In Conversation: Annaliza Bakri on the Politics of Malay Language and Literature in Singapore

I consider translation to be a key to understanding and elevating humanity.

Annaliza Bakri is an educator and translator. She believes that literary works can be the subliminal voice that cultivates greater understanding, awareness and consciousness of the past, present and future. An ardent advocate of works that are beautifully penned in Singapore’s national language, she strongly believes in the divine art of translation where shared heritage and mutual discovery promote humanity. Our Editor-At-Large for Singapore, Tse Hao Guang, recently caught up with Annaliza about her work and about the politics of language and literature in Singapore.

Tse Hao Guang (HG): You teach, write papers, translate Malay texts into English, and organise programmes and panels on Malay culture, language and heritage. What is the driving force behind all this work? What first got you interested in this? You seem to be one of a few people here doing what I’d call literary activism.

Annaliza Barki (AB): There’s a lot of commitment and responsibility when you call yourself an activist. I don’t think it’s as much about activism as it is about sharing ideas and knowledge. In class, I use literature to teach the Malay language. Grammar and syntax can make for a dry learning experience. With literature, however, you examine ideas, explore culture, and enrich your worldview. Literature reveals intricacies of the human identity to us, and, I believe, reignites in us a flame of humanity. This is also one of the many reasons why I translate literary works. What I gain from the interweaving of cultures in my translation work allows me to better understand humanity and human predicaments.

I was part of the organising team that initiated the cultural-literary seminar series CITA@The Arts House in 2012. We provided a platform for the sharing of Malay culture, in both English and Malay, to both adults and students. Part of CITA involved inviting our older writers to speak about their work, writers who were active in the 1970s and still continue to write today. The kind of honour and gratitude we have for them made younger people curious to attend and listen, as it had been a while since we last heard from them. It was interesting for me too, as a teacher who had read and even taught their books, but had no idea who they were apart from their role as writers, or what their aspirations were. Beyond giving these writers prizes like the Cultural Medallion or the Tun Sri Lanang, I think we, as a nation, honour them by giving them a chance to engage an audience in person once again.

HG: It’s exciting to hear about this intergenerational encounter between older writers and students.

AB: Once, during one such talk, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed was speaking about his novel Batas Langit [Confrontation], which I happened to be teaching. The students asked him questions like “Who was the one peeping into the toilet? Is it you, Cikgu [Teacher]? It must be you, right? Is it you? Are you Adi?” Cikgu Latiff asked them if their teacher told them that, and they said, “She hinted at it, so we’re going to ask you now.” Their openness and willingness to converse in Malay was surprising, given that some of them were not very fluent in it.

I used to teach in a mission school, and my students were from very mixed cultural backgrounds, including non-Malays who were learning the language. Getting them to read a Malay novel like Batas Langit was a feat, but I managed it by focusing on universal themes that run through the novel. It was entirely worth the trouble of getting the book and printing it for my students. Some of them actually picked up phrases from the novel to use in their essays. They could also relate to the novel, which includes descriptions of Singapore’s experience of World War II and the Japanese occupation, to their history and social studies lessons.

HG: Speaking of fluency, Singapore is a part of the Malay world and recognises Bahasa Melayu as its national language. Yet it has a Chinese-majority population that increasingly does not speak Malay, and younger generations of Malays are increasingly more comfortable speaking English. From your own experiences, what is your assessment of the state of the Malay language amongst young people here?

AB: I wouldn’t just talk about the Malay language. All the “Mother Tongue” languages in Singapore face the same issues. Our bilingual education policy relegates Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil to their own specialised subjects, while all other subjects are taught in English. In fact, many parents and grandparents believe if you want to succeed in life or get a good job, you need to know English. It’s become a first language. That’s not an issue; after all, the language shift reflects the needs of the times. But now students only have approximately three hours a week to study a language. So, if you ask about the “Mother Tongue” languages in Singapore, it is not surprising to hear students saying they are one of the toughest school subjects to pass.

Of course, if you go to the pasar [market], you’d be able to use Malay and Chinese “dialects” such as Cantonese, Hokkien, and Teochew, just like I can speak some Mandarin as I grew up watching Mandarin TV dramas. But to use Malay for intellectual discourse, for imparting ideas of empowerment, are Singaporeans ready to use Malay at that level? Can we do that in Mandarin or in Tamil? We might be able to use these languages daily, but in expressing critical ideas and intellectual thought, some of us will pull back, we will need to think very hard about how to construct our sentences in our head.

The “Mother Tongue” classes in schools teach both language as well as culture. In Singapore, there is a tendency to classify, categorise, and label culture. Our cultures are “museumfied” when they are represented as a series of types and traits, rigid and static. Yes, there is value in preservation, but culture is also alive. It is a way of life that includes belief systems, traditions and aesthetics, all of which are open to adaptation. Perhaps widening the idea of culture through Malay language education will give learners and speakers more reason to pick it up, to use it for intellectual thought, empowerment, and emancipation.

HG: Recently, Puan Halimah Yacob was appointed in a walkover to the largely symbolic office of President, in a contest apparently reserved for Malays. She is the first woman in the role and our second Malay-Muslim president. Some have criticised this process, although they believe Halimah herself is an able candidate. Part of the official rhetoric suggests “representing” minority candidates is important in a multiracial and multireligious society such as Singapore’s. What are your views on this? Do you think her presidency will have any impact on Malay representation and culture?

AB: Do we really need to do this? We have been trying to escape from CMIO [the colonial and neocolonial categorisation of Singapore’s population into Chinese, Malay, Indian, and “Other” racial groups]. But with this decision we end up resorting to CMIO concepts once more. My next question: is it really fair? Is it fair to demand, determine and prescribe this for the Malay community, and for Singapore society in general? The idea that the time has come for a president to have certain traits, in this case that he or she must be Malay—we didn’t ask for it. I believe Madam Halimah is an outstanding woman and, as our pledge says, “regardless of race, language or religion,” she is an exemplary leader. However, I don’t see how having a Malay president would change the representation of Malay language and culture. Such change demands that every Singaporean plays a role.

HG: While perhaps more highly educated Singaporeans might say the CMIO paradigm is limiting, it seems government policy continues to regard it as the best model for promoting good race relations.

AB: The problem here is we are still blinded by categories and labels and putting people into boxes, which CMIO reinforces. Even if the policies change and race is no longer shown on your identity card, and racial quotas for buying government housing are abolished, if we don’t change these mindsets, then there won’t be any impact. There is much talk of privilege and entitlement. But if we don’t talk about these sensitive issues in a civilised manner, then we cannot expect prejudices and discriminatory behaviours to disappear.

Nonetheless, policies do affect lives. As shown on my identity card, I am Malay, and my mum is Indian. Many of my maternal cousins have contributed to both Mendaki and Sinda, welfare organisations for those considered Malay and Indian, respectively. Yet, when they need help, they are pushed around from one organisation to the other. In recent times, many others have also shared similar stories. Why not just let a central welfare organisation help all Singaporeans? Some might say that members of a particular community can best understand their own. But this is only because we don’t know each other across communities well enough. We are misguided when we say we can only help our own people. We have existed as a Singapore society for over fifty years, so this is rather sad, no?

HG: I find it fascinating how our government certifies someone as part of a racial community, setting up committees to decide who is eligible to run as a minority candidate in political wards, or now, for the presidency. And recent comments suggest that non-Muslim Malays may not be eligible under this framework. But to return to literature and language, I think that translation can help different communities understand each other. Have you encountered instances of this?

AB: Translation has always served this role. It is more than merely an exchange between two languages or communities. I also consider it to be a key to understanding and elevating humanity. Translators don’t simply want to see a work in another language. We want to find out more about another worldview, to celebrate both what is different and what is shared. It’s amazing to see how translation transcends language and voice. In Batas Langit, I read about the Chinese middle school riots in 1950s Singapore. I later encountered the same incident in the novel Unrest by Chinese author Yeng Pway Ngon (translated by Jeremy Tiang), and I was delighted to find that both accounts matched. The feeling of a shared history or heritage or experience across communities helps us overcome the urge to think within silos, whether these communities are within the same country, or from others. It’s a very liberating thought.

HG: On that note, could you recommend some Malay books you would love to see brought out in English?

AB: There are many that should be translated. Amongst the classical works, I want to highlight the Syair Singapura Terbakar [The Singapore Fire Poem], a work that touches on the history of Singapore. For modern literature, we also have Suratman Markasan’s first novel, Tak Ada Jalan Keluar [No Way Out], which is an essential read. As a student of literature, I would love to translate Taj Us-Salatin [The Crown of Kings] by Bukhari al-Jauhari, a magnum opus that emphasises adab [custom], strong and just leadership, and the importance of man knowing himself and his existence because “he who knows himself, knows his God.” But at this moment, Wiji Thukul’s poetry is calling out to me. I met his son, Fajar Merah, last year and expressed an interest in translating Wiji’s incredibly powerful poems. Another novel that should be considered is Muhidin M. Dahlan’s Tuhan, Izinkan Aku Menjadi Pelacur [God, Let Me Become a Prostitute], a controversial but important work against religious fundamentalism and hypocrisy.

In addition to translation, though, I wish that our bookstores would carry more Malay books and more publishers would publish books written by Malays, including works in translation. Copies must be made available for the masses. Readers need to have access to these books. Of course, we need to translate books, but a more fundamental question many would ask is who will read them? Nuraliah Norasid’s prizewinning English-language novel, Gatekeeper, has yet to sell a thousand copies. I can’t believe we can’t find a thousand readers who want to read a local English book. I wonder what the statistics are like for translated books in Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. I understand that it’s a game of supply and demand. But I believe there must be enough supply so that readers are exposed to the availability of such books before there can be demand. As a start, Singaporeans need to read more Singaporean literature!

HG: Your remarks make me curious about the ecosystem of Malay language literature. Who is publishing and selling Malay books?

AB: Kedai Haji Hashim is a bookstore in the Geylang Serai neighbourhood that has been around for almost a century, originally owned by Haji Hashim Haji Abdullah. Recently, his great-granddaughter Syarafina Halim started an online store called the Buku Bookstore. Another independent publisher, Azizah Zakaria, has published Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s Kota Airmata [City of Tears] and Chantek [Beautiful], a collection of plays by Aidli Mosbit. By mentioning them, I hope to encourage these new voices in their literary pursuits. Their efforts have yet to receive much fanfare or attention, but they are doing very important work. I think credit must also be given to writers who self-publish their work. It is an uphill task, but that’s the semangat [spirit] of our Malay writers who deserve a standing ovation for forging ahead against all odds.

HG: Tell me more about Sikit-sikit, Lama-lama Jadi Bukit [Bit by Bit, By and By, Becoming a Summit], a bilingual anthology of over forty Malay poets you’ve translated and edited.

The anthology features poems that speak of places in and the history of Singapore. When older buildings or sites make way for development in fast-paced Singapore, we risk suffering historical amnesia. Places evoke belonging. They sustain memories of who we are and where we are in the ebb and flow of humanity. Once lost, they can never be recovered. But this anthology is not put together simply for us to reminisce or to evoke nostalgia. These poems express what these places mean to the poets and people who built this nation. They interweave social narratives with a strong desire to combat historical amnesia. They represent hope: understanding what happened in the past, recognising who we are now, and looking forward to what we can be.

Sikit-sikit, Lama-lama Jadi Bukit will be published this November by Math Paper Press.


Annaliza Bakri is an educator and translator. Her translations of Malay poems have been published by the US-based journal Prairie Schooner and Singapore’s Text in the City. Adding “storyteller” to her many personas, she performed her translation of an award-winning novel, Batas Langit, written by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, at the Singapore International Storytelling Festival 2014.

Assembled in Singapore with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Tse Hao Guang wrote hyperlinkage (2013) and Deeds of Light (2015, both Math Paper Press), the latter shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. He co-edits OF ZOOS, serves as critical essays editor for, and co-edited UnFree Verse (2017, Ethos Books), the anthology of Singapore poetry in form. He is a 2016 fellow of the International Writing Program.

Photograph © Alvin Pang


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