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'The Detective' of Malay Manuscripts
Sun, Dec 26, 2010
The Brunei Times/Asia News Network

THE Malay literary world has lost one of its reputable figures. Prof Dr Mohammed Amin Sweeney, an expert in Malay literature, passed away on November 13 at his home in Cibeureum, near Cipayung, Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, at 72.

He is survived by a wife, a son, two daughters and four grandchildren.

His passing is a big lost for the Malay literary world. Enthusiasts and academicians of Malay language and literary would certainly know his name. Sweeney, a British, was an expert on Malay literary, particularly in oral tradition. His commitment to develop the Malay literary was still very strong till his death.

He was chief editor of horisononline, an online media of Horison, a prominent Indonesian literary magazine, which is managed by Taufiq Ismail. Taufiq Ismail is popularly known as a Muslim poet who often collaborates with musicians and singers, and has composed more than one hundred songs that touches on Islamic themes. Taufiq at one time was working together with Bimbo Bandung's famous folk music group since 1970s.

Just about two weeks before he passed away, Sweeney just completed a preface for a bilingual 1,500-page anthology of Taufiq's poems that he translated from Bahasa Indonesia to English.

I knew about Sweeney almost three years ago when I started to do research on Brunei history for The Brunei Times. He gave some notes to the Silsilah Raja-raja Berunai manuscript which became a reference for some Brunei historic books.

The monograph was published in Journal of the Malaysian Branch Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS) Volume XX, 1968.

But, I was impressed with his name: 'PL Amin Sweeney'. Who was he? Was he a Muslim? Was he the same person with the one who was close to Malay literary? I curiously wanted to know him and confirm it someday.

Last October, I visited the office of Horison in the East Jakarta area of Utan Kayu. A Bruneian friend of mine, a senior editor at the Language and Literature Bureau of Brunei Darussalam, entrusted me to buy several bundles of the magazine's old editions. I was surprised when an officer told me that Amin Sweeney often went and worked there and his wife, Sastri Sunarti, is an editor at Horison and an expert on Bahasa Indonesia, who also is turned out to be one of my Facebook friends.

I only knew about his death in an obituary written by Ajip Rosidi, a noted literary man and Sweeney's friend, in the Bandung-based newspaper Pikiran Rakyat online last week. In one of his essays, Ajip once coined him as "the Detective of Malay Manuscripts".

Sweeney had not only a deep knowledge about the academic world of Malay literary but also lived amidst Malay communities both in Malaysia and Indonesia since he was young.

He used to visit his Malay friends and discussed about Malay literary at their homes for hours. A Malaysian female painter in his blog showing a picture of verandah of her home where Sweeney, her father and other literary friends discussed about Malay literature till dawn.

"Uncle Amin often discussed with my father about Malay literature at home when I was a child," said Adlan Lutfi Abas, an editor whose father, Lutfi Abas, was a lecturer in Malay linguistic in Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. His close friends used to call him "Pak Cik Amin" or "Uncle Amin".

Amin Sweeney was born in England in 1938. In 1958 he joined the army and was sent to Malaya to crush the communist movement. While on duty, he chose to live with Malay soldiers and at one time he moved from Melaka to Kluang where he taught English.

While still a lieutenant, he taught himself to learn Malay language and Islam. One year later he returned to London and converted to Islam in London Mosque.

Driven by his enthusiasm in Malay language and literature, he studied them at the University of London. In 1967, he finished his study at the The School of Oriental and African Studies with Classic Arabic as his second programme of study. He completed his doctorate dissertation in Malay literature in 1970.

After that he became a lecturer and a professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (1970-1977). Then, he was an advisor for graduate and postgraduate programmes, Chairman of the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies (1986-1991) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Centre for Southeast Asia Studies (1991-1998) at the University of California, Berkeley, US, until he retired and became Emeritus Professor in 1998.

Sweeney married several times. His current wife is Sastri Sunarti binti Yahya Bagindo Alam, an Indonesian of Minangkabau ethnic group who works at the Pusat Bahasa in Jakarta. For that reason, he moved to Jakarta.

When he died, he was still processing his citizenship to become an Indonesian citizen from Malaysian. From Sastri, he got a daughter (Fauziah Maire Sweeney) and two children from previous wife (Abdul Mubin Sweeney and Maria Sweeney). As a scholar, he wrote many monographs and books. Among of them were "Malay Shadow Puppets" (London, 1972), "The Ramayana and the Malay Shadow-Play" (Kuala Lumpur, 1972), "Studies in Malaysian Oral and Musical Tradition" (with William P Malm, Ann Arbor, 1974), "An International Seminar on the Shadow Plays of Asia" (with Goto Akira, Tokyo, 1976), "Reputations Live On, An Early Malay Autobiography" (Berkeley, 1980), "Authors and Audiences in Traditional Malay Literature" (Berkeley, 1980), "A Full Hearing Orality and Literacy in the Malay World" (Berkeley, 1987), and "Karya Lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi" ("The Complete Works of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi", three volumes, Jakarta, 2005-2008).

The latest one, as mentioned above, was a translation of Taufiq Ismail's poems.

These titles show Sweeney's deep interest in oral tradition of Malay literature which cannot be separated with its music and wayang (shadow-puppet play). "Unfortunately, when I hired a performance of wayang of Cirebon version in Jatiwangi two years ago, Amin was unable to come, although he eager to see it," Ajip said sadly.

With the death of Sweeney, "We have lost a full-dedication and broaden-perspective scholar who saw Malay works and manuscripts intrinsically because he himself lived amidst Malay communities for long time," Ajip added.

His wife, Sastri, in her Facebook's wall wrote that his husband, Mohammed Amin bin Abdullah, had gone already indeed, but the man who strives to write works that will preserve the Malay language and literature both in Malaysia and Indonesia had reminded people that the Malay language is not limited to the colour of race, space, time, geographic and politics. "The Malay identity did not disappear from his soul till his death," Sastri said.

However, my question if PL Amin Sweeney is the same person with Prof Dr Mohammed Amin Sweeney is still unanswered.

 
 
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