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Literary Arts

The People’s Voice: Mohamed Latiff Mohamed

Nazry Bahrawi on the rebel of Singapore Malay literature


Published: 17 Dec 2020

Time taken : >15mins

Jebat has returned.

This powerful phrase can be found in an English translation of our poem of choice, Tekad (Resolution), from our author of choice, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, Hang Jebat is the legendary figure from the classical Malay text Hikayat Hang Tuah who had rebelled against the Sultan of Melaka for executing his best friend Hang Tuah on the unexamined bogus charge of adultery by his rivals. The twist is that Tuah was not quite food for worms but tucked away somewhere safe by the sultanate’s prescient Bendahara, or prime minister.

On learning that his admiral and silat master was still alive, the Sultan granted amnesty to Tuah and commanded him to stop Jebat. Tuah complied, tragically killing his friend after seven arduous days of battle. While Tuah is held as a hero in some circles for his unflinching commitment to traditional Malay values, Jebat can also be viewed as valiant for standing up to an unjust ruler and for his deep loyalty to his friend, as argued by the late Malay intellectual Kassim Ahmad1.

Jebat may be written as a symbol of audacity in Tekad but undeniable parallels can be drawn between motif and author. If we collapse the distinction between the invoker and the invoked, we might say that Jebat has not returned because he had never left in the first place. For Latiff, the pen is his keris. Like Jebat, he wields his weapon of choice to fight against social injustice. Like Jebat, this brazen task he sets out for himself has been detrimental to him. In an interview, he said: 

Sometimes I wonder why I bother staying on and writing about the Malays, fighting for what is right, when it is often unappreciated. It is very hurtful indeed. I tried to stop but I just cannot stop. I still believe it is important to write about and record the injustices and events in a country and community. I hold on to a line in Taha Jamil’s poem that reverberates in my soul—“Yang Berhak Akan Kembali Pada Yang Hak” (“Rights will return to the rightful”).

Mohamed Latiff Mohamed in a 2015 interview2

Viewed from this perspective, Latiff’s unique place within the canon of the literatures of the Malay world, which encompasses Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, is that he articulates the lived experiences of Malay minorities of Singapore that could not be similarly expressed by the Malay literati from these other modern states simply because they are not marginal ethnic groups.

Indeed, his deep sense of affinity for those assailed by the minority condition governed his move to Australia to join his eldest son. Speaking on his resettlement, Latiff raised the possibility of researching and writing about the aborigines down under. He said: “Their history is very like the Malays, being colonised, being made use of and tricked in many ways.”3 This resolve also positions him as an author of world literature, where worlding here denotes the expression of local conditions that speak to the experience of others beyond a writer’s cultural and geographic spheres. For instance, one can say that Latiff is comparable to Lu Xun, the twentieth-century Chinese physician turned author whose literary writings were meant to heal his fellow Chinese citizens of their mental afflictions.

His poem Tekad captures the essence of Latiff’s oeuvre of works despite its brevity. While the English version by Zakaria Ali is cogent, it does not fully capture the aura of the Malay version. In the original, the poem, or puisi, is written as two quatrains with a noticeable pattern of rhyming last words – juga, bangsa, jingga, bermula in the first quatrain, for instance. Even without knowing any Malay, someone with a familiarity of Roman alphabets can read aloud the poem to appreciate its musicality. This lyrical quality of the poem is sadly lost in its English version, signalling to us the onerous challenge of translating Malay poetic forms. As a translator of some of Latiff’s works myself, I can attest to the difficulty of retaining his poetics. At times, one cannot but help to privilege comprehensibility over aesthetics.

The English version also could not fully capture the cultural nuances of the Malay poem unless footnotes were to be employed, which would impede an unencumbered reading of it. Here, the poem references several aspects of a traditional Malay wedding like the inai or henna drawn on the bride’s hands, and nasi pengantin, a specially decorated rice dish that the bride’s family sends to the groom on their wedding day as part of their gift exchange. Were these somehow seamlessly translated by some masterful act of literary manoeuvrings, then the reader might be taken by how Latiff had cleverly transformed a seemingly innocuous milestone event in a Malay person’s life, perhaps his or her most happiest moment, into a call to action. There is no rest for the wretched, not even on their wedding day.

In this poem, we see a complicated artist at work. Latiff was a vice-president of the Singapore-based Malay literary group known as Angkatan Sasterawan ’50, or ASAS ‘50 for short. Established in August 1950 following World War II, the group was premised on the artistic creed of ‘art for society’s sake’ (seni untuk masyarakat). In the Malay world, the ideological battle between this group and their nemesis who pledged to produce ‘art for art’s sake’ (seni demi seni) was probably most intense in Indonesia in the early 1960s when the socialist literary group Lekra embarked on a cultural boycott of artists who had released their Manifesto Kebudayaan, or Cultural Manifesto, arguing for a more expansive view of the arts that need not be always overtly realist or political.

Within this climate of extremes, Latiff the Jebat author is surprisingly centrist. His pursuit of social justice does not preclude beauty in verse. In a 1989 interview, journalist Mardiana Abu Bakar wrote the following of her interview with him:

He says that he is not merely satisfied with kebenaran estetik (aesthetic truth) in his works, although he does agree that aesthetics is important in any literary work.

Mardiana Abu Bakar speaking about Mohamed Latiff Mohamed's literary works4

There is much to admire in the man but like any other author, Latiff’s writings have their limitations. Foremost among this is another ‘translation’ issue but one writ large to mean the reception of his works in contemporary Singapore. Latiff is a man of his times but the times change most pronouncedly in terms of societal norms and what it means to be avant-garde in one’s craft. In his heyday from the time he started writing in the '60s till the early 2000s, Latiff was doubtlessly ahead of his time. Today, some of that cultural radicalism he champions may fall on deaf ears. I was, for instance, struggling with certain assumptions when translating one of his short stories titled Cinta Gadis di Korea about a whirlwind romance between a Malay poet and his Korean guide while attending the World Congress of Poets in Seoul. While the female character is written as a person with agency, the story has issues relating to female representation and the male gaze.

To this end, I had tried to make sense of that struggle alongside the playwrights Nabilah Said and Adib Kosnan in a lecture-performance titled Rasa Sarang staged for Textures 2020 at the Arts House5.  What I had discovered through that process makes for a nice conclusion to this piece. Latiff, to me, is a writer deserving of greater recognition. This, despite the discomfort he brings by way of his graphic details of suffering and pain, or the less than perfect assumptions he unwittingly harbours on passé views of gender relations. To me, his most notable contribution to Singapore is the refusal to condone the view that art is a luxury. Malay literature in Singapore is serious business, and Latiff is its strongest proponent.


Kassim Ahmad. Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah: a general survey of methods of character-portrayal and analysis and interpretation of the characters of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. Vol. 8. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia, 1966.

Handal, Nathalie. “The City and the Writer: A Conversation with Mohamed Latiff Mohamed.” Trans. Annaliza Bakri. Words Without Borders, 28 Jul. 2015, https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/the-city-and-the-writer-in-singapore-with-mohamed-latiff-mohamed. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

Nanda, Akshita. “Singapore is still my home.” The Straits Times, 23 Mar. 2015, https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/singapore-still-my-home. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

4 Mardiana Abu Bakar. “Giving vent to rage in verse.” The Straits Times, 7 Jun. 1989, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19890607- Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

Rasa Sarang: The Translator’s Dilemma, The Arts House, 13-14 Mar. 2020, https://www.theartshouse.sg/whats-on-details/literary-arts/rasa-sarang-the-translator-s-dilemma. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

Contributed by:

Nazry Bahrawi

Nazry Bahrawi is a translator, critic and and academic at Singapore University of Technology and Design. He has translated two Singapore literary prose works from Malay to English, including Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s collection of short stories titled Lost Nostalgia (Ethos Books: 2017).

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