Friends and fans pay tribute to Malaysian author and poet Wong Phui Nam

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Mohammed Razali Wong Phui Nam, born in Kuala Lumpur, died September 26, began writing while reading law at the University of Malaya in Singapore, inspired by Edwin Thumboo’s 1956 collection of poetry, Land coast. His first poems appeared in Bunga Emasan anthology of Malay writing published in the UK in 1964 and published in book form, How distant the hills arefour years later.

After a two-decade hiatus, Wong dated Remembering Grandma and Other Rumors in 1989, followed by The paths of exile, against the desert, An acre of glass of the day and The Hidden Papyrus of Hen Taui. He wrote four plays, the first of which, Anikawas released and performed in 2005.

Over the decades, he continued to participate in literary events, meeting young poets to whom he lavished encouragement and advice, and collaborating with literary circles to bring out new works. Here, some friends and fans pay tribute to Wong, one of the pioneers of Malaysian writing in English.

Datuk Mahadev Shankar, retired judge of the Court of Appeal

The passing of Wong Phui Nam marks the beginning of a new era of true Malaysian identity, which must show the world what it means to be a country free from bigotry and a shining example of racial harmony in a diverse group of ethnic races.

When we met at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur in 1947, he and I were both victims of wartime malnutrition. Even though I was already 14 years old, I only weighed about 65 pounds. Phui Nam was even tinier. He could barely weigh 40 pounds and his voice wasn’t broken yet. However, by the time we left school in 1952, we had not only gained weight, but also acquired intellectual abilities that fully equipped us for the academic careers that followed.

He and his classmate, the late Harbhajan Singh Gill, refused to submit to the barbaric bullying that was the norm at university. From their first day at the Dunearn Road Hostel in Singapore, they were brutally isolated by their “seniors”. Undeterred, they called their dorm “Ye Airy Boers”, which became a beacon of defiance and individuality. After earning a Master of Arts, they returned to KL to pursue their chosen career.

During his professional life, Phui Nam distinguished himself as one of Malaysia’s pioneers in shaping Malaysian cultural identity. Poet, playwright and fine connoisseur of cultural music, he has established himself as one of the country’s most illustrious sons. A full biography will be needed to detail his many accomplishments. This must be left for the time being to others who are familiar with his work. For now, let’s say here that its end is the beginning of Malaysia as a race with its own unique character.

Brandon Liew, writer and PhD student

A prominent Malaysian poet has died at the age of 87. Just a few weeks ago, Wong Phui Nam and I finished recording all of his poems from How distant the hills are (1968) at The Hidden Papyrus of Hen Taui (2019). We spent many evenings together talking about death, poetry and supporting young poets. He was a passionate man and a voracious writer, an outspoken literary critic and a humble reader.

Last month, I had the privilege of presenting his voice at an audio exhibition, A desert of Malaysian poetry in English, which I organized. I saw with my own eyes the ardent joy of the young poets who listened to and discovered his work. So many people have asked me for his books and I’ve always been disappointed that I didn’t have more to offer. For a brief moment, Wong Phui Nam was my friend and my confidant, my support and my inspiration. For us, he was the image of a Malaysian poet and the underrated avant-garde of our times. How lucky we are to have his legacy as our tradition.

Malachi Edwin Vethamani, writer, poet and professor emeritus

Wong Phui Nam has received accolades and international recognition for his fine work throughout his long poetic life. In Malaysia, his writings were generally appreciated by scholars and poetry students, while lesser poets who wrote in the national language received national awards. In recent years, Phui Nam has been actively involved with young Malaysian writers. He was a judge for a national poetry competition in 2021 and one of the selectors of poems written by Malaysians under 35. He takes the time to give advice to young poets, meets them and encourages them to write. He was deeply concerned about Malaysian poetry in English and wanted to see it grow with new young voices with fresh ideas.

On a personal level, my friendship with Phui Nam grew over the past decade through my reading and later teaching of his poems. We worked on several projects. He selected and introduced my poems into love and loss, published in June. He loved poetry and was a huge influence. His health was poor in recent years, but he continued to attend book launches, meet young writers and educate them. His disappearance signals the passing of one of the greatest Malaysian poets who wrote in English and continued to be an important voice in Malaysian poetry in English. We will remember him through his writings.

Kee Thuan Chye, actor, playwright, poet, journalist

I invited Phui Nam to write a column for New Strait Times when we started a literary page in the early 1990s because I had known him as a poet. I didn’t know him well then; he hadn’t written for a while. I think in the 1970s, due to the rise of Malay neo-nationalism, there was this great dilemma that Malaysian English-language writers faced as to whether they should continue to write in the language of our ancients colonizers. There was a lot of guilt on the part of nationalist Malays. Gapena came out with the saying that only literature written in Malay could be considered national literature.

Phui Nam got caught up in this. He tried to switch to writing in Malay but was unsuccessful. So when I approached him to write the column, Other cadences, he was quite happy to get back to writing. And in English. He was very serious about the points he raised in his articles, so whenever someone wrote to challenge his thoughts, he invariably posted a response. Sometimes this resulted in a series of exchanges between him and his critic. He would never give up, even if I advised him sometimes.

Philip Koh, Assistant Professor, Universiti Malaya

I read Sophocles Antigone (translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald) with two groups of law students from Universiti Malaya as part of its law and literature option and also presented Wong Phui Nam’s play, Anika, for them. Its plot mirrors that of Antigone and his
contextualization is worth reading. As a theatrical production, it was effective as a testimony to a courageous female figure challenging patriarchal power in an Asian context.

Fadzilah Amin, retired lecturer in English literature

With the death of Phui Nam, I feel like Malaysia has lost one of our best poets, maybe our best poet. It is a pity that he was not recognized more widely because he wrote in English. When I read his poems, I have the impression that he is a poet who eloquently expresses what is deep in his heart.

Sharon Bakar, English teacher, freelance writer and editor

Phui Nam has come to our readings over the years; it was special what he did. I judged with him a poetry competition organized by the University of Nottingham. We had a discussion about what makes a good poem, and we all agreed on the winner. It was a real pleasure to work with him and to have this dialogue on poetry. He supported other poets and was generous in advice. He was such a nice man: you always feel it when you lose someone in your community. People had deep respect for him and his name was mentioned when they talked about Malaysian poets.

Leonard Jeyam, lecturer, writer and literary critic

I have known Phui Nam both as a friend and his literary editor since 2008. I actually wrote half of my doctoral thesis on his verses and when I got back from Kent we became friends. He was probably the last of the ‘major’ voices in Malaysian literature in English, long before Edward Said made postcolonial approaches to understanding culture and society fashionable. Phui Nam shaped his main themes around his rather courageous indictment of Malaya (later Malaysia), in that what the British left behind was a cultural wasteland which, in truth, would not be able to maintain itself politically, culturally and even imaginatively. Just imagine: his poetry foresaw the barrenness of the nation we see today.

His later volumes continued these concerns but also added a new one: that the way out of this wilderness was to employ a religious matrix of understanding life, from all the major religions of the world. Although his moments of redemption and transcendence were rare, they, when meaningfully enacted, were eloquent and powerful.

To Samad Said, national winner

He made everyone feel truly Malaysian.

This article was first published on October 3, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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