Nothing could better illustrate the bizarre contradictions and factitious pretensions of what President Sukarno of Indonesia calls ‘the project Malaysia’ than this volume.footnote1 Notwithstanding the impassioned oratory of the editor in a preface and three postscripts, not one of the 57 pieces in this anthology give the reader the faintest inkling of what it means and feels like to be a Malayan, let alone a ‘Malaysian’. This is partly because of the 22 writers represented, 16 are of Chinese and 6 of Indian origin. Not one is of Malay, let alone of Bornean descent. Our editor informs us that this is because of ‘copyright reasons’. One can readily comprehend his copyright problems if one glances at his concluding postscript on ‘Contemporary Malay Literature’, which reveals that almost all the significant writing in what he pleasantly chooses to call the ‘Malay’ language has been done by Indonesians. He himself dismisses the Malay writers writing in ‘Malay’ as amateurish and primitive. Certainly the development of modern ‘Malay’ literature in Malaya has been very slow despite (or perhaps because of) the efforts of the Oxford University Press in Kuala Lumpur. Undoubtedly this stems partly from the conservatism of the Malay community, the pervasiveness of feudal and pseudo-aristocratic power and conventional thinking, but also from the oppressive and still dominant effects of British colonial education, in which all the worst and most dated idées reçues of a declining literary tradition coalesced. Until 1956 at least the budding Malay writers who were looking for non-colonial guidance and inspiration were turning to the younger generation of artists in Indonesia. Since then political tensions between Malaya and Indonesia have tended to stifle this development.

The Chinese and Indian (Tamil) authors represented in this volume, although a few of them write in English rather than in their respective mother-tongues, are essentially addressing their own communities alone. In their works figures from other communal groups are rarely visible, and then are mainly introduced to give local colour. Nothing illumines more clearly the ghetto-like self-absorption of the Chinese and Indians in Malaya than these stories by their emancipated intellectuals. Dr Wang Gung-wu in his postscript on ‘Chinese Writing in Malaya’ (sic) seems to recognize this, but feels that, in his words, ‘two events, not unrelated to each other helped to stiffen (sic) the new generation of writers. They were the Emergency in Malaya and the Communist victory in China. The first sobered the alert and sensitive. The second brought about a ban on the latest literature from China, which forced the writers to seek their genius in themselves . . .’ The most striking example of this communal self-absorption is what seems to me the best single piece in the book, the essay called Return to Malaya by Lee Kok Liang. It is an account of a bicycle trip into the interior of Malaya to visit some relatives in the New Villages (set up under the Templar régime when 500,000 Chinese squatters were forcibly ‘resettled’ to prevent them from helping Chin Peng’s guerillas). On the journey the young Chinese author describes the people he encounters. The Malays are depicted as beautiful, velvet-eyed ‘natives’ with bodies ‘that shone like polished rose-wood’, but no social interaction whatever takes place with them. One might for a moment be reading a nostalgic memoir of an intelligent colonial official. Only when he encounters various Chinese friends and acquaintances does the writing spring to life, and the sharp, ironical note return to his descriptions. His other excellent contribution, the short story Ami To Fu, illuminating the life of a young Chinese boy during the latter days of the Japanese Occupation, has the terse obliqueness and subtle changes of mood which one associates with the great tradition of Chinese literature. Much the same can be said of the compassionate, elliptical stories of Awang Kedua and Miao Hsiu on the ‘insulted and injured’ in the lower depths of the Chinese urban settlements . . .

Of the almost uniformly vapid Tamil contributions, none make any mention of Malays or Chinese, indeed most seem to have their setting in Southern India rather than in Malaya.

However the dilemmas facing young writers growing up in Malaya and Singapore today should not be under-estimated. Nor should the obvious factitiousness of this volume blind us to the real cultural and psychological problems facing a society divided radically between Malays (42 per cent), Chinese (44 per cent) and Indian Tamils (14 per cent), who are not in real communication with one another, and who were linked till very recently only by the dull Philistinism of British colonial rule. All three groups are culturally alienated and deprived to a greater or less extent, either through isolation from the living sources of their tradition, or the oppression and asphyxiation imposed by a tradition in its final decadence. Those Chinese who have been educated primarily or wholly in English suffer particularly. The language they have learnt to use in everyday life neither expresses their own social and moral traditions, nor can it fully manifest or strengthen their sense of identity. Furthermore they are so far removed physically and intellectually from the centres of Anglo-American ‘civilization’ that the threat of provinciality hangs over them precisely as it does over the writers of New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Those who are brought up and educated in Chinese of course undoubtedly profit greatly from the government’s helpful ban on new Chinese literature; nevertheless they too suffer from the dangers of provincialism, and an isolation from their potential audience as a result of the growing pressure against Chinese-language schools exerted by the Malay-dominated government of Malaysia. On the other hand few Chinese are sufficiently adept at ‘Malay’, or feel that it has developed enough as a national language to be able to use it to express their situation in the Malayan environment.

The Tamils, immigrants of a later date, face the same problems, except that Tamil literary traditions appear to be far more fossilized and archaic than Chinese.