Usman Awang in Singapore

Tan Jing Quee
December 2001

The passing away of Usman Awang in November 2001 was in many ways, a watershed in the literary history of Malaysia and Singapore. He was perhaps one of the few literary giants who are known on both sides of the Causeway, read by a diverse section of the reading public. He is easily the most accessible of the major writers of the Malay language, partly because his writings have been widely translated into English, Chinese and several other languages. The fact that this is so perhaps says something of the universality of his appeal.

Usman Awang became the poet laureate of Malaysia towards the later part of his life. Few people remember, however, his early connections with Singapore, for it was in Singapore that he began his journalistic and literary career before moving on to greater heights in Malaysia. It may be useful, therefore, to revisit Usman’s links with Singapore and the early generation of Malay scholars in Singapore.

Usman Awang or Tongkat Warrant as he was more popularly known, has often been described as a humanist, but I think he should be more appropriately described as a socialist humanist. His concern for the poor and the underprivileged, his anti-colonial and anti-war ideological perspectives fused with his sense of justice, racial tolerance marked him out as more than a humanist simplicitor. He has clear political sympathies for the oppressed, although it was not known if he had a specific political affiliation. In this sense, his socialism was instinctive rather than a fully formed and clearly articulated vision.

Usman was born in Kuala Sedili, in the state of Johor, and went to Malay schools in the rural towns of Sedili and Mersing. He began life as a farmer, peon and policeman, before making the major decision to move to Singapore in 1952. At the time he was 23 years old. He began work as a proof reader, graduated to become the editor of Utusan Kanak Kanak, and eventually Utusan Zaman and Mastika, a literary journal of some importance in the fifties. He was to remain in Singapore until Utusan Melayu moved its headquarters to Kuala Lumpur in 1957.

The five years he spent in Singapore were crucial years in his literary apprenticeship and growing maturity. Singapore was then a major political center for the left wing in the country, with a vibrant literary and cultural scene. There were strong organizations of students, cultural bodies and trade unions. A strong anti-colonial movement had developed among these groups, a seething, pulsating society in the process of change and transition from a colony to self-government.

At the same time, Singapore was also the center of the Malay literary world, and most of the major writers worked and lived in the island. Strong anti-colonial sentiments among the Malay intellectuals were fanned by the influential daily Utusan Melayu, then under the charge of Yusof Ishak and Samad Ismail. In the fifties a major debate arose in the Malay literary world in Singapore, on the issues as the proper function and responsibility of the writer, between the proponents of what came to be known as Art for Society as opposed to Art for Art’s sake. The polemics which engulfed the Malay literary world in the period led to the formation of Angkatan Sastrawan 50s (ASAS 50), who argued for and advocated the view that writers had a clear and obvious social duty and responsibility. The debate was more than a difference in literary style or preference. It hinged on the more important issue at that juncture as to whether the writer should stand aside from the emerging anti-colonial struggle. Usman was one of a whole generation of writers including M S Masuri, A Samad Said, Keris Mas, Arena Wati, who took cudgels on behalf of the cause for a literature of social concerns and social relevance. Among them were a group of socially engaged students, including Ali Aziz, Kassim Ahmad and Syed Hussin Ali who were then studying at the University of Malaya located in Singapore, who were to pay major roles in subsequent years in literature and politics.

This debate had its reverberations in the Chinese literary world at the time, which was embroiled in a similar debate on broadly the same issues. Accordingly the debate generated considerable interest in Chinese literary circles, creating an empathy for ASAS 50 among many Chinese writers.

At the same time, the debate on the issue of the National Language came to the fore. It is now conceded that the left wing trade unions under Lim Chin Siong, took a decision early on in support of Malay as the national language and at the same time arguing for a reduction in the role of the English language and the elevation of the languages of the local communities, principally Chinese and Tamil. Lim’s role in this has been acknowledged by Usman and Samad Ismail and others.

The left wing support for the use of Malay as the national language and the common lingua franca, created a strong surge of interest for the learning of Malay. This momentum was accelerated after 1959, when widespread classes for Malay in night schools, adult education centres and private tuition was widespread and extensive. This movement for the study of Malay declined after Singapore left Malaysia after 1965. Since then, the island republic had gone on to embrace the English language with a new fervour and intensity, bringing in its wake the widespread dissemination of western values, culture and mores. The impact on Singapore society was so profound, that in the nineties a debate to emphasize on the superiority of Asian values was initiated to counter the trend. A campaign to speak Mandarin and study the mother tongues was launched. It is perhaps a forlorn attempt against the background of the material incentives associated with mastery of the English language in the context of globalization. From the hindsight of recent history, one sometimes wonders, what would have been the socio-political situation in the region, had the political reunification process in the sixties not been so traumatic, and had Singapore stayed the course. Would Singapore have retained its position as the pre-eminent center for Malay literature and scholarship, and whether the creative and intellectual scholarship and energies among non-Malays would have attained more breadth and depth.

It was into this intellectual and political milieu of an emerging anti-colonial movement in the fifties that Usman Awang lived, worked and wrote in Singapore. Many young Chinese students and scholars looked him up, discussed his poetry and the Malay language. Many of these students learnt and studied Malaya language and literature. They wrote basic grammar texts, translated, complied Malay-Chinese dictionaries, to promote the study of the language; several of them went to study in Indonesia, and came back as acknowledged scholars like Liaw Yock Fang, Lim Huan Boon, Goh Choo Keng, Yang Quee Yee and Tan Ta Sen. Yang Quee Yee and his wife continued to promote the language to this day. He reputedly has the largest personal collection of the literary journal Mastika. It is pertinent to note that during the same period, the English-speaking literary world was involved in the new Malayan idiom Engmalchin debate.

It is perhaps pertinent at this juncture to offer my personal perspective on some of Usman’s qualities, which made him so engaging and admired. He never left that rural simplicity, humility and easy charm which endeared him to so many. Like many others, I heard of Usman a long time before I met and later got to know him personally. When I first started learning Malay in the sixties, I was instinctively attracted to the poetry of Usman. I was drawn to his honesty, sincerity, his sense of justice and sympathy for the oppressed. I became familiar with is poetry (including several English translations), which I confess related to me more than much of the local poetry written in English, with some notable exceptions. For example, I had a particular feel and affinity for the poetry of Ee Tiang Hong, for his simplicity, sincerity and honesty—qualities which I discerned in Usman’s poetry.

Usman also published a collection of short stories and a novel, although I did not read them till much later; somehow they have left lesser impression on me. Usman was also a major dramatist who wrote many successful plays.

In my view Usman’s lasting reputation would rest on his poetry and two of his plays Matinya Saorang Patriot, and Muzika Uda dan Dara. The first-mentioned play was a major work, which contributes in a very fundamental way to a re-evalutation of the two principal historical heroes Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. Traditional legend and scholarship had tended to elevate Hang Tuah as the supreme hero whose absolute loyalty to his sovereign was held to be the supreme virtue. Hang Jebat had been treated in a more ambiguous light, as a wrongheaded rebel or as a psychologically unbalanced warrior, driven to commit the unforgivable act of treason. Usman Awang’s play focuses more clearly on a positive, nobler Hang Jebat, and in the process treated Hang Tuah with more ambiguity.

This reassessment, it must be noted was not new; Ali Aziz and Kassim Ahmad for example had raised this question in the fifties. But Usman’s play possibly settled the issue more decisively in favour of Hang Jebat in the historical re-evalutation. More fundamentally, the play raises the question whether every generation has a right and responsibility to re-evaluate historical figures in the light of current perspectives.

Usman’s other play, a musical, Uda dan Dara, will probably remain as the most recognizable of his works, uniquely his personal creation. While the re-evalutaion of Hang Jebat was based on historical, literary sources, Uda dan Dara was the product of his own creative imagination, an affirmation of his lifelong belief in the equality of human beings, and his deep-seated opposition to class division and discrimination.

I first met Usman in London, sometime in 1970. He was visiting London under a fellowship grant. I met him with Albert Lim Shee Ping, then like me, a law student in the United Kingdom. Albert had been a friend of Usman in Singapore in the fifties. I was meeting Usman for the first time. I remember the meeting well: Usman spoke in Malay and both of us spoke sometimes in Malay but mostly in English. I recalled Usman’s lamenting that there were far too few Malay translations of Chinese and Indian novels and stories, and that the modern generation of students were more knowledgeable of even second-rate western writers than major Asian writers from Asia and Southeast Asia.

I wrote a short poem on that first meeting.

To Usman Awang

Meeting you here in London
To rediscover your humanity
To share your vision
To relive the words you wrote
No anger
No rift
Divides us
Despite May thirteenth
As friends we relate
Pleasantly surprised
Never having met
We could so communicate
Meeting you in person
Helps to reassure
Your dreams and mine
Of a better tomorrow


I met Usman sporadically in KL and Singapore a couple of times, during social occasions usually with some other friends of Usman. It was only for mid-1990s that I began to meet him quite regularly when I went up to KL. My wife Rose recalled with particular fondness how Kak Hasnah used to fry koey teow which Rose swears to this day was the best she ever tasted. Later when Usman discovered Rose’s fondness for durians, he would invariably request his son Iskandar to purchase the best durians he could find, to welcome our visits.

We last saw Usman about six months before his passing. When we were in KL in early September, we rang up to check whether we could call in. Iskandar said his father was resting after his dialysis, and we did not call over. When Usman passed away in November, we were in the US; we did not know of his passing until we came home in December, when we were informed by newspaper reports on his death.

Usman shall always remain in my memory as a gentle, almost diffident man, with a romantic presence, an inner strength and confidence, a man of few words, but much loved and respected. He had a tremendous pride for his people and the beauty of the Malay language, and its boundless possibilities for creativity and development. How he belongs to the ages. The humble, soft-spoken poet from the rural backwaters will always be remembered as a human individual, who spoke for a generation, and will be fondly cherished even more than the numerous awards which he had been granted in his lifetime.