08 May 2011

Burgess Provokes Malaya: Religion, Ethnicity & Culture


www.kopihangtuah.blogspot.com



"....it breaks all boundries of taboos we Malaysians are so sensitive of. It is very offensive but yet hilarious. It mocks the ethnic groups, religions and culture that exist in Malaya and somewhat provoke the differences in society that not only exist back then (dawn of independence) but remains apparent in the Malaysia we live in today. In short, it is 'Rude' and 'Liberating' (in the Malayan context)"

Title: The Malayan Trilogy (1972)
- Time for a Tiger (1956)
- The Enemy in the Blanket (1958)
- Beds in the East (1959)


Author: Anthony Burgess
Genre: Historical Fiction
ISBN: 9780749395926
Publisher: Vintage (2000)
Original Publisher: Penguin Books (1972)




".. Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy is marvellous, worthy of being called a classic" quoted by Salman Rushdie

alman Rushdie, a very controversial writer who played with fire (ie. Religious critism and mockery) commented "Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy is marvellous, worthy of being called a classic". Of course for someone who ridiculed religion, especially Islam, would appreciate the work of another, that also ridiculed an established way of life. In this case, Anthony Burgess, an officer in the Colonial Services of Malaya, who was earlier a teacher in the Malay College of Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), managed to do it on a multi-aspect of the Malayan life and across the multi-ethnic landscape of Malaya at the dawn of its independence from the British rule. Indeed, Burgess's work in The Malayan Trilogy is worthy of being criticised by the general public in Malaya (now known as Malaysia), especially by the ethnic Malays; not so much because of offending, but because of his boldness in potraying what seemed to be the truth but exaggerated to the extent that raises eyebrows of readers.

"The Malays call themselves 'the sons of the soil' and consider that they are the only rightful inhabitants of the Malay peninsular. Political rule is totally in their hands, but they show little talent for industry and commerce. These activities, as well as the running of offices and railways, have traditionally and gladly been assumed by immigrants from China and India. The wealth of Malaya was always in the hands of the Chinese, Tamil, Bengalis and Sikhs. But Malaya has to be accepted as a Multiracial territory.... "

The Malayan Trilogy is a combination of three books by Burgess. It dissects the racial and social prejudices of Malaya that consists of many significant ethnic groups namely Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians via the adventures and journeys made by a fictitious British character, Victor Crabbe, during his stay in Malaya. It is believed that the story of Mr Crabbe mimicks the life story of Burgess himself, a British officer who struggled through his life, his youth, his marriage, his career, his believes and his sanity in assimilating into the way of life in Malaya.

Burgess, in his attemp to describe the economic status of the different ethnic group wrote: "The Malays call themselves 'the sons of the soil' and consider that they are the only rightful inhabitants of the Malay peninsular. Political rule is totally in their hands, but they show little talent for industry and commerce. These activities, as well as the running of offices and railways, have traditionally and gladly been assumed by immigrants from China and India. The wealth of Malaya was always in the hands of the Chinese, Tamil, Bengalis and Sikhs. But Malaya has to be accepted as a Multiracial territory...."

Burgess also mentioned the term 'Tidak Apa' which he described as being more than its mere literal meaning of 'It does not matter' or 'who cares?'. These words, to Burgess, were something indefinable and has satisfying feel about it, implying that the universe would carry on, the sun shine, the durians fall whatever anybody said or did. So was the attitude of the Malays with respect to their country, their race and their wealth, but not their religion.

Crabbe's adventures revolved around the state of Lanchap (Masturbate), the town of Kuala Hantu (Delta of Demons), the town of Tahi Panas (Hot Manure) and the town of Kenching (Urinate).

The character, Crabbe, is typical of a British officer who didn't see any point of going back to Great Britain after experiencing a whole lot of his life episodes defining himself to be a Malayan instead of English. A 'Malayan', to his believe, means anyone, regardless of the ethnic background, and regardless of a pre or post independence administration, who has the passion to work with the people of the land for the betterment of the lives of the people. In his quest to assume such nobility, he encountered challenges of a real life prejudice: between ethnic groups and between religions.

Crabbe was also caught in his own inner demons of betrayal against his wife, against capitalism and against the love for England. His extra-marital activities which cost him his marriage complicate his life further. His early support for communism back fired him when he had now embraced capitalism. His passion for England has now gone extinct only to give him pleasure in remaining in Malaya for the rest of his life.

Travelling from one state to another, Crabbe ascended from being a school teacher, to a headmaster and to a colonial officer for the education sector. He befriended many Asians, Asians who themselves are as confused as Crabbe in their interpretation of culture and religion. This chaotic mingling of people from different ethnic groups that exist in Malaya only gave opportunity for Crabbe (or Burgess) to describe them with full of mockery; to religion and ethnicity.

Many characters in Crabbe's story, to certain extent, may have been the truth of the scenario back then during the pre-independence and the immediate years post-independence of Malaya. Only those who have lived the life back then can vouch how much of such stories have been exaggerated: the Malays who are fighting for their land and demands every single English blood to leave the country. The Chinese who are opportunists riding on capitalism accumulating wealth at the expense of anything. The Indians, and the Punjabis, who acted as the Gestapos for the British via the police ranks.

Remainings of the anti-Japanese troops, mainly Chinese, who now live in the jungle embracing communism. A Haji who despise non-Muslims for their dogs and pork ribs but enjoys beer so long as it has not made him excessively drunk. Divorced Malay ladies, many of which, seeking marriage with the Whites or ended up being prostitutes alongside their Chinese sisters who came by boat in the name of sex slavery. Confused Eurasians of Asian and Caucasian origins who neither felt any love for mother England nor have sense of belonging to Malaya. You even have the royalties in the palace who are the elitist of the society claiming their rights to almost everything, including wives and properties of others.

Malaya (post-independence), the land of diversity that promises everyone a life beyond expectations, in comparison to their land of origins (in the case of immigrants), and to the pre-independence era (to the Sons of Soil, the Malays and the Indigenous).

And of course, you have the colonial masters (Whites) themselves who are about to lose their entitlement as the 'Tuan' in the beloved land of Malaya. All these characters give life to the adventures of Mr Crabbe. It showed the diversity of the people of the country but not without the challenges of co-existing together. It is chaos within order: Just like the infamous Malayan dessert "Ice Kachang" or "Air Batu Champor" where ingredients mingled without any systematic manners but yet gives the full flavour of what they collectively represent. Malaya (post-independence), the land of diversity that promises everyone a life beyond expectations, in comparison to their land of origins (in the case of immigrants), and to the pre-independence era (to the sons of soil, the Malays and the Indigenous).

Burgess, like any other authors, is also not excluded from incorporating humour in his writing. Apart from the characters created in the book, he also renamed some of the Malayan towns to Malay words which, to entities foreign to Malaya, would have meant nothing but to Malayan, can offend, or ought to offend them, particularly the Malays. Examples of such names are: (Crabbe's adventures revolved around) the state of Lanchap (Masturbate), the town of Kuala Hantu (Delta of Demons), the town of Tahi Panas (Hot Manure) and the town of Kenching (Urinate).

Overall, this classic masterpiece by Burgess, is highly recommended for all Malaysians (adults) regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnic origin; simply because it breaks all boundries of taboos we Malaysians are so sensitive of. It is very offensive but yet hilarious. It mocks the ethnic groups, religions and culture that exist in Malaya and somewhat provoke the differences in society that not only exist back then (dawn of independence) but remains apparent in the Malaysia we live in today. In short, Burgess's The Malayan Trilogy is 'Rude' and 'Liberating' - in the Malayan context.





* kopihangtuah



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