By Salleh Ben Joned
I re-read a book containing the writings of my Subang Jaya (he tells me that he lives in “Sumbang Jaya”) friend, Salleh Ben Joned, a poet, writer and social commentator last night. It was published by Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, Singapore in 2004. The title of this book, AS I PLEASE, reflects the character of Ben Joned, who is unafraid to call a spade a spade.
Well known Malaysian author, Adibah Amin, has this say about Ben Joned’s book in her Afterword: “The variety is tremendous, as is the energy, which explodes barriers between East and West, mind and feeling, the spirit and the flesh, the sacred and the profane. The overwhelming impression is of a free spirit that rebels against deadening conventions in a passionate celebration of life”.
I have chosen a piece from AS I PLEASE on Isako San. Although they are of different generations, Pak Sako and Ben Joned are rebels of sort. I feel I am in good company. If you want change, you have to challenge conventional wisdom and think outside the box. It is tough, I know, but you must have the courage to do what is right. Otherwise, our country will wallow in mediocrity. Here is to creativity, courage and the dignity of difference and here is to Pak Sako and my friend, Ben Joned.
As we approach the end of 2007 and usher in a challenging 2008, I deem it appropriate to take the time to reflect on what it would take to bring about change in Malaysia (Malaya—Freedom in Tagalog– pre-1963).
Ben Joned wrote his piece on November 13, 1991 with the title “In Memoriam- Isako San.”–Din Merican
Ben Joned begins his tribute to Pak Sako:
I can’t claim to know him well personally, just enough to know that his kind is rare and his death a sad loss. Dato’ Ishak Haji Muhammad, journalist and novelist, and nationalist oddball, better known as Pak Sako. I remember well and quite fondly the two novels on which his literary reputation rests and also his spicy and entertaining columns in Utusan Malaysia (a leading Malay daily) and Gila-Gila. The man himself I’d met only only two or three times. The first time was about seven years ago, when he came to Universiti Malaya, where I was then teaching. We met in the famous Baccha’s canteen in the Arts Faculty.
I had long wondered if the writer in person would be as interesting as his writings and rumours one heard about him. It is a pleasure to report that the answer was yes. I was struck, though, by something that the rumours concerning his political and literary antics, both past and present, didn’t quite lead me to expect. He was soft spoken and wasn’t at all provocative in what he was saying. Perhaps it was the academic environment that made him seemingly reticent that day. But I was sure that the reticence had an eloquence of its own; he was obviously watching the academic scene and the pretensions of the puffed-up little minds there. I certainly thought I saw a glint of impish irony in his eyes. I was also struck by the smartness of his dress; a fashionable bush jacket, no less. “Did they say he was a ‘bohemian’”? I murmured to myself; the “rolling stone” who was justifiably proud of the fact that he had not gathered any moss? But that bush jacket which, I was told, he sometimes wore with a stylish cravat, didn’t quite mock his reputation as a plain-speaking and plain-living champion of the common people.
The image of Pak Sako as a dashing frequenter of cabarets, and later as the “dandy” of Chow Kit Road and resident wit of the New Hotel in Jalan Raja Muda was nurtured by the same source as that which fed his passion for life, and for freedom and justice without which that life would have been meaningless. He always liked to keep in touch with the common people, but there was nothing about him that was even remotely like the self-conscious middle-class poseur compelled for ideological reasons to go slumming among the rakyat.
He may have been soft-spoken but his speech, like his writings, was often spiced with sharp and earthly wit, his famous humour salaciously sly, nicely vulgar, and his notorious scepticism of people and politicians always wryly ironic, quite often given an added punch by a fitting pepatah (maxim) or pantun (four-line Malay verse). He was a traditional Malay enough to be compulsively fond of the pepatah and the pantun. He even had a column called “Pepatah Petitih”in a popular humour magazine Gila-Gila,a magazine aggressively commited to youth and hedonism, and that the old man enthusiastically accepted the invitation to be a gila-gila (literally “mad-mad”, i.e. eccentric) columnist speaks volumes for his natural talent for being at home in any generation, and to be the bridge between the old and the young.
Many of his surviving comrades and proteges, like Pak Samad Ismail, consider him a “typical Malay”, but in the best generously open sense of that ambiguous phrase. As a good “typical Malay”, he was earth-bound, kampong (village)-rooted but very far from being a Melayu with a katak-bawah-tempurang (frog under a coconut shell) mentality, either personally or ideologically. He was the type of Malay nationalist whose concern for his race was informed by a breadth and generosity of vision; his native intelligence and instinctive lust for life, if nothing else, made it easy for him to laugh at the rhetoric of chauvinism. He could number many non-Bumis among his friends and admirers: even Lim Kit Siang (the leading Chinese opposition leader) became his champion in Parliament.
It was basic commonsense and instinctive humanity in him, not abstract idealism, which made him stress the need for mutual tolerance, respect and concern among the races of this country. Typically, he would remind his fellow Malaysians of the obviousness of this need by making a light suggestive joke about it or illustrating his point with a tellingly earthy and risible anecdote culled from his own rich experience of life. Like that marvellous story he told in a speech at the gathering held in his honour at Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka in 1987.
In 1948, so the story goes, he was in a small party of detainees being transported from Taiping to the police station in the then Campbell Road, Kuala Lumpur. There was somehow a shortage of handcuffs, and Pak Sako had to share one with a fellow detainee who happended to be a non-Malay. Well, you know what it would be like travelling long distance chained to another person; you would have no choice but to be together all the time and everywhere—including the intimate moments when the call of nature is simply irresistible. As a parable of man being bound together by common humanity despite the difference of race, I can’t think of a better story than that; only Pak Sako could tell it the way he did that night at Dewan Bahasa.
Pak Sako, yes. My 10-year old daughter said the name sounded like Ajinomoto when we read the news of his death last Friday; and how right she was. Sako, as fans of the old man should know, is from Isako, which was the way the name Ishak was made euphonically tolerable for the Japanese tongue. Isako later became Pak Sako, thanks to Ishak Haji Muhammad’s journalist friends. The “I” was dropped and substituted with “Pak”.–and that natural process of repossession of a name made alien by the tongue of a former enemy carried a small but suggestive symbolic significance. The softness and the sense of familiarity of “Pak” as normally spoken by the Malays, and its connotation of spontaneous respect and easy but concretely felt sense of solidarity, kampung-kind and rooted in the common earth—yes, its rather nicely symbolic that out of “Isako” came Pak Sako.
I’ve always thought that the besy way to honour the memory of someone like Pak Sako is to re-read his books. The two novels, Anak Mat Lela Gila and Putera Gunung Tahan, certainly can bear re-reading after a lapse of a few years, if only to appreciate once again the satirical wit of Pak Sako, a wit which is quite rare in modern Malay literature. Yes, go back to his books –and stop dribbling about a great man and writer he was. The chorus of inane praise that greeted the old man’s death was typically and quite sickeningly Malay. Having failed to give the man adequate appreciation for his service to the nation when he was alive, we overcompensate by cheapening the words “great” or “giant”in calling him “a great writer” or “ a literary giant. Pak Sako himself would have been utterly embarassed by such chorus of katak bawah tempurung.
I can imagine him, still disoriented by the darkness of darkness, turning in his new grave with embarassment for the inanity of his people. I can imagine him saying to the two black angels with green eyes, Munkar and Nakir, sent to question him about matters of faith. “Listen to them up there! Calling me ‘great writer’, ‘Literary giant’ and what other nonsense! My people, they’ve infected my name with their own lack of proper modesty and sense of proportion. When I was among them, most of them could only bitch and be envious…I wanted to teach them pride, proper pride and faith in themselves, with due sense of realism and proportion…Now look at them! They make me feel I’ve failed miserably.”