K.S. Maniam, “The Life of Writers in Malaysia”

The 2006 Nou Hach Conference Address

by K.S. Maniam

“The Life of Writers in Malaysia”

Greetings! I am glad to be given this chance to talk to fellow writers and writing enthusiasts here.  I hope what I say will have some meaning for you.  To begin, I’ll give you a picture of the literary scene in Malaysia. The country has four literary traditions, that is, Malay, Chinese/Mandarin, Tamil and English traditions. Depending on educational, cultural and personal preference, the Malaysian can write in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil or English. Malay being the national language, Malay literature is considered the national or Malaysian literature.  I hold the view, however, that it doesn’t matter what language the work is written in as long as it reflects the life, visions, and hopes of Malaysians for it to be labeled Malaysian literature.

Malay literature is the dominant literature not because it is written in the national language, but also because it has more readers than those written in the other languages. Malay literature has therefore received greater institutional attention. If a writer’s work has the desired qualities, the chances are the national publisher, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, will bring it out. This national publisher also organizes short story, novel and playwriting competitions with handsome prizes. And of course there is the Hadiah Sastera or national laureate award. Almost all the major Malay writers have received this award and it is now running out of nominees! This plethora of prizes and awards–Malaysia is fond of rewarding its various heroes with money and houses–hasn’t produced the kind of works that would fulfill national dreams and ambitions. Samad Said, one of the national laureates, also has his own publishing firm, run, I hear, by his son, so that he can reissue his works and distribute them more effectively. There are many publishers now for Malay works all eyeing mega Ringgit. Consequently, popular fiction, usually revolving around love, longing and sex, has become very lucrative. At least one writer is said to earn as much as RM140, 000 through the sales of just one book!

Writers using Chinese, Tamil and English are left to fend for themselves. There are few literary competitions, except perhaps for works written in English. In the late 1980s the burger king MacDonald’s and Shell offered the money, and “The Straits Times” organized the competitions, but these competitions haven’t been continued. The Chinese and Tamil writers have developed their own traditions, inspired in part by what is happening in Chinese-speaking countries such as China, Taiwan, South Korea and Tamil-speaking countries such as South Indian and Mauritius. The tradition in English, to which I belong, is almost fifty years old and only surviving, rather than flourishing. Writers in English belong to various groups: the veterans, like me; the younger set, who like to try their hand at writing; the elitists, who hold manuscript or book reading sessions; and finally, the internationalist, that is, Malaysians who have settled in other countries and who seem to write to an international market formula. I’ll be referring mainly to writers who live in Malaysia and try to make something of their experience in their home country.

Whatever group they may belong to there are a couple of factors that they can’t escape. One is they must work for their living while pursuing their writing career. The internationalist writers may receive six-figure advances but his or her Malaysian counterpart doesn’t enjoy that kind of financial independence. Nor do they enjoy the extensive book-signing travel and the glamour of fame. The life of the writer in Malaysia is often routine bound. He or she observes the nine-to-five office hours or, if they are teachers or academics, school and university semester times. A number of Malay writers have been and are university academics. The flexible schedules may give them more time as I had when I was teaching in the Universiti Malaya until 1997. The other is commitment to their calling. By that I mean they can’t fool themselves that they are writing when they are only making pretence. Their writing soon exposes them. Their works either fall by the wayside or only appeal transitorily to their peer groups. Commitment to writing has to be total. It is shown in the writer’s discipline: he/she writes almost every week if not every day; in the meticulous attention he/she pays to form and language. These are the writers who have written works whether in Malay or English that continue to hold the attention of readers.

Commitment can also be seen as the vision behind a particular writer’s works. This is the hidden but attainable sense of perception that gives coherence and power to the writer’s works. I mentioned my own vision in an interview for a newspaper in July 1996. I said, “I want to see the universe in man.” That is the opposite of seeing the man in the universe.  The latter statement implies man’s position in the universe, planet, country, society, etc. But seeing the universe in man is seeing how many personalities can be contained within the individual self. This is essentially a writer’s creed. I meant by the statement in the interview that I wanted to explore as many kinds of persons and identities as I could in my writing. In other words, could I successfully become a widowed woman who struggles to see a wayward son through school; the sister-in-law who, reduced to a slave’s position in the household, takes revenge by seducing and wielding power over her brother-in-law; the successful businessman who suddenly finds a colossal void in his life; the Malay young man and later the elder, who knows the spirit of the land; the Chinese hardware shop assistant who makes of his marriage to a fat, barren woman, a Romeo-and-Juliet love. In other words, could I take on whatever personality a certain work demanded and in doing so discover the wealth of experience an individual holds within himself? I think that is what I’ve been doing in my works.

But that is only the larger vision that guides the body of work the writer produces in his lifetime. The more immediate task is to produce works that speak intimately to the reader. This means responding to events in your society, in the present or the past, and addressing the imaginative needs of your fellow countrymen. I believe that fiction, more than any other form, does this effectively. Fiction allows the reader to create for himself the images triggered off by the words on the page and therefore become a creator himself rather than a passive consumer. Fiction acts as a voice within yourself that is constantly telling, however indirectly, to alert you to the surroundings around you, social trends and needs and the influence of history. I would go so far as to say that this voice creates a greater sense of history for you. These are the stirrings that have helped me to write my own works.

So what are my works about? They all generally are about the sense of belonging, by which, I mean belonging to the country or acquiring a national sense of identity. Of more than thirty stories I’ve written, the stories that explore this feeling fully are “Haunting the Tiger” and “Arriving.” In the first story a third generation Indian seeks to really identify with his country. He tries all kinds of rituals, chief of which is to spill the blood of his hunts, such as a boar or deer, onto the ground. But he experiences no ecstatic feeling. He meets Pak Mat, a native of the country, who believes that he has an intimate relationship with the muse or aboriginal spirit of the country. So they go on a trip to haunt rather than hunt the tiger. When they come in sight of the tiger, Muthu, the protagonist, feels his personality is being burned away. So, he flees. It is only on his deathbed that he realizes how empty his life had been as a result of not having tried to identity with the spirit of the country.

The novels “The Return” (1981), “In a Far Country” (1993), and “Between Lives” (2003) form a trilogy in exploring this sense of identity. In “The Return” Ravi, the protagonist, becomes very influenced by British culture through the colonial education system. His ambition is to be freed from poverty and to lead a life of dignity, which he does when he becomes a teacher, trained in England. But a nagging doubt about his achievement at the cost of family relationships assails him. He expresses his doubt about his accomplishments in the poem “Full Circle” which closes the novel. Here are the last few lines:


Words will not serve.

You’ll be twisted by them

Into nameless little impulses

That roams dark city roads, raging.

They will be vague knots

Of feeling, lustreless, cultureless,

Buried in a heart that will not serve.


“In a Far Country” was a greater challenge to write because it involved numerous characters and really called upon my ability to fulfill my ambition of seeing the universe in man. This novel explores in complex prose the various characters’ relationship to the country. Finally, “Between Lives” dramatizes the memory of an immigrant’s struggle to belong and the necessity of not forgetting that struggle. The last novel is a fully Malaysian novel in that it evolves around all the three major communities: Malay, Chinese and Indian though it is narrated by a young Malaysian Indian woman, Sumitra. There have been other preoccupations in my works which I don’t have time to go into.

I was fortunate in getting my works published almost without any difficulty in the beginning, that is, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My stories were published in a university journal in Malaysia and subsequently in Singapore. There was also the Heinemann Asian Writers Series which brought out my first novel “The Return.” But Heinemann closed down that avenue somewhere in the late 1980s. Publishing Malaysian works ran into difficulties around that time as well.

So, when the London based Scoob Books came along, there were sufficient titles waiting to be published. “In a Far Country” was brought out by this publisher as were my story and play anthologies “Haunting the Tiger: Contemporary Stories from Malaysia” and “Sensuous Horizons: the Stories and the Plays.” This publisher has discontinued his interest in Malaysian works from the year 2000 for personal reasons.

Writing that isn’t published fails in the most important aspect of its existence: it fails to reach readers. As I said at the beginning of this talk, Malay works are more easily published than works in other languages because there is a national publisher. It is also easier because the Malay readership is substantially higher than other language readerships, so sometimes the phenomenon of runaway success of popular fiction. This is not to say there are no publishers for English works. There is Silverfishbooks and more recently, Maya Press, which published “Between Lives.” Writers need not pay these publishers to have their works published, but they also do not get fantastic royalties for the reason that reading is much in decline and also readership for works in English is limited. But these factors don’t discourage writers. They continue to toil at their computers, notebooks or exercise books, to give birth to their masterpieces!

The distribution network is fairly sophisticated and covers every accessible town and village. But it is also pricey, forty percent of the published price goes to the distributor. This is a setback for self-publishing authors. As you know, self-publishing is fast catching on and not all of it is vanity publishing. A couple of novels first self-published in the U.S. and Canada got offers and substantial advances from big-name publishers afterwards. In Malaysia there are self-publishers in such areas as migrant histories or fiction based on such histories. Or even memoirs. The writer can at least recover his production cost by hawking his work through distributors or simply placing it in any of the bookshops.

There isn’t exactly a close-knit writer’s society, as far as I know, in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, but there are a few writers’ groups. I’ve already mentioned aspiring young writers’ groups, which hold book meetings and read from works in progress. One such group even got together and published collections of poems in small, highly portable books. Then there are gatherings to honor visiting foreign writers, which afterwards also becomes a time for exchanging progress-in-writing notes among writers. Sometimes there is a local book launch, usually on a small scale, and this again brings writers together. I don’t think there is an open fellowship of writers, for there are all kinds of loyalties other than to writing. These may also lead to vicious and often uncalled-for backbiting. I suppose this happens in all literary communities, but this is a time when writers have to come together not only for the sake of their own writing but also to take stock of what is taking place in the publishing business worldwide.

Writing is a hard and demanding discipline but the only voice I know that can speak sincerely and intimately to the reader. Writers have to watch out for false attractions and seductions, such as of instant fame and glamour and celebrity status. Writing is a continuous process of individual and social discovery and must not be sacrificed for the mere glitter and the money. Writers have also to continually work at their craft and produce a sufficient body of work to justify their commitment to that vocation.