Father of Modern Malay Literature is an epithet often ascribed to Abdullah bin abdul Kadir Munsyi, a Malay author who lived in Melaka and Singapore during the first half of the nineteenth century.1 two of his works, Hikayat Abdullah (tale of abdullah) and Kisah pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (account of Abdullah’s voyage to Kelantan) are the stories most often singled out as those that form the bridge between traditional and modern Malay writing.
Characteristics of these writings viewed by critics as modern elements are the foregrounding of the authorial self through the use of the first-person pronoun, realistic descriptions of historical events and persons, and harsh criticism of the culture, socio-political structure, and practices of the Malay community (Milner 1995). This conventional wisdom defines traditional literature, in contrast, as anonymous, writers preferring to relate events and persons set in a mythical past of a never-never land, written down and performed for the benefit of a certain ruler. I am not concerned here with whether these views about traditional literature are accurate or whether Abdullah Munsyi’s writings can be viewed as part of what has been termed ‘transitional’ literature (Skinner 1978). Suffice it to say that some of Abdullah Munsyi’s colleagues wrote in a similar vein as the champion of Malay modernity, and traditional Malay writing is a little more complex than may be encompassed in a topos of anonymity and mythical past.Abdullah Munsyi is a controversial figure in the history of Malay writing, and opinions about him have varied through time from the extremes this article is the result of merging two papers I presented in Singapore in 2003 and 2005.
I am grateful to the participants of the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) and Casting Faiths conferences for their comments, and also to the two anonymous referees. Most indebted I am to Ian Proudfoot, and especially Amin Sweeney, for painstakingly going through my text. any errors are of course mine.
Jan van der Putten is assistant professor in Malay Literature at the department of Malay Studies, national university of Singapore. He holds a PHD from Leiden university. His research interests are Malay writing and history. He is the author of His word is the truth; Haji Ibrahim’s letters and other writings, Leiden: research School of Asian, African and Amerindian Studies, 2001 and (with Hans Straver and Chris van Fraassen), Historie van Hitu; Een Ambonese geschiedenis uit de zeventiende eeuw, utrecht: LSeM, 2004. Jan van der Putten may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.