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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

RAISING A STINK

Shahnon Ahmad's satire outrages the Malaysian establishment

By Amir Muhammad / Kuala Lumpur


MALAYSIA'S LITERARY SCENE IS not one of the most exciting in the world. The average educated person would rather read stock-market reports than the latest fictional opus. No local writer can boast of a readership that cuts across barriers of ethnicity, language and age. Seen in this context, you might expect a homegrown best-seller to be greeted with joy. Think again.

True, the 30th novel by Malaysian literary lion Shahnon Ahmad is a runaway success. All 15,000 copies have been snapped up since its release in March. Bootleg versions are flooding the market to meet the demand. An English translation is on the way. But government politicians have called for a ban. Literary bureaucrats want to strip the writer of his National Laureate title. The novel is variously described as obscene, shameful and a disgrace.

Why all the fuss? To begin with, the Malay-language book is called Shit. Even more startling is the full title carried on an inside page: Shit@Pu*****@PM. The second word is a common but harsh Malay expletive referring to female genitalia. PM stands for exactly what you think it does. Prefacing that with two swear words is provocative enough. Worse, the plot revolves around a large turd, PM, which refuses to leave the bowels despite stinking up the place for almost 20 years. Other turds are constantly at PM's bidding. But instead of exiting naturally, PM expels an idealistic piece of excrement named Wirawan. PM is shocked when the outcast is welcomed by the public.

Only the most obtuse could fail to speculate that the novel is a satire on Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his government. Wirawan (from wira, or hero) is taken to represent sacked deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who was expelled from UMNO, Malaysia's dominant party. He was sentenced last month to six years' jail for interfering with investigations into his alleged sexual misconduct.

The 66-year-old author says extreme circumstances call for extreme responses. But is Shahnon's book any good? It starts with a burst of ferocious energy but sometimes lapses into repetition and bathos. The structure feels hurried. At 240 pages, the tale seems over long. But the blistering display of iconoclasm and earthy hyperbole is such that it would take an ass not to respond to the life-affirming humor. What has appalled some people is its unrelentingly bawdy, vituperative tone. Scatological imagery peppers world literature from Rabelais to The Arabian Nights. Malay writing, though, is usually more decorous.

Mahathir has yet to comment, but deputy home minister Ong Ka Ting says there will be no ban - that would only "draw attention to the book." It has already received an unprecedented level of notoriety. At first, pro-establishment newspapers could not bring themselves to even mention the title, but they soon lost any qualms. One recent headline screamed: "Shit: A shitty satire."

Shahnon doesn't mind the abuse. "I don't feel anything. At my age, if I don't speak my mind now, when will I get the chance?" he asks. "Writers should be themselves. What are the others afraid of?" Most of his fellow literati prefer to keep quiet or merely chide the author for bad language. Faisal Tehrani, an award-winning young scribe, is not among them: "There's so much hypocrisy among our writers. Shit is a good work of satire because it's brave and approachable. We've been trying for years to make literature not seem like some elitist, esoteric game." Others see an even greater impact. Kee Thuan Chye, literary editor of the New Straits Times, calls the daring work "a very important development" for Malay literature. "I think the trauma will trigger in the Malay mindset some questioning of long-held, deeply rooted cultural notions of non-confrontation."

After inadvertently giving the novel a blaze of publicity, the government has changed tack. Calling Shit unIslamic, officials are using it to discredit the opposition party Pas, of which Shahnon is a life member. But party chief Fadzil Noor is having none of that. The normally puritanical politician hails the book as a "major contribution." Vulgarity is "all right," he declares - as long as it fits the story.

"I have a bit of a split personality," Shahnon laughs. "People look at me and see a pious man, but there's a repressed side which comes out in my writing. That's when I don't censor myself. I let it all out." (A professor at the Malaysian Science University in Penang, he also headed its Islamic Center for 11 years until 1996.) There are other contradictions. He hopes for an Islamic state, yet revels in what most conservative Muslims would label sensationalism at best. For all Shahnon's antipathy toward Mahathir, the two men have many similarities. Both come from the northern state of Kedah, share the same blunt-speaking style and pugnacious audacity. Earlier this year, they were hospitalized for near-identical lung ailments. The coincidences seem unreal. Like something out of a novel.


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