Affectionately known as Cikgu (teacher in Malay), retired lecturer Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, 89, is a literary lion in the Malay community, the authoritative voice on its language, literature and culture. His expertise led him to help late composer Zubir Said craft the lyrics of Singapore's National Anthem.
A prolific and award-winning author and poet, he received Singapore's highest literary honour, the Cultural Medallion, in 1987.He tells Maryam Mokhtar how the experiences in his growing-up years, including the Japanese Occupation, and teaching career influenced his writing, thinking and outlook on life.
When did you start thinking of being a writer?
As a young boy, I would read Malay magazines and dream of being a storyteller. I was especially drawn to the way poems were written. Every word has a connotation beyond its meaning. It goes deeper than prose.
What experiences in your growing-up years led you to be a writer?
In 1936, I was in Primary 3 at the now-defunct Tanglin Besar Malay School. I am not sure if my teacher really liked to teach the way he did or if he was simply slacking off, but he held a storytelling competition in class.
I won and the prize was five cents, which was a lot in those days. I split it with my younger brother because between us, we got three cents each day to spend in school.
Another influential force was when I was in the Boy Scouts. The short stories I wrote were turned into sketches and performed at campfires. That encouraged me to tell more stories.
What was the story that won you five cents?
I named it Mat Jamin, a twist on a folk tale about Mat Jenin, who daydreamed about making money while picking coconuts from the treetop. He fell down and died.
For me, that was not a constructive tale, so I changed his name to "jamin", which means "to guarantee" in Malay. Whatever he did would guarantee how he turned out. But at the same time, I did not agree with the Malay saying that one can never get more than what has been provided.
That was negative because if you are given flour, you can make goreng pisang, sell them and go on to have a small business.
So with Mat Jamin, I gave him five cents, he buys things, sells them and makes 10 cents. So who says five cents can't turn into 10 cents?