When Malaysia came together to write 'The Great Malaysian Novel'

(Left) Muhyiddin, then MB of Johor, writing the opening passage for his state in ‘The Great Malaysian Novel’ on March 5,1992. (Right) The March 26, 1992, report in 'Section 2' on the contributors for the Perak chapter of ‘The Great Malaysian Novel’ that included MB Tan Sri Ramli Ngah Talib.

Almost 30 years ago, about 1,000 Malaysians, including Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, wrote a story together. This was The Great Malaysian Novel, a project organised by The Star.

I was motivated to write about it after reader Lim Kuan Cheen, noting that The Star was celebrating its 50th anniversary, posted on his Facebook saying he remembered a story writing campaign in the mid-1980s that "started with a chapter and the whole nation was invited to continue the story”.

"I remember there were roadshows, people queued up to write a line or two (in a big book?) and it was published bit by bit in the paper, ” he added.

He went on to ask if anyone remembered how it started and ended. Well, Kuan Cheen, Aunty certainly remembers it and she will tell you all about it.

It began in 1991 (not the mid-1980s), when I was the editor of the Saturday leisure pullout called WeekEnder. I came across a project in the United States that aimed to get as many people as possible to write “The Great American Novel”. I was very taken by it and proposed the idea for “The Great Malaysian Novel” to my bosses. Once it was approved, our advertising colleagues got Sheaffer, the well-known pen company, on board as the sponsor.

The first thing we had to do was to figure out the mechanics. This was long before the Age of the Internet and social media so we had to somehow get people to come to a venue to write in a real big book (you got that right, Kuan Cheen).

How to do that? Well, Sheaffer’s PR company Bozell made a wooden book "cover” with ring binders holding empty pages that we could take on a tour covering 12 cities and towns in all states (except for Perlis and Kelantan).

To pique public interest, my colleague Davin Arul, then editor of Section 2, The Star's features pullout, and I created an initial cast of characters. We were inspired by American soap operas of the 1980s, like Dallas and Dynasty, featuring scheming rich businessmen and their dysfunctional families.

We came up with Big Boss Chen, a tycoon who built an empire on tin and timber by ruthlessly clawing his way up and in the process "ruined careers, lives and even whole families”. He was 85 years old and lived alone in his huge mansion in Ipoh.

Then we added his family: his daughter Li Li, 62, a former socialite living in Klang with husband Damien Sta Maria who was Big Boss Chen’s CEO. Next was Li Li’s son David Pedro @ Daud Abdullah, 42, who was married to Latifah Hassan, 37; the couple was childless after 11 years of marriage. They lived in Petaling Jaya. Second child was Audrey, 35, married to Walter Lim and living in Penang with their twin daughters Amy and Wendy, aged 15. The youngest and Big Boss Chen's favourite, was Laura Anne, 28, a former model, married to lawyer Joe Selva. This couple lived in Johor Baru.

As you can see, we wanted a multiracial cast that was scattered in key Malaysian cities.

The Star and Sheaffer announced The Great Malaysian Novel project on Oct 22,1991. A week or so later, we introduced Big Boss Chen to Malaysians and followed up with a contest for the opening paragraph of the novel. We received 3,500 entries and the winner was Halimah Abdullah, a 49-year-old businesswoman from Johor Baru who won RM2,000 and a Sheaffer pen set.

On Jan 18,1992, the novel was launched in a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall by then Education Minister Datuk (later Tan Sri) Sulaiman Daud who wrote the second paragraph after Halimah.

It was a slow start. The first day saw only a handful of contributors. But as The Star kept up the publicity, word started to spread and the crowd grew. By the time the book reached George Town, its second stop, 200 people had written in the book. As the project became increasingly popular, mentris besar, chief ministers, state councillors, mayors and even royalty readily agreed to write for their respective states. All of them made the effort to bring in elements unique to their states, like landmarks, food and iconic schools, and so too members of the public.

The novel soon earned high praise from politicians and the public alike, who saw it as a project that promoted national unity and integration and that gave the English language a boost as well. Indeed, the novel became a hit with teachers who would bring their students to contribute.

Malaysians proved to be truly imaginative, introducing new characters like Faten, Big Boss Chen’s long-lost wife, her revengeful half-brother Somphon, Yakuza boss Iwata, ex-KGB officer Jenko Tatamovich, Chen’s loyal driver Ah Loong and many others. Davin recalls an Eskimo character and assassins with names like Chameleon and Scorpio!

As the story unfolded, we serialised it in the features pullouts of Section 2, WeekEnder and Sunday Plus, the Sunday magazine.

But with so many contributors, the story thickened to a pretty crazy, gloopy soup with multiple subplots and characters being killed off and then revived. Malaysians threw in all sorts of soap opera tropes like illegitimate offspring, half-siblings, affairs, greed, betrayal and lots of murders, attempted or otherwise.

The very difficult task of making sense out of it all fell to Davin who had to edit all the passages. To me, he is the true hero of The Great Malaysian Novel project.

Every state was a new chapter and after the book ended its stop in a state capital, the pages with the new entries would be quickly photocopied and sent by van to our head office in Petaling Jaya to be typed into our computer system.

To bring order and preserve continuity, Davin had to add his own bridging passages to the story. Entries which were too disruptive or affected the storyline too severely were dropped. The amazing thing is Davin estimates he removed only 15% of all the contributions.

As I look back at all the printed passages, what makes me smile and feel proud is how truly multiracial the writers of The Great Malaysian Novel were. We had schoolchildren, undergraduates, teachers, professionals, parents and retirees of all races whose ages ranged from 12 (the minimum age we set) to 70s.

As for Muyhiddin, he wrote in his capacity as Johor Mentri Besar at the time. He chose to highlight the rapid growth of Johor Baru, touched on its "irritating traffic jams" and added a new character who hailed from his hometown of Muar. He was reported as saying "I think it is a good project as there has never been a novel written by so many people before”.

How right he was! By the time the book finished its tour in Petaling Jaya in late April, more than 900 people had written in it. Unfortunately, we organisers did not think of getting this feat into The Guinness Book of Records (the Malaysia Book of Records didn’t exist then). That record, for most people to write a story, goes to 1,178 participants in a 24-hour event organised by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press in Beijing on Sept 6, 2013.

The final chapter, the 12th, was written by Selangorians, with the last entry written by Paras Doshi, aged 13.

The story, however, did not end there. We held The Great Closing Chapter Contest to tie up all the very loose ends. The winner was Ooi Kheng Hooi. Her chapter was published on Sept 16,1992.

The final book contained 1,107 pages with 855 entries written by 954 people, 955 if we include Davin. Sheaffer gave out more than 400 pens as prizes to contest winners and as premiums to contributors.

One of the things I really wanted to do before I retired from The Star was to reboot the project in the 21st century as The Great Malaysian Novel: The Next Generation. I believe it will work much better with today’s technology. People can write online and they will be able to see the story unfold in real time. The problem we had back then was how rapid plot twists and changes threw off subsequent contributors waiting in the queue.

I also believe that the hundreds of young people who wrote the 1992 novel and are all grown up – like Paras, who would be 42 today – would love the chance to take part again and encourage their children, the next generation, to write a new Great Malaysian Novel.

Kuan Cheen also asked where the actual book is. The Star donated it to the National Library where it was put on display for people to flip through and read the entries. I wonder what shape the book is in now and where it’s kept. Can anyone in the National Library enlighten us?

I started off by saying the project was inspired by the American one. According to Wikipedia, the definition of the “great American novel” is that it embodies the essence of that nation, generally written by an American and is equivalent of a "national epic”. Our novel certainly fits that description. The Malaysian flavour and essence was evident throughout and even better, it was written by not one but many Malaysians, and it was definitely epic!

My dear Star people, this old-timer congratulates you on your 50th anniversary and fervently hopes you will consider a 30th anniversary reboot of the greatest story Malaysians told together!

Aunty would like to thank Amin Omar, head of the Star Information Centre, and his team for their tremendous help that made this article possible.

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