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Musings On Poets And Poetry


SeeFoon talks to Cecil Rajendra, Iconoclast Extraordinaire…..


Long before blogs, Malaysiakini, Malaysian Insider, Raja Petra, there was Cecil Rajendra, an iconoclast extraordinaire, a passionate activist who firmly believes in the pen being mightier than the sword.

Rajendra who recently gave a reading of his poems organised by the Perak Academy at the Royal Perak Golf Club, is one of the few Malaysian poets writing in the English language today.

His poetry gives voice to the socially marginalised and acts as a conscience for the environment. Not as widely read in Malaysia, Cecil Rajendra’s poetry has travelled far and wide, cited by WWF, UNICEF, UNESCO, National Geographic and Amnesty International.

When I asked to verify if he was in fact a Nobel Literature nominee, he modestly brushed the question aside and said that the nomination came from Philippines and U.S.A. The fact that there is little local media interest on him is curious – which is possibly due to the controversial content of his writings, but snubbing a Nobel nominee who’s touted as Malaysia’s unsung poet laureate deserves research and this is what I did, albeit briefly.

Rajendra devotes his writing in awakening people to the burning social issues that afflict Malaysia and the Third World generally – oppression, injustice and exploitation, corruption and greed, want, hunger and poverty and ecological ruin.

But it is with Malaysia that he is focused and about Malaysia for Malaysians that he writes.

“Faults in another / that would not matter /
in our loved ones / assume / cataclysmic proportions /
and if i did not care / i would not dare /
chart / your many imperfections” 

excerptTo My Country’ from ‘Refugees and Other Despairs’

In a speech he made at the Asian PEN Conference held in Manila in the early 1980s, Rajendra’s address, “The Higher Duty of a Writer in a Developing Society”, sparked off a storm which was to envelope him in controversy for the rest of his life: “It becomes no longer a matter of choice, but the moral obligation and bounden duty of every responsible writer to bear witness to the times he lives in and to put his life and his work at the service of humanity.”

His speech, brief and to the point, was widely reported in the Philippines press and elsewhere in the region, but virtually ignored in Malaysia. His poetry is part of a total commitment and controversy would continue to plague him back at home where in 1993 his passport was retained for ‘anti-logging activities, which it was felt could damage the country’s image overseas’. 

His passport has since been returned to him and Rajendra continues writing his passionate pleas, his technique more Japanese haiku than Keats or Shelley whose poetry coloured  his undergraduate years,  his thinking influenced by such men as Amilcar Cabral, Pablo Neruda, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Cecil Rajendra is a practising lawyer and on returning to Malaysia after 13 years in the UK, initiated the country’s first free legal advice centre in a depressed rural area in Penang, serving needy people who would normally have no access to legal representation; as well as a mobile legal aid clinic (MOBLAC) to take legal aid to far flung villages in North Malaysia. He is a senior member of the Malaysian Bar Council and has chaired both its National Legal Aid and Human Rights Committees. He is also a past president of the National Human Rights Society of Malaysia (HAKAM).

His first collection of poems was published in England in 1965 when he was still a law student as Lincoln’s Inn, London. Since then his poems have travelled to over 50 countries and been translated into several languages including Chinese, German, Japanese, Malay, Tamil, Swahili, French, Thai, Tagalong, Urdu, Croat and Esquimaux.  In 2005, Cecil Rajendra was the first ever recipient of the Malaysian Lifetime Humanitarian Award for his pioneering legal work and inspirational poetry,   recognition which is long overdue in his homeland, Malaysia, where he is its most vociferous critic and staunch patriot.

His latest work ‘Tankas from a Tsunami’ marks his 19th collection of poetry. A new book is nearing completion. To be titled, ‘Parables, Prophets and Pillocks’ (pillock: an almost extinct word from the 16th century, meaning a stupid or annoying person, numbskull or blockhead) is guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows if not heckles. The new book which is a culmination of Rajendra’s writings in the past five years, which is centred on the theme of religious extremism and political chicanery, should have people sitting on the edge of their chairs at future poetry readings.

His poetry reading that evening in Ipoh was as he promised, “to entertain and not to bore”. He read from a selection of his extensive collection including some from his soon-to-be-published book. On whether he writes on a computer, he confessed to being a ‘dinosaur’ and still writes with pen and paper- pulp from destruction of trees notwithstanding. “But I don’t whip out pen and pad to record notes and thoughts at every opportunity. That’ll be like stopping in the middle of wonderful lovemaking and saying, ‘Excuse me darling, I’ve got to jot these feelings down!’ When I sit down to write, it all comes.” He continued to confess that he has a large collection of love poems that will most likely be published posthumously as they were too bawdy for publication while he’s still alive!

Ipoh Echo is fortunate to have permission to be the first to publish the following poem which should strike a chord in fellow Perakeans after the political upheaval of the past year.


With oversize head  / myopic pop-out /  foraging eyes /

And versatile flippers…../  these shrimp-like /

Slippery, slimy creatures / skip nonchalant /

from this bank / to that, then back…./

prompted only by / an appetite & the tide….

Anthropologists / far and wide  /

Come see them / perform their / self-serving antics /

Not in mangrove swamp / but in the mud and murky /

Waters of our politics!

Cecil Rajendra’s books may be purchased from the Perak Academy: 28, Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah Tel: 05-5478949 email: contact@perakacademy.com

Other sources: Scoob Books and Silver Fish Books.