Muhammad Haji Salleh

Article Bio Works
globalisation, modernity, oral tradition
Written and spoken word (essay, literary theory, Verse)
Asia, Southeast
Bangi, Kuala Lumpur
created on:
May 27, 2003
last changed on:
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Muhammad Haji Salleh
Muhammad Haji Salleh © Marianne Fleitmann (


Against cultural conformity

Born in 1942 Muhammad Haji Salleh is one of Malaysia´s leading poets. For more than 30 years, through his poetry, translations and literary criticism and theory, as well as by publishing the magazine Tengara, a journal of Southeast Asian Literature, he has been contributing to the literary and cultural life of Malaysia. Openly rejecting conformity to western cultural patterns, his poems often refer to myths and legends of the Malay oral tradition. Haji Saleh lives with his family near Kuala Lumpur.
Muhammad Haji Salleh is one of Malaysia´s leading poets. Born in 1942 he studied in England and the USA, and since 1978 he has been a professor for Malaysian literature at the National University in Bangi near Kuala Lumpur. He has also made a name for himself as an essayist, cultural critic, translator and publisher of Tengara, a magazine for Southeast Asian literature.

A central theme of his poems, written in Malay and English, is the conflict between town and countryside, between Malaysian and western culture. Openly rejecting conformity to western cultural patterns, his poems often refer to myths and legends of the Malay oral tradition, in which the genres are mixed quite differently to in the west. ´In the oral narrative one finds poems, stock phrases, dialogues, verse capping sessions, teasing and so on.´ Haji Salleh feels that these traditions are endangered by globalisation and the influence of the west. Though a poem of his is entitled Quiet Village, its quietness is not idyllic:

"the inhabitants are too poor, too desiccated to care to talk...
so they sit leaning against their houses´ stilts
feeling the force of the new, grip
... killing them one by one."

In his poem a ´singapore sequence´ , a city like Singapore is above all ´people, traffic and concrete´ The humans are just another form of debris: ´the pavement is crowded by indifferent feet´ The poet, translator and professor has difficulties with city life not only in theory but also in practice, as he has explained in comparing life as a visiting professor at Leiden University with life in Kuala Lumpur: ´Here you have everything, in particular important manuscripts and excellent libraries, and the main thing is that everything is just around the corner. In Malaysia the situation is different. If I wish to go to the library, I have to get through traffic-jams, losing two hours on the way there and two hours on the way back. So much time is lost... Above all, here in Leiden there are more Malay manuscripts than in Malaysia, so here I am in just the right place for my studies.´ (

For his literary work Muhammad Haji Salleh has received many awards like the honorary title National Writer, the highest one awarded in Malaysia.

Events at the HKW:
Thueday, July 6th, 1993
New Metropolies (Neue Metropolen)
International Literature Festival 3
Niyi Odundare, Lagos/Nigeria
Muhammad Haji Salleh, Kuala Lumpur/Malaysia
Edgardo Sanabria Santalíz, San Juan/Puerto Rico
Organiser: Interlit e.V., Erlangen, in cooperation with the House of World Cultures, Brotfabrik, Berlin, Literarischen Colloquium, Berlin and Literaturhaus, Berlin

Saturday, 2nd May, 1994
Writers in Concersation
Dialogue of the Cultures
Muhammad Haji Salleh, Malaysia, in conversation with Marion Bloem, Netherlands
Organiser: House of World Cultures


Born on 26 03 1942, Muhammad Haji Salleh began his career in 1960 as a teacher at a trade school. Since 1978 he has been a professor in the Department of Malay Letters at the National University of Malaysia. He has written several volumes of poetry in English and Malay and has published anthologies of Malay poetry. In 1975 Muhammad Haji Salleh received the Australian Cultural Award, then two years later the ASEAN Literature Prize. In 1991 he was awarded the highest honorary literary title in Malaysia: National Writer. He is also a professor of literature, a translator and the publisher of the renowned Southeast Asian literary magazine Tengara, as well as being a member of more than 40 literary, social, university and translation committees. He is often overseas as a visiting professor or lecturer.


Stories From South East Asia

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Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Penataran Ilmu

Beyond the Archipelago

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Athens, Center of International Studies, Ohio University

The Puppeteer´s Wayang: A Selection of Modern Malaysian Poetry

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Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

The Mind of the Malay Author

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Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Literature

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(ed.). Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

Time and its People

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Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd.

Selections from Contemporary Malaysian Poetry

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Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press

Tradition and Change in Contemporary Malay-Indonesian Poetry

Published Written,
Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia