Home / Blog / 2013 : It’s critics that Brunei needs


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

CHONG Ah Fok has been teaching Bahasa Melayu at St Andrew’s School since 1985, so it’s no surprise that he looks so comfortable being interviewed by The Brunei Times.

“I was educated in the Malay medium… it’s the only language I really love and am good at.”

He enjoys delivering Bahasa Melayu to schoolchildren, especially as the language is not the native tongue of many children at St Andrew’s School. One senses that he identifies with that aspect a lot.

Books published under B2K, as displayed by Chong AhFok, also head of Language and Literature section under the Arts and Culture Body ofTutong. Pictures: BT/Daniel Wood, Rasidah Bakar

Born in 1956, he moved to Brunei three years later and has since been an active member of Tutong society, particularly with his work as head of the Language and Literature section under Tutong’s Badan Kesenian danKebudayaan (B2K) or Arts and Culture Body.

He describes his daily tasks to be quite routine, handling affairs of the secondary section, disciplinary issues, teaching Year 11 Bahasa Melayuand standing in the absence of the school principal.

Chong is a prolific writer as well, with a list of short stories, novels, poetry and even school workbooks to his name. How does he find the time? “Every day has 24 hours but some people only occupy 12 hours at maximum. For me, and other writers, we use much more.”

When asked about the influence of his own teachers, Chong chuckles and is quite candid: “A little bit. I’m not complaining… (as) they did contribute. Nowadays the teaching duty differs from our previous teachers.” We laugh about the missing element of corporal punishment in today’s school discipline.

I ask about what he said two days ago at the Tutong writers meeting about the decline of interest in literature in the younger generation. He clarifies, “I was actually referring not to the lack of writers, but researchers. I find that in Brunei… there are not many young researchers even though they are qualified. They have degrees in literature but their interest to critique is not there.” He observes that seminars on literature have poor participation from the youth. It explains his satisfaction at the said writers meeting that featured three young local writers presenting discussions on works of Brunei literature.

“We do have a lot of talented writers in Brunei… we want people to discuss, not just read. I want to train people to deliver their opinions based on contemporary theories… these are all lacking, for example post-modernism, intertextualism, new journalism, feminism, Malay methodology, even Islamic literature.” He says that discussions today are merely repetitive reviews on structure, flow and themes.

Chong believes that efforts for the type of development he wants has declined. “Before this, we just rely on the Language and Literature Bureau but… they have to prioritise. Lately UBD has also hosted fewer such events. Brunei Darussalam Association of Writers (ASTERAWANI) has contributed… but we (B2K) have to compensate.” I then try to understand why he is so adamant that young people should do more to question and discuss literature. The reasons seem to come easily to him: their generation will replace us. “We don’t have enough critics, never mind people willing to present discussion papers. As a sovereign nation, we cannot avoid foreign invitations to discuss local literature.” To him, the present offers little hope for optimism, with fewer graduates enrolling in such courses and the older, more experienced writers gradually withdrawing from the public eye.

I ask if the situation is such simply because these efforts are no longer relevant. “Indeed, a few people consider this less important. But (the study of literature) instils values (into society).” He also refers to a sentiment by the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports (Yang Berhormat Pehin Orang Kaya Pekerma LailaDiraja Dato Seri Setia Hj Hazair Hj Abdullah) at the Eighth Brunei Bay Dialogue in 2012 who said that “future writers are hoped to be able to raise the standards and enrich as well as give new hope to Malay literature.”

When asked about diversity of literature in Brunei, Chong admits that sensational or sensitive themes tend to be more popular in other countries, with profit the driving objective. He feels that writers in Brunei abide by the Malay Islamic Monarchy concept, and create literature within that philosophy.

Chong sees his involvement as a show of appreciation. “For myself, I want to give back (having enjoyed Brunei literature so much). I would like to see heightened development of literature in Brunei… as an independent nation in this region, we have to keep up with our neighbours.” Speaking on behalf of B2K, he says, “We really appreciate the Bureau of Language and Literature this year for organising many contests, including novel and short story competitions. This should be continued.” He adds that B2Kitself will do its best to maintain its current momentum. The Brunei Times

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