DATUK Dr Mohd Anuar Rethwan is not easily ruffled.
A few days after he was announced the 10th National Laureate, some quarters heavily criticised the award committee, chaired by deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. They claimed there were many other prolific writers more deserving of the coveted award.
Calm and collected, Anuar, whose pen name is Anwar Ridhwan, was reported as saying, "I may not write as much as some, but perhaps the committee weighed the quality of my writings."
The award, announced earlier this month, was a pleasant birthday surprise for Anwar who was born on Aug 5, 1949 in Sungai Besar, Selangor.
For the past 40 years Anwar has slaved over his favourite genres - the short story and poetry. Hailed as one of the nation's master short story writers, he delves into the theme of modernity and has always been critical of changing lifestyles and values.
His first writings, largely poetry and essays, were published in 1970 when he was a Malay Studies undergraduate at University Malaya.
Immediately after graduation he was hired as temporary staff at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) for three months, after which he was employed as a literature research officer.
Anwar remained with the institution until he retired in 2005 as publishing director. He completed his doctorate in 1998 with University Malaya while at the same time serving as a resident professor of Foreign Languages at Tokyo University (1997 to 2000).
Tokyo endowed him with time, space and a whole new perspective - all of which greatly influenced his style of writing.
Malaysia's political and economic upheaval in 1998 drove him to handwrite Naratif Ogonshoto, a magical tale of a fictitious kingdom torn by economic and political greed.
Each of the 10 chapters is intricately crafted as a separate short story but they are tied together, with a prologue and epilogue, as a novel. One of the chapters, Hering, was first published in Dewan Sastera August 2000 and the novel hit the shelves a year later.
National Writers Association (Pena) secretary general Syed Mohd Zakir Syed Omar was reportedly not surprised by the award as Anwar had been on the committee's list of nominations for several years.
Syed Mohd Zakir described Naratif Ogonshoto as a philosophical political critique in a highly refined style:
"It is a significant departure compared to other national laureates such as Professor Shahnon Ahmad's direct critique or Datuk A. Samad Said's symbolism."
Anwar's first novel, Hari Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (The Last Days of An Artist), depicted a storyteller's nomadic life of telling ancient tales, from one village to another, just before World War 2. His art was threatened by the war, the changing lifestyle and the introduction of radio.
The novel won the Sabah Foundation - Gapena Award in 1979 and was translated into English, Japanese and French. It was adapted into a play by Datuk Johan Jaaffar and staged 14 times in Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Singapore.
Anwar's second novel, Arus (Current) focussed on a massive bank scandal and the issue of Malay Muslims calling each other infidels because they had different political ideals. That was the era of the RM2.5 billion BMF scandal and the Memali incident in Kedah.
The novel jointly won the Malaysia Literary award 1984/85 with National Laureate Datuk A. Samad Said's Daerah Zeni.
Anwar won the same award again in 1992/93 for his play Yang Menjelma dan Yang Menghilang.
His magnum opus, Naratif Ogonshoto, won the Hadiah Sastera Perdana Malaysia 2002, the Brunei Mastera Literary Award and the South East Asian Write Award, a prestigious literary honour presented annually to poets and writers in this region.
Anwar, however, does not feel that the National Laureate title or the shower of attention will change his life much.
"There's still much to be done," said the dean of the Writing Faculty at the National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy (Aswara). For instance, preparing young writers for the future.
Malay is the fourth largest language group in the world, but Anwar worries about whether Malay literature is prepared for that. Ideally, it should offer a bigger market share for Malay works, with more genres, and drive the publishing industry.
"If we do not grab this opportunity now, to improve and expand the usage and literary work, we will kill the language," declared the National Laureate.
Soft-spoken and deliberate, Anwar is critical on the issue of Mathematics and Science taught in English: "The reversal of the policy is a second chance for the language to survive and become an important academic medium. We should not fail this."
The survival of the language rests on all of us, he says, and everyone should play their role: writers, editors, publishers, industry, policy makers and speakers of the Malay language.
"It is a healthy trend to publish popular fiction," said Anwar when asked about the flood of romantic Malay novels in the bookstores.
"Because down the road the writers will want to write something more
challenging, and the readers will develop their individual preferences."
Popular fiction will move the market and generate reading habits. "Eventually the market will offer what the reader wants and more genres
will be available in the bookstores."
Anwar lauded the marketing drive of new publishing houses compared to more established publishers, noting that they were more aggressive in their marketing and promotional strategies after research to understand the market.
"They have come up with a wide range of topics, from cookbooks to motivational, and targeted age groups, like young children, teenagers and young adult and adults. Even the cover designs are tailored to appeal to the specified markets."
As long as the reading habit is nurtured, there will always be a demand for books - cutting across ethnicity and geo-political borders.
To be accepted at the international level, non-native speakers should also write in Bahasa Malaysia, Anwar stressed. He hopes writers from other nations will read and write about the language: "Their opinions and viewpoints are important to the growth and survival of the language. Malay literature does not belong to the Malays alone."
Anwar may be stating the obvious but strangely the general perception, especially among book retailers, is that Malay books are only read and written by Malays.
"It is a distorted perception," argued Anwar, noting that in the Eighties and Nineties, DBP had a dedicated committee to nurture and develop the writing talents of non-Malay writers.
Today, with or without the help of that committee, the nation has many prolific non-Malay writers such as Lim Swee Tin and Jong Chian Lai who are SEA Write Award winners, Uthaya Sankar, Saroja Theavy Balakrishnan and Soo Cham, he pointed out:
"I believe in 10 years' time, one of them will be named Sasterawan Negara."
* The National Laureate ceremony, with the award presented by the Agong, will be held on Oct 20.
New Straits Times, September 30, 2009