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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Travelogue

Literary Festivals – More Momentous than You May Imagine

Editorial for Penang Monthly November 2015

Now when Penang is holding its George Town Literary Festival again—and I have no doubt that it will be an even greater success than before—let me ponder over what I think is one of the most important things that have failed to develop properly in post-colonial Malaysia, namely our mastery of language.

We like to say that we master languages when most of the time, we are mastered by languages. Now, becoming really good at expressing oneself in words is of course an accomplishment that any individual should be proud of. This is all the greater an achievement when the society in which one functions is not a decidedly literate one. By the latter claim, I mean that Malaysians tend to be functional instead of literate in their command of language; socialising in their orientation instead of being contemplative; rebuking instead of encouraging; and partisan in their values instead of being impartial.

The thing is, language perpetuates modes of thought, and defines our character. This is good in some ways of course, but it is also limiting. Focusing on functionality in language use leads to repetitive thought and unimaginative problem-solving. In the end, it encourages a “get-it-over-and-done-with”, hit-and-run mentality. Stay-and-communicate is what we need instead.

Recent Literacy

The truth is, literacy became practically universal in this part of the world only very recently. This means that language skills as practised in households are generally not very high. These are probably to a large extent aimed at getting kids to pass exams, admonishing them, ordering them about, and interrogating them. The same attitudes probably pervade schools as well.

Why is this so?

Historically, literacy came to common folk under certain less-than-ideal conditions. If I am allowed to simplify matters, I would maintain that on one side, religious knowledge was the central theme in village schools; on another, promising young people or the upper classes were trained to become members of the Malayan civil service; and on a third side, traditional private Chinese and Tamil schools focused on political events and conflicts in China and India. In this context, it is clear that one should give a lot of credit to the Christian missionary schools, despite their nominal motives, for disseminating scientific modes of thought and introducing modern academic disciplines to Malaysian children.

The big picture is that the needs of traditional society and of the colonial masters framed what was best to learn; and decided what types of language use was most desired. Out on the streets, plural society ruled. This meant that much communication was market talk—much bargaining and much negotiating. Little literature, little philosophy, little poetry.

When Merdeka came, there was only one university in the country, and that was in Singapore. Since then, we have no doubt built many more, but these have had to sail the choppy waters of erratic and inconsistent language and education policies. Unsurprisingly, they show the wear and tear of this ordeal, as do their graduates.

Finding Their Own Solutions

On the positive side of things, people do find their own solutions, if they are not kept too immobilised by fear, poverty and dogma, that is; and if they have sufficient exposure to and knowledge about what lies out in the world. Even in the early days, there were opportunities for individuals to study overseas, and to perceive their own paths of self-development.

All this owes no gratitude to the sustained lack of freedom of expression in the country which must bear much of the blame for the country’s generally low standard of journalism as well; or to the climate of fear and coercion that has come to define Malaysian culture.

Happily, things seem to have a chance of changing. We do have some bold journalists, if one cares to look; and we do have brilliant authors if one cares to read. In fact, many may not live in the country, but most have certainly not disengaged from their place of birth. That place is after all, part of the world we all live in.
The George Town Literary Festival—as all such festivals should be—is a celebration of individual triumph over history’s biased odds; of subjective intelligence transcending collective norms.
Let’s all join the party.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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