National laureate A Samad Said believes that if Malaysians choose to keep their mouths shut, doing nothing; then “don’t blame the government. Blame yourself”. Aneesa Alphonsus of FMT has the story.
Walk into the National Museum and head into the “Malaysia Now” Exhibit at Gallery D and you will see him among the nation’s literary greats. National laureate A Samad Said, a diminutive man with a larger than life persona and much revered by Malaysian.
Conversation with him is a surreal experience, more so when he ordered a hot chocolate with an impish smile, dashing the notion that all serious literary people drink coffee – black.
At 76, Pak Samad has the kind of zen persona that makes even his most vitriolic statements sound like poetry. It does then seem odd that he should co-chair the Bersih coalition.
So how did this quiet, unassuming man get involved in one of the biggest demonstrations the country has seen?
Those who saw the photos or who were at the walk in July 2011 are likely to remember for a long time to come the sight of him walking barefooted to the palace to deliver a memorandum after having lost his slippers in the foray of the demonstration.
After so many years of quiet, why now, at this age, did he decide to lend his voice and be a part of such a rally?
A native of Belimbing Dalam, a village near Durian Tunggal in Malacca, Pak Samad received his early education during the Second World War years at Sekolah Melayu Kota Raja (Kota Raja Malay School) in Singapore.
When the war ended, he continued his education at Singapore’s Victoria School and went on to work as a clerk in a hospital.
Pak Samad confessed that he had always wanted to be a writer. He began an unsuspecting career in 1954 by writing short stories, poems, features, dramas, novels and even diaries.
Later, he would get a job with Utusan Zaman in Singapore and other well-known Malay language magazines like Mastika and Remaja. He added that the reason why he wanted to write so much was so that he could chronicle everything he saw as sincerely as possible as seen through his eyes.
His calling as a writer was cemented in 1957 and 1968 when a novel he had written won the consolation prize in a writing competition organised by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
The novel was Salina. Salina was the story of a woman who, due to poverty, finds work in Singapore’s red light district of the 1950s.
Salina the novel is today touted as a literary masterpiece, moving in its portrayal of humanity.
Much ugliness in Malaysia
When asked if Pak Samad personally knew a woman like Salina, he proffered that he knew and met many women like her. Salina, he said, was a composition of characters he had met.
“When I was in Singapore in the 1950s, I lived in places like Lorong Lalat before moving to Rangoon road. Both these areas and the surrounding ones like Johor Road and Deskar Road were red light districts.
“The rooms and houses were cheap, so that’s where I stayed,” he smiled.
“It was during this time that I got to know a few waitresses and sex workers. I would say that the character of Salina was a combination of these women I met.”
Salina took Pak Samad to greater heights and his writing career flourished.
As the years began to roll out, he realised that settling to recording and writing what he saw wasn’t enough.
Leaning forward in his chair, he said: “Here there were so many ugly things happening in front of me. I would see unfairness, intimidation, fraud and this moved me a step ahead from what I was used to.
“I saw that after 54 years of independence, we have come to point zero again. We have become racial when we want to win votes.
“I think there’s something wrong somewhere if, after five decades, a nation cannot stand on solid ground; I think it has failed.
“This is why I decide to walk, as you asked me. I wanted to do more than just write about what I saw.”
‘We need sincere leaders’
Pak Samad has his own idea of what it would take for the country to thrive as she should.
It’s a big idea, but he put it simply when he said, “We need sincere leaders with a vision and with a real project in mind to galvanise a nation. We don’t have that right now.”
He added that having said that, it would only be fair to exclude Tunku Abdul Rahman from the equation.
“Tunku Abdul Rahman was the beginner… who started things.
“Tun Abdul Razak may have had a vision but this didn’t quite turn out because he was too pro-Malay.
“After that, everything became rojak … because things became messy; you don’t come to the ideal to have a nation which is now symbolised by a motto – 1Malaysia. That’s what it is – 1Malaysia is just a motto, an advertisement.”
At this point, Pak Samad opened his eyes wide in mock annoyance, then quickly broke into a smile and, laughing heartily, he asked, “Do I look angry? I’m not angry. I just act angrily.
“My wife always reminds me to be careful about what I say and write. But I know that whatever I write, there will be repercussions. I have always said that poems are weapons. I even have an anthology out called Puisi Itu Senjata but people don’t read it.”
But Pak Samad’s sense of reassurance is settled in the fact that Malaysians are beginning to voice their thoughts.
He said he believed that the younger generation is making an impact in some of the changes being witnessed. The “old people” he has discounted because they already know who to vote for.
‘Don’t blame the government’
Pak Samad is hopeful that this will eventually bring about the balance which is needed for democracy.
He said that this equilibrium will end what the government is doing by (allegedly) giving abrupt citizenship to immigrants just to make sure they vote for Barisan Nasional.
Why should someone who has just been here for three or five years be (allegedly) given the power to determine the country’s rule is a question, he posed.
He said there were millions of other genuine rakyat who are not been given that chance.
“I will come back to the same thing again and again. I’m afraid that Malaysians won’t do their bit.
“If you keep your mouth shut doing nothing, don’t blame the government. Blame yourself,” he stated.
Perhaps it is this dogged determination which he says is part of his personality that has kept him doing what he has all this time.
To those who are not familiar with Pak Samad, fiery is not how one would describe him. But make no mistake that he is.
He doesn’t suffer fools gladly but is still very compassionate about the rights of Malaysians, and there isn’t an iota of doubt that this is a man who is in love with his country.
He laughs at his repetitive self and says he knows he sometimes sounds like a broken record.
‘I am still same person’
But he doesn’t mind, of course, because someone has to say something. And at the risk of getting into trouble for it, he is completely at peace with it being him.
Acknowledging that he is in the twilight of his life, Pak Samad expressed a desire to see Malaysia become an example of a new country – harmonious, rich, fair, respectful and dominant in a way that her voice will be internationally respected.
“Some people have told me that I have changed as a person. But I know I am still the same. I do what I do, say what I say and write what I write because I don’t want to die uselessly.
“I want to be able to die knowing that I did something for my country, even if it’s a small part, to bring about the change I hope to see in my lifetime.”