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Usman Awang - The People's Poet
By Dr Syed Husin Ali

5/12/2001 11:52 pm Wed

Usman Awang - The People's Poet

By Dr Syed Husin Ali

Usman Awang looms very high in any conversation, writing or study on modern Malay literature. Also very well-known as Tongkat Warrant, he used about a dozen non-de-plumes to write poems, dramas, literary criticism and even a series of essays on Malay courtesy (budi bahasa), especially in the earlier part of his career. But almost all of his outstanding poems were written under Tongkat Warrant, while his views on Malay courtesy were usually expressed, most appropriately, under the pseudonym Manis.

Usman is popularly considered, and most justifiably too, as perhaps the best poet in the Malay language. Most important, he is accepted without question as a people's poet. Writing since 1955, Usman did not produce a very large corpus of poetry, only about 200 of them. But the man, his personality, his poetry and his ideas have a much deeper and wider influence than that number would suggest. Much of his poems are simple, clear, oftentimes romantic, and just beautiful. He is a master at weaving words into striking phrases, sentences and verses that are of exceptional classical beauty and sometimes appear to be nostalgic and even escapist.

Although the forms of Usman's aesthetic creations are strongly traditional, yet in content they express many ideas and ideals that are very modern. Usman is deeply against feudal and colonial domination which in his view strangles freedom and progress. Particularly in the early part of his career he strongly opposed poverty, which he saw as the product of exploitation; and he deeply empathised with the desire and attempts to alleviate the conditions of the disadvantaged and the marginalised. He was against class, ethnic and gender discrimination, and in his own artistic way he always fought for equality, inter-social harmony and national unity. He was against war and always longed for universal peace. All of his emotions and ideas on these matters are effectively expressed in his writings, not just his poetry.

In two cases, Usman combined both poetry and action. The first was when, together with Said Zahari and Tajuddin Kahar, Usman led a long strike to defend Utusan Publications from being taken over by the ruling political party then. During the strike Usman was productive in writing poems about their struggle. The most well known among them is 'Duri dan Api', a title which he used for one of his anthologies. After more than a hundred days, the strike was defeated and almost all the striking staff lost their job. Said was detained in Singapore for 17 years. Secondly, Usman was very supportive of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. He formed and led the Malaysia-Palestine Friendship Association. He was invited to a Palestinian conference led by none other than Yasser Arafat. There he recited his poem in honour of the Palestinian struggle, 'Salam Benua', a title also used for another of his poetry collection.

Because of the ideas expressed in many of his poems, Usman has been considered and even branded as a leftist. But Usman never involved directly with party politics, although he was very politically conscious. Indirectly he was very close to leftist politicians like Ahmad Boestamam, Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) and Lim Chin Siong. He was even supportive of them as well as the parties that they led, like the Partai Rakyat (in Malaya then) and Barisan Sosialis (in Singapore). In fact, for a long time, until his health affected his creative activities, he even acted unofficially as editorial advisor of many of the PRM's publications. But Usman did not reserve his kind help only to his leftist political friends. He was always ready and willing to extend his helping hand to anybody who sought it, including those in or close to government, especially the young burning with aspirations to become a famous writer like him.

Usman's compatriots, young and old alike, love most of Usman's poems. In the fifties, not long after Usman's works appeared in publication, a wave of interest developed, especially in schools and among students, to hold public declamations of Malay poetry. It later spread far and wide to all kinds of literary competitions and cultural functions. Usman's poems, such as 'Bunga Popi' and 'Pak Utih' became prominent features in such declamations. The wave subsided in the seventies and eighties, when there was more emphasis laid on materialistic economic development.

But in the nineties it was revived. Recently, when a government-controlled television featured poetry reading before its prime news time, the first poem recited to inaugurate this short programme was by Usman. It was recited by another well-known poet-novelist and also national literary laureate, A. Samad Said, who regards Usman as one of his earlier mentors. There is no doubt that Usman is not only a people's poet, but also a very popular one. No wonder, a number of his poems has been translated into almost a dozen of foreign languages, including English, Russian, Chinese and Arabic.

As a person Usman is sweet, gentle, sensitive, humorous, kind, hospitable and yet sometimes firm to the point of being recalcitrant. All kinds of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, from school children to senior ambassadors, love to meet and befriend him. And Usman was ever ready to receive and entertain them. He had the help of a most wonderful wife, Hasnah Din, whose delicious cuisine was always a great joy to their guests. In fact they also had the patience to entertain some stragglers, relatives or friends, who came to stay much longer in their hospitable home. I stayed with them for nearly a year when I was an 'unemployed and floating' graduate. So too with poet-artist Latiff Mohidin, some time later. In 1974, when the police was seeking to arrest some students, Hishamudin Rais, Yunus Ali and others sought refuge from Tongkat and Kak Senah, as they were often affectionately referred to. They extended their generosity even when they were facing financial difficulties.

Like his poetry, Usman's personality embodies both tradition and modernity. He is traditional but not conservative, modern but not westernised. He seems to have succeeded to synthesize the good in both. His life and his outlook seems to have been influenced by three main factors, namely, his early background, his immersion into the lower strata of Singapore society, and his close interactions with his colleagues, especially in Utusan Melayu. He was born within a poor rural family in Sedili, near Kota Tinggi, Johor. When still a teenager and during his early twenties, he had served as the military Japanese forced labourer, and also as an office boy and a policeman under British colonial rule. He knew exactly what poverty and the struggle to live really meant.

When he worked in Singapore, he was immersed into the predominantly proletarian Malay society there. He became one with their desire and attempts, as a minority group, to survive colonialism and struggle for freedom and progress. In Utusan Melayu, where he worked and interacted with many, particularly A. Samad Ismail, who were involved in the fight for independence and social justice through that well-known newspaper, Usman matured as a man, an intellectual and a literary figure. There is no doubt that, when his economic life improved a great deal during his stay in Kuala Lumpur, Usman was not as actively involved with left politics, which anyhow had declined in the eighties and nineties. But he remained committed to his former ideas and ideals.

I know that some of his friends were very disappointed when Usman wrote and read a poem in praise of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1995. But at that time, he and many of his former leftist friends too, were enthused by Mahathir for adopting apparently firm position against neo-colonialism and taking up the just cause of Palestine. Mahathir was echoing forty years too late what the left had fought for, and for which many were accused of mouthing so-called pro-Communist slogans and as a result some were jailed under the ISA. In this poem, Usman praised Mahathir for his rather progressive stand on certain international issues. Actually, long before this, Usman had also written poems dedicated to Ahmad Boestamam, Hasnul Hadi. Said Zahari and Dr M.K Rajakumar, following their detention without trial under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA). There is nothing special in Usman's praise for Mahathir.

When Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as DPM and Deputy President of UMNO, Usman was dumbfounded. He immediately visited Anwar to express his deepest concern and sympathy. He planned to compile an anthology of poems in honour of Anwar. Actually there had been a long and special relationship between the poet and the politician. When Usman was recovering from his bypass surgery, Anwar and Wan Azizah visited him. Usman arranged to take a group photograph of his family with them. For a long time the photograph of the group decorated the lounge in his house. When Usman became less mobile, he transferred the photograph to his own bedroom.

Usman was concerned that his deteriorating health and the slow response from fellow poets were delaying his project. Anyhow, with his determination and the help of Prof Muhammad Haji Salleh, another national literary laureate, and others, Usman managed to produce, under his and S.S. Dino's editorship, an anthology called Dari Derita Bangsa (From the Sufferings of a Nation). It contains works from 21 prominent local poets. The most significant thing is that the anthology is closed by two poems by Usman, 'Jentayu Yang Luka' (Wounded Phoenix), dedicated to Wan Azizah, and 'Saudara Anwar Ibrahim', for the occasion of his birthday.

In them Usman expressed his candid support for their struggle to establish justice, freedom and truth. They were his last poems. I know they came from the very depth of Usman's sincere heart.

3rd November 2001
Petaling Jaya