EDITOR'S NOTE: KS Maniam died today (Feb 19), at the age of 78. The respected Malaysian author and academic leaves behind a wife, two children and two grandchildren. Astro Ulagam had the honour of interviewing him in June 2019, when he shared his thoughts on wide variety of subjects.
His words were poignant and powerful, and we are republishing the article here in its original form as a tribute to a great author who helped shape the country's literary landscape and won admiration from far and near.
His writing has been described as having “shaped Malaysian literature”, being about “what it means to be Malaysian”.
He’s been glowingly referred to as “Malaysia’s leading English-language novelist”, with his works being used in Malaysian schools and universities; and the subject of numerous Masters and doctorate dissertations, locally and internationally.
He’s the winner of the inaugural Raja Rao Award, a now-discontinued Indian prize given to writers who’ve contributed to the South Asian diaspora.
But in Malaysia, a country where bouquets and titles are aplenty, and even foreigners like Shah Rukh Khan, Jackie Chan and Ferrari’s Jean Todt have Datukships, KS Maniam may possibly be the greatest Malaysian author to have no official recognition or plaudits for his work.
But, sitting in his modest home in Subang Jaya, Maniam says he couldn’t care less about that.
“I didn’t seek it and at this stage, I don’t even want it.
“I’m honoured not being offered,” he says, adding the real honour is when people write dissertations on his work for their PhDs and MAs.
“They are not only saying, ‘We are interested enough in your work to do our MA and PhD thesis,’ but also, ‘You helped us to get a job.’”
Maniam, the author of numerous plays, novels, short stories and poems, is sitting in his living room which is interesting for one particular reason – it’s crammed with books. He says he has about 2,000, by authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Roald Dahl, Usula le Guin and Malaysia’s Rehman Rashid.
But there’s no TV anywhere in sight. Asked why he doesn’t have one, Maniam’s response is almost contemptuous. He says there’s a family TV upstairs, but that he hasn’t watched TV in years.
His love is books, as it has been for most of the 77 years of his life. Maniam, the son of an estate worker from Bedong, Kedah, published his first work, a poem, 55 years ago, when he was just 22.
Since then, he has drunk deeply from the cup of life – winning a scholarship to train as a teacher in England before coming home to eventually become an associate professor at Universiti Malaya and have numerous stints as a visiting fellow and writer-in-residence in universities locally and abroad.
Read widely, master English to connect to a global worldAs a child of the estates who went from an early Tamil school education to win international acclaim for his English literature, he probably has a greater insight than most into what it takes to rise above one’s circumstances and attain success. Asked for his advice to youngsters, the answer from this teacher and writer isn’t surprising at all.
“Be fully involved in the educative process. That means, not only educated in school or tuition centres. They [students] also have to read very widely on their own and improve their language in so doing.
“That should set them on the path to higher academic levels,” he says.
Maniam is particularly insistent on the need for young Malaysians to master English.
“I’ve been saying this for a long, long time. English connects you to the world. You must know English and also to write well and speak well,” he says.
But regardless of his focus on and passion for the English language, what stands out about Maniam’s work across his five-decade career are his recurring themes of belonging and national identity.
“I think we have become racially divided and I didn’t want that kind of division. I wanted to close the gap and say we all come from the same earth.
“The soil may be slightly different, but not so different. So if the earth is so accommodative to us, why can’t we be accommodative to everybody? Everybody has given something [to this country],” he says.
Think of your nation before race or religion
Maniam says for the country to progress, people need to place less emphasis on their own cultural or racial traditions and embrace a wider, deeper and inclusive sense of being Malaysian.
“When you say ‘agama, bangsa dan negara’ and so on… why don’t you just say negara? Get rid of the other two.
“You’ve got to remove those walls, those mindsets that say ‘Oh he’s Chinese, oh he’s Malay and he’s Indian, and he’s Bangladeshi,’ and so on. If you have been truly contributing to the well-being of the country, then you are Malaysian,” he says.
The writer, who has been in ill-health recently, has not been able to write as much as he would like, saying he has had to put his writing on hold as he doesn’t have the energy to keep up.
But that hasn’t stopped him from releasing a new book, Selected Works, which features excerpts from his novels and short stories, as well as nine previously unreleased poems.
“My dream would be that new readers read just one of these stories and feel moved by it; it stays with them long enough for them to say, ‘Yeah, he changed my character a little bit.’ Then, that’s satisfactory.”
Reflecting on mortality and pondering the question of what he wants to be remembered for, Maniam, the man of words and letters, reverts to type.
“As long as somebody picks up my story or my novel or something like that, that’s a great honour.
“Even though I won’t be there to appreciate it, at least I’ll be there in a different way through my works. The presence will be there.”