September 8, 2013
Malaysia: Together in Poetry and Song
A national laureate’s most important lesson to his daughter is also a message for the whole nation, writes Kerry-Ann Augustin
AT the ultimate hipster haunt in Publika, I sit next to journalists from other publications, all looking for their leads on Petronas’ big project — The Malaysia Day 2013 Campaign.
I’m here for Project#Tanahairku, a programme designed to drum some national pride into the consciousness of young Malaysians. After a string of questions from everyone else, I decide to pipe up: “How did your father pass down the importance of what Merdeka means, to you?”
Almost immediately, there is a glaze across Haslina Usman’s kind eyes. At a blink, her tears trickle down as she tries to compose herself. I am gripped with an awkwardness as everyone around the table goes silent — should I not have asked that question? But I had to. The eldest daughter of the national laureate was the only one who could tell us about what her father could teach us all.
She clears her throat, dabs her smudged eyeliner with tissue, smiles and answers: “Through his work”.
THE PEOPLE’S POET
The only thing I recall, from a textbook or two, is a photo of a middle-aged man clad in blue baju Melayu, black songkok and lips pursed to form a small smile. Next to his picture, neatly cropped into a box with a thin, black outline, lies a poem in print. We were 17 and to most of us in class, it was just another person, another poem on another page.
I don’t think I realised how tragic this perception was till I started sieving through the late poet’s works over the last few weeks. Despite my now rusty Malay, every word, every stanza from many of his poems resonated within my Malaysian heart. But I feel goosebumps as I see the dates at the end of the poems — 1950, 1979, 1956, 1959 and so on. My eyebrows meet in the middle. I am hooked and slightly shocked all at once. How is it possible that these poems are still relevant to what we are feeling today?
Usman’s 1956 gem, Tanahair, couldn’t have resurfaced at a better time. In a country increasingly divided by political preferences, the poem echoes the sentiments of many Malaysians I’ve interviewed over this Merdeka month — deep down we are all the same.
As Haslina explains, her father’s words were simple, understood by all. The appeal of his work lays partially in his prose — simple not bombastic, direct not abstract and soulful not patronising. And most importantly, razor-sharp yet delicate. Perhaps this is what makes his work accessible to the ones he was so passionate about, the rakyat. But the other part of what makes Usman a true artiste was his fearlessness.
Professor Madya Dr Mohamad Mokhtar Abu Hassan, a lecturer of Malay Studies at University Malaya, in an interview years ago said of Usman Awang: “His strength lay in the way he weaved in his unabashed opinion of the system into elements of his poetry or short stories. He used his work as a platform to criticise leaders who were dishonest”.
The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. Usman’s principle as a writer was just that. The man who never had an education past primary school once said that writers are the mouth-pieces of the people.
Melayu itu orang yang bijaksana
Nakalnya bersulam jenaka
Budi bahasanya tidak terkira
Kurang ajarnya tetap santun
Jika menipu pun masih bersopan
Bila mengampu bijak beralas tangan.
Melayu itu berani jika bersalah
Kecut takut kerana benar,
Janji simpan di perut
Selalu pecah di mulut,
Biar mati adat
Jangan mati anak.
Melayu di tanah Semenanjung luas maknanya:
Jawa itu Melayu, Bugis itu Melayu
Banjar juga disebut Melayu,
Minangkabau memang Melayu,
Keturunan Acheh adalah Melayu,
Jakun dan Sakai asli Melayu,
Arab dan Pakistani, semua Melayu
Mamak dan Malbari serap ke Melayu
Malah mua’alaf bertakrif Melayu
(Setelah disunat anunya itu)
Melayu itu pengembara lautan
Melorongkan jalur sejarah zaman
Begitu luas daerah sempadan
Sayangnya kini segala kehilangan
Melayu itu kaya falsafahnya
Kias kata bidal pusaka
Akar budi bersulamkan daya
Gedung akal laut bicara
Malangnya Melayu itu kuat bersorak
Terlalu ghairah pesta temasya
Sedangkan kampung telah tergadai
Sawah sejalur tinggal sejengkal
tanah sebidang mudah terjual
Meski telah memiliki telaga
Tangan masih memegang tali
Sedang orang mencapai timba.
Berbuahlah pisang tiga kali
Melayu itu masih bermimpi
Walaupun sudah mengenal universiti
Masih berdagang di rumah sendiri.
Berkelahi cara Melayu
Menikam dengan pantun
Menyanggah dengan senyum
Marahnya dengan diam
Merendah bukan menyembah
Meninggi bukan melonjak.
Watak Melayu menolak permusuhan
Setia dan sabar tiada sempadan
Tapi jika marah tak nampak telinga
Musuh dicari ke lubang cacing
Tak dapat tanduk telinga dijinjing
Maruah dan agama dihina jangan
Hebat amuknya tak kenal lawan
Berdamai cara Melayu indah sekali
Silaturrahim hati yang murni
Maaf diungkap senantiasa bersahut
Tangan diulur sentiasa bersambut
Luka pun tidak lagi berparut
Baiknya hati Melayu itu tak terbandingkan
Segala yang ada sanggup diberikan
Sehingga tercipta sebuah kiasan:
“Dagang lalu nasi ditanakkan
Suami pulang lapar tak makan
Kera di hutan disusu-susukan
Anak di pangkuan mati kebuluran”
Bagaimanakah Melayu abad dua puluh satu
Masihkan tunduk tersipu-sipu?
Jangan takut melanggar pantang
Jika pantang menghalang kemajuan;
Jangan segan menentang larangan
Jika yakin kepada kebenaran;
Jangan malu mengucapkan keyakinan
Jika percaya kepada keadilan.
Jadilah bangsa yang bijaksana
Memegang tali memegang timba
Memiliki ekonomi mencipta budaya
Menjadi tuan di negara Merdeka “
“My dad… he died a sad man,” Haslina says later, over the phone. There is no need to see her facial expressions because her pain is transmitted by her voice. “He was upset at muscle building politicians. People are losing faith in our country but when you read his poems you remember your motherland,” she says.“My father wrote his works to instil semangat (the spirit) in us. And of course, I am protective of my father’s works. It’s not just because the copyright belongs to his children but also because his work belongs to the nation,” she explains.
Haslina now runs UA Enterprises, her late father’s publishing house. “There are lots of sacrifices to make financially, and…,” she breaks, and with a harrowing sigh continues “but his work needs to be preserved.” She explains her efforts in keeping her father’s legacy alive, which included a stage production of Uda Dan Dara The Musical.
She admits she took his work for granted when he was alive.“You know when you come home and see your father working, you only see him as a working dad. I never bothered, till he passed on, to really understand his work,” she says with an air of regret clouding every inflection of her tone. But Haslina admits that they rarely saw their father who was constantly drowned in work.
“He sacrificed family time for his country. In his latter years, he tried to make up for it,” she adds.“But my father would ask his friends to come over to our house or sometimes he would take me to his workplace, so I was exposed to all the goings on. And there would be all kinds of people — students, academicians, activist. All sorts! I even visited his friends in prison!” she says animatedly.
I ask what her father’s most valuable lesson to her was.“You know, when I said earlier that there were all sorts of people, I meant all sorts. There was no distinction in race or religion for my father. He welcomed everyone. We had friends of all races and now, when some people play up race issues I just don’t get it, you know?”
If you read any of his works, you will know this to be true.In July this year, an award in honour of his work that promoted unity of races was launched by the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia (Huazong). Aptly called the Usman Awang National Integration Award, it will be presented to individuals or societies who can bring communities of different ethnicities together for an activity that will help change things for the better.
In the raucous of racial card-playing of this era, it is a beautiful tribute to a man who truly believed and embraced a multicultural Malaysia.
OUR NATION, OUR FAMILY
“Nowadays, children in school seem to be segregated. Like this race gang and that race gang kind of thing,” says Haslina as she relates her observations about families. “It all starts with the family — we should be instilling love for everyone. A family is like a community, we build character through our relationships, a sense of understanding.”
“Why can’t we be happy for each other?” she asks as she launches into stories of her father’s childhood. She relates how her father and brother had little choice but to fend for themselves when their mother passed on at an early age. But the people in their village were kind and they would help whatever they could. “I believe these hardships was part of what made my father really love his family and his country,” she says, adding that nature played a big part in his work, metaphorically as well.
HERE COME THE DRUMS
“Part of the poem is about the struggles of war. But young people may not be able to relate to this because we are not living in a war-torn country,” explains Mohd Suhaimy Kamaruddin, general manager of strategic communication at Petronas, during the discussion in Publika. He goes on to say that the oil giant’s intent is to convey the message of unity through music.
“We are turning this poem into a song to resonate with younger generation,” he adds.Two weeks after Mohd Suhaimy’s revelation, I waited patiently for the release of Tanahair. Infused with a new lease of life through renowned composer, Audi Mok, Twitter was abuzz with positive feedback on his pop interpretation of the poem. Even Haslina was thrilled.
“At first I was afraid. It might attract negative remarks as this is considered a national treasure you know?” she says, clearly delighted with the results. “But it’s more important that the younger generation can relate to the message in the poem,” she adds.
It is ironic that Usman Awang’s lost legacy is found in the toughest of times. But it is way more important that we keep it alive. As Haslina puts it: “Finally my father’s work is out there for the nation”.I’m glad I asked her that question.–The New Straits/Sunday Times