21 Nov 2011

Unlocking the Dilemma

It was an intriguing matter of a writer interviewing a writer. Not any writer but one who has been in the very heart of a thorny issue plaguing the community.

Meet the elusive, almost inconspicuous Uthaya Sankar SB, a man small in frame, large in intellect and conspicous in his humility. Largely unknown to and unnoticed by the Indian community of Malaysia, this gem of an authority on Malaysia’s national language had remained incognito until the controversial SPM novel issue became a national topic of discussion.

There was a desperate need for someone from the Indian community with a pedigree in Bahasa Malaysia. The someone also needed to have a standing with the language’s official authorities. The task was daunting but finally such an authority was identified and the man soon began to unravel the many discrepancies and insensitive content in the controversial novel.

Uthaya’s life since then has seen alterations, with the well informed understanding his stance and the ill-informed unfairly vilifying him as a traitor to the community.

I thought it was my task to clear the air but the end result turned out to be somewhat different. It’s time people understood Uthaya Sankar SB for what he is – an honest man with the simple motive of staying true to his integrity.

Before we go on to CineFashion’s talk with Uthaya, let’s hear it from his peers and observers.

Dina Zaman calls him “honestly blunt” (New Straits Times, 4 July 2001). Amir Muhammad refers to Uthaya as “one of our brightest literary stars” (The Edge, 19 November 2001). Amir also said, “He easily ranks among the finest writers in this country because his seriousness of purpose is wedded to an admirable lightness of touch. He has fun with the stories, and the fun is infectious” (New Straits Times, 13 February 2002). Bissme S refers to Uthaya as “one of the few active non-Malay writers known in the Malay literary circle” (theSun, 13 March 1999).

Early Days ...

I was born and brought up in Aulong Lama, Taiping, Perak – a quiet place which does not exist on the map yet. And that place might not exist in the near future; looking at the development taking place around the area. I come from a poor family and books were a luxury but I was lucky enough to be able to borrow books from the school library.

Childhood was mainly playing with neighbours kids. Boy, was that fun, which only those who grew up before the 80’s would understand fully. I went to SRK Convent Aulong, a primary co-ed school, and then Sekolah Menengah Darul Ridwan (SMDR). I would say that I am what I am today because of the education I had in those two schools.

Experiences ...

I was with RTM from 1996 to 2010; as a Bahasa Malaysia news editor, newscaster, newspaper reviewer etc. I was also lecturing Bahasa Malaysia, Moral Education and Malaysian Studies in a few private colleges from 1999 to 2007. Throughout 2010, I was with Sinar Harian newspaper. Since 1992, I have been a creative writer. Now I am a freelance writer, speaker, columnist and editor; plus a blogger. I always believe that only I can do what I can do; just as much as only you can do what you can do. Every one of us is unique.

Bahasa Malaysia vs Bahasa Melayu ...

I grew up with Bahasa Malaysia – a term introduced in 1970. I did not grow up in a Malay village, so it is far from the truth to say that growing among Malays helped me to master the language. In school those days, regardless of race, we used Bahasa Malaysia and all of us were fully aware that it is the language of the nation; not of any particular race. It wasn’t odd to see two Indians speaking Bahasa Malaysia to each other in school. My friends and teachers (regardless of race) were very supportive.

That was the era when Bahasa Malaysia actually belonged to all of Malaysia! Only later, people started thinking of Bahasa Malaysia as the language of a certain race. That’s when some people were very much against the term “Bahasa Malaysia” itself because they wanted it to be “Bahasa Melayu”, and ‘non-Malays’ were supposed to “borrow” the language of the Malays!

Qualification ...

I did my BA (Media Studies) in Universiti Malaya (UM) and MA in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) but could not complete it because of some issue regarding the term “Bahasa Malaysia”!

Awards & Recognition ...

Namely Hadiah Cerpen Maybank-DBP (1992, 1993 & 1996), Hadiah Sastera Utusan-Public Bank (1993), Hadiah Cerpen Esso-Gapena (1996), Hadiah Sastera Perdana Malaysia (1996/97 & 1998/99) and Hadiah Sastera Kumpulan Utusan-ExxonMobil (2003). I was also awarded Ambassador for Peace by the Universal Peace Federation in 2008 for my contribution towards peace, understanding and unity through writing.

I must also mention Kumpulan Sasterawan Kavyan (Kavyan Writers’ Group) formed in 1999 by a very small group of Malaysian Indians who read and/or write in Bahasa Malaysia. We conduct activities in Bahasa Malaysia and the activities are open to all. Check out www.kavyan.blogspot.com.

Breakthrough ...

The moment I was able to stick to my right to use the term Bahasa Malaysia! I was risking everything (as a writer) by going against the norm when most writers were more than willing to say “yes sir, we will only use the term Bahasa Melayu”. By fighting for my right, I have proven that I have a backbone and I shall not allow myself to be treated as a second-class citizen. My stand in this matter will not change. [READ MORE]

Non-Malay BM Expert ...

I never actually had any difficulties. People like the late Dr Othman Puteh were very much willing to help new writers to have their first pieces (stories) published. Sasterawan Negara Datuk A. Samad Said is also always willing to share his wisdom. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) was also very helpful.

I find it very offensive when reporters love to ask “how come you are good in BM when you are a non-Malay?” It only proves that people need to change; not me but people. Bahasa Malaysia literature belongs to every Malaysian.

Changes ...

I must say the scene is different today. Racism entered the Bahasa Malaysia literature circle the moment writers; associations like Gapena, Pena, Kemudi and Kalam started to speak on behalf of the Malays as a race – thus forgetting that the Malays are not the only Bahasa Malaysia users in this country.

Malaysian Indian Society ...

We are still lagging in every aspect of life. I don’t mean to blame anyone in this matter. I would rather suggest that we better ourselves in every aspect of life: education, motivation, self respect, spiritual, family, job, circle of friends etc.

One important book which I would say every Malaysian Indian should read is The Malaysian Indian Dilemma: The Struggles and Agony of the Indian Community in Malaysia by Janakey Raman Manickam. It would help us to understand ourselves better and make us stronger to face the challenges in this country.

The Controversial Novel ...

As a novel written in 1967 and first published in 1971, I fully understand the weakness in the novel by Sasterawan Negara Datuk Abdullah Hussain. As a writer and someone who knows the writer in person, I am positive that it was never his intention to make fun of any race. But the problem is when it was made into the Komponen Sastera Dalam Mata Pelajaran Bahasa Malaysia (Komsas) text for Form Five students.

The parties involved should have done a better job before introducing the book in school. As with many others, I had not read the hitherto little known novel until after the issue started in December 2010. I did not read only the 2010 (edisi murid); I also read the 1996, 2003 and 2005 (edisi pelajar).

In February 2011, I was also appointed in the panel in charge of suggesting changes in the novel.

I can safely say that there are way too many factual errors and language errors which has to be corrected for the novel to be used in schools. If all these errors were not corrected, I felt it was better not to use Interlok Edisi Murid in schools.

It is also sad to note that many Indians who were/are against it were not fully prepared to make their point clear. Many hadn’t read the novels (at least the 2003 and 2010 editions) in full before urging the novel to be revoked. All we heard was “the use of the word p*** as being insensitive and must be removed”.

My argument was simple and I chose to stick to facts: In the novel, which takes place in the early 1900’s, a so-called outcast named Maniam owns land, a house and a few cows.

Going by the same argument of marginalization/oppression as presented by the authorities – which we aren’t disputing – this could not have been possible in that era and time. Furthermore, Maniam’s wife calls him by name, another major flaw that doesn’t need depth research to prove.

When I presented my arguments based upon such facts, which clearly means that Maniam could not have been a p***, I think they understood. [READ MORE]

Lessons Learnt ...

Indians are still very much emotional. I would say that the whole issue was a small test for us as a minority. Now we know where we stand, what others think of us, how others treat us, how united we are, who can/cannot help us, how logically we must think and act, how strong we have to be mentally, how well informed we need to be, how much we rely on “others” to protect us, our rights, our freedom, how much we know about our past, how much humiliation we can stomach, who our leaders are, etc.

Philosophy ...

Be the change you want to see in this world. – Mahatma Gandhi

Note: This article – “Uthaya Sankar SB: Unlocking the Dilemma” – appeared in CineFashion, April 2011. The initial interview was conducted by Mrs Geetha on 11 March 2011 in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. Please CLICK HERE for more articles in English.