Aqmal N's Creative Work

Written by Said Mahadi Bin Said Iziddin
Dated 30 Apr 2018

Aqmal N believes in the power of the pen to change society, particularly the Malay community, for the better. His poems embody the spirit of lifting up society through writing. As a singer-songwriter, his poems go beyond merely words on paper. Most of them are read or sang to reach the wider Malay community—which is appropriate, as the messages contained within his words are meant for them.

In a recent panel at the Malay Heritage Centre on Performance, Art and Lyrics, Aqmal N suggested that musical performances today are usually, and unfortunately, seen as mere entertainment. This sentiment was lamented in one of his songs, “Geram ajer [Just Angry]” (2008):

Geram… geram ajer
hiburan nampaknya yang semakin ketara
melalaikan minda

[angry… just angry
entertainment is now clearly
making the mind neglectful]

As a responsible artist, Aqmal N uses his talents in singing and writing to highlight problems in society and put forth solutions to address them, instead of simply writing light-hearted, catchy songs which lack any serious message.

In this essay, I will use three poems/lyrics to discuss both the content and techniques Aqmal N deploys in service of his social vision. Of the three, “Harus berdiri [Should Stand]” is from his first and only collection of poetry (Dumpra, 2018); “Girang pemuda [Joyous Youth]” is featured in Gerimis di kota pelangi [Drizzle in Rainbow City] (2017), ASAS '50's collection of poetry and short stories, and “Abadi [Eternal]” was selected for Poetry Festival Singapore's Lens & Lines photography and poetry exhibition (2017).


Keen Eye on Youth

The youthful zeal in Aqmal N emanates through his poems. A common message that he conveys in his poems is the idea that the youth should rise up and bring positive change to society. In “Hitam [Black]” (2007), he calls out to youths to take action:

kini zaman wajah baru
alis lembut gerak gagah
semangat cuba berlagu…
jati diri cuba megah.

[now the new era has a different face
move gracefully but firmly
[I] passionately sing…
be proud of your identity]

His belief in the youth as agents of change continues until today. This is most clearly expressed in “Girang pemuda”:

ini masa pemuda
teguh keperibadian
kekal disiplin diri
menyongsong pelangi

[now is the time for youths
hold steady to their self
be disciplined
in chasing the rainbow]

For him, youths should stay true to themselves, and hold to the values honed in them since young so they do not lose their identity. One can also dissern a sense of urgency—the poem ends with the following:

ini masa pemuda
sebelum senja,
sebelum tua
memamah daging usia
menyinggah saat renta
lupa jasa anak bangsa
bila malam mendakap damai
dan bintang tak lagi dihitung pandang

[now is the time for youths
before they it is late
before they become old
they age
become older
[and] forget the contributions of youth
when the night comes
the stars cannot be counted]

If not tapped on, youthful zeal will eventually disappear. Although the tone in this poem is less hopeful compared to that in “Hitam,” Aqmal N’s later poem demonstrates his maturity and reflects his position in society as one who now mentors the youth and gives inspiration to them.


Aqmal N and his Wordplay

In “Abadi [Eternal],” Aqmal N shares about the sad reality of the aged who are left to fend for themselves. In the poem, their sacrifices go unappreciated by their children and all they can do is to cry in sadness at their fate. He writes:

pengorbanan penuh raga
tidak terbalas
segayung emas intan permata

[a spirited sacrifice
by a potful of gold and gems]

His message is conveyed convincingly through his wordplay. In every stanza, the word “air” is rendered differently, evoking different meanings and gathering more and more weight as the poem proceeds:

air dan tangis
membilas bersih
dosa seorang anak

[between] water and tears
that wash clean
a child's sin]

In this first stanza, “air” is simply water, distinguished from “tangis” or tears. Both “wash,” but it is only tears that metaphorically “wash away / the sins of a child.” In this case, it is very easy to differentiate or “terasing” air from tangis.

However, when “mata” is added to “air” to become “airmata,” the meaning shifts. “Airmata,” literally “eye-water,” now means tears:

hingga tuanya
membahagi masa
untuk mengasingkan tangis
dari airmata

['til aged
time apportioned
to separate cries
from tears]

At this point, it is harder to differentiate between the two words, especially in English translation. However, airmata can connote tears of either happiness or sadness while tangis can only refer to tears of sadness. Aqmal N dwells further on this in his last stanza:

lalu bagaimana kami nanti?
ibu-ibu anak kemudian hari
hingga sampai sumpah mati
mana mahu dicari airmata lagi?

[so how will we be?
mothers of future children
till the vow of death come
where to find more tears?]

“Airmata” here is a literary reference to children. Aqmal N puts forth a voice of the older generation neglected by their young, and asks where else the aged can go to if not back to their own children. Through wordplay, Aqmal N keeps the reader thinking and reflecting, effectively conveying his message.


For a Better Human Race

Although his poems largely address the Malay community, Aqmal N’s social messages contain universal values for the betterment of society as a whole. This is prominently seen in “Harus berdiri [Should Stand]”. The poem seems at first glance like an existential piece where the speaker is absorbed in his own thoughts because he keeps questioning his place in society:

Harus berdiri aku di mana lagi?

kalau bukan di lorong sepi
berbalut noda
tersiram air dusta
bertahun lama telah kau agihkan udara
tiap ceruk pantai dan kota lama
kau siapkan,
siapa di mana…

telah sampai banjir…
harus kuundur?

[Where else should I stand?

if not along a lonely lane
wrapped in stains
flush with false water
for so many years you’ve doled out air
each sandy nook and old town
you prepare,
what, where…

flood’s arrived…
should I turn back?]

However, when read in detail, the speaker is revealed to be one who absorbs himself into society to the extent that society lives in his soul. His feelings and thoughts are not merely personal, but presume to be those of the community. In another words, “aku [I]” here represents society. Aqmal N urges “aku” to continue persevering despite the flood or “banjir”—to withstand pressure and continue contributing—“yang pasti / harus berdiri aku di sini [what is certain (is that) / I need to continue standing].

Indeed, Aqmal N is here to stay. He continues writing and singing because he truly believes in making society better through his poetry.

Works cited

Aqmal N. Dumpra. Singapore: Azizah Zakaria, 2018.

—. “Geram ajer”. Bandcamp. 5 Nov 2010. Web.

—. “Girang pemuda”. Gerimis di kota pelangi: koleksi cerpen & sajak Singapura 2017. Singapore: Angkatan Sasterawan '50.

—. “Hitam”. Bandcamp. 5 Nov 2010. Web.