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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Remembering Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Remembering Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Reposted from the Sun May 4, 2005


You can tell much about a culture by how it treats its gifted and talented, and whom it honors and celebrates. It is for this reason that I am pessimistic about the future of our giant neighbor and kin, Indonesia.

Its gifted son, the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, died on Sunday, April 30th, 2006 at 81, after a long illness. Vice-President Jusuf Kalla reportedly sent some flowers, about the only official tribute to this great man.

Pak Pram would have preferred it that way, for every time the Indonesian authorities paid any attention to him, he ended up paying dearly for it. It did not matter who was in charge.

The Dutch incarcerated him during the dying days of colonialism. Sukarno did his part in 1959. That must have hurt Pram immensely for he had the highest esteem for Sukarno for uniting that polyglot archipelago. Pram suffered the longest, and most brutal, when Suharto banished him to Pulau Buru from 1965 to 1979. Even when Pram was released from Buru, he was not free; he was under house arrest.

Suharto banished Pram for an indeterminate period, with no formal trial or charges. That reflected the contempt Suharto and his ilk had for the rule of law. Pram and thousands of others paid a high price for that callousness.

In his Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy), Pramoedya paid tribute to his fellow prisoners. He listed those who had died, lest the world would forget them. It is a long and mournful list.

Knowing the appalling conditions, as Pramoedya so graphically chronicled, each of those deaths must have been unmercifully cruel. Whatever sins those poor souls may have committed, surely a Merciful Allah would look kindly upon them.

If the intent was to destroy Pramoedya, then Suharto had grossly underestimated the inner strength of this mortal. It reflects the Justness of Allah that today Suharto faces charges of corruption and possible war crimes while the rest of the world lauds Pramoedya. In his homeland however, they still ban his books.

Knowing full well that he was a writer, the authorities at Buru deprived him of pencil and paper. Undeterred, he would compose his stories in his head and re-told them repeatedly to his fellow prisoners. With each telling he would refine the language and narrative. By the time he was released, he had the full four-volume series completed, polished, and ready to be committed to paper. It did not take him long to complete that mechanical part of writing. He published in quick succession his Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (This Child of Mankind), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps), and Rumah Kaca (The Glass House) to international acclaim.
That was my introduction to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, through the superb English translations. I resolved to collect his entire works in the original Bahasa Indonesia; I am not there yet.

It is a sad commentary that I have difficulty getting his books; Malaysian bookstores do not carry them. Worse, their personnel did not even know who Pramoedya was. Shame on them!

Reading the original in Bahasa after reading the translated version did not in any way diminish the pleasure or anticipation, surely the ultimate tribute to the skills and fidelity of his translators.

Pramoedya was on a North American tour in 1999, sponsored by his American publisher. My greatest regret was not being able to attend his pubic lecture at Berkeley. It took intense international pressure on Suharto to release Pram for his international tour.

The University of Michigan may have conferred an honorary doctorate on Pramoedya, and the Magsaysay Foundation its highest honor, but no Indonesian or Malaysian university has seen fit to recognize this great figure of Malay literature. His works may have been translated in over 40 languages and enjoyed by millions worldwide, but they have yet to reach the Malay masses.

I am sad for Pram and his family; I am even sorrier for Malay culture. A culture cannot hope to aspire to great heights if it does not value the talented and gifted in its midst.

I re-read Bumi Manusia for solace upon hearing of his death. Pramoedya’s courage, passion and wisdom again came to life through his prose. A hundred years from now, not many very remember Sukarno and Suharto, but Pram’s writings will continue to touch the hearts of his readers. In our language, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was truly “Anak Yang Soleh.” May Allah bless his soul!

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