IT would have been the most appropriate time to launch a book on the late Usman Awang, the great national laureate, as the nation was celebrating Malaysia Day.
But the auspicious day, when Malaysians should be celebrating as one nation and one people, was hijacked by the Red Shirt protesters.
There was fear in the air with talk of racial clashes. At a time when we should be out in the streets celebrating, many opted to stay indoors and avoid the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
In the process, a very meaningful occasion was forgotten, if not ignored. In fact, most media organisations did not even bother to report the event. Perhaps they were short-handed, having to use their reporters to cover the protests.
A literary function to celebrate a dead writer would hardly be a priority when thousands were involved in a more dramatic and newsworthy event.
So most Malaysians were unaware that on Malaysia Day, the Usman Awang Foundation launched an anthology of poems on Usman put together by Dr Siti Zainon Ismail, Dr Lim Swee Tin and Dr Syed Husin Ali.
Usman Awang would probably have spoken up against the Red Shirt protest, which smacks of racism, if he were alive.
Yes, he would have undoubtedly supported the right of any group or individual to protest but he would have detested any form of uncouth behaviour.
We cringed when a prominent political figure arrogantly asked whether there was anything wrong with being a racist while a rally organiser defended the right of the protesters to hurl racial abuses at other Malaysians, including non-Malay reporters.
Have we sunk so low that it is now perfectly all right, and even politically correct, to be racist? And is it acceptable to call others names because there seems to be some form of protection for those who do so?
We had a rabble-rouser who made racist remarks, purportedly instigating a mob to act, over a mobile phone theft. And yet we are told there is no case against this serial trouble-maker with a known racist record. How do we explain that?
And what has the street protest got to do with Usman Awang, also known as Tongkat Warrant, who is acknowledged as a great writer, dramatist and poet?
Plenty! Usman Awang tackled issues of class discrimination, not race, and social injustice in the Malaysian narrative.
As a secondary school student, I was so fired up by his works that I signed up to do Malay literature for my Higher School Certificate (HSC) examinations instead of English Literature. I also took Islamic History.
By the time I entered Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, I was fortunate to have been taught by Dr Siti Hawa, one of the contributors to the anthology, who taught me the beauty of the Malay language in the Malay Letters Department.
Teachers like her opened my eyes to how Usman Awang wrote about peasants and labourers oppressed by uncaring leaders. He was able to transcend political and ethnic boundaries in his writings. While the street protesters may have their grievances, they were unfortunately not able to see things beyond the racial perspective.
Dr Wong Soak Koon aptly wrote in Aliran Monthly, which featured Usman, the People’s Poet, on the cover: “Usman Awang’s life-long concern for justice, fair play and for the lot of the oppressed must continue to energise us into action.”
It would be appropriate for us to just read his poem Bisikan Perpaduan (“Unity Whispers”) where he espoused the view that unity involves all the people and not merely one group of people.
His courage is epitomised in the poem dedicated to his friend, Dr M.K. Rajakumar, where he lamented over his own bumiputra status which his good friend did not have.
In the beautifully written Sahabatku, he wrote:
suatu bangsa merdeka yang kita impikan
terasa jauh dari kenyataan
kemarahanku menjadi kepedihan
bila kita dipisah pisahkan
jarak itu semakin berjauhan
aku dapat gelaran “bumiputra” dan kau bukan
The essence is lost when translated into English but this is how it goes:
The one free nation we imagined,
Remains a distant truth,
my anger becomes sorrow,
When we are forced apart
The distance ever wider,
Now that I am proclaimed “bumiputra”
And you are not.
Usman asked, “When will all citizens receive equality, and come to be known with one name: Malaysian?”
While I have never had the privilege of meeting Usman Awang, certainly a true patriot and humanist, I had the honour of meeting the late Dr Rajakumar, certainly a great Malaysian.
In Usman Awang’s 1962 poem titled Anak Jiran Tionghua (Chinese Neighbour’s Child), he wrote of the friendship between Ah Chew and Iskandar:
Anak Tionghua kelahirannya di sini
Di bumi hijau ladang-ladang getah dan padi
Ia bisa bercerita untuk siapa saja
Di sini tanahnya dan ibunya bersemadi
Translated, it reads:
A Chinese child born here,
on this green earth amidst rubber and rice fields
he can tell whoever asks,
this is his land and his mother’s forever
Usman Awang wrote about the Malay race in his poem, Melayu, but he was also someone who understood the importance of pluralism and had advocated Bangsa Malaya even before we achieved independence.
His works have been translated into many languages, including English and Chinese, but it is only when they are read in the original Bahasa Malaysia that one is mesmerised by his work and the beauty of the Malay language.
But more importantly, he was able to rise above race despite his strong sense of nationalism.
It was a pity that a protest in Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Day dominated the front pages of all newspapers and was the main item on television.
Sadder still, a great day dedicated to a great Malaysian through the launch of this anthology was also hijacked.