Postcolonial Fictions | Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC

Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)

Postcolonial Fictions

Edited by MichŤle Drouart

Non-English Postcolonial Fictions? The Malaysian Case

Harry Aveling In their perceptive consideration of the question "What is postcolonialism?" (Textual Practice, 5:3, Winter 1991), Mishra and Hodge ask: "Does the postcolonial exist only in English?" Their review of Ashcroft Griffiths and Tiffin's The Empire Writes Back (Routledge, London 1989), with that book's emphasis on language and "englishes," seems to them to suggest that this is indeed the case. Mishra and Hodge, however, scarcely stop to answer their own query. Rhetorically they demand:

But why are Premchand, Bannerjee (of Pather Panchali fame) and Satyajit Ray, and Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt (the last three film-makers) not postcolonial? And what about the writings of the Indian Diaspora not written in English, such as the Mauritian Abhimanyu Anat's Lal Pasina ('Blood and Sweat')?

What indeed? The purpose of this paper is to re-examine The Empire Writes Back (henceforth EWB) in order to establish the major principles of that book and their relationship to both English and english, and then to test those principles against writing in the indigenous language of a former British colony, now known as Malaysia, by Ishak Haji Muhammad, a major prewar Malay author.

The Empire and Literature

From the outset EWB is concerned with matters of large-scale importance. "More than three-quarters of the people living in the world today have had their lives shaped by colonialism," the first sentence announces. Literature is one of the most important ways of "powerfully" encoding "the perceptual frameworks" produced by the "day-to-day realities experienced by colonized peoples" and so is "profoundly influential" (1). Ashcroft Griffiths and Tiffin use the term "postcolonial" to cover "all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day" (2, emphasis added). It is possible to do this, they believe, "because there is a continuity of preoccupations throughout the historical process initiated by European aggression." In particular the relationship of the provinces with the metropolitan centre is paradigmatic, whether the literature arizes in the African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Caribbean countries, India, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Pacific Island countries or Sri Lanka. "What each of these literatures has in common beyond their special and distinctive regional characteristics," Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin tell us, "is that they emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre. It is this which makes them distinctively post-colonial" (2, emphasis added). Although EWB is concerned with writing by those peoples formerly colonized by Britain, "much of what it deals with is of interest and relevance to countries colonized by other European powers, such as France, Portugal, and Spain" (1).

Later we learn that there are (at least) "three important features of all postcolonial writing" (3, emphasis added). These are: firstly, the "silencing and marginalizing of the post-colonial voice by the imperial centre"; secondly, "the abrogation of this imperial centre within the text"; and, thirdly, "the active appropriation of the language and culture of that centre" (83). We may characterize these features as the nature of non-imperial culture, the problem of the relationship between the centre and its colonies, and the issue of language. These three topics structure the major concerns of EWB, and they serve to constitute "postcolonial literature" as the negation of English language and literature, or as everything that English language and literature is not (cf. Kapferer, 1988: 238).

(i) The Nature of Non-imperial Culture

"All postcolonial countries," Ashcroft Griffiths and Tiffin assure us in a most remarkable sentence, "once had or still have 'native' cultures of some kind" (116, emphasis added). These cultures varied. There were the "widespread indigenous literary cultures of India and Pakistan" (116), supplemented in a footnote by "those ex-colonies such as Malaysia, Singapore or Hong Kong which have access to the massive body of Chinese cultural traditions or to the newer but still influential traditions of the Malay-Indonesian region" (219 n.l). There were the "extensive and highly developed oral cultures" of Black sub-Saharan Africa; the Aboriginal cultures of Australia, New Zealand and Canada; and the almost completely annihilated "ghostly trace on the consciousness of the modern Creolized inhabitants" of the West Indies. In an apparently passive way, the "creative development of post-colonial societies is often determined by the influence of this pre-colonial, indigenous culture and the degree to which it is still active" (116, emphasis added).

On the whole, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin tend to be dismissive of non-imperial culture. The attempt in India, for example, to "reconstitute a sense of the 'Indianness' of the texts considered and to assess their virtue by the standards and assumptions of an indigenous aesthetic" (117-8) has some merits, but it also (and this is "an obvious objection to such a suggestion") "merely authorizes, arbitrarily, one moment of culture as 'essential' and also ignores the inevitable syncretic nature of post-colonial culture" (119-20). Essences are "illusory" (121), and flow over into the "flawed" embrace of "an essentialist and representationalist view of language" (131). The old world of Africa, "a 'landscape of elephants, beggars, calabashes, serpents, pumpkins, baskets, towncriers, iron bells, slit drums, iron masks, snakes, squirrels' " (129, quoting Chinweizu), must make room for " 'precision machinery, oil rigs, hydro-electricity, my typewriter, railways (not iron snakes), machine guns, bronze sculpture, etc.' " (quoting Soyinka), which "do not exclude a particular ontological relationship to the universe but rather add to its complexity" (129). To value the "folk" over the "abstract" is to be anti-intellectual, depoliticized, and sympathetic to "a dubious theory of communication which assumed that form and content could be treated in a simple, reflective model" (130).

(ii) Relationship with the Centre

Postcolonial literature is the product of a trauma: "The dialectic of place and displacement is always a feature of post-colonial societies" (9, emphasis added). This "crisis of identity," which for some critics is "the defining model of post-coloniality," may be due to "dislocation," resulting from migration, enslavement, transportation or "voluntary" removal, or the consequence of "cultural denigration," defined as "the conscious and unconscious oppression of the indigenous personality and culture by a supposedly superior racial or cultural model." In either case, "[b]eyond their historical and cultural differences, place, displacement, and a pervasive concern with the myths of identity and authenticity are a feature common to all post-colonial literatures in english" (9, emphasis added).

In postcolonial societies, selves are constructed as subjects in relation to the Other; they are "frozen into a hierarchical relationship in which the oppressed is locked into position by the assumed moral superiority of the dominant group, a superiority which is reinforced when necessary by the use of physical force" (172). The first stage of postcolonial writing belongs to a "literate elite whose primary identification is with the colonizing power"; unfortunately their works "can never form the basis for an indigenous culture nor can they be integrated in any way with the culture which already exists in the countries invaded" (5). The second stage is "produced 'under imperial licence' by 'natives' and 'outcasts,' " signifying that "they have temporarily or permanently entered a specific and privileged class position endowed with the language, education and leisure necessary to produce such works," but with no potential for subversion (5-6).

How does one escape from this situation? Historically, the process of colonialism was broken by various nations being granted, willingly or otherwize, their national independence. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin accept (the phrase they use is "do not deny") "the great importance of maintaining each literature's sense of difference." Granting that it is this "sense of difference" which "constitutes each national literature's mode of self apprehension" and "claim to be a self-constituting entity," they nevertheless warn:

However, nationalism, in which some partial truth or cliche is elevated to orthodoxy, is a danger implicit in such national conceptions of literary production. The impetus towards national self-realization in critical assessments of literature all too often fails to stop short of nationalist myth. (17)

The opposite "danger" is "the tendency to reincorporate post-colonial culture into a new and universalist paradigm," which is simply another type of imperialism (155-6). It really does seem that there is no way out, no escape from the Centre.

(iii) Language

Language is one of the "main features of imperial oppression" and "the medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is perpetuated" (7). Capital 'E' English is "the language of the erstwhile imperial centre," set apart from "all other 'lesser' variants" (8, or "breeds," no doubt). Within postcolonial discourse, one finds three main types of linguistic groups. Monoglossic groups are "those single-language societies using english as a native tongue." In diglossic societies, bilingualism is "an enduring social arrangement," with english the language of government and commerce. In polyglossic communities "a multitude of dialects inerweave to form a generally comprehensible linguistic continuum" (39). As with nationalism, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin shy away from the enthusiastic affirmation of local languages as still "syncretic" (30) and the position of those advocating such languages as mistakenly confused about "essences" and "authenticity" (41). Here too they would prefer to use language "to signify difference while employing the sameness which allows it to be understood" (51). In this way the twin processes of "abrogation" (denial of the privilege of 'English') and "appropriation" (the reconstitution of the language of the centre) come together (38). To use an indigenous language, however, is to enter "the gap of silence" (63), a brave but regrettable act.

Ishak Haji Muhammad

EWB walks an uneasy line between what is supposedly true of all post-colonial culture, and what its authors only claim to be true about all literatures written in english. If language really does not embody culture, as Ashcroft Griffiths and Tiffin insist (57), it seems logical to assume that there is no necessary connection between postcolonial literature and english, or—putting it in another way—what happens in english under colonial conditions might also happen in other languages. English ceases to be a significant variable in the equation.

By its nature EWB cannot address every postcolonial situation and literature. Each situation and literature tests, refines, strengthens or refutes the generalizations of EWB, at least to some small extent, providing a positive perspective to the negative constitution of the Other. Let us therefore turn a literature which has abrogated the "official pre-emption of native conceptual space" by imperial English culture (Lashley, 48) through the simple expedient of rejecting English in favour of writing in an indigenous language. Here I am concerned with the work of one author, Ishak Haji Muhammad, some of whose writing would appear to support EWB's contentions, some to emphasize their cultural boundedness (what Mishra and Hodge in fact characterize as their "orientalism," 401-4).

Ishak the son of Haji Muhammad was born in Kampung Sagantung, Temerloh, in Pahang, the largest state in the West Malaysian peninsula, in 1910. After an initial education in Malay, he proceeded to an English medium school in Bentong and finally to the elitist Malay College in Kuala Kangsar where he passed the Senior Cambridge exam in 1929. His heroes at school included the Knights of the Round Table, Richard the Lion Heart, William the Conqueror, Lord Nelson, King Canute, the Vikings, the Trojan Horse, Theseus, Perseus, Julius Caeser and so on. Somewhere in the background were, however, the more obscure Mat Gajah, Bahaman, Mat Kilau, Tok Janggut and Tuan Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong, heroes of the resistance in Pahang in the early part of the century to the imposition of British rule on that state (Ishak Haji Muhammad 1976: 23).

Malay College prepared gentlemen for the Malayan Administrative Service. Ishak was soon appointed as a Malay cadet to the District Office in Temerloh, becoming Assistant District Officer in Bentong, Pahang, in 1931. Following service in the state of Negeri Sembilan, he was appointed a Third Class Magistrate in Kuala Lumpur in 1932. Finding civil service life artificial, discriminatory and not in the interest of the Malay community whom the British claimed to be "protecting," Ishak resigned his post in 1934. After a period spent wandering through the Peninsula, he then turned to journalism, nationalist politics (for which he was imprisoned from 1948 to 1953 and again from 1965 to 1966), and the writing of novels and short stories. His first novel, Putera Gunung Tahan (The Prince of Mount Tahan), was published in 1937; his second, Anak Mat Lela Gila (The Son of Mad Mat), in 1941. Others followed throughout the fifties and early sixties, without attaining either the success or prestige of these initial works. Affectionately known as Pak Sako (from the Japanese Isako-san), Ishak Haji Muhammad passed away in November 1991 (biographical details: Li Chuan Siu 1966: 229-239).

The origins of Modern Malay Literature are located by Malay scholars in the autobiographical works of Abdullah Munshi (1796-1854), who was a language teacher to the early governors of the Straits Settlements (including Sir Stamford Raffles) and to a number of missionaries. The first Malay novel, nevertheless, Hikayat Faridah Hanum by Syed Sheikh bin Ahmad Al-Hadi (1867-1934) did not appear until 1925-1926. Abdullah fits the category of "a literate elite whose primary identification is with the colonizing power," but he chose to write in Malay and his work was indeed the basis of later indigenous culture. Syed Sheikh was by no means an "outcast"; he was a profoundly important religious teacher and innovator, established a number of highly influential magazines, including Al-Iman, and set up his own press in Penang. The imperial (if we may call it such) culture to which Syed Sheikh was oriented was modernist Islam, existing in implicit opposition to European culture and civilization. Pak Sako's orientation, as we shall see, was to Malay culture itself, valorising it against what was to him a decidedly inferior if endlessly and ruthlessly aggressive British colonialism.

The Prince of Mount Tahan

The Prince of Mount Tahan (henceforth MT) is a fairly simple work of less that 70 pages. In his author's "Preface," Pak Sako describes it as a "satire," containing "many valuable moral lessons," and intended to provide its readers with "a greater awareness of your various obligations towards your nation and its people." The story concerns two white men, Mr Robert and Mr William, who seek to climb Mount Tahan (the highest mountain on the peninsula), ostensibly to study its plants, minerals and the magic objects to be found there, but, in fact, to assess its value as a British hill station. The two men are separated after a sudden flash flood, when Mr Robert leaves the cave in which they have sought shelter to take a few snaps of the scenery with his box camera. Mr Robert is captured by a group of aboriginal Sakai and made their leader; he later dies in the ritual pursuit of a young Sakai maiden. Mr Williams manages to reach the top of the mountain, thanks to the assistance of the Prince ruling there, but he too dies, victim of the air-raid he has secretly arranged. His wife, the only survivor of the raid, eventually marries the Prince, who chastely shelters her for three years.

MT is undoubtedly "distinctively post-colonial": it foregrounds a tension with the imperial power and emphasizes the differences between the indigenous culture and the imperial power. It does this, in 1937, by using the devices of allegory, irony, and magical realism, if not perhaps discontinuous narrative, which EWB assures us are "characteristic of post-colonial writing" (28). Ishak's model for this was not, however, postmodern fiction, but an inversion of the British "boys' weeklies" and their tales of brave English adventurers subduing hordes of savages in distant settings (see Orwell 1975, and Turner 1976).

Mr Robert and Mr William are, of course, far from heroic; they are positively silly. In this "occidentalism," the English are either extremely fat or terribly thin. When they are not eating bread with either cheese or jam, they are taking tea and biscuits. They have no objections to pork. In church they pray to the Lord Jesus, men and women indiscriminately mixed together. This easy mingling of the sexes is the foundation of their loose morality. Western education teaches young men how to drink in excess and wear fashionable clothes. Their houses are crowded with furniture and filled with pets. Mature men amuse themselves rushing up and down steep hills ("Thanks to the paths, ladders and huts of the 1905 expedition," Mr J.B. Scrivenor, the Federal Geologist, wrote in 1906, "the ascent of Mt Tahan had quickly become a pic-nic" (cited Aveling 1980: xii).

The English are also greedy. After Mr Robert has been appointed chief of the Sakai tribe, Ishak comments:

Every white man who comes to Malaya comes for money. He cares nothing about leading or protecting the original sons of the soil. Even if he is somewhat stupid, he will, with no trouble at all, still get a position that pays hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month. Mr Robert now had an important position, but no salary. Wasn't that a disaster . . . (MT, Eng. tr., Aveling 1980:17).

The more aware Malays have no illusions about the motive which drives the Empire. An old woman whom the tribe has taken under its protection tells Mr Robert:

It doesn't matter what you do to people as long as there's a profit in it. All you white men are the same. You're not ruling our land for nothing. The money is all you want. Am I right or not?

And he can only reply:

It's a lie! A damnable lie! You've spent so long in the jungle, you couldn't possibly know how things are. You're a blind and ignorant old woman. Experienced and educated Malays—and that means most of the Malays living in the towns—don't think the way you do. They're very proud to be ruled by the Europeans. They think and do exactly as we tell them. And they like it! (MT Eng. tr., Aveling 1980:27).

It is important to note here that Ishak's criticism is not only directed towards the centre of the Empire—the old men who sit hunched over piles of papers in splendid offices in London, sending out military expeditions in response to messages tied to the legs of pigeons (MT 58)—but is also aimed at upper class Malays. (A similar situation obtains, of course, in the works of Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, and many other African authors.) Ultimately Malaya was lost to the British because "large numbers of Malays lied, (took) bribes, and betrayed their leaders" (MT 3, modified). The Malay rulers have, in exchange for wealth, titles and medals, submitted themselves to the British, and are no more than "figure heads" (MT 54), unable to offer their own people any protection. If a Malay wants "a good position and a decent salary, he ought to do exactly as he's told," Mr William advizes the Prince. "If the Englishman says something is black, the Malay should call it black; if the Englishman says it's white, then it's white." A large percentage of Malays have adopted the immoral ways of the British, including the licentiousness of the dance halls (MT 47). It is this disgust with his own people, corrupted by colonialism, that leads Ishak to construct a pure Malay society—the proto-Malay society of the jungle—beyond the deutero-Malay world of the larger cities. Unfortunately there were far too few of the more aware Malays of either kind, either proto or deutero Malays!

The Son of Mad Mat Lela

MT does indeed emphasize the dialectic of "place and displacement", together with the ensuing crisis of Malay identity. The obligations Ishak hoped his readers would come to realize included the need to "strive to defend your country, religion and customs from hostile attack." The subversion of "displacement" occurs through replacement—the restitution of an authentic indigenous culture in Malay. This is an act of the intellect as well as of the imagination; it is an act of political self-assertion, and far from naive. MT is a denial of the assertions in the boys' magazines that, as Orwell wrote, "the major problems of our days do not exist, there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, foreigners are unimportant comics, and the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern which will last forever" (Orwell, 1975:200). The "oppressed" reader of MT is certainly not locked into any position by the assumed moral superiority of the British; on the contrary, the Prince, with his Muslim piety, his protection of his people, and his chivalry towards women, makes arrant fools and knaves of the invaders.

The Son of Mad Mat Lela (henceforth SML) continues this process of post-colonial replacement through the use of an indigenous language, completely without reference to any centre outside of Malaya. The novel is a picaresque tale of a young man named Bulat. Abandoned by his natural parents, he is adopted as a baby by Mat Lela. Mat Lela is considered mad (hence the title of the book), because he lives on his own in a house without windows, and amuses himself sweeping the yard around the mosque without ever going inside to pray; drawing strange pictures on leaves—just like real money—and carving small wooden penizes which he gives to children as toys. ("I know you've got one already," he tells Bulat, "but you're too small to realize what it is yet . . . Look after it properly and when you're older, take very good care of it indeed. It can make people crazy, get them into all sorts of trouble, turn this and that upside down and lead to great poverty. It's a very confusing object" (SML Eng. tr., Aveling 1983:15). Bulat is secretly stolen from Mat Lela by Johari and Permai, two peasants, who later separate, the child following his step-father into a religious school community (pondok) and a second, wretched marriage. Driven out at his step-mother's instigation, the boy wanders Malaya, travels to the Cameron Highlands with a pretentious, rich, young Malay couple, is adopted by a Sakai who teaches him the way of the jungle, becomes a famous singer, meets his mother, Elis Sakti, a cabaret singer in Singapore, and eventually unites his real parents, his step-parents, and falls in love with his step-parents' daughter, the lovely Siti Khadijah, a devout and beautiful young woman of fifteen years of age. (Bulat is now a strong, handsome and talented nineteen year old.)

The satire is internal to the Malayan Peninsula. SML is critical of those who are greedy for wealth, and tolerant of the foolishness of human sexual desires. Ishak sees a Malaya that is becoming spoiled through a fascination with trivial amusements; Alat, Bulat's Sakai advisor, complains that his children "have become real townsfolk: the boys part their hair on the side, brush it back and wear suits. The girls use lipstick and rouge, put sandles on their feet and wear dresses. They won't go back to the jungle, won't even think of it. They're too clever, they say" (SML Eng. tr. Aveling 1983:65). The ponds in the Cameron Highlands are stocked with trout, which can only be caught by those with fishing rods and ten dollar licences. But Pak Sako also sees a new type of Malay beginning to emerge. England by 1941 was, of course, deeply embroiled in its struggles with Germany and there may have been more optimism in the Peninsula about the future of the Pacific under Japan than was eventually justified. At any rate, Ishak comments particularly on the way that Pure Malays are starting to work together, to support each other in business, and through this mutual co-operation to prosper as a community. He praizes the moderate practice of Islam, safe from fanaticism, and seems to enjoy the hurly-burly and opportunities offered by the new Singapore. The work of replacing the novel in a scenically attractive, commercially dynamic, and ethnically Malay Malaya is well in hand. The imperial centre has been obliterated by a postcolonial, indigenous voice that puts its own land and nation at the centre of its literary discourse, using its own language. Ishak knows no "crisis of identity," or at least none without an obvious indigenous solution.

Beyond the Postcolonial Past

English literature in Malaysia maintains, at best, a precarious position. The best (Lee Kok Liang, Ee Tiang Hong and Wong Phui Nam) derives from the sixties and is now republished only in Singapore. The rewards of publication, readership and prestige prizes in Malaysia belong to Malay literature, which is the creative writing proper to the National Language, the language of the schools and government fiat. A sturdy and sometimes nervous debate on the future of english writing, and its relationship to the National Literature, continues in the weekly literary pages of the New Straits Times but without much hope for the future.

To speak of "english" (and "colonialism") without a good deal of complex sociolinguistic analysis of class, race, and the intricacies of development theory, is to oversimplify. Much postcolonial literary theory is, in the end, disappointing because of its single-minded privileging of English and english, its negative concern to maintain the Centre as a point of explicit and later implicit (absent) reference, and its unwillingness to grapple with the details of a variety of postcolonial societies and situations, in which there are not one but multiple languages and centres of reference. The study of postcolonial literatures can indeed "undermine any project for literary studies in english which is postulated on a single culture" (EWB 196). Its most valuable contribution will be to make way for a plurality of literary studies. We may smile with Mishra and Hodge when they ironically suggest that "once the context of a text is understood, there is nothing terribly difficult about a Sanskrit compound or a hidden cultural text which might require specialized knowledge" (403). But we do live in a temporally postcolonial age, some fifty years post in fact, in which nations are not moving to a homogenous global culture but forwards to new versions of their own traditional cultures, constructed by new economic, political and cultural forces. The future may well rest with "the Indian diaspora not written in English." The Empire writes to itself these days.

La Trobe University


Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, London: Routledge, 1989.

Harry Aveling, trans., Ishak Haji Muhammad: The Prince of Mount Tahan, Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books, (Asia), 1980.

Harry Aveling, trans., Ishak Haji Muhammad: The Son of Mat Mat Lela, Singapore: Federal Books, 1983.

Ishak Haji Muhammad, "Ilham Mencipta Putera Gunung Tahan", Dewan Sastera, April, 23, 1976.

B. Kapferer, Legends or People, Myths or State: Violence, Intolerence, and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia, Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 198 .

Li Chuan Siu, Ikhtisar Sejarah Kesusasteraan Melayu Baru, 1830-1945, Kuala Lumpur: Pustaka Antara, 1966.

Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge, "What is post(-)colonialism?", Textual Practice, 5.3, Winter, 1991: 399-413.

George Orwell, "Boys' Weeklies", Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

E.S.Turner, Boys Will Be Boys, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

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