Malaysia: Literary Politics


Deborah Johnson

Malaysian writer, Shahnon Ahmad, has been at the centre of a storm of controversy that has swept across the Malaysian political landscape since April. His latest book entitled 'SHIT' purports to be a satire of the current political situation. Full of expletives and discussion of alimentary comings and goings, it might have sunk quietly into relieved obscurity, except for three factors.

First, Professor Emeritus Datuk Shahnon Ahmad is no less a public figure than a National Laureate (awarded 1982 - the second of only eight such acclaimed literary greats). As a prominent Malay cultural figure it is expected that he should uphold the dignity of the office, his race and nation.

Second, Shahnon Ahmad is a supporter and member of the Islamist opposition party, PAS. Since his departure in 1988 from the now-banned Al-Arqam movement, he has been active, speaking at PAS meetings across the country. His name has also been associated with the PAS-led Gerak pro-reformation coalition, whose formation was announced amidst the furore surrounding the sacking and trial of former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

Third, Malaysian politicians are gearing up for General Elections which constitutionally must be held prior to June 2000. Political point scoring being the order of the day, it was, however, always going to be difficult for either government or opposition to come out of a stoush over this particular literary missive smelling like a rose. Nonetheless, two UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) Penang division representatives took up the challenge, calling for a ban of the book. Some 15,000 copies had been printed and distributed mostly in Kelantan (a PAS-controlled state), Kedah and Penang (Shahnon's home states). Initially it was not readily available for sale in and around Kuala Lumpur and most national politicians would not then have seen a copy much less read it. But by the end of April it had hit the proverbial fan.

The ensuing publicity has ensured brisk demand and a wider readership than would otherwise have been the case. A second reprint and even an English version has been mooted. UMNO has been able to take the high moral plane expressing disgust at such unseemly and un-Malay vulgarity, lack of subtlety, and obvious criticism of national leaders. However, they have had to be cautious so as to not appear heavy-handed and opposed to free expression. For the moment, the book has not been banned and Shahnon's teaching position at Penang's Science University is secure - at least possibly until the end of this year when his annual contract expires. Somewhat embarrassing also have been the questions this episode has raised as to the value and honour of the National Laureate award itself. Further, PAS has had to be in the uncomfortable position of supporting Shahnon's right to speak freely, even though he uses coarse language to do so. But his book does indicate how vigorous and dynamic Malaysian politics are.

WATCHPOINT: The Shahnon case is one challenge to established standards. Others may follow in the lead-up to the very important tenth General Elections.


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