When Adibah Amin’s mother was dismissed from her teaching role for her own political involvement, Adibah stepped in to publish short stories to contribute to the family income. From a young age, it was made clear to her that dissent was met with punishment. But rather than recoiling from the risks that resistance came with, Adibah followed in her mother’s footsteps, propelled by an unwavering commitment to women’s education and justice. Her mother’s adage — “hidup bekerja, hidup berbakti” (live to work hard, live to contribute to society) — is plainly embedded throughout Adibah’s multifaceted career as an essayist, a screen and voice actor, a journalist, a translator, and ultimately, an educator.

Adibah’s childhood and adolescence were further disrupted and shaped by the turbulence of political life, from the Japanese Occupation, to the formation of the Malayan Union and the Malayan Emergency. In latent and overt ways, these transformative events framed her piercing literary critiques.

LITERARY HIGHLIGHTS

Check out some of the key works and achievements of her career.

In 1949 alone, Adibah published a collection of short stories in Hiboran magazine, several sajak (poetry), short stories and four children’s novels. As a multi-talented figure, Adibah was sought after in both her home country of Malaysia and Singapore. Her collection of essays As I was Passing (1978) and her novels Seroja Masih di Kolam (The Lotus Still Blooms in The Pond) (1972) and This End of the Rainbow (2006) are among her notable works.

Adibah’s illustrious literary career is largely underpinned by an ever-present, hopeful pursuit of change and knowledge. To her, education is not the dazzle of degrees and qualifications, but an endless process grounded in justice and unity.

"Certificates and degrees do not make someone knowledgeable... not having certificates and degrees does not mean that a person is not knowledgeable.

Reading, observation and experience are other sources where one can obtain knowledge. Knowledge is not an accessory; knowledge must be used to improve prevailing circumstances…"

Life of A Thousand Twists (1982)

"Sijil atau ijazah bukanlah bukti adanya ilmu...tidak adanya sijil atau ijazah bukanlah tanda tidak adanya ilmu.

Pembacaan, pemerhatian, pengalaman, adalah lain-lain sumber ilmu yang harus digali seumur hidup... Ilmu itu juga tidak dijadikannya perhiasan semata-mata. Ilmu itu juga digunakannya untuk membaiki keadaan sekitarnya..."

Hidup Seribu Liku (1982)

Adibah’s philosophy of knowledge for social change emerges again in her novel, Bangsawan Tulen (The True Aristocrat) (1950). In it, she denounces aristocracy and the injustices deeply nested in the political systems she witnessed in her nation:

“Why are the crown princes like that—
demeaning people all the time,”

“We have to get rid of all these backward traditions!”

The True Aristocrat (1950)

"Mengapa anak-anak raja itu begitu—
suka menghina-hinakan orang,"

“Kita hapuskan adat-adat kolot itu semua!”

Bangsawan Tulen (1950)

Her contempt for feudalism was matched only by her faith in a society where oppressive regimes of all kinds are abolished. She expresses this as a utopia—one that, to her, is uncompromising and non-optional.

“You dream of a Utopia, a peaceful society where everyone is caring towards each other...”

“Is that foolish?”
“Foolish. You will break your heart fighting for it. Or break your neck.”

I pondered over Soo Im’s words for a while. To be honest, I know my dream may never be fully realised... But if even a fraction of it can come to be, is that not a form of success too?

Reminiscence of Fallen Places (1983)

“...kau mimpikan Utopia, masyarakat serba indah, semua manusia berkasih-kasihan...”

“Tololkah itu?”
“Tolol. Kau akan patah hati nanti. Atau patah tengkuk.”

Lama juga kumenungkan kata-kata Soo Im. Sebenarnya aku tahu impianku tidak mungkin menjelma sepenuhnya...Tetapi kalau secebis pun dapat dicapai, bukankah kejayaan juga namanya?

Tempat Jatuh Lagi Dikenang (1983)

Adibah Amin, Tempat Jatuh Lagi Dikenang (1983)

Adibah’s writing stood within the whirlwind of the Merdeka generation, as other independence movements around the world were similarly gathering steam. She condemned the tried-and-tested tactics of division from the tyrannical violence of British colonialism and the horrors of the Japanese Occupation in her writing.

"He is an honest, brave, progressive leader," said Soo Im.

"He is indeed ahead of his time…"

"If a leader is not ahead of his time, he is not a leader, but a stooge of the people he leads, for his self-interest,” says Soo Im.

Reminiscence of Fallen Places (1983)

“Dia pemimpin yang jujur, berani, berpandangan jauh ke hadapan,” kata Soo Im.

“Dia mendahului zaman...”

“Kalau pemimpin tidak mendahului zaman, bukanlah pemimpin tetapi pengampu rakyat untuk kepentingan sendiri,” kata Soo Im.

Tempat Jatuh Lagi Dikenang (1983)

Whether penning cutting critiques or creative tales about friendship, Adibah’s voice did not waver. She dreamt of mending the fragmented nation she grew up in, asking her readers: Who benefits from our division?

 

"Oh, why are we disputing,
So divided amongst ourselves,
The shark will be satiated when the boat breaks,
A dark mark is left in our history."

Syair of the Broken Junk Boat (2015)

"Aduh, kenapa kita berbalah,
Sama sendiri berpecah-pecah,
Kenyanglah yu bila jong pecah,
Hitamlah tanda dalam sejarah."

Syair Jong Pecah (2015)

Their Impact

It is impossible to do full justice to the impact Raja Aisyah Sulaiman, Kumpulan Bebas Melata, Adibah Amin, Sa’eda Buang, Rasiah Halil and Associate Professor (A/P) Hadijah Rahman have had on not only their fields of knowledge, but the wider cultural context of Malay literature. Their works do not stand alone: they are bound together with both the weight of history and clarity of foresight.

Collectively their words are invigorated by the same spirit for emancipation. Freedom is sought in different ways for our pioneers, but even in its most private and visceral form, politics, culture and society attempt to dictate the conditions of how it is exercised.

Our pioneering writers’ works must be understood not only through choice excerpts and quotes featured here, but as imprints that leave intergenerational marks. Rather than fading away with time, they crystallise.

“Will this Utopia be achieved?”
“Not an if, but a must.”

Reminiscence of Fallen Places (1983)

“Mungkinkah Utopia ini tercapai?” "Bukan mungkin lagi. Mesti.”

Tempat Jatuh Lagi Dikenang (1983)

Resistance begins when we interrogate what is taken for granted. What will you question?

ADIBAH AMIN

Adibah Amin, is a Malaysian writer, columnist, teacher, translator and actress.

Born in Johor Bahru, she graduated from her English-Medium secondary school and University of Malaya (1957). From 1958 to 1961, she taught Malay and English at the Malay Girls College in Kuala Lumpur. Later she taught at the Language Institute and Alam Shah School, both in Kuala Lumpur and then became the first headmistress of Jalan Kolam Ayer School [now Seri Puteri School in Cyberjaya] with another stint at the Language Institute before she left the education service.

She worked as a journalist for the newspaper New Straits Times from 1971 to 1984 and later for The Star in the 1990s. Adibah is remembered by many English speakers as the author of the column in the New Straits Times which she wrote in the 1970s and 1980s using the pen name Sri Delima. The columns were republished in book form in 2009.

Adibah’s writing includes three novels in Malay: Bangsawan Tulen (“The True Aristocrat”, 1950), Seroja Masih di Kolam (“The Lotus Blooms in the Pond”, 1972, translated into Japanese in 1986), and Tempat Jatuh Lagi Dikenang (“Reminiscence of Fallen Places“, 1985). She has also written more than 200 radio plays and short stories. Her English novel This End of the Rainbow was published in 2006. She collaborated with both The Star and the New Straits Times publishing articles on how to speak Malay correctly.

She was also engaged in literary translations from Malay to English: No Harvest but a Thorn by Shahnon Ahmad and Jungle of Hope by Keris Mas in addition to the works of poetry by Usman Awang. She also made appearances in three films: Adik Manja, (1980), Hati Bukan Kristal (1989), and Mat Som (1990).

ACHIEVEMENTS

  • Best Supporting Actor in the first Malaysia Film Festival in 1980 for her role in Adik Manja.

  • Companion of the Order of the Crown of Johor (SMJ) by the Sultan of Johor (1983)

  • S.E.A. Write Award, Thailand (1983)

  • “Esso-Gapena Prize” for contribution to the development of the literature (1991)
  • Outstanding journalist of the country by the Malaysian Union of Journalists (1996)

  • Johore Literary Prize (1996)

  • Tun Razak Prize for outstanding contribution to the development of education and the establishment of mutual understanding and harmony between the national communities of Malaysia (1998)

  • National Translator Prize (2012)

  • Special journalistic award of the Press Institute of Malaysia (2013)

  • The title of “Outstanding Malaysian Figure” (2014)