On November 24, Philip Bowring’s book, Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago, published by I.B. Tauris, took home the 2019 Penang Book Prize, which is awarded annually by city magazine Penang Monthly. Bowring also receives RM5,000 in prize money.
Inaugurated in 2017, the Penang Book Prize – the only one of its kind in Malaysia – was previously known as the Penang Monthly Book Prize. The name change in 2019 reflects the category change from fiction to non-fiction.
“Non-fiction has certainly been the right decision judging from the number and quality of books that were submitted by publishers,” says Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, managing editor of Penang Monthly and Executive Director of Penang Institute, in his opening speech.
"This book serves a purpose of making people aware of the history of the region, and to transcend religious and ethnic differences. Here in Penang, we are in a very good position to understand the connection between this region and the world outside."
The judging panel of the Penang Book Prize 2019 consisted of Ooi himself; Gareth Richards, writer, editor, and bookseller, and co-founder of Hikayat; Christine Khor, former director of the Centre for the Arts at the National University of Singapore; and Dr Wong Yee Tuan, historian and senior fellow at Penang Institute.
Zairil Khir Johari, Penang State Executive Councillor and Senior Fellow at Penang Institute, officiated the event and presented the award. “People say a picture paints a thousand words which is true but I would also like to think that a thousand words paint a better picture and in order to put my claim to test, I would proceed to present this speech in exactly one thousand words, it’s 45 already so far!” he exclaims humorously, and continued to talk about the significant role that literature plays in our modern society.
Thirty-two books were submitted for the book prize this year. Eight made the shortlist, and three were chosen from this list as the finalists, based on research quality and effort; narrative skill; originality and uniqueness; potential scholarly effect; potential public effect; and quality of deduction.
Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago by Bowring provides a comprehensive history of Nusantaria, otherwise known as Maritime South-east Asia, the world’s largest and most important archipelago and its adjacent coasts.
“This book serves a purpose of making people aware of the history of the region, and to transcend religious and ethnic differences,” says Bowring in his acceptance speech. “Here in Penang, we are in a very good position to understand the connection between this region and the world outside.
“Going back to 2,000 years ago, this was the key link between India and China. The first group of Romans who went to China came by sea sailing as far as this coast here, and they probably crossed the isthmus into another boat before proceeding to China via Funan in the Mekong Delta and Champa at the Vietnamese coast.”
The ceremony ended with a round table discussion among the judges present to explain the selection process in detail and share the aspirations of the book prize. “Judging of books in itself is a rather dubious process,” admits Ooi, “but I would like to say that why we do have a book prize is not so much to celebrate the best book, but to celebrate good books.
“The judging this time was very tough. It was a split decision for the first time in the prize’s history, there were three very good books and in the end, we chose the winner through a polling system.”
“Getting the winner is very difficult,” agrees Richards. “We also have a set of criteria which included not only originality, but also readability which was a very strong element in our discussions. We felt that books may have academic depth or display wide range of meanings, but they have to transform that into a book that engages successfully with the wider public.”