Written by Faris Joraimi
Dated 18 Apr 2018

On an overcast night in 1968, a shadowy figure gazed up into the heavens. All alone in his dank cell at Changi Prison, he only had for company the clouds in gentle procession, the elusive moon and the stars alight. Strange thoughts and disturbing sensations overcame him as he scribbled down verses onto a piece of paper, and the poem “Sadness” took shape. It would be among the many poems Said Zahari would write during his years of imprisonment, a difficult time in which separation from family and a profound sense of isolation proved to be a test of his will. The long years of hardship are apparent in his verses, which reflect a human vulnerability naturally susceptible to the deep pain and dread that accompanies loneliness. It was on nights like these that the words came to him, and—as he wrote in his memoirs—“afraid that they would escape me forever” (Meniti lautan gelora), he hurriedly jotted them down:

there were times when there seemed
to be no end and no beginning
the days seemed too short
and the nights dragged on
in thousands of unpleasant dreams
the mountain suddenly grew taller
and the forests thicker
in the river, water no longer flowed
the sky was full of angry clouds
the moon was swallowed by the snake
and the stars took fright

where is the sun?
I long for your brightness

(Puisi dari penjara)

Putting a full-stop, Said then placed the piece of paper inside a book which he had with him. He was in solitary confinement, five years after being detained under the Internal Security Act during Operation Coldstore. There is an almost surreal element to the vivid imagery of “mountains [ . . . ] gr[owing] taller,” and the moon being “swallowed by the snake,” a suggestion of an overly-active imagination induced by extended periods of idleness. Said often discusses being troubled by dark thoughts and nightmares during his detention, which seem to be reflected in the sometimes eerie depictions he provides. In “Birth Without Freedom,” he talks of “hearing the cries of a baby” ringing in his ears. His verses not only lay bare the depths of his emotion but also channel a spirit of defiance. Nowhere are these two elements better fused than in this poem, a work written originally in Malay. Here the personal and the political come together to paint a heartrending portrait of a man caught between his ideals, his struggles and the people he loved. He, the “father” with “ [his] freedom stifled” by a world itself figuratively likened to “a dark prison,” applies the metaphor of confinement to a much broader context. Not just to mean his own fate as a consequence of a political tug-of-war, but the human condition in general, shackled by institutions of oppression; it is into this “world yet unfree” that his child has “just been born”.

The poem is a reference to the birth of his youngest child, Noorlinda, with whom Said’s wife Salamah was six months pregnant with at Said’s arrest. Noorlinda grew to become a spirited young girl. In his memoirs, Said recounts that during one of their meetings, Noorlinda sang a revolutionary and anti-imperialist song to him in Mandarin. She learnt it at the kindergarten she attended run by Barisan Sosialis, the only Malay girl in her class (Meniti lautan gelora). 

Sometimes, his poetry would veer into the overtly political, expressing an unshakeable fidelity to the values he held dear, no matter the price. In “Anti-National,” Said calls into question popular assumptions about what it means to be true to one’s nation. He believed that one did not need to be a valourised figure in official narratives to be considered a patriot:

“Anti-National,” they said
Lo! Here is the proof.
Is this truly so?
To destroy the colonialists
To resist imperialists to the end
To eliminate oppression
To liquidate injustice
… if this be Anti-National
Yes! I am Anti-National!

(Puisi dari penjara)

This poem may be read as a direct response to the labels that were applied to members of the political left at the time, such as “pro-communist,” “chauvinist,” “sympathiser,” “foreign agent,” and “anti-national”. Said resisted such labels as dehumanising, urging that his cause and struggles were as legitimate and as much for the good of the people as of those who sought to discredit him. By providing possible connotations to “Anti-National,” like “resist[ing] imperialists” or ‘liquidat[ing] injustice,” he subverts the voice of dominant powers that be in shaping public perceptions of him.

But Said had a mind for seeing the silver lining, and encouraged his fellow inmates—who at one point included other key opposition leaders like Lim Chin Siong—never to lose heart and continue the struggle, even if it meant being in prison. In this spirit, one sees his ability to see beauty in sorrow. In a poem he dedicated to his wife Salamah, he described her tears as “sparkling like diamonds / beautiful like shining stars / in a clear night sky”. He valourised her “courage / confidence and determination, / peering from behind the sorrow,” as another instance of juxtaposing the more uncomfortable realities of their circumstances with the goodnesses that might come of it.

Examining his journey, one can conclude that Said Zahari counts among that breed of warrior-poets of whom few appear within a single generation. He was not writing to be considered for publication. His poetry is wholly an exercise in catharsis, the rawness of his bold emotion expressed as an act of healing and coming to terms with his fears and anguish. Above all, they are a solemn vow to live with dignity, no matter the odds.

Works cited

Said Zahari. Meniti lautan gelora: sebuah memoir politik. Malaysia: Insan, 2001.

—. Puisi dari penjara. Malaysia: Penerbitan, 1973.