A copy of the Chahayah Pulau Pinang newspaper published by Criterion Press in Penang. Photo: National Archives
THE HISTORY OF printing began in Penang on March 1, 1806 when Andrew Burchet Bone, a publisher who had immigrated to Penang from Madras1,2 started the weekly Government Gazette. By 1844 however, published works by the British had slowed to a trickle, which allowed for the printing and publishing industry to be taken over by the local communities, of Malays, Indians, Chinese and others.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, the small island at the southern tip of the Peninsula, the Malay book trade burgeoned, supported by the rise of an educated Malay community. The spread of Malay journalism from Singapore to Penang brought with it seeds that soon grew to become a diverse array of Malay newspapers, religious periodicals, literature and entertainment journals.
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What made the publishing scene in early Penang even more interesting was the fact that many of these publishing houses which regularly published Malay language works were Chinese-owned. Criterion Press that printed the Chahaya Pulau Pinang newspaper, as well as Malay literature such as Hikayat Cindur Mata, was established by a Fujian native, Lim Huan Chiam.
The publishing infrastructure in Penang not only gave way to a literary sphere that was thriving but also triggered a proliferation of newspapers, magazines and literary works. Many big names on the Malaysian writing scene were writers based in Penang, such as Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi, Za'ba and Abdul Rahim Kajai.3
Dozens of newspapers and magazines were indeed founded between 1894 and 1940, contributing to public engagement in various aspects of modern life. Penang’s relevance as an important pre-war literary hub dipped following World War II, however, and many publishing houses soon shuttered their doors to relocate to KL. This loss may not have been mourned deeply or publicly, but its effects were evident in the dwindling of literary works being produced in Penang. The habits of reading and writing among its people have greatly deteriorated, as demonstrated by the gradual closure of one bookstore after another.
Izzuddin Ramli, the editor of Suara Nadi.
Repositioning Penang as Malaysia’s Literary Hub
In December 2020, Penang Institute, whose primary goals include providing avenues for intellectual discussion on current issues as well as nurturing and encouraging interest in Penang’s literary pursuits, launched Suara Nadi, a bi-monthly Malay-language publication.
Distinctive in style and form, editor Izzuddin Ramli describes Suara Nadi as “the kind of writing that people seek out when they are tired of reading the news.” The essays under Suara Nadi discusses through personal reflection and opinion current socio-political issues, history, etc. Import is placed on the writer’s voice and diction, rather than the subject matter. For example, Muhammad Haji Salleh’s piece Berumah di Permatang Sawah about his bucolic childhood growing up in the paddy fields of rural Penang is more narrative than expository in writing style.
A copy of the Idaran Zaman, a weekly newspaper that was published in Penang in the 1920s. Photo: National Archives
In English, Suara Nadi translates directly to “the sound of the pulse”, and is meant to analogise the idea of a populace being the pulse of a country, capturing and celebrating the different voices and stories of Penang’s social heterogeneity.
In a larger context, Suara Nadi also aims to catalyse important intellectual discussions among Malaysians and particularly, the people of Penang. It participates in discourses that challenge, question and re-evaluate commonly held narratives and traditions. Although not intended to solely target the Malay population, the publication hopes to connect in significant ways with the Malay-speaking audience in Penang.
More than that, Suara Nadi aspires to produce writings that are relevant, enjoyable and stimulating to the general public regardless of race, creed or culture. In response to challenges arising from the ever-shorter attention span of people nowadays, the publication keeps its language concise, and hopes that its podcast channel, which is being launched soon, will become another way to spark intellectual conversations.
Izzuddin believes in learning from history to navigate the present. The intellectual milieu of Penang once drew to its shores authors, intellectuals and reformists, both locally and internationally, who were in search of an amniotic refuge where ideas, thoughts and processes could incubate, be refined and executed. In remembering the exciting amalgamation of cultures, ideas and dialogues during Penang’s heyday as a literary and intellectual hub, it is easy to imagine what it is that Suara Nadi desires to revive.
Interested readers are welcomed to contribute their writings to email@example.com.
To read the latest Suara Nadi, follow Penang Institute’s social media @penanginstitute or visit www.penanginstitute.org.
Sheryl holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.