The Creative Works of Sa’eda Buang
Written by Said Mahadi Bin Said Iziddin
Dated 30 Oct 2017
A tear will be shed from a heart that is empty
Until usefulness replaces the hollow aplenty
The above translated excerpt from Sa’eda Buang’s poem “Malang, senja & citra [Misfortune, Hope & Comedy]” succinctly captures her high sense of responsibility towards society. Such an attitude has been ingrained in her since her undergraduate days. One can sense her youthful zeal in calling for the betterment of society through many of her poems published in the anthology Jejak Kembara [Travelling Footsteps] published by the Malay Language Society of the University of Singapore. For example, in “Seorang pemuda mahu meniup api revolusi [A young man wishes to fan the flame of revolution],” which she wrote as an undergraduate amidst the period of Islamic resurgence in the late ‘70s, she called upon youths to take action to eradicate societal ills such as high cases of drug abuse and rates of divorce. She urged herself and others to “fight tirelessly to wash away the filth in society / to purify humanistic individuals” [ii].
Her concern towards society remained central even after graduation. This is seen in a brief self-written synopsis of one of her poems, “Pustakaku dalam remang senja [My Reading Room in Twilight]” which
Carved the relentless path the writer took to delve deeper into the sea of knowledge for the development of her nation [ . . . ] actively pursuing and unravelling various forms of knowledge so that whatever she gleaned would be for the upbringing of society.
That her works have won her recognition in the form of two literary awards—one for “Pustakaku dalam remang senja,” and one for her short story “Ke puncak pun tidak [Not Even at the Peak],” from the Singapore Malay Language Council in 2003 and 2005—is a testament to their quality in conveying her commitment to society.
In all of her short stories and poems, a central theme that emerges is humanity tested through various circumstances. For example, “Razi” details the plight of a mother raising her special-needs child in an uncaring society [iv]. Similarly, “Ranggas” illustrates an initially passive community which starts to express concern after a man starts serially raping girls. However, he is not put to justice because of fear [v]. As an intellectual, however, Sa’eda Buang does not merely lament a lack of humanity in society but also analyses its causes and suggests remedies. In this she follows Alatas’s exhortations in Intellectuals in Developing Societies, where intellectuals have the ability to (1) identify problems, (2) define them, (3) analyse them and (4) suggest solutions [vi]. In her creative work she consistently promotes two things that must happen for improvement: first, society needs to stop following traditions blindly, and second, educated elites need to develop a moral obligation to uplift society. These two aspects of Sa’eda Buang’s work will be elaborated further.
Blindly Following Tradition
In “Malang, senja dan citra,” Sa’eda Buang reminds us that
misfortune is not a thing inherited
nor, thank God, a reflected image inbred
pure are the people if pure we believe
blemished is the culture, if tainted we perceive
chased away is disaster, if our cry is ‘never receive’
through time’s pages, came neglect and apathy’s stages
so was the relapse for ages
but now after seven generations seven stages of lore
the master of misfortune is a jest no more.
Here, we sense her persona’s exasperation towards Malay society’s fatalistic worldview. By insisting that “misfortune is not a thing inherited,” she seeks to speak against those who believe that they should be resigned to fate. The rocking rhythm of the poem gives the sense of these people as buoys in a ocean, being rocked by waves of modernisation but lacking the will to change the status quo. Sa’eda Buang suggests that this fatalism is due to an over-reliance on old ways of thinking, “seven generations” worth of built-up habits. In the same poem, however, her persona also sees that societal progress is not entirely positive: “is this the essence of modernisation and innovation / or the attitude of a deaf and blind nation?”. The difficulty seems to be walking a fine line between following the past, and looking forward to the future.
Sa’eda Buang also raises concerns about prevalent religious attitudes in Malay society in her writing. For her, most do not question traditions and merely blindly follow them, no matter how irrational they may be. In “Razi,” one of the challenges Nani faces raising her special-needs child Razi comes from her sister, Miah, who insists that Razi be treated through ‘Islamic’ means. According to Miah, “actually there is a satan who is roosting on Razi’s neck. The satan is the one who is inhibiting Razi from acting like other normal children” [vii]. However, in following this ‘Islamic’ treatment, Razi is forced to swallow metal balls while being tied down to the ground, and his hands are crushed by the person administering treatment. Nani wonders: “who is the one [now] following satan’s instructions?” [viii].
Here, we see an example of Sa’eda Buang juxtaposing two contrasting elements—placing “satan’s instructions” alongside “Islamic treatment”—to insist on the need to be critical of one’s own traditions.
Moral Obligation of Elites
In “Ke Puncak pun Tidak,” Sa’eda Buang criticises those elites who neglect their role in society through her main characters, Rafeah and Rosnah. The former, who tried to reconcile religion and philosophical theories as an undergraduate and was thus in constant existential crisis, has found peace at last after marriage. Her focus is on raising her children with correct education and values. However, Rosnah insists that one should not simply focus on the domestic sphere, and believes that Rafeah should continue contributing to society. As Rosnah says, “the number of intellectuals is very small. If many among them push away the welfare of the larger family, who will oversee it?” [ix]. Here, the “larger family” refers to society itself, and this didactic story emphasises the importance of intellectual work over self-interest.
A similar concern is also expressed in “Pustakaku dalam Remang Senja”. By relating a personal experience, Sa’eda Buang calls upon educated elites to continue searching for knowledge in order to apply it for the benefit of society: “My reading room in twilight / I desire to absorb all your sweetness in my hands / to present it to the nation” [x]. In this poem, twilight signifies a period or state of obscurity and ambiguity that Sa’eda Buang’s persona is living in. As much as she desires to learn and contribute more to Malay society, she cannot continue doing so forever. Within this short quotation lies a desperate plea for the next generation of intellectuals to continue lighting the way for society.
Sa’eda Buang is an intellectual who dedicates herself to writing for the betterment of society. Humanitarian values are central to her work and she calls for society to glean these values through a proper approach to tradition and the efforts of enlightened leadership.
[i] Sa’eda Buang, “Misfortune, Hope & Comedy,” in Dari Jendela Zaman Ini: Antologi Puisi Malaysia dan Singapura [From the Window of This Epoch: An Anthology of Malaysian and Singaporean Poems]. Eds. Shamsudin Othman, Gwee Li Sui, Mohamed Pitchay Gani bin Mohamed Abdul Aziz, Tan Chee Lay, and Seetha Lakshmi. Singapore: National Arts Council; Malaysia: National Institute of Translation of Malaysia. 342.
[ii] Author’s translation of “bertindak tanpa lengah membersihkan kotoran umat / mensucikan kepribadian kemaknusiaan.” From Sa'eda Buang, “Seorang Pemuda Mahu Meniup Api Revolusi,” in Jejak Kembara Vol.1 (December, 1978/79): 70-71.
[iii] Author’s translation of "Sajak “Pustakaku dalam Pemang Senja” karya Sa’eda Buang mengukir langkah-langkah berterusan penyair mendalami lautan ilmu pengetahuan demi pembangunan bangsa…penyair begitu gigih untuk mendalami dan mengupas seberapa banyak ilmu pengetahuan, agar apa jua yang diperolehinya itu dapat digunakan untuk pembangunan masyarakatnya.” From Begitulah Kata-Kata [Bear These Words]. Ed. Sa’eda Buang. Singapore: National Arts Council Singapore; Marshall Cavendish Education, 2013. 4.
[iv] Sa’eda Buang, “Razi,” in Menyeberang Selat. Eds. Mana Sikana and Anuar Othman. Singapore: Dragon Education Enterprise, 2003. 150-170.
[v] Sa’eda Buang, “Ranggas,” in Menyeberang Selat. Eds. Mana Sikana and Anuar Othman. Singapore: Dragon Education Enterprise, 2003. 137-149.
[vi] Intellectuals in Developing Societies. Syed Hussein Alatas, qtd. in Azhar Ibrahim, Cendekiawan Melayu Penyuluh Emansipasi. Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre; Vinlin Press Sdn Bhd, 2014. 2.
[vii] Author’s translation of “sebenarnya ada setan bertenggek di tengkuk Razi. Setan itulah yang mencengkam kemampuan Razi untuk bertindak seperti anak-anak yang lain. From Sa’eda Buang, “Razi,” 158.
[viii] Author’s translation of “siapa yang mengikuti arahan syaitan?”. From Sa’eda Buang, “Razi,” 170.
[ix] Author’s translation of “bilangan yang dianugerahkan nikmet intelek terlalu sedikit. Jika ramai di antaranya yang mengenepikan kebajikan keluarga yang lebih besar, siapa yang akan mengendalikannya?” From Sa’eda Buang, “Ke Puncak pun Tidak,” in Menyeberang Selat. Eds. Mana Sikana and Anuar Othman. Singapore: Dragon Education Enterprise, 2003. 241.
[x] Author’s translation of “pustakaku di hujung remang senja/ ingin kuserap segala wangianmu dalam cembul tintalalu/kusembahkan ke kaki bangsa”. From Sa’eda Buang, “Pustakaku dalam Remang Senja,” in Anugerah Persuratan 2003. Ed. Mohamed Pitchay Ghani Mohamed Abdul Aziz. Singapore: Malay Language Council, 2003. 117.