Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Straight from the Heart

Award-winning writer Uthaya Sankar SB tells Bissme S what he thinks of the literary scene, his run-ins with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, and racism..
Why do you get angry when journalists ask you about your excellent command of Bahasa Malaysia?
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If the journalists were to ask me how come I am fluent in German, I would understand their curiosity. German is not my mother tongue. German is not my national language. By the way, I don’t know German. But to ask a Malaysian “how come you are so good in Bahasa Malaysia” is an insult. I believe every Malaysian should be able to converse and write well in Bahasa Malaysia.
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Many assume that I grew up in a Malay environment and that is the reason I can write and speak Bahasa Malaysia well. But that is far from the truth. I grew up in a village (Aulong Lama in Taiping, Perak) where the majority were Indians and there were only two Malay families.
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Bahasa Malaysia is our national language. I regard Bahasa Malaysia as my first language. When a Malaysian is not good in Bahasa Malaysia, then it’s news. I wouldn’t have minded if the journalist asked me why I was not so good in Bahasa Malaysia because that would have made more sense. However, over the last few years, journalists have stopped asking me this question. Thank God for that.
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Tell us more about the “little war” with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) over the use of the term “Bahasa Malaysia”?
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It started in 1999. This year I am celebrating my tenth anniversary of this so-called war. (Both of us laugh.) It all began when I submitted a collection of short stories to DBP for publication. The collection comprised stories from ten Malaysian Indian writers including myself. In the foreword I wrote, an editor in DBP wanted to change the word “Bahasa Malaysia” to “Bahasa Melayu”. When I still wanted to use the term “Bahasa Malaysia”, he started to lecture me that the term doesn’t exist. The matter was even taken up to (prime minister) Datuk Seri Najib Razak who was then the education minister. He made a statement to the press that it was all right to use the term “Bahasa Malaysia”. But DBP said it’d only publish the book if I used the term “Bahasa Melayu”. In the end, I did not allow the book to be published by DBP. [More HERE]
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Why are you obsessed with the term Bahasa Malaysia? What have you against the term Bahasa Melayu?
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I have nothing against the term "Bahasa Melayu". I will not stop anyone from using "Bahasa Melayu". But it pisses me off when someone – or anyone for that matter – says I can’t use the term "Bahasa Malaysia". I am not doing anything illegal. The term was introduced in 1970 and reinforced by the cabinet in 2007. Therefore, nobody has the right to stop me from using it. The more you try to stop me from using "Bahasa Malaysia" without any valid reason, the more I want to use the term. It is like parents telling you that you can’t love this girl and you start loving her even more. [More HERE]
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What is your honest view of DBP?
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DBP works at a snail’s pace. Once it does get a manuscript, it can take years to publish it. It’s also an open secret that it does not have a good marketing strategy. DBP should learn from Alaf 21 (a publication house owned by Kumpulan Karangkraf Sdn Bhd). Alaf 21 starts its marketing and publicity drive long before the books hit the market. Publishing books per se is not good enough anymore. You need to promote the books vigorously so readers will pick up the books. You need to make sure the books are available everywhere.
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But this is not happening in DBP because most of the time, the books are merely available in the Dawama (the marketing and distribution department of DBP) storerooms.
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Therefore, it is not surprising that (national laureate) Datuk A. Samad Said has taken back the rights to most of his books from DBP and wants to publish under his own publishing house,
Wira Bukit Sdn Bhd. Haslina Usman has also done something similar with her father (national laureate) Datuk Usman Awang’s works by taking back all the copyright from DBP and publishing under UA Enterprises Sdn Bhd.
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DBP is given the task and responsibility to look after our national laureates but it appears it is not doing a good job. The fact that these national laureates do not want to be under DBP’s umbrella doesn’t paint a good picture of DBP. I submitted a letter to DBP recently to officially take back the rights to my books under it. I have no other choice. In 2007, I gave DBP a letter to reprint my books under their publication since there was a demand for my books. But it has not done anything to date. It’s a sad fact that DBP is not proactive. [
CLICK HERE for latest news.]
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Why do you think DBP is not proactive?
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Every year, DBP is getting funding from the government to publish a certain number of good quality books. It does not have to generate profit since it relies on the government funding. It feels as long as it publishes books, it has done its job. This has to change.
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Some people believe DBP should be privatised so it will be more effective. What do you think?
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Dawama (the marketing and distribution department of DBP) is privatised. But I do not see any real change. Privatisation is not the answer. It is the mentality of the people involved that should change.
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You often criticise DBP. But it gave you your first big break. Some might say you are biting the hand that feeds you. What is your comment?
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My relationship with DBP is more of a father and son. When a father makes a mistake, it is the duty of the son to point it out. I am doing my duty as a son. I am just asking them why are they neglecting their other sons (Usman Awang and A. Samad Said). I am just asking DBP (or anyone else for that matter) why can’t I use "Bahasa Malaysia" when there is such a term. What I am saying is based on facts. This is not slander. Whenever DBP has functions, I still attend and I still give my support. As I said, ours is a love-hate relationship.
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Have you written anything in English?
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I think in English but I prefer to speak and write in Bahasa Malaysia. I would not mind if people wanted to translate my stories into English, Tamil or Chinese.
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Funnily enough, Institute Terjemahan Negara Malaysia (ITNM) translated one of my stories into English recently and I never knew about it. I only got to know that my story (“Nayagi”) was in the
Sea of Rainbows anthology when I went for the book launch. I have nothing against ITNM translating my work. But I would have appreciated it if ITNM had at least informed me about it.
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DBP has also translated one of my stories (“Yang Aneh-aneh”) into English and it was supposed to be featured in An Anthology of Malaysian Short Stories. But frankly, I would be surprised if the book gets published by 2020. [
CLICK HERE for updates.]
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Is it true there is discrimination and as a result a lot of non-Malays are not keen to write Bahasa Malaysia literature?
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I do not think discrimination exists. In fact, the many magazines under DBP are always looking for non-Malay writers to write Bahasa Malaysia literature. In fact, they pay very well. But the editors do not seem to get enough contributions. In this case, I blame the (non-Malay) writers. They like to jump to a wrong conclusion that their works will not be accepted and that discrimination exists. Of course, you cannot expect publications to accept every material that non-Malay writers submit. The works should be of a certain standard.
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I always advise my editor friends not to accept stories in Bahasa Malaysia just because they are submitted by a non-Malay. You accept the work because it is a good piece of writing, regardless of race. In the past, Kumpulan Utusan had a literature competition category for non-Malays who write in Bahasa Malaysia. I do not agree to having such a category. Why have a separate award for non-Malays? If it is a competition, everyone should be in the same level. Of course I am happy that Utusan has scrapped this category.
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Many non-Malays also have this assumption that you must write about Malay or Muslim characters if you want to get your stories published. That is not true. Most of my stories are about Indian families. The editors are always looking out for different cultures to be featured in their magazines.
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The writers must also make sure the fiction they submit is free of spelling mistakes, so the editors do not have a headache going through their work. Read your work 101 times before sending it to the editor. Do not expect your editor to correct all your silly mistakes that you should have corrected.
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So far no non-Malays have made it as sasterawan negara (national laureate) and this proves discrimination exists. One good example of this is the poet Dr Lim Swee Tin.
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Associate Prof Dr Lim Swee Tin should be recognised as Sasterawan Negara, not because he is non-Malay but because he deserves it. He has created some masterpieces. I do not know why he has not been awarded Sasterawan Negara title till now. Maybe no one has nominated him.
I am submitting a nomination. Like I said, he deserves the title.
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Romance novels and popular fiction sell better. But why do you write serious literature?
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I have nothing against people who write romance novels and popular fiction. But I like to write stories that make people think. Perhaps, 95% of readers are looking for romance novels and popular fiction, compared to
only 5% who are looking for serious stuff. Let me cater to those who are hungry for serious stuff.
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I strongly believe that God wants me to write something other than romance novels and popular fiction. I believe my writing talent is God’s gift and there must be a reason for His gift.
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Do you think writers should write just to tell a story or their stories should have some moral message to make the world a better place?
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If you are a writer with morals, it will be reflected in your writing. If your mind is corrupted, it will also be reflected in your stories. I have never written a story with the aim of putting a moral message across. But subconsciously, the moral values in me would be reflected in the stories I write. The readers are a better judge of that.
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What do you think of our prime minister’s 1Malaysia concept?
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It could be a brilliant concept to strengthen racial unity. But I think we are going overboard. For example, the TV station where I work is so keen to cover anything that has to do with the different races in this country. The media seems to be desperate to get non-Malay faces on the TV screen.
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Ironically, last year (in April 2008, one year before the 1Malaysia concept was launched), I went out to cover a news event that featured Telegu New Year celebrations. In the end, the story was not aired in the Bahasa Malaysia news.
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I was curious and wanted to know why the story was not used. The editor in charge told me, it was a story about an insignificant minority group and she also accused me of bringing “unsur-unsur Keling” (Keling elements) into the Bahasa Malaysia news.
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I resigned immediately from my post as news editor because I felt her statement was racist. I did not want to work in a news department where racism exists. [DETAILS HERE]
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(theSun, 16 July 2009)

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Sila gunakan Bahasa Malaysia atau Bahasa Inggeris yang betul apabila mengemukakan komen. Hanya komen yang menggunakan bahasa yang betul dari segi ejaan, tanda baca dan struktur ayat akan dilayan. Pencemaran bahasa diharamkan!