The Debate on Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

18 September 2016

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka turned 60 on 22 June 2016. We take a look at the institution’s achievements and golden years, and discuss what it needs to do to recapture the hearts of the public.

Originally named Balai Pustaka, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was established in Bukit Timbalan, Johor Bahru with the challenging mission of strengthening the Malay language as the soon-to-be-independent country’s national and official language. In 1957, DBP moved to Kuala Lumpur.

In the years that followed, the golden age of Malay literature was born. There was much to be done as colonial policies had led to the neglect of the Malay language and literature. DBP transcribed oral literature, compiled dictionaries, and created a standardised system of spelling and grammar. It published books, and magazines and translated classic literary works.

In 1970, the first edition of Kamus Dewan was published. Many other dictionaries including the Kamus Iban-Bahasa Malaysia and Kamus Dwibahasa were published in the 70s and 80s.

Malay literature is and always has been the main artery at the heart of the language. DBP’s Writer Section, in operation from 1956 to 1971, was responsible for the creation and publication of many literary works. The year 1958 saw the publication of Anak Raja, Anak Papa, a translation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper by Za’ba. In its early years, DBP held writing competitions which resulted in the publication of Hassan Mihat Ali’s Musafir in 1959, followed by the 1961 publication of A. Samad Said’s Salina, and Ibrahim Omar’s Desa Pingitan in 1965.

These novels are some of Malaysia’s most beloved modern classics with Salina being nationally recognised for its intricate yet thought provoking social commentary on post-World War II society through the life of a young woman driven to the sex trade in the 1950s.

It was no less fearless in its publication of magazines and journals. In 1957, DBP released the first issue of Dewan Bahasa. The public’s response was so encouraging that the total numbered around 7000 every month. The year 1971 saw the first issue of Dewan Sastera.

It was a glorious era. The covers displayed various influences. Some were Andy Warhol-esque with their bold and bright colours. Some featured artistic photographs. Between the covers of these magazines were dramatic yet unconventional tales, short plays, and literary experiments. They inspired. They excited. They enthralled.

There’s no doubt that DBP’s work in championing the Malay language and its literature is invaluable. Thanks to its efforts, we have been introduced to many literary talents from A. Samad Said to Saroja Theavy.

And yet lately, DBP has been receiving a fair amount of pleas to stay relevant. In an attempt to ascertain the public’s opinion about our country’s national authority on the Malay language and Malay literature, this writer reached out to several people. On one hand, DBP has enriched the language with its publication of various dictionaries. On the other hand, it has been opined that the Kamus Dewan needs to be updated.

Amoi Zahirah, a translator, comments that, “They're also a bit slow in updating the Kamus Dewan. By right it should be updated and republished yearly but as of now, the latest edition available is labeled the fourth edition. When I was taking my diploma for translation, one of the courses was terminology. It talks about how Malay terminologies are derived. The process is very intricate. I don't know how long the process takes but I wish they would work faster and publish their findings more openly.” The first publication of the Kamus Dewan was in 1970 as mentioned earlier, with the second and third editions being published in 1989 and 1994 respectively. The fourth and latest edition was published in 2005.

As she was raised on a steady diet of literature, Emmy Hermina Nathasia read many novels and magazines published by DBP. She enthuses, “Although I grew up reading their novels, I don't find it difficult since I read according to genre. There are novels for children, teenagers, and adults. I love them. Novels and magazines alike.”

Of late, there have been some comments about the covers of DBP’s novels. Emmy comments, “I find that they are lacking in interesting and modern covers when compared to PTS, FIXI and even ITBM. But their content is good.” In response, an official at DBP says, “Taste is subjective. Whether it is attractive or not, it is abstract.” The official adds that many publishers of popular books don’t follow the standards set by DBP in its Gaya Dewan, a guide to writing and publication and so they are free to design however they wish to do.

Sefa, an experimental novelist, opines, “DBP plays an important role in the progress of literature in Malaysia up to this day.” Aisa Linglung (real name: Muhammad Aisamuddin Md Asri), the founder of Lejen Press, an independent publisher, notes that though DBP paved the way for nationally renowned literary giants, it could do better to keep up with the times. Lejen Press has republished A. Samad Said’s Langit Petang, a novel which was first published by DBP in 1980, as well as Salina. According to Aisa, the sales went through the roof. He expounds, “This is a clear indication that Malay classical books are still relevant in this modern age, not only to adults, but also to the youth. DBP did a good job of publishing these works in the past, but now is the time for us at Lejen Press step in to revamp these classical works.”

Aisa also concurs with Emmy’s sentiment that DBP could improve its marketing strategies. “Their marketing strategy is flawed, they barely cater themselves to the youth, they don’t rely on social media, and their brand in general is just old-fashioned. We’re living in the year 2016, aren’t we?” It seems to be true. Skimming through DBP’s various Facebook pages for its magazines, with the exception of Dewan Sastera, there is little engagement with their followers. On Instagram where a handful of passionate book bloggers share their insights about Malay novels, DBP’s account features seven posts.  

Sefa, who is also a manager at Rabak-Lit, a publisher of alternative literature, believes that the institution needs a fresh new approach. “With the rapid progress of today's technology, DBP can only be regarded as a shadow that lurks in the school textbook if it doesn’t show its relevance to the younger generation.”

When asked about his opinion on DBP’s popularity (or lack thereof), our source says that DBP endeavours to deliver books that will always be of the best quality in terms of narrative, content or values espoused. He adds, “Today’s youth has not experienced as many hardships as their elders did and so they prefer light reading materials instead of books which expand one’s intellectual horizons.” This statement is at odds with that of Lejen Press’s sales performance of the revamped editions of A. Samad Said’s Langit Petang and Salina.

However, DBP remains unchallenged as the sole authority on the use of the language whether in fiction or otherwise. Amoi comments, “The Malay language quality in indie publications are a bit lacking. They don't monitor slang usage, there is bahasa rojak, and even Manglish in there. So they are fulfilling the market for Malaysians who like to read but don't like to read in English. They emphasise more on story than the quality of language. DBP should be the best defender of BM from all sides. From an intellectual point of view, they are. They set regulations and all bodies in Malaysia turn to them to check their BM. But through literature, an outlet more accessible to the public, they need to work harder.”

Another suggestion was put forth by Aisa: “Instead of condemning other mainstream and indie book publishers for not adhering to their conduct of business, why not work with us? Together with the cooperation of DBP, the book industry in Malaysia as a whole would definitely be able to reach higher grounds.”

In its golden age, DBP succeeded in making Malay literature beloved by many people. And now, Malaysian society is beseeching them to do what it did before through Malay literature: inspire our thoughts, evoke emotions, and create new conversations.



By Zoe Liew

Photos by Zoe Liew

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