world but live on in their reclusive little islands build, maintained and entertained by their own multifaceted almost schizophrenic selves.

2) Maybe he is trying to provoke the English writing scene to soar to greater heights. Sometimes, we do need kicks in the rear like these. Nothing like anger to let loose the mighty literary beasts that lie caged within most of us.

But I guess it is more anger than anything, for I do believe there are many English writers in Malyasia. ESM, Queen's English or whatever idiomatic expressive version/dialect of that subset of the human lingual expression that we use. His pronouncement if anything is premature and presumptive.

Chet said...

Mr Wong has read at Seksan's where there were other young (or at least younger) Malaysian writers who read. Did he not hear them? Or was he just there to "give" and not be open to "receive"?

The atmosphere at Seksan's was so vibrant, how could he have missed it? This is very disturbing.

Daphne Lee has also written a very good blog post about this:
Young Malaysian Writers: Worth the Effort or Beyond Help?

Oxymoron said...

I have met Malaysians in their 50s and 60s whose mastery of English takes my breath away! I regret to say they seem to be dying out. I believe it's also an attitude. The older people insist on speaking grammatically correct English in full sentences!

gnute said...

Can I ask an innocent question here? If it weren't for Sharon's blog (& consequently the monthly readings), and also bearing in mind how KL-centric a lot of the events are, how would Malaysians in general find out about the health of English writing in M'sia? I know Tash and Preeta (wah, first name basis wan) got decent coverage in local newspapers - other than that...? I'm not excusing Mr Wong his comments lah. Just wondering.

Kenny Mah said...


Whether we disagree or agree with Wong Phui Nam, let's look at this from a positive perspective, shall we? Let it sound as a clarion call to all of us to write and write better. Also, for publishers and editors to stop moaning about the lack of good writing and perhaps look harder or help nurture?

I am embarrassed to say I haven't put in more effort to write properly or finish something. Mr. Wong's words hurt and I think that is a good thing.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks so much, Chet for the link to Daphne's blog

gnute - there are other names who have been attracting attention here and overseas, most of them overseas though - Awang Goneng, Chiew-Siah Tei, Shamini Flint(who is actually appearing at the SWF so does act as a counterweight), Tinling Choong, Rani Manicka, Beth Yahp. you left out Tan Twan Eng btw! there has been exposure for writers in the newspapers but not enough.

here in Malaysia we have Kam Raslan, Shih-Li Kow, Brian Gomez, Shahriza Hussein ... just for starters

and so many other individuals whom i feel are bubbling under - whose stories have left me feeling very excited and hopeful - needing to get their first books finished and out.

oxymoron - agree with that point. it saddens me to see standards of english slipping (am an old english teacher after all!). what do we do about it?

baronhawk - if taken as provocation - well i think that's no bad thing. writers in english here have something to prove

Amir Muhammad said...

Uncle Wong is just being naughty. Shamini should get Inspector Singh to handcuff him!

Greenbottle said...

do we need to worry if it's dying or dead?

why should we care so much for english writing in malaysia?

ps; i come to this room mainly for news on

1) 'good' books...i don't care if they're from new guinea...

(2) news about local writings... i don't care if it's in tamil or bidayuh...

Argus Lou said...

Amir is being even nakal-er. :)

Junk? Sometimes. Adjunct? Never!

(P.S. My word verification is 'antiolot' - must mean something significant here.)

bibliobibuli said...

Amir - yes, i think it quite likely that Uncle Wong was being naughty. he certainly was the highlight of the afternoon!

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

I'm sorry. I just couldn't keep my damn big mouth shut after reading the post, as well as the comments.

Oxymoron, granted, folk who speak Oxford English are numbered now, mainly limited to those exposed to English during British's occupation. But surely you have eavesdrop into conversations taking place in shopping malls, at food joints, in schools, in major cities? Kids and young adults speak in pitch-perfect English (American, or MTV English I might add). I have a 3-year-old cousin who speaks better English than Malay, simply because he watches Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.

Sure, I'm talking about a small percentage of the total Malaysian population here. But before we reached independence, only a handful of them even understood the language.

You may also notice that some of the spoken English is colored with a particular state's accent. But don't the French, the Italians, the Germans, all speak English with recognizable accents?

OK. The post is about written English. In America, a native English-speaking country, the amount of illiterate children is shocking. Over 7 million Americans are illiterate ( A lot of them believe that 'should have' is actually 'should of'. I rolled my eyes at that.

What about our own people? Sure, people rather read comics than actual books, if at all. I've been lucky growing up; my mom bought story books whenever I asked her to (most of the time, at any rate). But how do we expect families with limited income to pay RM 35 for a novel, and do so at a regular rate? Westerners can proudly claim to have high book sales rate in their country. For USD 5.99, that's as cheap as lunch.

Funny how cigarette price and book price rise almost at the same time.

A friend of mine recently forwarded an entry at the MPH website, about the call for submissions.

"We publish a rich diversity of titles ranging from contemporary and literary fiction to children’s stories. We also publish a wide selection of non-fiction titles including history, politics, biographies, health, food, reference titles and humour."

"What we do not publish:

* Fantasy
* Science fiction
* Poetry
* Plays
* Erotica
* Fan fiction"

My genres of choice made the top 2 no-no list. I don't blame the publishers. After all, they're still businessmen (and women). It's difficult enough to sell local mainstream novels here. Niche genres would be much harder.

It's also funny how we celebrate writers (and artists) who make it on their own overseas due to lack of local support, and proudly say, "Look, they're Malaysians!"

Take Zee Avi for instance. When she was in KL trying to make a name, she was a nobody. But when a record label in LA signed her up, she's an instant celebrity in Malaysia. Same goes for writers.

I'm actively searching for agents in the US for my novel in progress because, as I said, my genre is a no-no in the local scene, and partly because I know people will find a fantasy story rooted in Malaysian culture exotic and fascinating.

Funny how to succeed in certain fields, one has to look for external help. And when one does succeed, people's reaction will be one of the two:
- they're proud a Malaysian made it big.
- they're miffed a successful Malaysian made it big outside, especially when that person states that he/she had a difficult time making a name locally (Malaysian pride and patriotism issues).

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

It's convenient, but it also saddens me to see books from Malaysian authors bunched up together in 'Malaysian Literature' at Kinokuniya. Why aren't they categorized 'General Fiction', or 'Crime', or 'Science Fiction'? Wait, there aren't any Malaysian-English science fiction books. Why the double standard?

Don't get me wrong. I love buying and reading Malaysian-English literature. Every year I look forward to a new edition of Silverfish New Writing. OK, a majority of the writers aren't even Malaysians, but the quality of the books's amazing. My friends -- who don't normally read -- loved reading those books because the stories are short. Urban Odysseys, to me, needs editing and refining. Bernice Chauly's Lost in KL is a gem of a small book (RM 10, at that). Kow Shih-Li's Ripples is interesting. I read the books partly to appreciate Malaysian-English Literature, and partly to check out the competition, studying what kind of writing Malaysian publishers look for. But I'm not willing to create something just to get my name on the cover of a book. That's why, as I said, I may have to look for outside help.

I have asked for help from a prominent local Malaysian-English Literature to look at my stories, and maybe point out what went wrong. I've followed up, but there has been no response to date. I've posted one of the stories at, and my writing-group members have been most helpful.

So, what is Educated Malaysian English again? Snoblish? I personally love Manglish. I use proper English for official matters, but otherwise I speak Manglish. I love how the two languages blend with each other seamlessly. I love the flavor of it on my tongue, the music of it in my ears.

I also love injecting Malaysian words and cultures in my short stories, and I love explaining them to readers when they ask me, "Is that a cultural thing?"

So, after this long and pointless rambling, is the tradition of writing in English dead in Malaysia? Hell no. Amir Muhammad and the guys at Silverfish and MPH are doing their best to promote writing in English. Sharon and her gang promote gatherings of like-minded people to share their passion for English literature.

Will the general population buy Malaysian-English fiction? I think, at the moment, they'd rather buy books with political agendas splashed on the covers. Or books written by well-known and influential people.

It's funny how, in Malaysia, it's all about who you know.

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

I officially apologize for the typos and grammatical blunders. I was on a roll, impassioned when I wrote it. Should've spent time editing myself before posting a comment on the quality of editing in locally-published literature.

Bissme said...

I do not agree with Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam who declared Malaysian writing in English dead. I think we are stepping into very exciting period where english writing in Malaysia is concerned. In the recent years I have many read many local writing ( expecially in fiction) in english which has really impressed me.

For example i just read Brian Gomez Devil's Place. I found the book to be brilliant and betul betul funny man!. There were some parts I was laughing my head off.
The writer should try his luck and send the book to some hollywood agent - it can be made into exciting movie.

The other fiction that really impressed me is Confessions of an Old Boy - by Kam Raslan. One book where the character is well developed and sound so real. it had many witty moments.

recently, body to body anthology is really surprise me. I would admit It is not perfect book but Some of the writers were bold to express their stories and their feelings. They deserved a pat in the back.

BP said...

It's not the first time I've heard the C-word being used to describe Readings. Often, most attendees end up forming little solar systems of a sort, talking shop, catching up and stuff. Before you know it, the "regulars" have little time left to get acquainted with the new faces. It takes a while, even if one's a seasoned schmoozer.

As for "English", well, give me Gomez any day. He's funny, and the one thing about books in Malaysia is that our appreciation of what some consider to be "good literature" isn't quite there yet. We're still fond of what makes us feel good, not what "elevates" our level of cultural sophistication. But we'll get there - someday.

One more thing: "...Amir Muhammad (of MataHATI Books)..."? Did something big happen when I was asleep last night?

Preets said...

I wasn't going to comment on this but AIYO AMIR YOU SO FAHNEE how to stop myself now?

Just like Sharon, I too have a lot of respect for Wong Phui Nam as a poet, but I'm sorry, with this proclamation he has put himself squarely in the club of Old Farts Quivering At The Thought Of Their Own Impending Irrelevance (V.S. Naipaul is the current president of this club). The best response when one of these people declares something to be dead (whether it's The Novel, The Short Story, Poetry, or Malaysian Writing in English), is to yawn and move on. People have been declaring the death of this that and the other since ancient Greece. All it shows is that they themselves are uncomfortable with change.

But I do think Fadz above makes some excellent points. It bothers me too that the very people who lived through colonialism still think of colonial English as "proper English." Now that's successful brainwashing! Do they also think of steak-and-kidney pie as the only proper food? I seem to bring up Jamaica Kincaid in every comment here these days, but this attitude reminds me of her father, who all his life in Antigua wore a heavy wool hat "unsuitable for a hot climate" because he believed it to be the only respectable way to dress. Wake up and smell the petai, people!

Any linguist will tell you that language is a living, evolving, diverse thing. It's always been changing, everywhere, not just now in Malaysia. What's "grammatically correct" to you, Oxymoron, would've been gibberish to Milton. It's one thing to worry about standards of English slipping because kids are not being exposed to the language in interesting ways; it's another to insist that everyone should speak/write in a way that only represents a tiny fraction of the Malaysian population. The whole point of "mastering" a language is to earn the freedom to play with it, to be inventive instead of slavish. I'd rather read one good short story written in Manglish than a hundred novels like the ones I wrote in my teens: full of blue-eyed people eating scones and wishing the rain would go away.

And really, according to these criteria -- playfulness, confidence, irreverence -- Malaysian writing in English is just getting off the ground, not dying.

Anonymous said...

As I said in my my own blogpost, I don't think we should be quibbling about the language Malaysian stories are written in. Malaysians *are* writing and writing original, exciting stories in fresh voices. Whether it's in BM, Chinese, Tamil, or English is irrelevant, to me. My only regret is that a book like "Kasut Biru Rubina" won't reach as many people as it should since it's written in BM. Sufian Abas insists that a translation won't do it justice and that, at any rate, he doesn't think he'd do it well. Well, I'm still hoping someone will attempt to translate Sufian's short story collections before too long. The good news is Kassim Ahmad's "Hikayat Hang Tuah" has been translated into English by Muhammad Haji Salleh and will be published this month. I'll be interviewing Muhammad about the translation as soon as I've read the book (I read the original for SPM Sastera a long, long time ago). - Daphne

bibliobibuli said...

am very much enjoying the discussion and am grateful to Uncle Wong for giving us something to chew on.

Alan/ Daphne - yes me need to make sure that all of us remember the newcomers at readings. sorry, i feel a bit responsible since i do try to talk to everyone but sometimes get caught up in things.

Daphne - am so excited about the translation of Kassim ahmad's book. and definitely Sufian needs to be translated. i agree entirely about it doesn't matter which language, but translation is a must.

moremummy said...

Languge is a way of communicating with others. Writing in English language is an important way for us to communicate with the rest of the world. Accurate understanding if ideas and facts needs all the skills of a good writer.
We need more sessions like Readings at Seksan

Oxymoron said...

Sharon - With the UK in recession, would we be able to afford more teachers from there? Just an idea.

Fadz - Nothing wrong with Manglish, except lots of people think Manglish is English.

How about doing a compilation of Malaysian Scifi short stories. Frankly, I don't think getting published is that difficult provided you have the manuscript. (Making money is another issue.)

Preets - Thanks for the response. :)

Anonymous said...

Oxymoron - What do you mean by "I don't think getting published is that difficult"?

I think "provided you have a manuscript" should read "provided you have a manuscript worth publishing" or "provided you have a manuscript that is promising and the publishers think is worth the time of day".

If you're talking about self-publishing, I hope those who decide to take this route remember that they should get their scripts edited before they are printed.

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

Daphne, you have a valid argument there, but I'm sorry. That just comes across as elitist.

How does one decide a manuscript is worth publishing? What are the criteria? Instead of saying it like that, nipping the bud before it blooms, encourage new and unknown writers.

You know, purists and old - ehem, veteran, existing artists claim that the Art is dead, and that they are the last bastion. However, they have a difficult time accepting new talents, acknowledging them as peers. I think part of it is because they fear they will no longer be relevant. That's part of it. And frankly, as a nation, we Malaysians fear change. We like things the way they are. A valid example: we keep on listening and loving old Raya songs year after year. Whenever a new song is aired, people go, "Apa ni?" and change the channel into something more familiar. New songs are accepted provided a household name is singing it. Same goes for almost everything else.

People can wail at the world about the atrocious condition of Malaysian-English writing, at how it is a dead Art. But not much is done to 'revive' it. To be honest, for years I Googled for Malaysian-English publishers, for local Malaysian-English outlets, and I was always disappointed. Only recently, with the hype of MPH-Alliance short story competition, I've discovered sites like Sharon's blog. I found out there are others out there.

We can put the blame on a lot of things. And it will always come back to our education system. But instead of blaming everyone and everything, why not find solutions? MPH claims to have over 1000 entries for a contest opened for Malaysians and people living in Malaysia. That's a lot! I look forward to reading the winning entries. Why not have more contests? We have all these scratch-and-win, fill-up-and-win, (fill up the blank)-and-win contests. Surely English short story contests can be more than a one-time event.

I only read the newspaper I come across in my boss's office, so I may be off mark here. Star has a short story segment for school children. Why not do a weekly, 1000-word short story segment with prompts? Coming up with 1000 words (good stories, mind) is easy.

What's not easy is finding an outlet for publication. A reader at my blog suggested I submit one of my stories to QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore), an online literary magazine. She didn't suggest local venues because there aren't.

And to be able to publish anywhere at all, a writer preferably must have a list of published works (a definite plus in a query letter). So how do local publishers know a writer querying a partial/completed manuscript is producing a "manuscript worth publishing"? The name of the writer can carry weight. So far, those names are either established poets/writers or journalists. What about new writers? How do we get exposure?

Let's face it. Publishing a quality anthology that sells can be a nightmare. But publishing a segment of a page in the newspaper? That's an idea that opens doors.

Local writer's blogs like TMPC ( and KAP ( are doing their best to showcase local writers. But their readership is low, and they need help getting exposure. Blogs with high readership (like this) can help advertise these sites.

Malaysian-English scene is still in its infancy. But people like you guys, teachers, publishers, journalists, editors, you have the power to raise it to great heights.

Well, just a thought. I'm rambling, I know.

Oxymoron said...

6p - I have seen a manuscript that was not edited nor proof-read get published. I have also come across books full of grammatical errors. Basing on that, I'd say getting published is not that difficult.

Yang-May Ooi said...

I'm one of the writers who've "run away" overseas to the UK and it is with the distance from home in a different culture that I was able to write about Malaysia. Writers are observers and outsiders at the best of times so being at a distance brings out that ability to observe at arms length. If you look at many American "classic" writers eg Thomas Wolfe and William Styron, they look back at their youth in rural America from the big city of New York or at the past from their present. So being away from home physically or through the medium of time helps whatever your nationality and where you are physically.

When my novels came out, some Malaysian readers criticised me for mediating the Malaysian experience for foreigners eg I explain what char kway teow or kopi peng is for the non-Malaysian reader. It was a strange criticism in my mind as I was writing for a global audience, not just the Malaysian one. Is that arrogant to want as many people as possible to read my books and to discover Malaysia, if they haven't done so already?

Mr Wong was at the Readings event where Sharon had kindly invited me to read. I read two versions of a draft manuscript I had been working on - one in standard UK English and the other in Malaysian English. I was experimenting with writing a complete novel in Malaysian English - rather like Irvine Welsh writing Trainspotting entirely in Glaswegian English. The difficulty I've found with my project is that (i) the strength of Malaysian English is in the intonation and emphasis and it's difficult to carry those on the printed page and (ii) I've been too long away from home to do it convincingly! I know my limitations so my novel remains unfinished. I would love to see another Malaysian writer who might be more able to carry off a novel entirely in Manglish!

This debate has been fascinating to follow. Whatever ones views, let's hope that all this heated discussion translates into lots of driven writing by Malaysian writers in whatever language/ dialect and wherever we may be based.

Yang-May Ooi

Anonymous said...

Fadz - "That just comes across as elitist."

Someone HAS to decide - the criteria depends on the publisher, but I should think that a manuscript must show some promise in terms of plot, style etc. It's impossible to publish every single script that lands in the inbox.

Oxymoron - Published? Or self-published? Getting published is different from getting edited and proof-read. And it's true that some books read like no editing let alone proof-reading was carried out. Still, I don't think it's just a matter of completing a manuscript and submitting it. I know some editors of local publishing houses who are a lot more discerning than that. They wouldn't start planning the launch party the moment a completed script lands on their desks. - Daphne

Unknown said...

Here's a team out there that is all for good English and helping others with theirs. You should check them out:
Yea, that's what they're called, THE ENGLISH RESCUE TEAM! haha