When it was announced that a couple of Malaysia-born stars would be starring in the movie adaption of Kevin Kwan’s hugely popular novel ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ there was an uproar of delight. The out pour of excitement infected social media like a virus with profile shots of Henry Golding, jacket over shoulder and smouldering pout as symptom to this affect. A justifiable reaction considering how immensely proud Malaysians are of one another, especially when succeeding under the glamorous lights of Hollywood.
Earlier this month, HBO announced that its Asian arm would be producing a feature film adaptation of ‘The Garden of Evening Mist.’ This should have been the more significant news for several reasons. Written by Twan Tan Eng, a Penang-born Malaysian novelist, ‘The Garden of Evening Mist’ is an incredibly powerful piece of literature and one of the most celebrated works to come out Asia in the past decade.
It was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2012 — the first time for a Malaysian author — whilst easily sweeping up the award for the Man Asian Literary Prize as well as the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2013. Set in Kuala Lumpur and Cameron Highlands, it tells the story of Teoh Yun Ling, a judge, who tries to reconcile her experiences as a prisoner under Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War 2, as well as an apprentice to a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, during the Malayan Emergency.
The fact that many people in the country haven’t even heard of the book or its incredibly talented author, is a sad indictment of Malaysia’s reading culture. A study conducted by Central Connecticut State University in 2017 placed Malaysia a dismal 53rd out of 61 countries in the World’s Most Literate Nation ranking.
Although the previous government claimed that the national literacy rate is high (94.64 per cent for ages 15 and above) it is incredibly disheartening to see we are simply unwilling to read. A National Literacy Survey found that the average Malaysian read two books a year in 1996. To this day that number has not improved, in fact some statistics even claim we have regressed.
The knowledge we gain from reading books is incomparable to the instant gratification of online poets or the reactionary narratives we immerse ourselves in on social media. On the precipice of change we find ourselves in, never has it been more important to have a deeper understanding of who we are and where we come from. Here are a some essential novels about Malaysia that should be on your reading list.