Wednesday, May 17, 2017


To say that this folksy collection of Malay sayings (generically called peribahasa) represents only the tip of a veritable iceberg would be metaphorically correct, if climatically inappropriate, considering the steamy, tropical, kampung environment from which they have sprouted. 

For generations, thousands of Malay proverbs, idioms, aphorisms, homilies and whimsical turns of phrase remained oral legacies - until 1878 when W.E. Maxwell began publishing parts of his personal collection in the early journals of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

In the 1890s two swashbuckling British civil servants and Malay scholars, H.C. Clifford and F.A. Swettenham, took on the task and started a short-lived trend; R.J. Wilkinson, J.L. Humphreys, and R.O. Winstedt were among those who followed suit.

Peribahasa  enjoyed  a burst of renewed interest in the 1930s, an era that saw notable compilations by E.S. Hose, A.W. Hamilton, and a Kelantanese scholar - Muhammad Adnan bin Muhammad Arifin, or M.A. Muhammad Adnan, if you happen to be a stickler for tradition and insist on the double initials that appear to be the hallmark of all bona fide compilers of peribahasa.

C.C. Brown, a retired civil servant and lecturer in Malay at the University of London, produced a lively and authoritative collection in 1951. The book was reissued  by Graham Brash in 1989. In 1992 the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society published an updated edition of E.S. Hose's compilation. It was edited by Tan Sri Dato' Dr Mubin Sheppard. To these last two publications I am greatly indebted, for I have relied heavily on them as references.

One of the endearing qualities of Malay sayings is their extremely graphic imagery, and I have claimed artistic licence with some of them. While many sayings are broadly interpreted, the ones with ribald connotations, in particular, have been prone to dilution as parents and schoolteachers with prudish tendencies have thought it fit to bowdlerize (or launder) them before handing them down to their children.

It is hoped that the zany flavor of the drawings and the freestyle elaboration in the text will underscore the ageless relevance and applicability of these homespun peribahasa.

Magick River

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