July 17, 2012
Karim Raslan on Azah Aziz: Gentle Advocate of Malay Identity
Puan Azah had a deep knowledge and passion for Malay culture. She understood the importance of maintaining a strong connection with our polyglot and cosmopolitan inheritance — tracing the strands of cultural influences from the Middle East, Indonesia, India and China.–Karim Raslan
LAST week, Malaysia lost a living treasure when the much-loved and highly-respected writer, activist and Malay culture doyenne, Azah Aziz passed away.
Azah Aziz was a great beauty with a wonderfully serene, gracious and generous manner. And despite her informality, she was always immaculately dressed in Malay baju, generally a baju kurung cekak musang.
She was to leave an enduring impression on everyone she met. Indeed there’s a portrait of her, painted by the celebrated Indonesian artist Basoeki Abdullah, hanging in Jakarta’s Istana Negara.
As a member of one of the country’s most distinguished (and politicised) dynasties, Puan Azah grew up amidst the turmoil of war and the struggle for independence, experiencing at first-hand the protests against the Malayan Union as well as the founding of UMNO.
She married the famous academic Ungku Aziz (a fellow Johorean) at an early age.However, starting a family (her daughter is of course Bank Negara Governor, Tan Sri Zeti Aziz) didn’t mean that she withdrew from public life.
Having lived through the full onslaught of Malay nationalism and exposed to developmental economics (courtesy of her husband), she became a crusading journalist, something that was to keep her occupied for 20 years.
Puan Azah had a deep knowledge of and passion for Malay culture. She understood the importance of maintaining a strong connection with our polyglot and cosmopolitan inheritance — tracing the strands of cultural influences from the Middle East, Indonesia, India and China.
I can still remember meeting her nearly 15 years ago at a time when I was researching historical details about Malay dress from the 1930s and 1940s. Her knowledge was encyclopaedic. Her passion and enthusiasm were infectious.
Surrounded by her books and her textiles, she was to leave an indelible impression on me … here was a lady who really knew where she came from — who had an unshakeable sense of her world whilst always remaining open-minded and questioning.
As we talked that afternoon and she explained the subtle differences between Perak, Johor and Kedah in terms of dress, I began to understand something fundamental about Puan Azah’s approach to Malay culture.
She believed that the brilliance at the heart of Malayness lay in the mix, the combination and juxtaposition of influences which was why she deplored the modern tendency towards baju kurung’s with both the tunic and the skirt made from the same material.
She adored and indeed respected the Malay ability to adapt and adopt — to turn the foreign (and here we were discussing clothes but really it could be applied to anything) — whether it was brocade, silk or satin into something quintessentially Malay.
Indeed, for Puan Azah, clothes were a foil to explore the richness and diversity of a world (from pantun to syair) that was being smothered by crass vulgarity and conservatism.
She fought to preserve the simplicity and the beauty, publishing books, pamphlets, magazines and countless articles.
She wanted us to know ourselves and our past, realising as she explained in one of her essays: “Without a past, there is no future. It’s a question of where we’re from and where we’re going: dari mana, ke mana.”
Puan Azah’s interests ranged widely.On the one hand, she was a passionate spokesman for women’s rights — campaigning for equal pay. Whilst there’s still much to be done in terms of gender rights, she was very much a pioneer.
At a time when our public life is so divisive and nasty and when those purporting to speak for the Malay community are so shrill and ugly, it’s important to remember icons such as Puan Azah Aziz.
Quiet, elegant and yet fiercely determined, she was really one of the most powerful and persuasive advocates for Malay identity we have ever seen.