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Ismail Haji Omar

A Singapore-born Malay writer and pioneer of abstract Malay poetry.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Ismail Haji Omar, better known by his pen name, Noor S. I., is a Singapore-born Malay writer recognised as the pioneer of abstract Malay poetry. His most famous work, Senja (Dusk), is often cited by critics as one of the best pieces of poetry in the Malay-speaking world. In addition to poetry, Noor wrote drama scripts, essays and critiques. Some of the late poet's works were included in anthologies such as Bingkisan Angkatan Baru (1956), Puisi Bahara Melayu (1961), Himpunan Sajak (1969) and Orang Bertiga (1980). He was awarded the S.E.A. Write Award in 1985.

Noor S. I., whose real name was Ismail Haji Omar, was born in Singapore in 1933. He studied at Kota Raja Malay School until Primary Five and went to Arabic school thereafter for two years. Noor's first foray into the literary world was when he was 18. He joined three other youths, A. S. Amin, M. Ghazali and A. Samad Said to form Angkatan Sasterawan ’50 ( a literary movement of the ’50s). It was their goal to use poetry to improve society. During that period, Singapore was a hotbed of Malay literary activities, and the writers were the vanguard of the Malayan independence movement.

Noor's first poetry collection was published in the magazine, Samudera, when he was 18. In 1960, he had his collection of 50 poems, titled Setanggi Waja, published by the Malay Publishing House. The controversial volume was criticised for its unorthodox literary style. Noor's poems were full of symbolism, and reading the poems at face value made little sense. Critics who resented deviations from standard Malay poetry condemned Noor's work. They felt that it was an attempt to destroy the language. Because of this, Noor was given various nicknames that described his tendency to pen abstract poems, one of which was the label "penyajak kabur" or "vague poet".

Despite widespread criticism, Noor continued to write poems in an abstracted manner. He believed that poets were free to write in any form. As a poet in the politically charged years of the late 1950s, Noor said that writing helped shape his thinking. He told Berita Harian in an interview in 1985, "I must be prepared to enter the new era and contribute meaningfully to the new independence."

He contributed by sending poems to magazines, newspapers and literary journals that were willing to publish his works. In addition, his poetry was published in a number of anthologies, including Bingkisan Angkatan Baru (1956), Puisi Baharu Melayu (1961), Himpunan Sajak (1969), Titian Zaman (1979) and Orang Bertiga (1980).

As his body of work grew, Noor continued his involvement with Angkatan Sasterawan ’50, or ASAS ’50 as the literary group came to be known. He was a member of the group’s Poetry Reading Committee, helping to organise the society’s Chairil Anwar Night in 1957. He later became ASAS ’50’s Secretary from 1961 to 1976.

Noor's experimental poetry had its fair share of supporters. One of them was Datuk Hassan Ahmad, the former director of Malay Language and Literary Agency, better known as Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and a fellow "vague poet". He once said, "Poems which appear vague are on closer analysis so full of vitality and ideas that people should make the extra effort to understand them."

Malay language scholar, Dr Liaw Yock Fang, acknowledged Noor's poems as beautiful pieces, especially if read in the traditional way. Dr Liaw said, "His poems have a certain rhyme, with deep meanings that can be interpreted in many ways. They are steeped in symbolism, understood only by those familiar with his works."

By the late 1980s, Noor had written more than 500 poems and contributed to numerous anthologies. His collection of poetry includes Setanggi Waja, Rakaman Roh and Dewi Alam dan Bunga Senja. In addition to poetry, Noor published two anthologies of plays in 1974, Dayang Petani and Mana Bulan, Mana Bintang, and authored literary criticism essay, Sastera Melayu Singapore, Penulis dan Ketukangannya (Satu Pengalaman). In the late 1970s, he took on a position as an editor with book publisher Pustaka Nasional.

Noor received international recognition when he was awarded the S.E.A. Write Award in 1985 for his contributions to Southeast Asian literature. Today, his remain the most thought-provoking poems in the Malay-speaking region. Once derided for his abstract pieces, Noor is now thought of as one of the most celebrated poets in the contemporary literary scene. He passed away in November 1990 from complications arising from diabetes and kidney ailments. He is survived by his wife and three sons.

Timeline

5 Aug 1933

Born in Changi Road, Singapore.

1940 to 1950

Attended Kota Raja Malay School. (c. 1940s)

Attended Madrasah Aljunied. (c. 1949s)

1950

Joined poetry group Sahabat Pena.

Founding member, Angkatan Sasterawan ’50 (ASAS ‘50).

1951

Started writing at the age of 18.

First poem published in magazine Samudera.

1955 to 1971

Member, Poetry Reading Committee, ASAS ’50.

1956

Work was featured in joint anthology Bingkisan Angakatan Baru.

1957

Organising committee member, Chairil Anwar Night, ASAS ’50.

1960

Published anthology of poems Setanggi Waja.

1961

Numerous poetry works featured in joint anthology Sajak-sajak Melayu Baru (Modern Malay Verse).

1961 to 1976

Secretary, ASAS ’50.

1963

Published anthology of poems Rakaman Roh.

Work was featured in joint anthology Sajak-sajak Melayu Baru.

1969

Work was featured in joint anthology Himpunan Sajak.

1971

Work was featured in joint anthology Perintis Sajak-sajak Melayu.

1974

Published anthology of plays Dayang Petani.

Published anthology of plays Mana Bulan, Mana Bintang.

1975

Work was featured in joint anthology Puncak Sembilan.

1979

Work was featured in joint anthology Titian Zaman.

1980

Numerous poetry works featured in joint anthology Orang Bertiga.

1981

Work was featured in joint anthology Puisi-puisi Nusantara.

Two of his essays were published in Esei Sastera Asas ’50.

1985

Awarded the SEA Write Award.

1986

Published anthology of poems Dewi Alam dan Burung Senja.

1988

Published anthology of poems Balada Orang Tersayang.

1990

Authored literary criticism Sastera Melayu Singapura: Penulis dan Ketukangannya (Satu Pengalaman).

26 Nov 1990

Passed away in Singapore at the age of 57.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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