Non-Malay among 5 in running for coveted Sasterawan Negara title?

Jong Chian Lai, Dinsman, Faisal Tehrani, Azmah Nordin and Latif Mohidin, whose names are believed to be in the running for the next Sasterawan Negara award.

KUALA LUMPUR: A non-Malay novelist, a pro-Pakatan Harapan (PH) writer and a banned author are among five candidates in the running for the Sasterawan Negara award, according to people familiar with the nomination process for Malaysia’s most prestigious literary title.

FMT has learnt that the country’s national language authority, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), has narrowed down nominations to the five names after months of deliberation.

According to a source, the selection panel headed by prominent academic Salleh Yaapar has already submitted its choice to Education Minister Maszlee Malik, who has to get the consent of the Agong. It is not known if Maszlee has approved the panel’s choice.

When contacted, DBP refused to divulge details of the candidate.

“We are still in discussion,” a spokesman said when contacted.

It is understood that the shortlisted nominees include Sarawakian novelist Jong Chian Lai, who received the state-level National Literature Award in 1994.

But Jong’s chances of becoming the first non-Malay recipient of the award are slim.

“He has not been active in the literary field for several years,” the source told FMT.

Also in the running are Che Shamsudin Othman, better known as Dinsman, and Faizal Musa who writes under the pen name Faisal Tehrani. Both writers have been active over the years and are known as social critics.

While Dinsman has openly shown his political loyalty to PH leaders through his writings, Faisal’s works have not sat well with religious authorities. The previous government banned seven of his titles, claiming they were promoting Shia Islam, the Islamic school of thought frowned upon by Malaysia’s conservative Sunni scholars.

Poet and novelist Baha Zain (left) receiving the Sasterawan Negara award in 2013 from then-Agong Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah. (Bernama pic)

Like Dinsman, Faisal, who is attached to the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, has also won several literary awards. However, he is seen as controversial due to his non-conventional views on Malay history, a topic on which he has written extensively in dozens of research papers.

The same source told FMT that Faisal’s no-holds-barred approach and his “revisionist” writings on Malaysian history may not favour him.

“Faisal is a very prolific writer. He also has the rare achievement of his works penetrating the difficult Indonesian market,” the source said.

“But his creative method of questioning the social and religious norms of the Malays may not favour him for the Sasterawan award.”

Last year, Faisal, who also writes a popular weekly column on FMT, was summoned by the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), the group tasked by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad with getting feedback on reforms.

Two other candidates shortlisted for the Sasterawan Negara title are Kedah-born Azmah Nordin and Latif Mohidin, a poet and painter known for his works on contemporary art.

“But some panel members tasked with the selection process feel that the title this time should go to a non-poet. As such, Latif is an unlikely candidate,” the source added.

It said Latif has not been vocal on current issues affecting the country, either, which would usually boost one’s chances of getting recognition in the literary world.

As for Azmah, the source cited a controversy over her book “Pantai Kasih”, which was adapted as required reading for the Malay Literature syllabus in secondary schools.

Three years ago, the novel received criticism over its contents which some found to be bordering on pornography.

The Sasterawan Negara title was last announced in 2015, when poet Zurinah Hassan was named as the first female national laureate since its inception in 1981.

Past recipients of the title represent a who’s who of writers and literary activists including the late Shahnon Ahmad and Usman Awang, and activist-poet A Samad Said.