19 Dec 2014: The Fiction of Colonial Malaya

Fiction colonial malayaThe British Empire is long dead and gone, but the study of its literature remains relevant especially with respect to the elements of neo-colonialism which continues to be present in today’s world. – Mohamad Rashidi Pakri

British colonialism roughly describes the period between the 18th and 20th centuries when Malaya came under British rule. Before surrendering the nation, however, the British wanted to ascertain that their influence and interests would remain intact beyond 31 August 1957. Thus, whatever misgivings one may harbour of the hegemonic colonial thumbprint, one must also, willy-nilly, acknowledge its contributions as well – both the good and the bad. Malaysia therefore ‘benefited’ from colonial legacies such as the education system, economic prosperity, infrastructure and facilities, hill stations, laws and statutes, divisive politics and literature. Mohamad Rashidi Pakri’s study of the latter has been essentialised in a recent academic publication entitled The Fiction of Colonial Malaya. The focus is on four British authors – Frank Swettenham, Hugh Clifford, George William Maxwell and Anthony Burgess. The first three were prominent names to those familiar with colonial history; Burgess’ name, on the other hand, extended beyond colonial territory into contemporary writing (A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers) and music.

According to Mohamad Rashidi, the subject matter of his book, the fiction of colonial Malaya, has curiously never been introduced in any other study, either to the specific Malayan or the mixed-raced Malaysian people, simply because it was never intended for their consumption. His approach to genre as ideology sets the stage for the acknowledgement that the effects of creative writing was, “due to its accessibility and popular appeal, has proved highly prolific as a vehicle of imperialism.” Aside from the unbanning of a book – Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy – and the reprinting of other colonial-era texts, no reason is stated for the assertion that “Malaysians are beginning to claim their colonial past and its literary treasures.” Be that as it may, the timing of the book’s release couldn’t have appeared at a more opportune time, as it paves the way for the ‘re-introduction’ of the featured books to a new generation of post-independence and post-colonial readers in Malaysia and elsewhere.

For those who are already familiar with the works of colonialist writers, this book could serve to further enrich their knowledge and understanding with fresh insight and analyses; even open up new platforms for debates and discussions. For those whose idea of colonial fiction revolves around the likes of Kipling and Maugham, it would serve as a guide and introduction to more obscure works from the nation’s past. Whatever one’s angle of approach, “this highly original and seminal study takes the student and scholar of Malaysian and world literature on a highly stimulating literary adventure.”

The Fiction of Colonial Malaya is available atAreca Books.