A Reporter’s Memoir: NO HARD FEELINGS

An irreverent look at life, faith and politics…

  Let Alfian …

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Let Alfian entertain with his haunting tales….

Malay Sketches, the latest offering from poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at, attracted by attention for two reasons.

First is his reputation as an enfant terrible on the local literary scene, with a dazzling array of works and awards under his belt.

I have read several of his short stories and know from first-hand how entertaining and – provocative – his prose can be.

The second is that it reminded me of another book with the same title that I wanted to read decades ago, but somehow never managed to do so.

The original Malay Sketches was by Frank Swettenham, Governor and Commander in Chief of the Straits Settlement. It was published in 1895.

Alfian makes no secret that he has deliberately decided to borrow the same title, possibly to provide continuation with the past, when the Malays as a community stagnated under British colonial rule, while their rulers and petty chieftains prospered.

As a prelude to his collection of 42 short and ultra-short stories, most of which are less than 500 words long and a few under 100, Alfian reproduces a paragraph from Frank’s preface:

‘’The tale of these little lives is told. If I have failed to bring you close to the Malay, so that you could see into his heart, understand something of his life…then the fault is mine.’’


Using the same yardstick, I can say that Alfian has not done badly. Through his vivid sketches of a spectrum of characters, readers will gain rare insights into the Malay psyche as an ethnic minority in Chinese-dominated Singapore.

Don’t be misled by the simplicity of the chapter headings; his tales of hantus and toyol, tetek and nonok and pontianak, exude sufficient charm and humour to haunt the imagination.

Like an artist who could capture an evocative scene or a haunting portrait with just a few bold strokes of the pen or pencil, Alfian only needs a handful of words and phrases to make his characters and their dilemmas, leap out of the pages to entertain and more important – to illumine delicate issues.

Like, for example, his short tale on The Convert.  Readers can feel for themselves how heavy is the burden of just being a Malay and/or Muslim in security-obsessed Singapore, with its real and imaginary fears.

Even an old hand like me, who has for years given much thought on minority problems, has emerged more enlightened and sympathetic to, for instance, tudung wearing after reading Losing Touch.

But it is his story on Two Brothers that resonated strongly with me, especially when in the course of a conversation on Singapore and Malaysia politics, one of them says:

‘’I used to think that things were different in Singapore. I thought we had different rules, different standards. But I realised we’re the same. When it comes down to it, it’s all about race. Sons of the soil, sons of the Yellow Emperor. They’re the same.’’

That’s what I – and many other Malays of my generation – thought so years ago. We were then, perhaps, naive and idealistic.

Brought out by Ethos Books, which has emerged as a leading and daring publisher of local works in recent years, the 220-odd pages book comes replete with eye-catching illustrations by artist, Shahril Nizam Ahmad.

So friends, why wait? Rush to Wardah books at Kampong Glam for your copy of Malay Sketches.

Ismail Kassim

1 July 2012

Written by ibekay

July 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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