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Literary Arts

Muhammad Ariff Ahmad

Writer and educator recognised as Singapore's "father of Malay linguistics"

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Published: 22 Nov 2021


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My writing is very much social commentary. All my life, my writing has been social commentary. Culture builds mankind—that is my overall theme. But I try not to be didactic. I just deliberate on the problem, hopefully opening minds and making people aware of their choices, but allow the reader to decide.

Narratives: Notes on a Cultural Journey. 2002.

Muhammad Ariff Ahmad (aka MAS) was known as Singapore's "father of Malay linguistics" (The Straits Times). A pioneering bahasawan (linguist), budayawan (culturalist) and award-winning sasterawan (writer), he co-founded the Malay-language literary association Angkatan Sasterawan ’50 in 1950. The Malay-language educator’s works of social commentary spanned literary genres including poetry, short story, novel, children's and educational literature, essay and drama. He received the S.E.A. Write Award and the Tun Sri Lanang Award in 1993. In 1987, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature in Singapore. Cikgu Ariff passed away in Singapore at the age of 91 on 23 March 2016.

Born in 1924 in Singapore, Muhammad Ariff Ahmad grew up in several parts of Singapore, including Newton Road, Dunearn Road, Tiong Bahru and Henderson Road. It was through a chance encounter that he started going to school at the age of eight. A teacher, Cikgu Rahim, of the Tanglin Besar Malay School saw him playing a game of rounders with his friends at the front compound of a religious teacher's house at Malcolm Road. Cikgu Rahim then brought him to his school. The next day, Muhamad Ariff's parents came to the school with him to make his enrolment official.

At the Tanglin Besar Malay School, Muhammad Ariff developed a love for painting, reading and writing. He was a scout and wrote for the magazine Scouting for Boys. In Primary Three, he received his first writing award when he won a writing competition. The prize was five cents, but, more importantly, the experience was the first validation of his fledgling writing career.

When he subsequently attended Tanglin Tinggi Malay School from 1938 to 1940, he had begun writing more seriously, with the dream of becoming a full-time writer. But his father preferred that he teach, and upon graduation, he started working as a Malay Language teacher, a job he would retain until 1959.

When World War II hit Singapore, Muhammad Ariff attended the Syonan Nippon Gakuen and Sihan Gakko Japanese schools during the Japanese Occupation. To supplement his family's meagre income, he did odd jobs, sold kampong vegetables and was involved in the black market business and gambling dens at the Great World Amusement Park. He also continued writing. Appalled by the social conditions and injustices he witnessed during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, he started using his writing as a tool of protest.

When the war ended, he was selected among 15 trainee teachers to enrol at the Sultan Idris Teachers' Training College in Perak, Malaya in 1946. He graduated in 1949 with a teaching diploma. He continued writing actively and, in 1950, together with other idealistic Malay writers, co-founded the Angkatan Sasterawan '50 (Asas ’50) (Singapore Writers’ Movement ’50), which became among the earliest registered Malay-language literary associations in post-World War II Malaya.

Founded with the motto "Seni Untuk Masyarakat" (The Arts For The People), Asas ’50 became, over the decades, instrumental in shaping the development of modern Malay-language literature in Singapore and Malaysia. It championed independence for the Malay community in the ’50s and the use and development of the Malay language. It helped to establish Rumi (romanised) script as the main written script for the Malay language in Singapore and Malaysia, gaining Malayan literature a much wider readership. It also nurtured aspiring young Malay-language writers, providing opportunities for readings, forums, discussions, publishing and other support.

Muhammad Ariff himself became a linguistics and cultural powerhouse. He was the association's president from 1950 to 1981, its advisor from 1982 to 1993, its president again from 1994 to 2001, and has since become its honorary lifetime president. Meanwhile, he worked as a Malay Language lecturer at the Teachers' Training College at the National Institute of Education from 1959 to 1979. He then became an editor of publications for several government organisations such as Majis Ugama Islam Singapura’s (MUIS) Warita, Ministry of Education’s Mekar, and Sekata. He also became a specialist writer in Islamic Religious Knowledge for the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore in the Ministry of Education and a drama and documentary scriptwriter for Singapore Malay-language radio and television during the late ’80s.

Most notably, he became an important Malay-language writer. In the ’40s and ’50s, he wrote mainly fiction inspired by events of the times such as life during the Japanese Occupation and the nation's call for independence. During Singapore's early independence, his writings reflected the Singapore Malay community's concerns about its place in the rapidly changing socio-political landscape and encouraged solidarity among citizens. Subsequently, as Singapore developed its post-independence identity, he started writing more about Malay culture, language and heritage, touching on current social issues as well as recounting the past. He wove scenes of past Malay community life into many of his stories to preserve their collective memories for younger generations.

Written in Rumi script—except for two in Malay-Arabic or Jawi script—and spanning a wide range of literary genres including poetry, short story, novel, children’s and educational literature, essay and drama, Muhammad Ariff's writings were social commentaries that depicted a community's history and concerns through the decades.

Muhammad Ariff received many accolades over his writing career, including two National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Awards in 1990 and 1994, and the Southeast Asian Writers Award and the inaugural Tun Sri Lanang Literary Award by the Malay Language Council of Singapore in 1993. In 1987, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature in Singapore.

In addition to his teaching and writing career, Muhammad Ariff also contributed to the community, serving on the boards of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and the Syariah Court under MUIS. He also served as chairman of the Malay Community Committee and as advisor to Malay Village Pte Ltd. He has spoken at several conferences and forums on Malay language and culture in Southeast Asia.

Muhammad Ariff continued to promote greater understanding of Malay language, culture and heritage, and reflect on current social issues as a columnist with Berita Harian and Berita Minggu. He passed away at the age of 91 in Singapore on 23 March 2016.

Timeline

6 Dec 1924

Born in Singapore.

1933 to 1937

Attended Tanglin Besar Malay School.

1938 to 1940

Attended Tanglin Tinggi Malay School.

1940 to 1959

Malay Language teacher.

1943

Attended Syonan Nippon Gakuen and Sihan Gakko.

1946 to 1949

Attended Teachers' Training College, Perak, Malaysia. Graduated with Diploma in Teaching.

1947 to 1979

Member, Kesatuan Guru-guru Melayu Singapura.

1950

Founding member, Angkatan Sasterawan ’50 (Asas ’50).

1950 to 1981

President and Secretary, Asas ’50.

1957

Selected work – Sarah Pengarang Kecil (novel).

1958

Selected work – Siapa Sangka (novel).

1959 to 1979

Malay Language teacher, Teachers' Training College, National Institute of Education, Singapore.

1962

Selected work – Mari Kita Bermesyuarat (non-fiction).

1964

Selected work – Sembilan (short story).

1965

Obtained Malaysian Certificate of Education as a private candidate.

1966

Selected work – Adam Kena Hujan (play).

1972

Selected work – Menangkap Perompak Minigang (novel).

1973

Selected work – Pipi Kirinya Bercalar (novel).

1975

Selected work – Mail Mau Kahwin (novel).

Received Literary Award for his essay from The Joint Committee of Literary Awards.

1976

Received Literary Award for his novel, Mail Tak Mau Kawin, from Central Council of Malay Cultural Organisations or Majlis Pusat, which took over from the Joint Commitee of Literary Awards.

1977

Member, Board of Appeals, Syariah Court, MUIS, Singapore.

1977 to 1988

Editor of Majis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) publication Warita, Singapore.

1979 to 1981

Editor of Ministry of Education publication Mekar, Singapore.

1980 to 1988

Board member, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.

1980

Received Pingat Bakti Setia (Long Service Award) from the Singapore Government.

1981

Treasurer, Local Council of Mosques, Singapore.

1982 to 1993

Advisor, Asas ’50.

1983

Selected work – Panduan Tatabahasa Melayu (editorial).

1983 to 1987

Specialist writer, Islamic Religious Knowledge, Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, Ministry of Education.

1984

Received Jasawan Budaya from Majlis Pusat, Singapore.

1984 to 1985

Selected work – Siri Mestika Bahasa (editorial).

1987

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to literature.

Received Jasawan Persuratan from the Singapore Malay Journalists Association (PWM).

Received Jasawan Guru from the Singapore Malay Teachers Union (KGMS).

1988

Scriptwriter, Mestika Pustaka, Warna-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.

Selected work – Jangan Tak Ada (poetry).

Selected work – Siri Mestika Bahasa (editorial).

1990

Received National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for poetry for Jangan Tak Ada.

Selected work – Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa (non-fiction).

Selected work – Aktif Bahasa Melayu (editorial).

1990 to 1999

Received Anugerah Jasa Cemerlang from MUIS, Singapore.

Chief Editor, Sekata.

1991

Received Anugerah Jasa Cemerlang from MUIS, Singapore.

Selected work – Dinamika Budaya (non-fiction).

1992

Selected work – Resan dan Kesan (non-fiction).

1992 to 1994

Selected work – Bahasa Melayu Aktif (editorial).

1992 to 1999

Chairman, Malay Community Committee, which assesses the eligibility of Malay political candidates.

1992 to 1999

Member, Majlis Bahasa Melayu Singapura.

1992 onward

Advisor, Malay Village Pte. Ltd., Singapore.

1993

Received S.E.A. Write Award.

Received inaugural Tun Sri Lanang Literary Award, Malay Language Council of Singapore.

Selected work – Bicara tentang Adat dan Tradisi (On Customs and Traditions), a non-fiction publication.

Selected work – Madah Zhuang Zi, a translation of Zhuang Zi’s Sayings.

Selected work – Everyday English, Mandarin, Chinese & Malay Conversation (editorial).

1994

Received National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for non-fiction for Bicara Tentang Adat dan Tradisi.

1994

Selected work – Tinggal Landas ke Abad 21 (Take Off to 21st Century), a non-fiction publication.

Selected work – Strategi Berperang, a translation of Art of War.

Selected work – Kamus Ringkas (Concise Dictionary).

1994 to 2001

President, Asas ’50, Singapore.

1995

Received Hadiah Persuratan (Distinction for non-fiction) from Majlis Bahasa Melayu Singapura (the Malay Language Council Singapore).

1996 to 2000

Scriptwriter, Indah Bahasa, Radio Singapore International.

1997 onward

Board member, The Malay Heritage Foundation, Singapore.

1998

Selected work – Syarifah (novel).

1999

Received Anugerah Pendeta (the Sage Award) from Majlis Pusat, Singapore.

2000

Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

Advisor, Serambi Warisan column, Berita Harian, Singapore.

2001 onward

Honorary Lifetime President, Asas ’50, Singapore.

2002

Received Anugerah Suluh Budiman (Exemplary Scholar) from his alma mater, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, Malaysia.

2003

Lyricist, Bahasa Menjunjung Budaya for Bulan Bahasa (Malay Language Month), Singapore.

Selected work – Memoir Perjalanan MAS, published by Majlis Pusat.

2005

Received Anugerah Kencana (Gold Award) from Asas ’50 in conjunction with the latter’s 50th anniversary (belated by 5 years).

2006

Received honorary Doctor of Literature from his alma mater, Sultan Idris Teaching University (UPSI).

Selected work – Nilam – a book on Malay culture, published by Majlis Pusat.

2010

Received Nilam Jauhari (the Great Connoisseur) from Asas ‘50, Singapore.

2011

Selected work – Mutiara Bijaksana (Pearls of Wisdom) – an anthology of essays on Malay virtues based on proverbs, published by Asas ‘50, Singapore.

2013

Received Bapa Mithali Perdana (Distinguished Exemplary Father) from the Singapore ‘Ain Society.

23 Mar 2016

Passed away at the age of 91 in Singapore.

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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