Featured Poem

My Malay, Your Malay
by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed

I have defined the meaning of my Malay
from the eyes and lips of history
that is scathed like a bloodied shawl
that is forlorn like a woeful virgin
your Malay flows
gentle and uninterrupted
forming into dew
cool and fascinating
and my Malay
like the waves in a lake
stranded in mud
dusty and dirty.
My Malay is like a wretched wolf
wounded and tortured
in the belly of a cave
black as coal,
I have found your Malay
dressed in jebat and tuah
with fisted hands and broadened chest
splits the rainbow
that engirths your history
at the end of dawn with its sombre dream
and my Malay with its sorrowful longing
cradled by the barbaric city
caressed by the asphalt on the road
your Malay is the full moon
of chempaka fragrance and sandalwood scent
my Malay is a collapsed dais
a pitch black grave
and a night of surrender.


Translated from Malay by Annaliza Bakri

A special explanatory note by the translator:

Jebat, also known as Hang Jebat, is the figure often selected to represent those who dare to speak up against what is wrong and oppressive such as tyrannical rulers and unjust systems that are in place. He is regarded as someone who dares to fight for what he believes in. His best friend Tuah (Hang Tuah), better known in Malay society, is often idealized as a hero because he exemplifies feudal values such as absolute loyalty, martial prowess, compulsory labor (sistem kerah) and the lack of distinction between private and official business. A Malay warrior who carried out all his tasks without questioning, Tuah remained loyal to the Sultan and became the ruler’s favorite.

As the story goes, Jebat went against the Sultan as his best friend Tuah was sentenced to death for something he did not do. The Sultan, on hearing from envious officials that Tuah had been intimate with a palace concubine, was so angry with Tuah that he did not conduct a thorough investigation. And despite what Tuah had done for him and the Malaccan sultanate, the Sultan sentenced Tuah to death. Jebat, who was overwhelmed with sorrow, disappointment and anger, started to wreck havoc and took over the throne as an act of revenge for his best friend who was wrongfully punished. Not only did Jebat chase the Sultan out of the palace, but he also went on a rampage killing anyone who tried to go against him. Unknown to him, Tuah was saved by the Bendahara (Prime Minister), who finally told the Sultan that Tuah was alive. The Sultan tasked Tuah to kill Jebat in order to restore his sovereignty. In their final duel that took place in the palace, Tuah killed Jebat, who was most willing to breathe his last in his brother’s arms.

One may view “Melayuku Melayumy” (“My Malay, Your Malay”) as an attempt to define who or what a Malay is. Unfortunately, this is very inaccurate and unsuitable as the Malays are not homogeneous. Any attempt to delineate a prototype would only run the risk of crafting a stereotype as portrayed in several writings such as Frank Swettenham’s The Real Malay and Revolusi Mental. Here lies the strength of this poem as it offers a historical perspective of the Malay community in Singapore. My understanding is that the poet is depicting the effects on the Malay community when Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. After Separation, the Malay majority became a minority. A national language, Malay, is now just a Mother Tongue Language in schools and a ceremonial language in the Singapore Armed Forces. Malay language schools have disappeared, but SAP schools, which offer both English and Chinese as First Languages, remain. Many Malay intellectuals and writers left Singapore for Kuala Lumpur.

The ones who chose to remain in Singapore, such as the members of The Singapore Writers’ Movement ’50 (better known as ASAS ’50), deserve recognition as literary pioneers for composing quality works and developing younger talents. They stayed because they strongly believe in their country of birth and they wanted to give of their best to the nation. But could they restore the glorious past? I believe they are a realistic group of individuals. The tears and blood of this group could only provide a glimpse of hope, a voice to show we exist and life goes on. Things have changed and here’s the reality.


Original published in Tiga Warna Bertemu: Antologi Puisi Penulis-Penulis Singapura (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1987), the poem is reprinted with the author’s and translator’s permissions.



Bio from Singapore Infopedia: “Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (b. 20 March 1950, Singapore– ) is a prolific poet and writer in Singapore’s Malay literary scene. A teacher by training, he is best known for his works about the struggles of the Malay community in post-independence Singapore. A three-time winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, Mohamed Latiff was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2013.” Read more.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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