The Malay Heritage Foundation

Wacana Warisan Series #03 – “THE HERITAGE IN TEXTS AND BOOKS: AMIDST THE EUPHORIA IN HERITAGE MAKING”

In the third session of the Wacana Warisan Series (WWS) webinar, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim gave a lecture on The Heritage in Texts and Books: Amidst the Euphoria in Heritage Making. He shared that through his reading, the recent enthusiasm and initiative to preserve and conserve the heritage is commendable and considerable resources have been allocated towards it. According to Dr. Azhar, this is all part of ascertaining social memory, while the aim of public education and taking pride in the making of national identity. In his presentation, he discussed the relegation of Books and Textual Heritage which should form part of our Heritage Imagination. 

Dr. Azhar Ibrahim welcoming participants who tuned in to the webinar and setting the context of his lecture. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Saturday, 27 March 2021 – In the third Wacana Warisan Series (WWS) lecture, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim, an academic from the Department of Malay Studies, at the National University of Singapore and Vice-Chairman of the MHF Board, focused on The Heritage in Texts and Books: Amidst the Euphoria in Heritage Making. It also marks the first time that a WWS webinar was delivered in English.

As per his previous webinars, Dr. Azhar began the session by providing the context of the World of Heritage and the threats it could face. Drawing references from UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 1972, he shared that “the loss, through deterioration or disappearance, of any of these most prized assets constitutes an impoverishment of the heritage of all peoples of the world.” Dr. Azhar also cited quotes from a Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist named Leopold Sedar Senghor and Edward Wadie Said, a renowned public intellectual and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies.

He also touched on the term Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and how this has now been given a greater emphasis, especially in Singapore. Dr. Azhar stressed that books and texts “must consciously” be a part of our heritage, regardless of its classification as tangible or otherwise. 

Dr. Azhar sharing the term ICH and its significant role in cultural heritage with the participants. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar listed down six key aspects which usually form the Heritage Imagination. It is imperative to note that all of them have equal weightage. However, one process – planning, stands out and the lack of it will significantly affect the others. He highlighted the importance of cultural planning in ensuring that we always have a living heritage instead of a dead one. Dr. Azhar also shared that Singapore has one of the best collections globally because of its pride in “constantly floating the heritage domain” and sharing cultural works with the rest of the world. This will somehow inevitably create a World Literature/Text. He also emphasized that the digitisation of these resources will definitely play a huge role in reaching out to others.

Dr. Azhar going through the different aspects of Heritage Imagination. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar discussed that the euphoria in heritage making itself can demonstrate to us some dimensions which are counter-productive and deemed unnecessary. One such instance is a celebration without cerebral, which according to him, there is a serious lack of effort in reflecting and researching on the heritage artifact/item which has been recognised. Dr. Azhar also touched on elitism in selection and preference during his webinar.

What is the significance of literary heritage? “Our literary traditions speak volumes of our cultural achievements, and even as a good measure of our humanity, or its lack thereof,” said Dr. Azhar.  He delved further into the reasons for neglect and relegation and how they can be exacerbated by eight factors. One of which is our attitude towards literature generally, seeing literature as “artistic” business or preoccupation, having a little link to the mainstream cultural and social life. Appreciation for manuscripts is tied to literature and without the interest of the latter, there is no space for recognition, unfortunately.  

Dr. Azhar listing down the reasons for giving attention to literary or textual tradition. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Generally, manuscript or literature has little visible attraction, nor could it generate or sustain a ‘demonstrative’ effect for a long time. Dr. Azhar expressed his concern that if heritage business is all about generating audience (numbers of attendees/visitors), and fundraising (corporate sponsorship), and attraction to public and tourist interests, then this literary heritage will forever remain relegated. He also said that the business of acquiring, conserving, and curating the literary manuscripts and texts has been an arduous task in as much as the process is costly. Dr. Azhar gave an example that in this region, countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore are facing problems in terms of acquiring and maintaining an inclusive manuscript/textual collection.

Some publications known as the World of (Textual) Production. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

For example, the national museums and libraries in Malaysia have been proactive in acquiring textual and digital copies of Malay manuscripts from all over the world. This is very evident during the era of 1970s to the 1990s, where the country spent a significant amount of time, effort, and money, largely due to good government support and funding, to acquire manuscripts collection and its preservation. However, Malaysia’s Malacca/Peninsular-centric historical version would mean the neglect of manuscripts from Sarawak and Sabah. For instance, the 19th-century Malay texts from Sarawak, Hikayat Panglima Nikosa (1876) deemed as the first Malay novel, is relatively unknown in the Malaysian literary scene, except amongst a small circle of researchers. While Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka (DBP), the Malaysian national literary agency has been active in the acquisition of manuscripts and re-publications of these texts into Classic Series, the Sarawak’s Hikayat has yet to gain any attention from DBP’s publication or forum series.

There is a strong support for manuscripts collection and preservation in Malaysia. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar shared his insights on how Singapore is being viewed in the Malay World of Books/Texts. Singapore was then regarded as the New York for Malaya. There were a considerable number of leading Malay publishers (Qalam Press, Harmy Press, Pustaka Nasional amongst others) dominating the scene. He shared that Al-Quran printed in the 19th Century is an example of a publication type being widely distributed all over Southeast Asia. Dr. Azhar also shared the Singapore ‘Forgotten’ Manuscripts that made a comeback in 2019. Interestingly, he noted, even texts published by the Christian missions here, many of which were in Malay, have not survived as there were no proper documentation and conservation of Christian works written and published in Malay or other vernacular languages for that matter. “The question is why literary works about Singapore, written mostly in Singapore, have not been given attention in our manuscript heritage collection?” Dr. Azhar posed this question to those who tuned in to the webinar.

An illustration of the widely distributed, 19th Century Al-Quran publication. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Summing up his lecture, Dr. Azhar concluded that recognising our literary pioneers and their related writing-publishing worlds is imperative in our heritage-making and imagination. He went on to address several questions from the virtual audience who tuned in via both Zoom and FB Live. More than 30 virtual audiences tuned in to the video webinar via both platforms.

Dr. Azhar addressing questions from the virtual audiences during the Q&A segment. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

WWS, one of MHF’s flagship programmes, is a series of lectures that aims to encourage the development of new and alternative approaches to the understanding of Malay history, economy, politics, society, and culture. Beyond the clichés and convenient mainstream narratives, lie many lesser-known facets about the Malay community in Singapore. It is a year-long programme (each lecture runs on a monthly basis), comprising 12 sessions from January to December 2021. Participants who attend at least 10 sessions will be given a Certificate of Attendance. WWS lectures will mostly be delivered in Malay.

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