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?
Is Mat Jamin a reflection of you?
A little, yes. The point I'm making is to take what is before you and use it to your advantage in life.
I wrote a poem in 1949 which talks about walking to the end until one can no longer walk, a metaphor for life. Although I can't walk now (he uses a wheelchair), people still come to me for advice on the Malay language, culture and literature, so I'm still "walking".
You were a teenager during the Japanese Occupation. Was there an incident that haunts you till today?
Once, I was caught by Japanese troops and put on a lorry to be sent to Siam to build the railway (the infamous Death Railway between Thailand and Myanmar that claimed the lives of about 100,000 men).
But an officer saw a Syonan Tokubetusi Sheicho (government worker's) badge I was wearing. It was given to me by the Japanese who had picked me to teach Japanese to other teachers. I was allowed to go home. If not for that badge, I don't know if I'd have been seen again because of my many friends who were arrested, only one returned alive.
How did the experience influence your outlook on life?
There is no problem I could not somehow overcome. I also do not feel disappointed when I can't solve a problem.
Why did you want to be a teacher?
My father wanted me to be a teacher because it was his dream to be one. Also, a teacher's monthly salary was stable and he felt it could help provide for the family.
I was half-hearted about it but when I entered teacher's training college in Perak in 1946 at age 22, I met kids from the kampung who did not go to school. I was later sent to their kampung to teach and that's where I developed an interest in teaching, from my interactions with these children.
How do you view your contributions to the growth of the Malay language in Singapore?
Till today, even though I can't leave my house, people visit me. Many Malay literature graduates come looking for me, perhaps because I do not only teach them the language but also Malay culture, tradition and literature. These are all connected and intertwined.
We have yet to find someone who is well versed in all three fields today. This is what the Malay language and literature community is working towards.
Why is it important for a language teacher to be well versed in the fields of language, literature and culture?
Literature is the vehicle of culture, culture balances language and language is the soul of a race. The three are interlinked. This is what I have told teachers.
In ancient times, before there was writing, there was already oral literature, in stories with animals, for example, that taught us culture and how it is a way of life. And this way of life became a vehicle for language.
Language is the soul of a nation because it reflects a race. Someone who does not fully understand and speak a language is alive but has no soul.
When did you start getting published and how did it happen?
I returned to Singapore in 1949 to teach and shortly after, the Singapore Malay Teacher's Union chose me to be its secretary-general. My writing took a backseat.
But as a unionist, I wrote short stories or articles with social themes for the union's newsletter. With a stable income from teaching, I was able to spend time writing, some of which was published in Malay newspapers.
Teaching somehow allowed me to pursue my passion so now I cannot say I didn't want to be a teacher. Though I retired in 1979, I felt I was still teaching through my short stories and poems.
What are the underlying themes of your fiction books?
At the root of all my writing is a social critique of whatever I felt dissatisfied with, particularly in the Malay community.
I'd talk about societal problems and suggest solutions. I'd also add an element of humour. I make sure all my works, whether a poem, short story or novel, have humour even as they carry a social message.
Can you elaborate on how you helped late composer Zubir Said write the lyrics of our country's National Anthem?
Pak Zubir had composed a song in 1958 when Mr Ong Eng Guan was Singapore's mayor (Mr Ong had asked Mr Zubir to compose a song with the theme Majulah Singapura, or Onward Singapore, for the re-opening of Victoria Theatre in 1958).
A year later, we achieved self-government. The Government asked for the song to be made into a national anthem. Pak Zubir asked for my views on the lyrics. I told him: Pak, we want to make a national anthem. But our freedom was not like that of Indonesia, which fought the Dutch colonialists to gain independence.
The original lyrics written by Pak Zubir (who was born in Sumatra) were patriotic, sounding as if we had won independence after a great war, like in Indonesia. We didn't have that. We achieved self-government through roundtable talks.
I had written two how-to books at the time - Let Us Hold A Meeting and Let Us Make Poems. So for the lyrics, I suggested "Let us the people of Singapore progress towards happiness together".
You'll notice the lyrics use simple Malay words that many non-Malays then could understand as well. The lyrics are in what I'd call a "national language", with words and tone that let us communicate with all Singaporeans. It is not Malay just for Malays.For instance, the opening line: Mari kita rakyat Singapura. It is four simple words that most could understand as many Singaporeans were then learning Malay.
What is the one guiding principle in your philosophy of life?
There was a poem I wrote in 1949 at Tanjung Malim train station in Perak, where I was waiting to board the train to return to Singapore to be a teacher.
The guard had given the green signal and shouted "Jalan!" (Malay for Go!). As I journeyed to Singapore, I wrote "Walk" on a State Express 555 cigarette box: Walk, walk Walk and walk Do not stop halfway; Walk right to the end Until you fulfil the objective of your walk Or until you cannot walk anymore! This has been my philosophy in my life as I journey towards the end.
Your fall last year has affected your mobility and your ability to write, something you did every day. How do you deal with this painful situation?
To deal with difficulties, I use the philosophy called "suksa" - a combination of the Malay words for gratitude and patience. They work together.
Right now, I am being tested (because of my physical ailments) and so I must be patient. I use these two values to get by in my older years, and am still able to laugh.
You have contributed much to your community, especially in the field of language and culture. What are your thoughts on your legacy?
I cannot assess my own work. For me, life is simple. What I have done, if people like it, that's good.
What I have done so far is, to me, an act of worship to God. God has asked me to do good, and I have tried to.
Now, as a member of the pioneer generation, younger people are honouring us. But to demonstrate their gratitude, they must work hard, improve on the achievements and continue to take our nation forward.
Don't thank us by just saying, "thank you". It is the same with us thanking God. What is the sign of your gratitude? Did you become a philanthropist, were you courteous, considerate and loving? If not, the "thank you" is empty.
If the current younger generation wants to honour the pioneer generation, they should look at how they too can be pioneers in their own lives and not always look for answers in the past.
Celebrated writer, respected educator
A literary giant in the Malay community in Singapore and the region, Mr Muhammad Ariff Ahmad is not letting two accidental falls last year stop him from doing what he loves best: writing.
He uses a wheelchair to get around and is no longer able to write with a pen or type on a computer keyboard. But the 89-year-old taps gently on his iPhone whenever inspiration strikes, storing his ideas in an e-notebook.
An author and poet, Mr Ariff was awarded Singapore's highest literary honour, the Cultural Medallion, in 1987.
Six years later, he took home $5,000 in cash when he won a top Malay literary prize in Singapore, Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang .
He also founded regional Malay language writers' group Asas 50 and has led many conferences on the Malay language.
But it is the almost 40 years he spent in the teaching profession that stand out, as he is widely and affectionately known as Cikgu, or teacher in Malay. He taught Malay in primary and secondary schools for nearly 20 years before moving to lecturing trainee teachers at the then-Institute of Education. He retired in 1979.
His wife Sarinah Haniff, 84, is a retired teacher.
They have two sons and two daughters, between the ages of 49 and 60.
But only the third child, Ms Shahrulbariah, 51, has followed in her parents' footsteps. She is a primary school teacher.
Mr Ariff, a grandfather of six, was born in Singapore in 1924.
He is the second child among two sons and two daughters of a housewife and odd-job worker.
At age 24, he got his teaching diploma in Perak, Malaysia.
This article was published on April 26 in The Straits Times.
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