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Akar Bangsa: Budaya, Naratif dan Identiti
Are Malaysians, in their subconscious mind, still enslaved and afraid?
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Author: Muhaimin Sulam
Publisher: Ilham Books, Kuala Lumpur. 2019
Reviewed by: Roselind Wan
ISBN: 978-2007-272

This book is a collection of Muhaimin Sulam’s writings in two online newspapers, Malaysiakini and Harakah. Both newspapers are known for their succinct political contents and critical views on current affairs in Malaysia. Written in the form of popular genre, this book comes across as the author’s ruminations of events and political discourses from which he weaves the past and present through stories and anecdotes from song lyrics, films, poems, historical letters, political speeches and the like to draw readers to contemplate with him the complex forms and nuances of (Malay)/national identity. Thus, the title, Akar Bangsa: Budaya, Naratif dan Identiti (Root of a nation: culture, narrative and identity) comes across as fittingly suited to the notion of these complexities. The three themes – culture, narrative and identity, are saliently presented and written in a way that engages his readers through the Malay language narrative prose and prose poetry writing style. The author further exemplifies, by his choice of the Malay language, a nuance for what the book is about; Malay identity, culture, and Malay narratives about the sense of nationhood.

The book consists of three parts – Part 1: Budaya dan Kuasa (Bab 1 – 12), Part 2: Jiwa Bangsa (Bab 13 – 27) and Part 3: Sejarah yang Karam (Bab 28 – 37). At the outset, the author positions himself as the bridge that attempts to connect two different forces that characterise the shape and fabric of Malaysian’s society; “budayawan” (artists/artisans) on the one hand, and “kuasawan” (powers-that-be/politicians) on the other. Part 1 thus, is an insightful look at the relationship between culture and power, concepts of independence, language, history, art, traditions and issues surrounding what it means to belong to a nation and nationhood, citing, for example, the renowned Malay poet, Usman Awang, as reference of what independence would or should mean (p. 18):

kalau hidup ingin Merdeka
tiada tercapai hanya berkata
ke muka maju sekata,
maju kita
melemparkan jauh jiwa hamba.

Muhaimin’s sole referencing in the bookis the Malay segment of the Malaysian society, but even so, discerning Malaysians, I feel, should also reflect what independence means as Malaysians, “Entah berapa ribu kali sajak itu dideklamasikan sejak ditulis. Tapi yang mendengarkannya masih berjiwa hamba, masih takut-takut. Belum merdeka” (p. 19). Loosely translated and paraphrased; [it might be that the poem has been proclaimed and read thousands of time since it was written. Yet, those who heard it still possess the soul of a slave, still afraid. (They are) still not free].

Are Malaysians, in their subconscious mind, still enslaved and afraid?

The author skilfully pokes its readers to reflect as independent citizens of a post-colonist nation; Are we like slaves, Are our souls still afraid? Are we still not free?

The poem by Usman Awang was written eight years before the independence of Malaya from the British, yet the truth of this insight according to the author, still holds true today as it was during the time the poem was written. Usman Awang was primarily cited and referenced in the book but there are also pleasant references and mentions to other well-known poets such as A Samad Said and Malaysian cultural icon, Seniman Agung P. Ramlee. However, one section in this chapter which I found personally touching is Chapter 10 “Suara perempuan Melayu dalam surat Francis Light”. Muhaimin and his university colleagues’ project investigating the Jawi writing development based on the Light’s Letters (Surat-Surat Francis Light) which they sourced from the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, London is an on-going project but from this collection, Muhaimin dexterously elucidates for the readers, the pain and longings of Malay women left behind by their English/European husbands. In “Surat-Surat Ence’ Lena”, for example, one syair cited from Faisal Tehrani’s novel “Surat-surat perempuan Johor” encapsulates this pain and longings:

Molek terukir labu sayung,
Diisi air menjadi sejuk;
Kita rindu tidak tertanggung,
Bagai tak sanggup menunggu esok.
Malam kelas diingin ke pagi,
Lelah berdayung rasa tak larat;
Tuan tak ada kita sepi,
Tidur seorang rasa tak hangat.

Part 2 “Jiwa Bangsa” is a collection of Muhaimin’s writings on what he terms as “Soul of the Nation” (lit translate), consisting 17 short pieces of writing on issues such as language, citizen rights, leadership and the Malay identity. Again, readers will find thought-provoking inclusions of some anecdotes from cultural icons and poets to illustrate his Jiwa Bangsa collection. What he earnestly wants to elevate in this chapter, however, is the issue of the Malay language. In Chapter 18, “Pesanan Usman Awang buat Cendekiawan”, Muhaimin successfully paints on readers’ imagination a picture of a Malay poet some 48 years ago giving a speech that inspired a group of English educated Malay students in London on what it meant to be Malay in the “new” Malaysia post-independence. In Usman Awang’s speech “Peranan Intelektual”, Muhaimin listed out four characteristics of what the poet defined as the characteristics of intellectuals while in the following Chapter 19 “Mengapa Pak Samad memilih jadi hamba” is a deft take on Pak Samad’s decision to join the (then opposition) political party DAP (Democratic Action Party) which readers may find to be a very insightful and interesting snippet of politics and political play running through the several years prior to the historical fourteenth Malaysian General Election (G14).

In Part 3, Muhaimin invites the readers to envision the history of the nation; the beginnings and the conflicts confronting the making of modern Malaysia. The metaphorical title, Sejarah yang Karam (the History that Sank, lit translate) personifies the shades and richness of the Malay language and which the author seems to wrap upon readers’ consciousness to remind them of their duty to uphold, to celebrate the history and ownership of the nation;

Malaysia ini negara kita. Saya, kamu dan dia adalah sama. Semuanya ialah penghuni negara bertuah dan merdeka ini. Nama negara saya, kamu dan dia ialah Malaysia (p. 157).

This book is light reading yet thought-provoking. It scopes the very dense topic of culture, identity and nationhood within a short collection of articles that the readers can decide to read and leave without feeling disconnected. As an academic, politician and poet, Muhaimin was able to inject nuances of these three dimensions in the book. Readers are reminded that this is not an academic book on culture and identity. However, it has great potential to be developed and pursued if the author so wishes to expand it as an academic source for researchers and students.


This book can be purchase through here.

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