Isa Kamari: In search of a Singaporean Malay identity in a changing world

by Mitali Chakravarty


Isa Kamari

His books transport one to a past — a time where under the green creepers on a softly moving river, a boat sails and take one into a unique world of what has been. You discover how much the world has changed and how Singapore has evolved, you meet people who intrigue and bring to the fore the roots that created the little red dot. And yet some of his books look forward to a future – a world of harmony where technology and spiritual peace co-exist… Meet the author, winner of numerous awards and a voice to be reckoned with — Isa Kamari.

Isa Kamari was born in 1960 and lives in Singapore with his wife and two children. He is currently Deputy Director in the Architecture Division with the Land Transport Authority of Singapore, leading a team that manages the design and construction of transport infrastructures. While his profession is an architect, his passion lies in writing, though his architectural background has also found a way into some of his novels.

In all, he has written 9 novels, 3 collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, a book of essays on Singapore Malay poetry, a collection of theatre scripts and lyrics of 2 song albums — all in Malay. His novels have been translated into English, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Indonesian and Mandarin. His collections of essays and selected poems have been translated into English. His first novel in English, Tweet was published in 2016. Isa was conferred the Southeast Asia Write Award from Thailand in 2006, the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 2007, the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang from the Singapore Malay Language Council in 2009, and the Mastera Literary Award from Brunei Darussalam in 2018.

In this exclusive, he talks about his book Kiswah, whose translated version is being launched on 8thNovember in the Singapore Writer’s Festival; the  dramatisation of his novel, 1819 and much more…


Front coverYou will soon be launching Kiswah. It shuttles between various locales. Can you tell us the intent of this book? What led you to write it?

Isa: In the late 1990s, I was disturbed by the rampant spread of pornographic materials in in Singapore. Vendors openly sold X-rated VCDs near MRT stations, bus interchanges and bazaars illegally. There were also reports in the newspapers about the addiction to pornography amongst professionals and the young. At the same time, I knew from my wife, who was doing voluntary service at a welfare home, that there were many family breakups arising from sexual abuses. All these compelled me to ponder on the topic of manifestation of sexual life in relation to spirituality or the lack of it. The various locales — like Delhi, Agra, Kashmir, Kathmandu and finally Mecca — becomes the background for me to explore, confront, interrogate and somewhat find a resolution on the topic.


This will be your fourth book with Kitaab. This one is a translation from Malay to English. All the others have been in a different language. Intercession was published in Urdu by Kitaab, originally written in Malay, then translated to English and last to Urdu. 1819 was brought out in Jawi earlier this year. Tweet was your experiment in English. You seem to be using multiple languages. What is the intent of translating into and using multiple languages?

Isa: I want my works to travel and be read in many languages. I feel that readers need to know about the Malays in the context of Singapore and the world. I want to present the issues faced by us Malays, who are mostly Muslims, to readers afar — concerns that are to do with what we confront, negotiate and resolve. And these issues are actually very vital, relevant and significant to everyone – issues on displacement and dispossession of a people, reinterpretation of established history, compartmentalisation of temporal life and spirituality, and many more.


What is it that motivated you to bring 1819 out in Jawi this year? Why the sudden interest in Jawi now?

Isa: Jawi was and is still part of Malay identity, although it has become less significant and functional these days, but it has not disappeared. I would like to think that Duka Tuan Bertakhta (1819) is a pivotal work. And I am taking the opportunity of the Singapore Bicentennial to launch it in Jawi, a kind of reminder of its significance in Singapore history to fellow Singaporeans, including the Malays. At that period Jawi was the script used in all formal correspondences. Raffle knew how to read and write in Jawi. There is a huge collection of Malay manuscripts on culture, religion, sciences, weaponry, medicine, law and public administration written in Jawi which are available in this region and abroad. Those significant works were written in the past. I would like to think that Duka Tuan Bertakhta will be one of these in the future. The challenge is to make these works in Jawi readily accessible.


How did 1819, a historical novel, come about? What led you to write the book?

Isa: Let me begin by stating that 1819 is an abridged version of Duka Tuan Bertakhta. There are more juicy and pivotal segments in the original Malay.

Coming back to the genesis of 1819, I was reading a monograph written by Muhammad Ghouse Khan Surattee on Habib Nuh, the Grand Muslim Saint of Singapore. I chanced upon an intriguing piece of information that he came to Singapore from Penang in 1819. In fact, he was invited by a Sufi master to come to this island. I was also reading on the works by the late Syed Hussein Alatas and Khairuddin Aljunied on Raffles. One undeniable fact is that Raffles was anti Islam. It dawned upon me that Habib Nuh’s visit to Singapore was to counter the Freemason ideology brought and established in Bencoolen and Penang by Raffles. This became the central thesis of the novel. Other historical characters like Munshi Abdullah, Sultan Hussein, Temenggong Abdul Rahman, William Farquhar, John Crawfurd and Wak Cantuk added depth, colour, drama and more intrigue to the narrative.


I have heard that 1819 was made into a play and is being shown from October 16thto 20th. Can you tell us a bit about that? Did you be do the scripting yourself?

Isa: Yes, 1819 is the inspiration to ‘Tanah’ (Land), the first of two parts of ‘Tanah. Air’ (Land. Water), a theatre that has been staged by Drama Box in October this year. It was in Chinese and Malay with English subtitles* and staged at the venue of Taman Warisan, which was the centre of Malay aristocracy and public life in 1819. The other part, ‘Air’ is on the Orang Seletar, the indigenous people of Singapore. The creative director read my novel Rawa and interviewed the Orang Seletar who are now living in Johore. His conversation with the Orang Seletar forms the basis of the second part of the play.

I did not write the script but am happy that the ghosts of characters from the past walked the grounds of the palace of Sultan Hussein in Kampong Glam.


There was a buzz about your retranslating 1819 into English? Why would you want to do that?

Isa: The current English translation of Duka Tuan Bertakhtaor or 1819 was targeted at the native English-speaking readers. The publisher, who was also the translator, felt that there were some sections of the novel that would not be palatable to them — such as the magical powers of Habib Nuh and the Freemasonry mission of Raffles. There was also a deadline. I agreed to let it go on the basis that the main narrative was intact. The novel in its abridged form has served its purpose — having created the interest and having been and translated into Mandarin. Now, it is now ready to be translated into English in its entirety.


TweetTweet was your first English novella. How did it develop?

Isa: I wrote a theatre script Sidang Burung (Trial of Birds) which was inspired by the great Sufi work ‘Conference of the Birds’ by Fariduddin Attar. It was staged by Teater Ekamatra in 2008 at the Esplanade. As you know a play is a collaborative work by the scriptwriter, director, players, backstage crew and the rest. As a writer I felt the need to reaffirm my authorship, thus, to write it in the form of a novel and take the chance to update the issues and reassess my views. Tweet is my exploration on the definition of spirituality as a positive, vital and compelling need to accept and embrace everyday living with grace and compassion. Post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore becomes the background and test-bed for this aspiration.


Tweet took you on a journey to Canada in 2018. Can you please share your experiences with us? How was its reception in Canada?

Isa: Dr. Wendy O’Brien, philosopher and avid Art enthusiast based in Toronto, chaired the forum I was in, at the Toronto International Festival of Authors. She thought that Tweet had the message that the world needs to hear. The need to walk this earth gently and beautifully, which is the calling in Tweet, amidst all the strife and trouble faced by peoples in many countries, is the antidote that the world has to take today. The session which was full house was an affirmation for me that we in Singapore and Asia have a lot to offer to readers in other parts of the world.


You have written both historic and spiritual novels. Is there a meeting point in the two streams?

Isa: I would like to think that the spiritual journey is somewhat speculative of the future. I look at the past and explore the future to define my ever-changing present.


Which kind of writing do you enjoy more, historic or spiritual?

Isa: The two streams come from the same source. It is actually one and the same, the mirror of one another. As such I cherish both searches and manifestations.


IMG_0757.JPGCan you tell us how you came to create Intercession? Was it a comment on Islam?

Isa: It came about because of 9/11. The world was pointing fingers at Muslims. Although I know that most of the accusations were unfounded, I wanted to look deep into Islamic intellectual and spiritual life to make sense out of it and find some resolution of the issues on terrorism and its root causes. The journey brought me to the interpretation of Islamic history. Should Muslims replant the sacred history of the Prophet wholesale, or reassess and creatively manifest its principles in the context of the world today?

Hira, the clone of the Prophet is the literary device that I used in the novel to explore this fundamental question.


In the wake of the current mood of the world, do you feel that a novel like Intercession will find acceptance, both from Islamic and non-Islamic communities?

Isa: I would like to think that Intercession is the urgent work that needs to be read by all. It has been translated into English, Urdu and Arabic. The Hindi version is in the pipeline. I am hopeful that it will travel far.


Are you planning another novel? I had heard that your next book will have something to do with middle-east. Would you like to tell us about it?

Isa: My venture into the middle-east is in the translation of Tawassul (Intercession) into Arabic. I am still looking for a publisher there. This exploration really excites me. It is like returning the very issue at hand to where it all began, the Middle-East. I am ready to face any repercussion. A warm intellectual and spiritual welcome would be refreshing.


Are you looking forward to having more of your works translated or do you want to write in English yourself? Why?

Isa: I always welcome the first and am still hopeful of the second. I just want to be read by as many as soon as possible.


What are your future plans?

Isa: I am getting my novel Satu Bumi (One Earth) translated into Thai, exploring the possibility of re-translating Duka Tuan Bertakhta into English and getting more works translated into as many languages as possible.


*There are screens on which the English subtitles show up.


Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and editor and blogs at


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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Kitaab.

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