THE demise of Datuk Shanon Ahmad, the National Literary Laureate, marks the beginning of the end of a glorious era of Malay literature. The only other living literary great is Datuk A. Samad Said, who, with Shahnon, Usman Awang, Kris Mas, Abdullah Hussain, Mohamad Haji Salleh, Noordin Hassan, Syed Alwi and Mustafa Kamal Yassin (Kaladewata), created seminal narrative and dramatic works that reflect the trials tribulations, joys and sufferings, dreams and nightmares of Malays. Their works are not only nostalgic, but also portray the experiences of Malays.
Such literary work feed the soul and engage the readers’ mind to visualise the contextual framework, For they not only tell stories that transmit norms, values and tradition, but also reflect, comment and challenge the ethos, belief, trivialities, weakness and strength of the Malay psyche in reacting to their physical and spiritual environment.
Sadly, such works are no longer in the offing as Malay literature has drastically deteriorated. Today, creative output is confined to modern day prose, uninspiring plays, seedy novels, and popular magazine articles nullifying the genius of Malay writers.
The genius of Malay creative efforts began in the form of the oral tradition of storytelling that fired the imagination of the audience with vocal inflections, singing and musical accompaniment. Such was the role of Awang Batil and Tok Selampit.
As Malay society progressed with the advancement of knowledge and writing skills, the traditional wisdom that existed as oral tradition was penned down in the Jawi script in the form of hikayat, syair, gurindam and pantun.
Literary creative works based on legends, lore and historical episodes were written in these genres, such as Hikayat Malim Deman, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, Cerita Panji, Hikayat Hang Tuah and Hikayat Siti Zubaidah.
These early reading materials, mostly in Jawi, documented folk tales and wisdom, like the pranks of Sang Kancil, Lebai Malang, Mat Jenin and Nenek Kebayan. Later, these were transferred to the roman script, which became the official script of Malays.
The adoption of the roman alphabet marked the death knell of the Jawi script. As a result, subsequent generations lost the ability to read Malay literature in its original Jawi form. This was facilitated by the introduction of the British school system using English as the medium of instruction. Even Malay-medium schools adopted the roman script, except for religious studies.
However, through the English education system, students were exposed to world literature. They read Greek and Shakespearean plays, works by Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Hans Christian Andersen, Nikolai Gogol, Maxim Gorky and Arthur Miller. Such exposure to Western literary tradition influenced modern Malay novelists and playwrights, whose works initially appeared after World War 1 and gained momentum after Merdeka in 1957.
Literature in its written and visual performance forms was an integral part of student and adult life. Pantuns featured prominently in literary and daily discourse, while syair and gurindam were given prominence in bangsawan and sandiwara performances. Wayang kulit encouraged people to read Hikayat Sri Rama and Hikayat Pandawa Lima.
With the development of the national education system, there was a major shift towards science and technology. Thus, literature, language, and the fine and performing arts were relegated to an insignificant position in the pursuit of a materialistic society.
As a result, the role of literature as a humanising agent that provides for abstract and imaginative thinking is downplayed in the development of students, while the norms and values, ethics, moral conscience and spiritual uplift that are embedded in the literary works are not given due prominence.
The modern world is not concerned about humanism, aesthetics or reflective, intuitive or perceptive knowledge, but are interested in factual knowledge that would lead to materialistic gains. The love for literature as food for the soul thus waned and receded into insignificance.
As a result, the new generation of students and adults is bereft of literary knowledge and appreciation.
In the past, reading was a major source of information and entertainment. Novels, short stories and dramatic works came alive in readers’ imagination. Literary works proliferated. But, now, the reading habit has declined as a result of the advent of visual source of information and entertainment, such as television, movies and the Internet, as well as other electronic and digital sources of information. Visual expressions have become the mainstream way of telling and retelling stories, relegating traditional novels and dramas to a nondescript position.
Literature, in general, and Malay literature, in particular, have lost its appeal in the digitalised, robotic, so called 4.0 industrial revolutionary world.
This negation of man’s literary expressions that portray the world in his imaginative fantasy and abstract images is a loss to humanity. Current modes of storytelling through visual expressions leave little to the imagination as images are presented realistically.
As much as there is a dire need to rejuvenate the study and creation of literary works, the malaise towards literature dims its future prospect. And this will adversely affect the Malay language for the beauty of the language is in the literature.
Unless there is a concerted effort by the authorities, especially the educational agencies, to resuscitate literary efforts, Malay literature in its traditional form may face an impending demise. And, we will be that much poorer.
Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is an emeritus professor of Performing Arts in the School of Arts at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.