Resisting the closing of the Malaysian mind

loading Prof Latif Kamaluddin

Eccentric professor Latif Kamaluddin writes powerful, mean verses that challenge Malaysians to think about where their modernity really comes from.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Prof Latif Kamaluddin, author of poetry collections such as Lazy Lamas and Voodoo Genitalia, upon meeting him for the first time. Of Hungarian and Malay-Pakistani origins, Latif ’s deeply intelligent eyes dominate a docile face that abruptly ends in an explosion of shagginess comparable only to that of an Indian holy man. For years, he has braided his beard into a thick dreadlock that reaches to his waist, and he conveniently wraps it around his neck like a scarf of sorts.

But don’t get fooled by his appearance; besides his hippie style and a collection of metallic bangles dangling from his limbs, Latif in fact wears many other hats. He has a doctorate in Religious Studies from Scotland, where he lived for nine years, trained in Conflict Resolution in Sweden and Australia, and spent time at the Sawan Kirpal Ashram in Delhi. He’s certainly most conventionally known for having been at the forefront of Malaysia’s cultural panorama while working from the office he has manned at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Sciences for the best part of three decades.

It’s here that Latif welcomes me to take a seat on the floor of a room he decorated ashram style. All around me, neat piles of books rise from the floor as if they were skyscrapers of a miniaturised city of knowledge. I came here to know more about Latif ’s poetry, a series of short, thoughtfully crafted words that eschew the superfluous and aim straight at the reader’s brain. He self-publishes and distributes his books free of charge through Gerakbudaya Bookshop at Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.

“I was born in a family with strong reading habits. I read the Quran for the first time as a young boy, questioning why it had been written in the way it is,” Latif starts. “I was also lucky enough to have attended college when Shakespeare and the British poets were still allowed into the syllabus. I went on to study in Germany and became exposed to German artists and philosophers such as Fassbinder and Nietzsche, besides other influences such as Italian neorealist cinema and Pasolini.”

With such references, it’s easier to understand Latif ’s stripped-down, at times defiantly vulgar and highly lyrical style. “I want to deconstruct poetry as much as possible,” he says. “I got tired of the local scene and its conventional conception of fixed stylistic forms and restricted view of rhymes. I’m a nonconformist by nature, and I appreciate the philosophy and spirituality of language. Essentially, I want to produce anti-elitist poetry. To me, writing is an approximation, a self mockery of sorts.”

I wonder how much critics like his work, then. “I just had a few reviews,” he says. “I’m too esoteric for critics because they don’t understand my use of language. I often switch between Sanskrit, Arabic, Jawi and what not. I also write in Manglish and Penang’s street Malay, which is unfortunately dead as of now.

Cover of Lazy Lamas and Voodoo Genitalia.

It’s not like Kedah’s Malay; it was a whole different linguistic subculture. Critics get confused because they believe I’m making statements rather than writing poetry. To me, whenever one puts pen to paper, one is indeed making a statement.”

Latif has obviously seen the passing of a generation that brought great changes to the way in which Malaysian arts are performed and conceived. He precises that his work “has always been a statement against perceiving our society as superior to others, because over the years we have seen a decline in the openness of the Malay mind. Poetry is my attempt to say that it’s not all about an intellectual tradition, but cross-pollination, the proverbial unity in diversity. The coming of (former Prime Minister) Mahathir has taken away from us the re-flowering of our society that was initiated in the 1950s.

“I write my books to remind people of the past, because I know well that if I had written similar stuff in the 1960s or 1970s, people would have just said, ‘here’s another artist doing exactly what others were already doing’. But today it’s very worthwhile doing, because Malaysian poetry has been marginalised.”

Cover of Jampi Jentayu.

I assume that Latif is also referring to the modern Malaysian youth’s loss of social and political values. “I can’t compare the youth today to the post-Berkeley movement, or to the Baling riots,” he says. “The problem with today’s youth is that they don’t have a frame of reference; the school system doesn’t give them one, and families are caught between keeping up with conservatism and adapting to modernisation and globalisation. One very strong anchor was also taken away by the modification of the school system.”

To Latif, the lack of knowledge and appreciation for the Malay language is the main problem. “In the 1960s, we had classical Malay, Jawi and History of the Malay language. Today, Malays don’t even know that there are only five original Malay words in their own language, and that all the others are borrowings. I blame politics for that,” he continues. “This country wasn’t ready to take the great leap forward, despite Mahathir thinking he could do in a mere 40 years what took other countries three centuries to do. That’s what led to the McDonaldisation of modern Malaysian society.”

I wonder what Latif thinks of today’s Malaysian literature then, and especially of success stories – such as Amir Muhammad’s FIXI – that have exploited Malaysia’s love for globalised Anglo- American popular culture. “The coaching of Malay literature by Amir is a good thing, but it’s essentially a reproduction of foreign models,” Latif says. “That’s how power works: it instils fear in you. In Malaysia, there’s fear of being original. And without knowledge of your own history, you won’t know where you are heading to. I still blame Mahathir for that. He thought that by developing the social structure of Malaysia he could also develop its society. I understand Amir’s intentions, and I believe they are good, but what happens to real original writers, then? There are just a few I consider as such, like Regina Ibrahim, someone who ‘graduated from the streets’ and who Amir, thankfully, has also recently published. She did the Malaysian transgender community a big favour.”

But what is Malaysian authenticity to Latif? “You don’t write because you are good in language or passionate,” he says. “You write because at some point there’s a calling and you are listening. I like to think that it’s some sort of rebirth process. In the 1970s we had things like pop yeh yeh music, which was very original, multi-ethnic and Malaysian, and that’s the main reason why everyone remembers it. But nobody, I’m afraid, will remember Malay punk or pulp fiction in 20 years from now, because that’s not authentic.”

I ask Latif if he has any solution to arts’ globalisation problem, and how Malaysian artists might find their own path. He’s not very hopeful, unfortunately. “Given the damage that has been done to the younger generations in Malaysia, I think it’s too late for a real change,” he says. “We mostly lack a non-urban perspective. I don’t see the Malay countryside coming out much as a space in arts anymore. Malays are too much into being ‘in’, the ‘cool bro’ culture.” On the other hand, Latif believes that “people who gentrify the arts create a lot of in-breeding, because it’s always the same people doing the same things at the same locations. Extending the gentrification process to a wider audience, however, could avoid keeping the arts in the hands of a niche.”

As a final question, I want to know whether or not Latif has any ideas or projects for the future. “I have thought of bringing all my books to a public toilet somewhere in George Town and leaving them there for others to discover and enjoy, free of charge. But you know, the cleaner will arrive first, and maybe take away some, or even throw them all away and ruin my plan. I wouldn’t mind getting groups of young writers and artists together, maybe in a coffee shop somewhere in town, but I don’t honestly know how to create a successful platform for that.”

Notwithstanding the impracticality of using the public toilet for his special purpose, with a bit of luck, hopefully we’ll see Latif coach the young and talented very soon.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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