Sunday 18 December 2011

An Exercise

He has been described as an English author, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator, literary critic, librettist, broadcaster, autobiographer, reviewer, a sometime sergeant-major, a school teacher and Manchester's finest author.

It was said he spoke fluently in 8 languages - Malay, Russian, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Welsh and English  and some Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish and Persian.

Just because he was a teacher in MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar) and Kota Bharu Teachers' Training College from 1954 to 1957 and he wrote the 'Malayan Trilogy' after his 3 years sojourn in the Peninsula, he has been accorded quite a celebrity status by our literati class.

From 1958 to 1959 he was teaching in SOAS  (Sultan Omar Ali Saifudin) College - a very brief stint - because he 'collapsed' in his classroom and was sent home to England supposedly diagnosed with a brain tumour.  But he carried on living and writing for another 34 years and when he died he left behind quite a handsome property portfolio - a villa in Provence, in Callian of the Var, France and an apartment off Baker Street, London and some other locations.

When I was teaching in Brunei, I met an elderly English Language lecturer who worked with him when he was in Brunei.  She said the collapse in SOAS College was a ruse so that he could escape teaching on medical grounds, without losing his perks.  I checked on this.  In the late 1980s  he admitted that it was a "a willed collapse out of sheer boredom and frustration".

This 'contrarian' was John Burgess Wilson ( 1917-1993) otherwise known as Anthony Burgess, an illustrious son of English literature and culture.  In some circles he's regarded as a  20th century version of Byron.

I had heard of AB but I must admit I'm not too fond of fiction.  When I was doing my Masters in Leicester, I came across this article by AB,  "From Kampong to Computer" in the Sunday Observer of April 1984.  As part of my coursework I had to prepare a Comprehension Exercise for EL2 students and this was what I did.

My passage for the exercise was AB's article in the Sunday Observer.  Here is an extract from that article.

As the reproduction is not too clear - the script is after all 27 years old - I thought it would be best if I type it out.

The Malay for Malaysia,  Tanah Melayu, means 'Malay Land'.  It is Eurasian,  Sikh and Chinese land as well, and you can add to the deeds of proprietorship other, smaller races, including Buginese
and such aboriginals as the Temiars and Negritos.  But the Malays call themselves the  bumiputra or sons of the soil, and they call their language the bahasa negara or national tongue.  Malaysia is confirmed as the country of the Malays, and this is causing trouble among other Malaysians.

I served in Malaysia (which the British then called Malaya) in the 1950s, when what had been a British protectorate was moving towards independence.  I went back two years ago to make a television film.  I noted changes, and these had much to do with the new assertiveness of the Malays.  But the physical impact of that lovely country remained much what it had always been - hot, humid, green, jungly, fruity, snaky, the yodelling of the bilal on his minaret, punctuating loud pentatonic Chinese song on the radio, the ringing of the trishaw bells, the hawking and spitting of the long fasting day of Ramadan, the cry of the fever bird.

In the days of Somerset Maugham, Malaya relaxed in the warmth of a May afternoon that seemed likely to last forever.  It was wealthy then as it is now.  Rubber had been taken from Brazil to Kew Gardens, and from Kew Gardens to the state of Perak, where it flourished and bled endless latex to be processed into tyres and contraceptives.  In that same state of Perak (which means silver), tin proved more abundant than the costlier metal.  Tamil immigrants worked on the rubber plantations; the Chinese came to mine the tin.  Both industries supported a commercial structure which fed cultural transplantations from India and China.

The Malays had nothing to do with either industry or commerce: they stayed in their kampongs, growing rice, catching fish, training beroks or rhesus monkeys to hurl down coconuts.  The British took care of secular government for all the races.  The Malays, whom Arab traders had converted to Islam, gave sultans and rajas to oversee the administration of Muslim law.  Islam and British paternalism supported each other in a bizarre compromise which worked.

I divided my exercise into four parts.  Section A dealt with  "How are you going to read?",  Section B with "Language Work".  Section C looked at "Using and Deriving Information from the Passage",  and Section D with "Making Judgements about the Passage".

This Comprehension  exercise was meant for EL2 advanced learners at Sixth Form, University and Teachers' Training Colleges.  I stated in the Teacher's Notes that the purpose of the Exercise is to "develop critical reading skills ..... so that the student will be able to evaluate and make critical substantiated judgement about the quality, value, accuracy and truthfulness of what they read".

In Section B, I  inserted a part on 'The Use of  Words'.

A question  in Section C served to illustrate the relationship between statistics and statements and its interpretation.

The question :

3.  Look at the table below which shows the composition of the people living in Malaya.
     a.  What are the main races in Malaya according to (1) the writer's interpretations and  (2) the statistics?

For Section D, 'Evaluation'  I stated in the Teacher's Notes :  "This section deals with an analysis of the passage beyond the syntactical and semantical stage of comprehension, an aspect of reading which has not been given sufficient attention at the ESL (English as a Second Language) level.  The paralinguistic elements of any language that is used as a medium or object of instruction has to be included within the scope of reading, a level of reading  'between and beyond the lines' ........ to help the student to evaluate and understand the writer's intent, however noble or ignoble."

                                                      SECTION  D - EVALUATION
Making judgements about the passage.

Part I.  Recognising the difference between a  FACT and an OPINION.

A FACT reports what has happened or exists.  Its truth can be tested or verified.  Example : Tottenham Hotspurs beat Liverpool City 5-0.
An OPINION does not aim to report but to classify and persuade.  It expresses a feeling of approval or disapproval.  Whether the opinion is true or false cannot be demonstrated.  Example: John drinks too much.

Which of these statements are facts and which ones are opinions?  Write next to the sentence F for facts and O for opinions.

Paragraph 1
1. The Malay for Malaysia,  'Tanah Melayu' means Malay land.
2. Malaysia is confirmed as the country of the Malays and this is causing trouble among other Malaysians

Paragraph 2
3. I served in Malaysia in the 1950s.
4. I noted changes and these had much to do with the new assertiveness of the Malays.

Paragraph 3
5. In the days of Somerset Maugham, Malaya relaxed in the warmth of a May afternoon that seemed likely to last forever.
6. Rubber had been taken from Brazil to Kew Gardens and from Kew Gardens to the state of Perak.

Paragraph 4
7. The Malays had nothing to do with industry or commerce: they ........monkeys to hurl down coconuts.
8. Islam and British paternalism supported each other in a bizarre compromise, which worked.

Part II.  There are several ways by which a writer can give a slanted account of his subject.

1. By using emotionally-laden words, e.g. Yesterday, four brave and courageous policemen braved gunfire to capture the ruthless gangsters.  CLUE: look for the adjectives.
2. Implication by association so as to give his statement authority. e.g. A politician who never talks about his war experiences but makes certain that he tells stories about them to his audience.
3, By generalistion, e.g. To commit murder is wrong under all circumstances. CLUE: Ask yourself the question, "What is the evidence?"

Write down an example for each style of slanted writing from the passage.

1. Emotionally-laden words

2. By association

3. Generalisation

Part III.  You are a Malaysian Malay student. Write a letter to the author explaining why you disagree with some of his views.

Part IV.  You are a TV film producer and you want to make a short film about Malaysia with the intention of promoting tourism in the country.  Write brief notes about the scenes you would like to show after reading this passage.


1. As to the part about making 'critical substantiated judgement about the quality, value, accuracy and truthfulness of what they read',  Brian Harrison - my lecturer - commented,  "a tall order".  I disagreed with him then.  But 27 years later, looking at the unquestioning imbibement and imitation of material from the print, electronic and celluloid world I have to admit Brian was right.

2. We are very proud that literacy rates have improved tremendously.  Today, more people can write and read, not like some of our parents (like my mother) and especially our grandparents.  We claim that many of our youngsters are bilingual and trilingual.  But how many of them are capable of reading between and beyond the lines?  How many of our schoolkids are actually just 'barking at print' and getting more and more  mesmerised by electronic communication?

3. Anthony Burgess was described as " a man who loves and knows language so well he can twist and reinvent it to his own purposes."  There are now many wordsmiths like him - both local and foreign.

I shall end with AB's words:  It is one thing to use language; it is quite another to understand how it works.


mekyam said...

thank you, AsH! i always get an interesting new lesson every time i stop by.

totally agree with you. we certainly increased literacy, but judging by the quality of most of today's communication among our countrymen, somewhere along the way "thinking" must have fallen out of the syllabus. :D

p.s. stopped by to share what i picked from Puteri Kamaliah's FB wall, an interesting article on IB's "The Armies Of God":

p.p.s. getting myself a copy right away. :)

anak si-hamid said...

Thank you mekyam,

As always I get a thoughtful comment from you. The awful thing is, we have done it all by ourselves - to stop thinking, despite merdeka and all. Most criminal of all we have done the same to our future generation - brought up on a diet of shoddy 'bread and circus'.

Also thank you from Iain and I about "The Armies of God".