Tributes pour in for Salleh Ben Joned, Malaysia's 'uncrowned poet laureate'

Artist and activist Fahmi Reza's tribute portrait of a young Salleh Ben Joned, which he shared on social media. Photo: Fahmi Reza

The death Malaysian literary hero Salleh Ben Joned this morning (Oct 29) has sparked a wave of tributes to a man renowned as a sharp-witted, fearless and charismatic poet/essayist. Here are a few notable salutes:

"Salleh Ben Joned's knowledge of literature was superbly matched with a keen sense of humour and a willingness to always push boundaries. His worldview was humane and Malaysian, with none of the ethno-religious parochialism or political chest-thumping that marked the stodgy literary establishment types," says publisher, editor and filmmaker Amir Muhammad.

"You know - I always thought of Salleh Ben Joned as the type of person who would be around always. Fearless, vital. How sad, now, to live in the world and know he is no longer in it," wrote award-winning author Hanna Alkaf on Twitter.

"We have so many Sasterawan Negara, South-East Asian writers, but none of them made Bahasa Malaysia sexy and beautiful like Salleh did. I wish the Bahasa Malaysia poetry scene would speak more of him," says young poet Jack Malik, who considers Salleh Ben Joned as a major influence in his literary life.

"Below, a piece called Kebebasan, from Benua Dalam/Inner Continents series, part of my first solo show in 2005. It features a verse from Salleh Ben Joned's poem Di Detik Ini, Di Sini. As an overseas graduate returning to Malaysia, his poetry was a great inspiration and comfort. He showed me that re-inhabiting a land meant re-inhabiting a culturally lost self," wrote contemporary artist Sharon Chin on Facebook, referencing Salleh's poem which informed her artwork.

"Today Malaysia lost a truly great artist – poet, playwright, actor, agitator, thinker, disruptor of the peace and status quo. A brilliant, curious, humorous, restless mind. Your sense of the absurd unrivalled. Your love of the sacred and the profane, both deeply sacred and profoundly profane. Rest in peace Salleh Ben Joned," wrote theatre practitioner and director Jo Kukathas on Facebook.

"He was always very humorous and very sharp. He was fearless in expressing his opinions and upholding his principles," says veteran artist Long Thien Shih, who remembers meeting Salleh in the 1970s, when the poet was fond of hanging out with artists in KL.

"Meeting Salleh Ben Joned as a teenager was like tasting alcohol for the first time: an experience that opened a world. This is a loss," wrote writer and editor Zedeck Siew on Twitter.

"Salleh was critical and thought-provoking. He was a free spirit and unconventional and we loved him for it. We looked forward to his classes. Salleh didn't suffer fools and was feared for his biting comments. He also had a great sense of humour. There will always be the one and only Salleh Ben Joned," says academic/poet Professor Malachi Edwin Vethamani, who used to have Salleh as his English lecturer in Universiti Malaya.

"He wrote his column 'As I Please' for a few years. Readers gaped at the things that were said that they had thought could not be published. And they loved it. Salleh's column was much looked forward to every fortnight. He developed a cult following. We did other things as well together, and I live with the good memories," says author/editor Kee Thuan Chye, who oversaw columnist Salleh's works at the New Straits Times.

"Yes, it's sad that Salleh is gone. And yet I'm oddly happy for him. Like many of us, he had his demons. They will not haunt him anymore now. He has gone to a better place than he's ever been before. And he no longer has to take up arms against a sea of troubles which, even by opposing, he could not end," adds Kee.

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Salleh Ben Joned , Poet , Essayist , Death , Malaysia


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