Monday, June 4, 2012


Ungku A.Aziz: Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind 

by Dato’ Johan Jaaffar

ROYAL Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid is one of the greatest minds the country has ever known. He is also a man of many achievements, to name one, he is the first recipient of the Merdeka Award in the education and community category in 2008. His interest in all things literary is legendary.

He was obsessed with the Japanese haiku at one point and his latest love is the Malay pantun. Pantun undeniably is the most popular vehicle for the expression of poetic feeling among the Malays. Pak Ungku painstakingly assembled, documented and studied some 16,000 of them over the years. 

He selected 78 to be included in an interesting lecture organised by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and the Malaysian Linguistic Association in 2007 as part of the Raja Ali Haji Lecture series.

I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to write the preface for the book Pantun dan Kebijaksanaan Akal Budi Melayu (Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind) based on the lecture published by DBP. It was a labour of love for me knowing the man behind the book. It is not often we find someone of his stature to give such serious attention to a Malay poetical form. 

It is normally the domain of literary scholars and researchers. Ungku Aziz certainly brings a new dimension to literary studies — looking at pantun from various disciplines — from economics to psychological references — areas very few would dare tread.

  So his “reading” of the Malay pantun would certainly be 
different from others. But Ungku Aziz is a contrarian among economic thinkers who believe that there is a relationship between the economic capabilities of the Malays and their value system, worldview and psyche. 

When he started studying poverty among the Malays, he realised how culture, ways of life, dietary habits and government policies were an insurmountable hindrance to their progress.

It was not a pleasant thing to say at the time but Ungku Aziz shared the same view as another monumental thinker among the Malays, Zainal Abidin Ahmad or Za’ba, who was uncharacteristically audacious in criticising some of the “Malay ways”. 

 It was, therefore, unsurprising that Ungku Aziz wrote a glowing tribute to Zainal Abidin’s views in the book Jejak-jejak di Pantai Zaman published in 1975.

Not surprisingly, too, it was Ungku Aziz who made the word minda (mind) part of the Malay lexicon. No other Malay literary creation explains the Malay mind better than the pantun. 

For more than 700 years of its existence as part of the Malay oral tradition, the pantun has always been the manifestation of the genius of Malay creativity and a storehouse of the Malay mind.

Pantun is simple in its form but complex in its texture and nuances. It is easily adaptable and allows for improvisation. The pantun contains beautiful imagery and the delicacy of thoughts. 

That is part of the reason why it survives the test of time. Even today, you hear pantun being read at wedding ceremonies and official functions, not to mention on the airwaves at the slightest provocation.

The pantun was created anonymously just like many of the works that constitute the Malay oral tradition. It is interesting to note that the pantun was born out of the largely uneducated Malay populace of old. Life was hard and survival was the rule.

Far from the blooming of other literary brilliance and theatrical sophistication nurtured by the istana (court), lesser mortals had to contend with folk literature of their own, from cerita rakyat (folk tales) to verses like pantun, gurindam (a two-line verse) and peribahasa (proverbs).

Literary works became part of the socialisation process. Before radio and TV, people lived with tukang cerita (story-tellers) and penglipur lara (literally, soother of woes) of all kinds.
 Even nenek (grandmothers) were involved in telling exemplary moral stories to be emulated as well as fables, myths, legends and ghost stories. Literary works entertain and are used as tools to educate. They reaffirm social norms and community compliance. But creativity is their mainstay

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