SPEECH BY CHIEF MINISTER OF PENANG
FOR THE PENANG MONTHLY BOOK PRIZE GIVING CEREMONY
ON 25 NOV 2017 AT BLACK KETTLE
Good evening, and welcome to the award ceremony of the inaugural Penang Monthly Book Prize, which I am proud to officiate.
Penang has long been a centre for intellectual and academic excellence. Many were the newspapers founded here, and many have been the writers who had their beginnings on our shores. We have supplied the country with many journalists, academics and authors.
Historically, Penang has paved the way in the publishing scene as well, as has been documented by Penang Monthly in its insightful Window into History articles.
Printing in Penang began as early as 1806 with the London Missionary Press, using wooden blocks as was available at the time. This was, in fact, the first press to be established in the country.
Later came lithography, then letterpress – all were available in our budding state during the turn of the twentieth century.
A number of presses were rather out of the norm – take Syed Sheikh Syed Ahmad Al-Hadi’s Jelutong Press, for example: Al-Hadi had no choice but to make his way to Penang where press control was less rigid, and here he produced the first Malay novel the Nusantara had ever seen in 1925.
Apart from the visionary locals, hugely popular foreign writers also visited and took inspiration from our shores. Anthony Burgess, writer of works such as A Clockwork Orange and Malayan Trilogy, spent time here in the 1950s, no doubt sipping his stengah at a verandah of the E&O.
Somerset Maugham, famous for literary works such as Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, once visited. Joseph Conrad, Isabella Bird, Han Suyin, the list goes on. The renown romance novelist, Barbara Cartland, even based one of her books on this island, titled “Paradise in Penang”, where in her Author’s Note, she wrote that Penang is “one of the most beautiful places in the world”.
Penang has also produced prodigious literary talents of its own, such as winner of the 2012 Man Asian Prize Tan Twan Eng, and poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra, among many. We are very proud of these talents that hail from Penang, and the state government is more than willing to provide writers and poets the freedom to produce ground-breaking works, without fear of prosecution. Literature should not be censored, and at this the state government has always been accommodating – just ask the Editor of the Penang Monthly!
While regretfully, the publishing hub has shifted south to KL and Singapore, we are seeing a revival today, aided no doubt by a healthy printing industry led by big guns such as Phoenix Press, the printer of our very own Penang Monthly, and smaller independent printers found all around the state. This landscape has much aided Penang Monthly as a magazine – Penang has the hardware support as well as the software to run a publication such as this. In addition, the state government is firmly in support of the arts, as can be seen from our support and sponsorship of GTLF as well as the region’s biggest and most anticipated arts festival, the George Town Festival.
Which is why, at eight years old, the magazine has matured into its present exciting form, and it is high time it gives back to the literary landscape that has contributed highly to its readership all these years.
The Penang Monthly Book Prize seeks to reward literary excellence, and while it is contestable as to what is accepted as “literature”, we are not short of contenders.
Literature has evolved, and continues to do so. Is Harry Potter literature? Some would argue that it is, while it can be firmly classified as Young Adult Literature. We have at the festival this year Zen Cho, an up-and-coming fantasy writer. Will she be the next JK Rowling? Time will tell. We have also had, as festival panellists in previous years, comic book artists and food bloggers. Surely those aren’t “literature”? As I said earlier, it is contentious.
But what the book prize aims to do is to recognise and reward “good” literature. We can tell straight from the start what has quality, and what has not. Be that as it may, I am certain that the judges, all esteemed individuals in their own right, had a hard time deciding on the winner. I'm pleased to announce that the winner will be walking away with a cash prize of RM5000 and a plaque.
The shortlisted books are a mixed bag from different genres, but from what I have been told, what makes them similar is that they tell stories of people: Malaysians from different backgrounds and all walks of life; people with different ambitions, caught in unexpected and difficult circumstances – stories that many of us can relate to. Dato’ Dr Ooi will walk us through the shortlist shortly.
There is only one winner, but that does not mean the others are any lesser achievements. Perhaps we will see your book on the shortlist of the 2018 Penang Monthly Book Prize? Time to hammer away on the keyboard!
I shan’t keep you in suspense any more. Dato’ Dr Ooi, please take us to the next item on the agenda.