You Are What You Read: The Biblio-Landscape Of One Malaysian

It was not congenital, but I was smitten the moment I realised that the ability to decode ciphers could unlock a realm limited only by the capaciousness and solicitousness of my mind. By immersing myself in words, I could choose either to dwell in the noesis of abstract thought or weave colorful imageries of other worlds that exist within the folds of my consciousness.

I did not learn to read properly until I was around eight years old, even if I could make sense of simple words and phrases. From then on, there was no turning back. My parents procured for my sister and myself membership with the library of my hometown, brought us to the various communal book fairs held in and around our town (with one or two excursion to the larger fairs in Kuala Lumpur) and took me to the local bookstores, many of which used to be owned (and are still owned) by the Indian-Muslim community. One of my favorite memories of foraging in bookstores was how I managed to obtain ‘banned’ and ‘hard-to find’ materials through this bookshop. At that time, I was a subscriber of an American encyclopedia collection (this was before the age of the Internet and my parents could not afford the Britannica series) and apparently, the particular issue that featured the story of the Prophet Muhammad was ‘banned’ (there was nothing bad in that story so the ban made no sense to me). However, my favorite bookseller managed to obtain that issue and many other interesting hard-to-find-in-a-small-town material for me.

Historically, the Indian-Muslim community owned many of Malaysia’s bookstores and a number of them were also printers. This was before the onset of chain bookstores—but I will not go into the details of Malaysian bookselling history. While a large proportion of these small stores stocked mainly magazines (both local and imported ones), a number of them also carry works of fiction, especially novels that were translated into Bahasa Malaysia. I remember reading the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series in Bahasa Malaysia even though I was also reading them in their original English version. These bookstores also carried religious books, different versions (but JAKIM-sanctioned) of the Quran, school textbooks and workbooks (many of these stores made the most profit from selling school textbooks and workbooks) and locally authored pulp fiction, myths and legends. I once bought a copy of a critique of Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) without realizing that it was a book on criticism. This was a random purchase fuelled by my keen interest in ancient myths and legends from around the world. Then I did not even know what Sejarah Melayu was about. I would as soon devour the myths and legends from Ancient Greece to Eastern Europe, Minor Asia to the Americas, as I would the many volumes on local Malay ghostly folklores. In fact, much of what I learnt about my culture and heritage came from the reading of books. My parents came from a generation that were both acculturated by the upbringing they had, while also alienated from that acculturation due to the circumstances of their education. Hence, they were of no help in acquainting me with the roots of my being and tanah air (homeland). Hence, I had to turn to books to make sense of the growing confusion that grew stronger by the day.

When I was about ten, I discovered that my maternal extended family had kept old books belonging to my mother and her siblings in a cupboard, hidden away in a tiny storeroom by the garage of my grandparents’ home. I also uncovered several boxes of books scattered in different parts of the spacious family home (my maternal grandparents had six children). There were a number of novels (mainly pulp fiction), including boys and girls stories, set mainly in Great Britain. There were also an assortment of textbooks that were reminiscent of the colonial school curriculum, graphic novels, comics, a book on cars and car engines, a book on shorthand, poems and even some classics.  It felt like I had discovered a treasure trove, especially since my parents did not have much money to spend on luxury items such as books. However, as an adult I realised something about those books I did not then notice; all the books were imports, including many of the school texts which were bought through the local booksellers. They were imported mainly from Great Britain, though a few were also printed in former British colonies – India, Singapore and Hong Kong. My mother and her siblings went to school between the mid-1950s and 1980s.  All of them had never read Malaysian literature in their youth, nor did they own any works by local writers for much of their young adult lives. As most were sent to English-medium schools, they grew up knowing little about the literature and culture of the land they were born into. Their distance and alienation were to have repercussions on my generation.

Growing up, I read books in English and Malay. My school and my hometown libraries exposed me to works that were published in North America, but very few works from other English-speaking worlds of the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, or India, let alone from Singapore or the Philippines. My school, as were a number of pre-colonial and early postcolonial town schools around the country, was a recipient of books donated through USAID, which included used textbooks and discarded library or personal books from the United States of America (US) to third world countries.  However, by the time I started school in the mid 1980s, very few students, if any, would refer to or read these books. Nonetheless, these books testify to the development and movement of books in postcolonial states such as Malaysia. At the same time, my elementary and high school libraries were also purchasing newer books, including classic works from various distributors importing books mainly from the United Kingdom (UK) and the US, as well as Malay literature published by our national board of language and literature, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, and an assortment of other works from local publishers including Karangkraf. While reading abridged versions of Dickens, Shakespeare and not-so abridged versions of the Russian and French authors (in translation), I also began to read Malay language novels, plays and short stories by the likes of Usman Awang, A. Samad Said, Rejab FI, Othman Puteh and a number of other authors whose names escape me now.

I heart words.| Sourced from

I heart words.| Sourced from

Even though I found myself excluded from the stories of the Western authors (many of the books I read were written at a time before class and ethnic consciousness, and many of the books available were those written by white men, and sometimes, though rarely, by white women), I also felt alienated when reading works by local authors, because of the Malay-centeredness (rather than Malaysian-centricity) of the tales. I have since met a small group of Malaysians who would like to conflate the Malay identity with Malaya-ness/Malaysianness by having the nation demarcated under this identifier, who desire to transcend its ethnic limitations. However, none of the stories I read, especially those written from the 1970s onwards, have demonstrated any inclination towards such transcendental attitudes. I probably felt—ironically—a stronger identification with the characters birthed in the era of my parents’ childhood than in my own. Early works by Usman Awang and Keris Mas seemed to herald the possibility of a Malaysia that did not quite come to fruition. However, there were also aspects of provincialism in the works of these Malaysian literary laureates that did not quite transcend into the level of internationalism that one sees in their Indonesian counterparts.

As a student who was streamed into the sciences, and thus had very little acquaintance with the already impoverished instruction in the local cultures and literature as far as our educational curriculum is concerned, I did not become curious about the lack, the gap and invisibility of the history Malaysian intellectualism until after I graduated with a first degree in the natural sciences from the University of Malaya. This was ironic, seeing that I spent about four years in one of the oldest institutions in Malaysia, and which also houses one of the oldest libraries in the nation, not to mention the fact that this university also has centres for Malay, Chinese, Tamil and many other ethnic or national studies.

It was probably my involvement in various reading and discussion groups and my excursions into the humanities after graduating from the sciences that set me off on a journey towards understanding why, throughout my childhood and early adult life, did I never encounter regional philosophers the way I did ‘Western’ (though they were probably just as Eastern) thinkers like Plato, Socrates, Anaximander, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Abelard, Aquinas and many others. I realised at that moment how educationally deficient I was to even figure out how to begin or continue this journey.  Hence, my early forays into ‘Eastern’ intellectuals were through the history of science (an area I know a little bit more about because of my educational background), where I first encountered the notion of Vedic mathematics and other forms of ancient sciences from Egypt, Babylon, and then India and China.  I also came to a belated realisation of how many Malaysian history books tended to skirt over any reference to the pre-modern and even early modern intellectual history of Malaysia, making pale and hardly conspicuous references to them only in relation to the early ‘revolutionary’ politics of the late 19th and early 20th century Malaya, in relation to the Kaum Tua (Old Generation) and Kaum Muda (Young Turks) through the publication of magazines and newspapers denouncing colonial rule. This got me to writing what is, by my standards today, a pretty naïve article (in Malay), but one which echoed my thoughts and frustration at the invisibility and inaccessibility of such materials in either bookstores or libraries. Even as Malaysian bookstores and university libraries (though not the community libraries, sadly) are slowly improving access to less ‘popular’ books, there is still a lot to be done when it comes to excavating and publicising less presentist Malaysiana that is not about clothes, food, traditional crafts, modern forms of adats dressed up as traditional practices, the arts and tourist attractions while decontextualising the background and historicity of these materials.

In 2005, I discovered, buried under piles of torn books, a Xeroxed version of an anthology of articles published in the aftermath of the 1971 cultural congress of Malaysia. Some of these articles feature prominent historians and the supposed cultural exponents of Malaysia, and their expectations with regards to the identity and construction of a Malaysian culture. The first Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, wrote the introductory note (or speech).  I have not read through all the articles in the collection, but based on what number of the articles I was able to get through and what I know of now, the arts and cultures in terms of their substance and potentiality are in the decline, despite effort by various cultural practitioners and researchers to revive them through conservation, preservation and attempts at modernising and reviving them. Conservation, preservation and revitalization works are commendable, but are not enough when insufficient resources expanded on documentation, critical examination and critical engagement. While the attempts at arts and cultural revitalisation by various groups are salutary, these remain by and large marginal activities which do not necessarily filter into popular and well-attended ‘cultural’ and ‘arts’ events. Nonetheless, I want to return to the issue of books—how books can play a role in the conservation, preservation and critical engagement of our Malaysian arts and cultures; what are the ways by which the recuperation of books, especially classical texts, could contribute to enriching and elevating the current affairs of our arts and cultures, and what do the reading of these books entail and what can they do? I doubt such recuperation can take place through the production of modern literary or creative fictions within an environment detached of its long and winding history.

I was reading H.D. Thoreau’s “Reading” before writing this piece. What I found interesting from it, was that what was applicable in 19th century US (and even before the formation of the confederation) is applicable to 21st century Malaysia. This quote below resonates with what I am writing here:

“Men [and women] sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of men? … To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they are written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read.”

The quote is a sad reminder of how far removed we Malaysians are from our classical heritage; for many of us, we do not even know what that means. Ever since I commenced graduate studies in the US, and even in the months leading to that, I have become increasingly obsessed with studying the pre-modern period, in order to look into the rarely-examined period of history within the Malay Archipelago. In fact, it was by being far away from the country where I grew up and had most of my education that I was able to take a deeper and closer look at its strengths and flaws, which made me more curious about the intrigue and mysterious circumstances of much of its past. When I think back to the required three-part history and philosophy of science courses that all science majors had to study when I was in college, with the exception of a rather dismal attempt at bringing ‘Islamic’ science into the picture, the entire syllabus was based on a rather Western-centric curriculum. I have no qualms with that as I believe that one must have a holistic view of global intellectual history. What I regretted was the lack of attempt to even introduce the possibility that there may be a history of science within this region that is worth looking into, even if nothing much is yet known about them. Right now, as a scholar into the history of the book (as well as history of science), I am also on the mission of collating and collecting a bibliography of materials relating to Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Asia, which I hope would make sense of the missing pages within the record of our intellectual history, and make such forms of studies mainstream within our present intellectual culture.

Lost in the biblio-landscape| Bookshelf by marilyn819; Sourced from Flickr

Lost in the biblio-landscape| "Bookshelf' by marilyn819; Sourced from Flickr

As a Malaysian, being merely proud of or even caring about what has happened in the last century is too thin a ground to tread on. To be truly proud of our heritage the way other nations are, we need to work hard to uncover them and understand what it represents or means to us. True democracy can only be achieved if we are as free in our ability to dwell into our past as we are in our present. At the same time, heritage is not something static but is always evolving and revolving. Different people see their relationship with their country in different ways. For me, it is to trace the path of the nation’s intellectual history (while complicating the very notion of that ‘nation’) through available, missing and absent texts, be they in the form of tablets, manuscripts or codices.

Clarissa Lee sees a world that is shaped by narratives, stories and histories. While she seeks them out in books, she also understands that they exist outside of the ‘bookform.’ However, one’s nationhood is shaped by one’s consciousness, and for her, much of it comes as much as from the books we read (or don’t read) as from anything else. She blogs at, among other places.

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Posted on 15 March 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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