A sense of history and heritage

EARLY next year I'm hoping to launch rather belatedly a book, an autobiography published in 1982 and revised almost 30 years later in 2011.

Why the bother some will ask since it has already passed its expiry date? Who would be interested in reading the memoirs of a man who is not in the public eye? Why the need to revive an old publication when the author is long gone and the narrative history?

Well, the simple answer is that it is the very elements of history and heritage in the book that make it worth a second run and a second read.

A few things about the book are interesting. First, the author started writing his memoirs on his 71st birthday, long after retirement when he had more time to reflect on his life and remember the significant moments.

This was when there was uninterrupted quiet for long periods to tap painstakingly on the old typewriter and keep the tales coherently organised, the facts correctly referenced and the language meticulously checked.

Second, a memoir written late in life has a much mellower flavour and is richer in its contents. It represents a collection of old world experiences and retrospective insights into the life and times of people from a past era.

Third, it provides the backdrop to much of the old values and traditions and connects it with the new. So to those who are planning to write their life stories, be inspired that it is never too late and that your narratives are indeed relevant.

Dr Mohamed Said: My Early Life will therefore appeal to readers who appreciate the sense of history the book evokes. Set against the background of tiny kampung Linggi at the turn of the 20th century, the first half of the book recounts traditional Malay life with all its vicissitudes and shortcomings, yet filled with the dignity and honour of the folks who inhabit it.

It offers us a glimpse into rural Malay life with its myriad customs and traditions at a time when Malaya was an undeveloped British colony. The author vividly describes the socio-cultural and religious milieu of the era and helps us to understand better the shaping of the psyche of a small community of Malays.

To those unfamiliar with rural Malaya then, the book depicts with much candour and directness the minds and hearts of orang Bugis Linggi in their everyday concerns. It would not be wrong to say that it accurately describes the life of other groups of rural Malays in modern Malaysia today, a century on.

The stories told may be mundane to some and dismissed by others if not for the author's superb use of the English language which makes the writing worth a study in itself.

Perhaps, expressing himself in a neutral language allows the author to remove unnecessary emotional baggage, the yearning (rindu) which accompanies a lot of literary writings in Malay.

Reminiscing the premature death of his father at 35 when he was only five years old, he writes:

"Thus died a father whom I had not yet learned to love, but who, I was later told by my mother, loved me very much. Later as an orphan I gradually began to understand the disadvantage of not having a father to guide me and save me from the humiliation which I felt whenever well-meaning people gently rubbed my head in sympathy over my orphaned state."

One wonders how this matter of factness would have been expressed if the author had written in Malay.

The second half of the book treads on more familiar territory – that of English education from where the author acquired his literary penchant and writing skills.

At 12 years old he was transposed to the world of an elite institution, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, modelled in the tradition of the best boarding schools in England.

It was in this educational environment that rural boys like him were taught by dedicated schoolmasters whose vocation it was to instil in their young students the best learning experiences.

It was in the language and literature classes that his love for reading was nurtured and was translated years later into the desire to write in the best of English styles.

There is no doubt that it was this grounding in an education which stressed the importance of excellence not only in one's academic pursuits but also in character, principles and moral values that bred several generations of outstanding Malayan/Malaysian public servants and professionals.

It was the role models and mentors in the persons of sympathetic and caring relatives and teachers described so vividly by the author that instilled in the young of his generation admirable traits and attitudes.

All in all, a sense of real history and heritage. All in all, a good read.

The writer keenly follows developments in politics, culture and education. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com