The Singapore Writers’ Movement ’50 (Angkatan Sasterawan ’50) or better known as Asas ’50 is the first literary association in post-war Malaya. Conceived on the 6 th of August 1950, Asas ’50 is also the first literary association which represented the voice of the community and one which utilized literature to be the ideal thrust towards independence for Malaya in 1957. The association’s manifesto of “Literature for the Community” together with its pioneers; Muhammad Ariff Ahmad (MAS), Kamaluddin Muhammad (Kris Mas), Abdul Wahab Muhammad (Awamil-Sirkam), Abdul Jalil Haji Nor (Merayu Rawan), Munir Ali ( Rosmera), Kumasi Haji Dainuri (Teruna Jaya), Abdul Majid Husain (Hamzah), Masuri Salikun (Masuri S.N), Abu Yamin Kasun, Ahmad Ramli Abdul Karim (Ramlimah), Muhammad Daud and Muhammad Yusof Yaacob (Jim), formed the main shaping force in the development of Modern Malay literature.
Since its inception, Asas ’50 has never deviated from its mission. Evidence of this can be seen in its concerted effort to promote and propagate literature through seminars, workshops, forums, dialogues, courses etc. This is on top of the association’s active participation at the national level in amalgamating the richness of the Malay language and literature, by involving the national based organizations as well as youths.
Literature Develops Humanity
An attempt initiated by Asas ’50 to absorb the splinter literary groups such as Grup Gelorasa and Pass into Asas ’50 was carried out in 1974. A new slogan “Literature for the Community” was coined to provide a mutual understanding and mission amongst the new members of Asas ’50. In addition, this slogan was generic and did not have any ideological leanings of any the other previous associations. Thus, the slogan is accepted by all the new members of Asas ’50. However, the battleground has changed for Asas ’50 as it was no longer fighting for the independence and physical extrication of the community. This time, Asas ’50 aim to free the community from psychological and intellectual oppression left behind during the reign of the colonial masters and the Japanese Occupation. ‘Independence’ was superficial as the community still glorified the masters to the point of diminishing and trivializing their very own identity. Asas ’50’s mission is still very much schooled in the concept of “Literature for the Community” even though it has since changed its slogan.
Asas ’50’s contribution to the Malay language scene is irrefutably intrinsic to the language’s development. Firstly, the thousands of literary works written in the Malay language exhibited a diverse form of writing styles as well as the use of contemporary terms to explain a certain phenomena experienced by the community at that point in time. In addition, a number of Asas ’50 members are teachers and journalists. Therefore, the development and progress of the Malay language is inevitably more dynamic as compared to the generations that were restricted and stagnated by feudalism and the lack of contemporary terms in the Malay language.
A significant and historic contribution made by Asas ’50 was the introduction of the Roman spelling in the Malay language. The Jawi writing was initially the modus operandi. However, since the 3 rd Malay Language Congress (Kongres Bahasa ke-3) in 1956 and under the initiation of Asas ’50, the Malay Archipelago saw a reformation and revolution in the Malay language arena. As a result, the Roman spelling was integrated into the Malay language and this has remained till today. This change was undoubtedly beneficial for the community as it eases the process of acquiring knowledge as the Roman spelling was also used in the English language. Research and study of materials and sources from the west to be used by the locals were thus made more accessible and decipherable. The introduction and usage of the Roman spelling had such an influential impact that it has since engulfed the use of Jawi in daily matters and in the education scene. Only Brunei still practices the use of Jawi.
The fact that Asas ’50 has managed to remain strong up till today is in itself an amazing feat. In its 55 years, the association has created a number of landmark initiatives for almost each generation of its existence. Asas ’50 is the first registered Malay literary association and it is also the first to begin a literary culture rooted as the social protest or the social critic. The association is also responsible in the push towards independence for Malaya in the 1950s and the changes made to the Malay language via the 3 rd Malay Language Congress (Kongres Bahasa ke-3). In the 1970s, Asas ’50 initiated the Malay Literary Prize (Hadiah Sastera) which is now known as the Malay Literary Award (Anugerah Persuratan). This enabled the works and efforts of writers to be recognized and appreciated. Asas`50 was also recognized as the first Malay literary body in the region to hold the Regional Malay Literati Conference (Pertemuan Sasterawan Nusantara) in 1977. This has since been integrated and adopted as bi-annual event for the Malay literary scene in this region.
In the 21 st century, Asas ’50 made significant strides in its aim to involve and liaise itself with national based organizations. The association is the first Malay association to have sealed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the National Library Board (NLB). In addition, Asas ’50 has also unleashed a first of its kind book in the Singapore Malay Literary scene which has since gone on to create history. Titled “Leksikon”, the book is a comprehensive directory, complete with detailed descriptions of 70 reputed writers in Singapore from 1965 to 2005. The Launch of “Leksikon” also immortalized Asas ’50 as the first association to have held an event at the new NLB building at Victoria Street.
Asas ’50 has been the country’s official representative in learning the development of the Malay literature in the region. The association works arm in arm with regional literary associations such as Gapena (Malaysia), Asterawani (Brunei), Horisons (Indonesia) and others. In fact, many members of Asas ’50 are involved in activities by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), Mastera and Mabbim.
Since its inception, the crux of Asas ’50 has always been formed by a group of young and dedicated writers who are passionate in understanding the struggles of the community. These young writers are usually at their most productive and prolific as they continue their search for their own identities and self. The Asas ’50 youth wing was started in 2002 to shape the next generation of leaders and activists in the Malay literary scene. This aim was strongly advocated by Masuri S.N, who believed that the strength of an association is reliant on the youths, who will eventually receive the baton to carry the association into the next phase of its mission. The younger members Asas ’50 mainly comprised of the trainee teachers of the National Institute of Education Townsville Campus. Today, a number of these members hold important appointments in the association’s executive committee.
The drive and commitment of these young members enabled the promotion and realization of many national based activities. And from this group of young members, lie a pool of potential literary award winners and future writers of Singapore. Some of their works have already been published in the literary segments of the local newspaper, magazines as well as anthologies. Among the significant contributions made by these youths was in the spearheading of the 12 th Regional Malay Literati Conference (Pertemuan Sasterawan Nusantara ke-12) and other events at the turn of the century which included the collaborative effort to produce the first Malay writers’ directory, Leksikon and a commemorative book celebrating 55 years of Asas ’50.
With respect to its age, Asas ’50 did not mirror it with the number of literary works produced. Up till this day, there are about 25 books published by Asas ’50, encompassing a variety of literary genres. From this figure, a drastic leap was seen in the association’s publications at the turn of the century. However, books published independently by members of Asas ’50 have reached the thousands. Among the landmark publications is the 2005 release of Abdul Ghani Hamid’s “Petikan Rasa/Extracts of Feelings”. Funded by National Arts Council via the Singapore Cultural Medallion Grant, the book is a bi-lingual compilation of Abdul Ghani Hamid’s poems and paintings. Another significant book published by Asas ’50 is “Memoir Perjalanan Mas” in 2004. This historical biography of one of the pioneers of Asas ’50, Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, depicts the life and struggles of Mas. The importance of this book lies in the passionate involvement of Muhammad Ariff Ahmad in the Malay culture, language and literary arena that has stood the test of time. Inadvertently, this book has become the unofficial documentation of the history of the Malay literary movement in Singapore.
However, the most outstanding accolade has to be reserved for Asas ’50 efforts in publishing the first Malay writer’s directory called Leksikon. A collaborative effort with the NLB, this book represents the apex of Asas ’50 publication as it was the first of its kind in the Singapore Malay literary scene. Detailed information of the creative writers in Singapore since 1965, is available in this book. Therefore, Leksikon is testament to the association’s commitment in documenting and promoting the achievements of the Malay writers in Singapore. Another one for the history books is the association’s publication of an anthology of poems and short stories called “Menyongsong Pelangi” in 2005. This anthology comprises of literary works contributed by reputed and young writers alike and is released in commemoration of Asas ’50’s 55 years celebration.
The Film Industry
Interestingly, Asas ’50 has also played an important part in the early Malay film industry. Films by P.Ramlee were greatly influenced by Asas ’50 as the objectives of those films mirrored those of the association’s. In fact, there was also some sort of connections and friendships linking P.Ramlee to Asas ’50. For example, Asraf’s wife, Fatimah Murad, was the editor of P.Ramlee’s film magazine called the “Majalah Bintang.” Thus, Asraf capitalized on this avenue and network to inject the ideologies held by Asas ’50 as well as to trade views and opinions with P.Ramlee. Historical film enthusiasts and observers have recognized the film “Bujang Lapok” to breathe the same ideologies as that of Asas ’50. The film is said to contain satirical stabs at the community at that point in time. An obvious trait prevalent in these films was the use of the actors’ real name such as “Ramlee”, “Sudin” and “Aziz.” This was P.Ramlee’s method of highlighting the emotional aspect and the reality that shrouded the community of yesteryear.
The truth is, the local newspaper has also held the principle of “Literature for the Community” by publishing literary works that speak of the latest phenomena and dilemma faced by the community all through the years. These poems, shorts stories, essays etc unearthed the ills of the community from the social, religious, political and economical perspectives. In fact, the number of literary works published in the local newspaper totaled at 3200 from 1600 writers as of 1965. This huge reception has made Singapore Malay literature synonymous with the term “newspaper literature (sastera akhbar).” Inadvertently, Asas ’50’s mission was propagated and proliferated by the local newspaper which obviously had the same ideologies as the literary association.
The Resource and Reference Compass
The NLB has recognized Asas ’50 as the ideal resource and reference pool for its “Singapore Literary Pioneers Gallery” and NLB Online Repository of Artistic Works (NORA) projects. This includes a database collection for Malay writers and manuscripts. Another project piloted by NLB and Asas ’50 was the “Potret Tun Seri Lanang.” In this project, Asas ’50 acted as the middleman in obtaining the literary works of the Tun Seri Lanang award winners, which included books, publications, private collections and others. These will then be displayed at the special collections section of the NLB.
The part played by Asas ’50 in the growth, development and progress of the Malay literature span a wide scope and has impacted the community intrinsically. The association has consistently upheld its mission and vision of “Literature for the Community” with utmost integrity and responsibility. Asas ’50 has spearheaded a myriad of initiatives to preserve the image of the community, country and that of the writer himself. From its battle towards independence for Malaya to its inexorable aim of uniting the splinter Malay literary groups, Asas ’50 has managed to form a united front under the manifesto “Literature Develops Humanity.” The climax of Asas ’50 achievements is manifested in the installation of the Malay Literary Prize (Hadiah Sastera), which inevitably raises the status and stature of writers in our societal mould. In rounding off its responsibilities at this ripe age of 55 years old, Asas ’50 has immortalized the reputed and prolific writers from the association in the Singapore Malay writers’ directory – Leksikon. “From humanity to humanity, and a return to humanity” – That is the transcendently scintillating literary association known as the Angkatan Sasterawan ’50.