Ungku A. Aziz: Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind

June 19, 2011

Ungku A.Aziz: Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind 

by Dato’ Johan Jaaffar @http://www.nst.com.my

ROYAL Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid is one of the greatest minds the country has ever known. He is also a man of many achievements, to name one, he is the first recipient of the Merdeka Award in the education and community category in 2008. His interest in all things literary is legendary.

He was obsessed with the Japanese haiku at one point and his latest love is the Malay pantun. Pantun undeniably is the most popular vehicle for the expression of poetic feeling among the Malays. Pak Ungku painstakingly assembled, documented and studied some 16,000 of them over the years. He selected 78 to be included in an interesting lecture organised by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and the Malaysian Linguistic Association in 2007 as part of the Raja Ali Haji Lecture series.

I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to write the preface for the book Pantun dan Kebijaksanaan Akal Budi Melayu (Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind) based on the lecture published by DBP. It was a labour of love for me knowing the man behind the book. It is not often we find someone of his stature to give such serious attention to a Malay poetical form. It is normally the domain of literary scholars and researchers. Ungku Aziz certainly brings a new dimension to literary studies — looking at pantun from various disciplines — from economics to psychological references — areas very few would dare tread.

So his “reading” of the Malay pantun would certainly be different from others. But Ungku Aziz is a contrarian among economic thinkers who believe that there is a relationship between the economic capabilities of the Malays and their value system, worldview and psyche. When he started studying poverty among the Malays, he realised how culture, ways of life, dietary habits and government policies were an insurmountable hindrance to their progress.

It was not a pleasant thing to say at the time but Ungku Aziz shared the same view as another monumental thinker among the Malays, Zainal Abidin Ahmad or Za’ba, who was uncharacteristically audacious in criticising some of the “Malay ways”. It was, therefore, unsurprising that Ungku Aziz wrote a glowing tribute to Zainal Abidin’s views in the book Jejak-jejak di Pantai Zaman published in 1975.

Not surprisingly, too, it was Ungku Aziz who made the word minda (mind) part of the Malay lexicon. No other Malay literary creation explains the Malay mind better than the pantun. For more than 700 years of its existence as part of the Malay oral tradition, the pantun has always been the manifestation of the genius of Malay creativity and a storehouse of the Malay mind.

Pantun is simple in its form but complex in its texture and nuances. It is easily adaptable and allows for improvisation. The pantun contains beautiful imagery and the delicacy of thoughts. That is part of the reason why it survives the test of time. Even today, you hear pantun being read at wedding ceremonies and official functions, not to mention on the airwaves at the slightest provocation.

The pantun was created anonymously just like many of the works that constitute the Malay oral tradition. It is interesting to note that the pantun was born out of the largely uneducated Malay populace of old. Life was hard and survival was the rule. Far from the blooming of other literary brilliance and theatrical sophistication nurtured by the istana (court), lesser mortals had to contend with folk literature of their own, from cerita rakyat (folk tales) to verses like pantun, gurindam (a two-line verse) and peribahasa (proverbs).

Literary works became part of the socialisation process. Before radio and TV, people lived with tukang cerita (story-tellers) and penglipur lara (literally, soother of woes) of all kinds. Even nenek (grandmothers) were involved in telling exemplary moral stories to be emulated as well as fables, myths, legends and ghost stories. Literary works entertain and are used as tools to educate. They reaffirm social norms and community compliance. But creativity is their mainstay.

15 thoughts on “Ungku A. Aziz: Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind

  1. Ungku A. Aziz, my economics lecturer during my undergraduate days at MU in the 1960s, is a very special man to those of us who were fortunate to be under his tutelage. He was an intellectual of the first order. He is, in my view, in the same class as Za’aba to the men and women of my generation. I used to see him from time to time at MPH Mid-Valley looking at books and I never cease to thank him for being a wonderful role model in intellectualism. This commentary by Johan Jaaffar is a fitting honour to this teacher, mentor and role model.–Din Merican

  2. Tend to agree that the Malay language as such is of great aesthetic beauty in the literrary field.

    But what the language lacks is making it into the language of Science or Scientific language, complementing with it the Economic language. May be we have tried for long long time, but sadly insufficient. Dewan Bahasa had not been much at it, at best, at worst pathetic !

    Hope we can try and compare Bahasa Melayu with our Indonesian counterpart, they seem to begi withh some semblence of that struggle….and being appreciated.

  3. Abnizar7

    Thanks for the cogent comment. I am curious, do you think Malays in general are proud and confidence toward the Malay language, specifically refer to those bilingual. To be honest, my passion and interest towards BM subsided the moment I finished school, however I wish to stress that I like BM, my score is always above average and I don’t do it solely for the sake of exam.

  4. HuaYong, why bilingualism? Can be the study of languages, be it Malay, English, Mandarin, French, Japanese. We must encourage language proficiency. Malay is the official language,that is our core that defines us as Malaysians but since we are open ,we must learn languages of countries with whom we do business.

    To me it is unacceptable that after more than 50 years of independence, there are still Malaysians who cannot speak and write in Bahasa Malaysia. The attitude of these people is not right.–Din Merican

  5. Dear Dato,

    There are still Malaysians who don’t speak BM after 50 years of independence, right. Mostly it is not because of their ATTITUDE but due to age and segregation. The mini colonies of Tamils in estates and Chinese in villages and suburban ghettoes don’t need BM in their daily lives, especially the older generation.

    A pertinent question would be; what did the government do to change this fact in 50 years? Did they organise adult education classes in estates and villages? actually these portion of people you are talking about don’t exist for the government of the day. This situation was foreseeable therefore it was deliberate.

    On one side you have people who don’t speak BM and on the other side people who can’t speak any language properly, not to mention writing and reading.

    My answer is to you is: if there is will, there is a way. Nothing to do with age and segregation. Even our orang asli brothers in the deep jungles of Pahang can speak Bahasa Malaysia. This is because they come out to rural towns to sell their wares (petai, fruits, bamboo shoots, etc) and interact, and need Bahasa Malaysia to do business. You have given me a lame excuse.–Din Merican

  6. Pantun are truly beautiful allegorical quatrains, uniquely organic and thoroughly encapsulates the traditional, genteel culture of the Malay civilization. Nowadays it’s going the way of the Dodo, with urbanization and corruption of of the Language.
    The paradox of modernity.
    Here’s a great one from SM Salim:

  7. Ungku Aziz introduced economic terminology in Bahasa and made into a paper in First Year Economics (if I remember correctly). My bahasa never went above ‘kemaluan saya sangat besar’ and he failed me. I felt great. It made no sense. Not the failing. But the point in having anything like economics in bahasa since everything else was in English. It helped the Malay students get through their First year of course.

  8. Dato,
    sorry to note that you don’t see my point of view. it is rather a lame way of defending the stand of things. the main part of my argument is the lack of necessity in these people to learn BM. they live in their cocoon of a world. whose responsibility do you think is to bring these people into the main society?

  9. I was working in Sarawak in 1986/87. I found the locals in the interior or in towns spoke Malay very well with Indonesian twangs. Sentence structures were very good which reflect their highly developed intelligence in communication even though they never had any education! This is proof of the function of ‘lingua franca’ which started maybe 200 years ago. Quite sad to note that ministers from Semenanjung spoke English most of the time while in East Malaysia. President Bambang who represent 200mil people spread across 17,000 islands, spoke Indonesian when delivering his speech at UN but not Malaysian PM! Why?
    Another point: UTM started using BM for lectures and exams for all engineering/technical subjects since 1975. Students had the the choice to answer questions BM or English. After their first degree, they went further to do their Masters and PhDs in engineering in UK ,mostly. I could not see the language problems here!


  11. Congrats, RP Ungku A Aziz!
    Thank you for your wonderful way of ever revealing new nuances
    within our national language.

    I am writing here with hopes that someone can help me. I am writing a biography on my grandaunt, Dr. Soo Kim Lan and came across a “Pantun” that ran in an article in “Berita Harian” 2 July 1962, Page 6. I am wondering if the author of that pantun is Prof. Ungku Aziz, and if not, does anyone here know who it is?

    Cousins who lived with her remember grandaunt mentioning his name a few times and he might even have visited grandaunt’s home at Kenny Hills.

    Please feel free to write to me for a copy of the pantun in the newspaper:

    Here it is as it appeared:


    Kalau tuan pergi ka-tanjong,
    Kirimkan saya anggerek sa-pohon;
    Jasa puan sentiasa di-junjong,
    Jadi kenangan beribu tahun.

    The articles (there are two) mentioned Prof. Ungku Aziz as being present at grandaunt’s honorary degree award (they were mentioned together in two different paragraphs). Any kind assistance is much appreciated.

    Thanks! -Jacquelyn PY Soo, PhD.
    Dr. Soo,
    I wish I can help you. You can use anon as the poet. That acknowledgement is good enough. Maybe he is your secret admirer. If that is the case, he will not come forward.–Din Merican

  12. Self serving narrow minded leadership in any country will not serve the people not allow others who want to serve from doing so. Race-religions-language-ethnicity and some others may be used for self benefit and leave the people entrapped in the narrow thinking. Is this not mental slavery?

  13. To me it is unacceptable that after more than 50 years of independence, there are still Malaysians who cannot speak and write in Bahasa Malaysia. The attitude of these people is not right.–Din Merican

    Economic benefits are the main reason for learning languages and if these are not there then the reason to learn the language diminishes.

    Many Indians including Sikhs do not speak their own mother tongues let alone read or write. Efforts are being made by some individual groups but it is an uphill battle. Most of the language used in the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib is layman’s language that can be easily understood. Unfortunately it is still not understood by many of to-day’s highly educated generation professionals resulting with some even speaking in English in Gurdwaras during the final prayers of their departed parents. The malaise is so bad that even among themselves many speak in English and this I have observed in gatherings during weddings and other ceremonies including in Sikh Gurdwaras and Indian Temples. Not knowing their own language results in not understanding the wisdom of the holy sages which may one of the causes why many of the Y-Generation do not go to Gurdwaras-Temples and even when they do go due to family obligations many are observed to be busy on their smartphones.

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