Last time I was back home in KL I was eager to find out whether there were any good books written in Malay. Being in the UK for a while made me miss all things Malay – so I started with books. I know for a fact that KL in particular is a host to a number of good bookshops, and some can be pretty darn huge (though I wonder who even buys books nowadays?). However on my return to my Malay-speaking homeland I was disappointed to find a dismal number of books in the Malay language. If you’re asking, “What about all those novels with lots of ‘Cinta’ and ‘Rindu’ on the titles? There are loads of them!”. Oh yes, there are many, but they are, to put it kindly, fit for the bin.
My first (and hopefully last) visit to the mammoth-sized waste of space, The Pavillion, in Bukit Bintang presented to me the possibility that Malay writing has no space in this shopping orgy we call Malaysia. Upon discovering Borders (yet another unnecessary American import), I skimmed past aisle label after aisle label looking for “Bahasa Malaysia”, and gave up. I couldn’t find it. So I asked one of Border’s very few staff to show me the goods.
He directed me to the Romance section.
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I fumed. “I can’t believe this. Don’t tell me all the Malay books here are in the Romance category?”.
But in no time, a spark of inspiration tinkled in the Border’s staff’s eye, and I was ushered to a corner labelled “Asian”: worth only two miserly rows of books but on a wealth of subject matters. And then I found books by A. Samad Said, wedged between books by Japanese and Indian writers. Not quite the holy grail, but it gave me a gloomy sense of where Malaysians are heading.
It seemed obscene to me that such ample space is dedicated to books in English; all pricey and imported, and even a row of books on Military History! (We hardly have books on local military history). In this respect, Malaysians are Eurocentric. We don’t have a local culture and literature to be proud of. The Malay language is jealously guarded by ethnicity (and Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka). Malaysian writers are not offered enough the mainstream book shelf space enjoyed by white western writers. To boot, Malaysians are not big readers anyway. Malaysians enjoy quick, easy, fluffy reads. Just look at most of the “Books of the Month” ; they’re either how-to-get-rich-quick/money-schemes-books or shallow chick-lit, take your pick. What a depressing dichotomy that reflects the hearts and minds of a majority of Malaysians (who actually read books). I also observed the widespread non-book reading habits of Malaysians. Ever notice how the magazine section in Kinokuniya always get so full of cheapskate freeloaders? Trust me, nearly everyone who leaves with a Kinokuniya bag has either one, or all of the following: 1) a magazine 2) newpapers 3) stationery (because it’s oh-so-posh).
* This was an observation carried out in every book shop in every shopping complex in Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur.