As a run-up to our 60th Merdeka Day in August, this is the fourth of a fortnightly 10-part series of articles on Malaysian novels in English, Writing The Nation.

Malays writing and publishing in English have always played a significant role in the local literary scene, but until recently most have preferred to write poems, plays, short stories, memoirs, and sociopolitical commentaries. As a result, English-language novels by Malay authors came relatively late to the scene.

The first novel in English by a Malay author appeared in 1984 – Mohd Tajuddin Samsuddin’s The Price Has Been High. From then till 2005, only two others were published. From 2006 onwards, though, there has been a steady stream of Malay novelists entering the scene

Of the novels published between 1984 and 2006, six have historical settings. Three are true historical novels – the novels are set in the past and the narrative stays within that timeframe. These are Tajud-din’s novel, Iskandar Al-Bakri’s The Beruas Prophecy (2011), and Kamsiah Bostock’s Malacca: A Romance (2011). The other three are “heritage” novels – looking back to the past from a later timeframe. These are Adibah Amin’s This End Of The Rainbow (2006), Shahriza Hussein’s Legacy (2008), and Shaari Isa’s Kirkby: The Life And The Loves (2009).

This week, we explore The Price Has Been High.

The novel is set in the jungles and villages of Perak during World War II’s Japanese Occupation of Malaya. The central character is Rahim Yusuf. The narrative opens with the brutal killing of his parents by a Japanese major. Then only 16 years old, Rahim sets out to hunt down and kill the major but ends up joining the Kinta One Hundred, a guerrilla group led by Hassan Amin. The rest of the novel tells of his experiences as a guerrilla fighter until his death a couple of years later.

This might sound like an adventure story, but it is much more than that.

For one thing, it is the first English-language novel about the unofficial Malay anti-Japanese resistance. Until its appearance, most books about anti-Japanese resistance in Malaya were by British, American, and non-Malay local authors, all of whom had little to say about Malay freedom fighters. Also, in his “Acknowledgements”, Tajuddin tells us that events in the novel are based on his older sister’s recollections of their father’s experiences during the Occupation – the novel is therefore not pure fiction; it is part of our national history.

As history, the novel gives a more inclusive picture of the resistance than official accounts. Through Rahim’s experiences, we learn that all kinds of people were involved: the orang asli who passed on information about the movements of Japanese soldiers, the Chinese herbalist who healed wounded combatants, the wealthy Indian who made his car and motorbike available for the cause, the Chinese shopkeeper whose wife had been raped but who chose to stay alive and fight rather than die of shame, the Indian chapati-maker who fed those stranded by curfews.

The novel can also be read as a discourse on Islamic values. To understand the national significance of this discourse, we have to remember that by the early 1980s, Islam and politics had become intricately entwined, and many Malaysians were apprehensive about the rise of religious fundamentalism.

With this as background, the portrayal of Rahim and Hassan stands out as a reminder that there are principled and humane rules of engagement governing the waging of a defensive war or jihad. Young Rahim, new to guerrilla warfare, constantly asks how one can be just and honourable when dealing with invaders, oppressors, fellow Muslims, and non-Muslims.

As a good Muslim, he bravely confronts those who break the rules, including his leader, Hassan. Acting contrary to Malay custom, he voices his disapproval of Hassan’s order to kill 14 Japanese in their sleep, which he sees as murder. When some women wishing to join the group are laughed off by the men, he stands up for the women and gives the men a lecture on gender equality.

Hassan is not a bad leader. Although irritated by Rahim’s confrontational manner, he accepts the criticisms as justified, apologises, and makes Rahim his second-in-command. Throughout the novel, we are also reminded that it is not colour or creed – sometimes not even actions – that defines a person’s worth, but rather, intention. In the broad canvas of the fictional world, we find combatant and civilian collaborators, informers, procurers, Japanese sympathisers, brutal killers, and torturers from all communities. And we find nobility among those perceived as invaders and oppressors, such as Australian Alec Harding and Japanese Colonel Keiko Mimura, who lose their lives in pursuit of peace.

The novel’s message is summed up in the episode of a mass burial for the victims of war: “… Bahar’s prayers were for every one of them, Muslims and non-Muslims. They were, after all, the children of God.”

That Tajuddin chose to write in English suggests that he intended his message to reach not just the Malays but the non-Malays as well.

Chuah Guat Eng is a Malaysian author whose works include two novels (Echoes Of Silence and Days Of Change) and three collections of short stories (Tales From The Baram River, The Old House And Other Stories, and Dream Stuff). She currently teaches fiction writing at two universities in Malaysia.