lyrikline blog

Map of a Thousand Lives – A Brief Introduction to Poetry in Malaysia

By Pauline Fan of Kala, the Lyrikline partner organisation in Malaysia

An attempt to chart the origins and evolution of modern poetry in Malaysia unearths complex historical processes and cultural interactions that have shaped contemporary Malaysian society. To speak of the writing of poetry in Malaysia, one must grapple with – or at least try to imagine – the essentially pluralist and polyglot nature of its people as well as the changing socio-cultural landscape, where “the map of a thousand lives will be seen* ”.

Malaysia is a country where at least four main languages predominate – Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil, further punctuated by a multitude of dialects and colloquialisms according to clan or region. The multicultural and multilingual population of the Malay Peninsula has been evident since at least the 15th century, when the Sultanate of Malacca rose to become one of the most thriving entrepôts in Asia, drawing merchants, scholars, and envoys from neighbouring kingdoms and faraway empires alike. Successive waves of immigrants from all over the Malay Archipelago, China, and India – some of whom settled, intermarried, and formed new distinct communities and cultures such as the peranakan or Straits-born communities – added yet more layers to the inextricable diversity of Malaysian society.

The conquest of Malacca by Portuguese (1511) and Dutch (1641) imperial powers preceded British colonial control, and later the Japanese occupation, of the Malay Peninsula and the northern provinces of Borneo.  Each of these imperialist presences left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of Malaysia, including on the Malay language in the case of Portuguese, Dutch and English, adding to the vast compendium of loanwords in Malay from Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Chinese. The Malay language served as a lingua franca for the Malay Archipelago for centuries, and forms the basis of the standardised national languages of both Malaysia (Bahasa Malaysia) and Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia), mutually intelligible with some differences in vocabulary and spelling.

Oral traditions and pan-Malay poets

The origins of Malay-language poetry can be traced to the vast and various oral traditions that have been cradled in the Malay Archipelago as well as classical Malay texts known as Hikayat that date back as far as the 14th century. Traditional Malay poetic forms include the syair, the pantun, the gurindamand seloka, all of which are found in both oral and written literature. While traditional or classical, many of these poetic forms are intrinsically innovative, urging improvisation and spontaneous composition. The pantun, for instance, was sometimes performed as balas pantun, a call-and-response ‘duel’ or ‘flirtation’ between two poets, especially during performances of the Dondang Sayang (love ballads) of Malacca.
The shifting territories of the old kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago meant that linguistic boundaries of Malay were historically porous and fluid, and did not fall neatly within the borders of modern nation-states. Thus, many pioneers of Malay literature hailed from the province of North Sumatra in present-day Indonesia, in what can be thought of as a pan-Malay region. Hamzah Fansuri, a Sumatran Sufi writer born in the late 16th century known for his composition of syair, is often referred to as one the earliest pioneers of written Malay poetry. The language of his syair compositions is close to the modern Malay still in use today.

In the early 20th century, an avant-garde literary journal and movement calledPoedjangga Baroe had a lasting influence on modern Malay literature throughout the Archipelago, including in British Malaya. Founded in 1932 by North Sumatran writers Amir Hamzah, Armijn Pane, and Sutan Takdir Alijsahbana, Poedjangga Baroe was at the forefront of pre-Independence Indonesian literature and deeply connected to emergent anti-Dutch nationalism.

Asas ‘50 and post-Independence poetry

Likewise, the stirrings of a modern poetic sensibility in British Malaya are discernible in tandem with the rise of Malay Nationalism. In the decades leading up to Independence in 1957, Malay writers started galvanizing their countrymen to rise against colonial power and cultivate self-awareness of a modern, Malayan selfhood. The Angkatan Sasterawan 1950, better known as Asas ‘50, was the first registered literary movement in Malaya. Championing ‘art for society’ over ‘art for art’s sake’, Asas ‘50 writers and poets published in newspapers and magazines such as Hiburan, Mutiara, Kencana, Utusan Zaman and Mastika. The most prominent Malay-language poet who emerged from the Asas ‘50 movement was Usman Awang.

Malaya gained Independence from the British in 1957, and went on to merge with the British Crown Colonies of North Borneo (present-day Sabah) and Sarawak in 1963 to form the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore left the Federation in 1965. The euphoria of new nationhood was somewhat short-lived, however. On May 13th 1969, three days after general elections, racial riots broke out between Malay and Chinese communities – a culmination of a series of incidents of communal violence as well as fierce political rivalry. The riots and its aftermath of distrust and political repression cast a long shadow on civil and political life in Malaysia.

These underlying social tensions were often reflected in Malaysian poetry of this period, directly or indirectly. Usman Awang is celebrated not only for his lyricism, but also for his persistent concern and engagement with social issues, in line with the principles of Asas ’50. This is illustrated in a stanza from his famous poem, ‘Sahabatku’ (My friend), written for his close friend, the physician and socialist leader Dr. MK Rajakumar who had been detained under the Internal Security Act in the 1960s:

Suatu bangsa merdeka yang kita impikan
Terasa jauh dari kenyataan
Kemarahanku menjadi kepedihan
Bila kita dipisah-pisahkan
Jarak itu semakin berjauhan
Aku dapat gelaran ‘bumiputera’ dan kau bukan.

(Literal translation: My friend/ the free nation we dream of/Feels distant from reality/ My anger turns to bitter sorrow/ As they divide us/ The chasm widens further/ I am called a ‘son of the soil’ and you are not.)


Latiff Mohidin reads at a KataKatha poetry reading in Kuala Lumpur, November 2015. Photo by Cheryl J. Hoffmann.

Another poet of paramount importance in post-Independence Malaysia is Latiff Mohidin. His first volume of poetry, Sungai Mekong (1972), signaled a powerful new voice in Malaysian poetry whose influence has not waned. Latiff Mohidin’s poetry moved away from the need to respond to the immediate social context, to free expression, layered metaphors and modernist style. Having studied fine arts in Berlin in the 1960s, and later in Paris, Latiff Mohidin’s poetry bears traces of the European poets he imbibed there, including German-language poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl, and French symbolists Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud:

…who will remind me
of the movement of unnamed shadows
vanishing into the dark without a voice?**

Among the pioneering Malay-language women poets of the post-Independence generation were Anis Sabirin, who started writing in the 1960s, and Siti Zainon Ismail, who rose to prominence in the 1970s. The relatively few women poets of this period paved the way for younger generations of women writers and poets – today a considerable number of Malaysian women poets are writing and being read.

Other important Malay-language poets who emerged during the 1970s include T. Alias Taib, Muhammad Haji Salleh, A. Samad Said, and Baha Zain – the latter three have each been honoured with the title of National Laureate. An interesting aspect of Muhammad Haji Salleh’s work is his deliberate reaching back to, and recasting of, Malay oral traditions such as pantun, myths and folk stories. In his poems based on the Malay Annals, Sajak-Sajak Sejarah Melayu(1981), for instance, the legendary marriage of Hang Li Po, a Chinese princess, to Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca, is given a contemporary poetic treatment:

her eyes almond, like the deer,
but widened by the black mascara
as dark as her long hair
falling straight from her shoulders
now knotted for marriage.***

Other tongues

The 1960s also saw the emergence of several important English-language poets, including Ee Tiang Hong and Wong Phui Nam, both peranakan or Straits-born Chinese. This marked the coming of age of a generation that had received colonial English-medium education. Like Latiff Mohidin, Wong Phui Nam’s poetry signifies a break with context, opening up new avenues for sophisticated poetic expression that was its own end, not a vessel for social commentary.

My flesh would find continuance in the moist salt wombs
of native women and leave secreted into this hill
a clutch of bones from which no transfigured life would hatch.****

Other notable English-language poets include Shirley Geok-lin Lim, whose first collection of poems won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1980; the ‘lawyer-poet’, Cecil Rajendra, whose poems often address environmental and human rights issues; writer, poet and educator, Bernice Chauly; and public intellectual, poet and translator, Eddin Khoo.

There are also many Malaysian poets who write in the vernacular languages of Chinese and Tamil. The older generation of Chinese-language poets in Malaysia were strongly influenced by classical Chinese and Western poetry. Among the most prominent of these poets are Woon Swee Tin, Wong Yuen Wah, May Sook Chin, and Ai Wen. On the whole, Chinese-language poets in Malaysia remain little known outside their circles; in fact, many of them are more widely read in Taiwan and Hong Kong than in their homeland. The unpredictable aesthetics of Chinese language poets of this generation is evident in these lines by Ai Wen, whose imagistic poems reveal a unique blend of classical and surrealist sensibilities:

The cat cries again
Whenever the moon flows
There is a patch of long dark hair
Combing the water of the stream.*****

The writing of Tamil poetry was nurtured among Malaysian Tamil writers through the publication of book and magazines. Tamil poetry in Malaysia generally passed through a development of styles from the formal classicism of traditional poetry, to the ‘Renaissance’ poetry of the 1940s, and the free verse in the 1960s that still exerts a strong influence on contemporary Malaysian Tamil poets.


A session with writers and poets held in Kuala Lumpur, November 2015. Photo by Vicki Fennessy

Poetry is gaining new audiences among the younger generation in Malaysia. In recent years, spoken word gatherings have surged in popularity among young, mostly English-speaking, urbanites of Kuala Lumpur and Penang. There is a rising interest in written poetry too, particularly among Malay-language writers and readers. Noteworthy young Malay poets include Jimadie Shah Othman, Hafiz Hamzah, Shaira Amira, and Pyanhabib. There have even been creative attempts among young Malay poets to reclaim traditional forms in contemporary poetry, such as the laudable effort by Jimadie Shah Othman and Hafiz Hamzah of publishing an anthology of contemporary pantun.

The poetry of Malaysia reflects the pluralist, polyglot cultural landscape of its people. While poetry written in Malay and English may find relatively wide readership at least within Malaysian society, poetry written in the vernacular languages of Chinese and Tamil are still not well known even to the Malaysian general public. One hopes that further research as well as translation into English and Malay will spur new interest among Malaysians to learn more about the poetry of other tongues that exist in their country, a country that has historically been a place of unpredictable encounter and wild discovery.


Pauline Fan is the Malaysia editor of She is a writer, literary translator, Managing Director of the cultural heritage organisation, PUSAKA, and Co-founder of the publishing house Kala, which is devoted to the translation of world literature into Malay as well as organizing literary readings, conversations and workshops. She holds a Bachelor’s in East Asian History, Literature and Philosophy from New York University and a Masters in Modern German Literature from the University of Oxford. Her translations from German to Malay include love poems by Bertolt Brecht, an essay by Immanuel Kant, stories by Franz Kafka and the poetry of Paul Celan.

* From the poem ‘Duniaku’ by T. Alias Taib, translated from the Malay by Eddin Khoo.

** From the poem ‘Siapakah Yang Akan Mengingatkan Aku’ by Latiff Mohidin, translated from the Malay by Eddin Khoo.

*** From Poems from the Malay Annals by Muhammad Haji Salleh, quoted in Nin Harris’ article, “Visions of Courtly Life Translated into Contemporary Meditations: Muhammad Haji Salleh’s Sajak-Sajak Sejarah Melayu”,Stonetelling, Issue 3, March 2011.

**** From the poem, ‘Bukit Cina 2’ by Wong Phui Nam, quoted in Neil Khor’s article, “Malacca Straits Chinese Anglophone Poets and their Experience of Malaysian Nationalism”, Archipel, Volume 76, no. 1 (2008), pp. 127-149.

***** The poem ‘Cat’ by Ai Wen, quoted in Ho Khai Leong’s article, “Modern Chinese Poetry in Malaysia”, Archipel, Volume 19, no. 1 (1980), pp. 199-206.

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