An Anthology of Traditional Malay Literature is a collection of poetry and fiction, legal digests, epistles and religious treatises, narrated, sung or written in the Malay language, in the Malay Archipelago. This language was and is widespread in the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, in Kalimantan, (Indonesian Borneo), including Pontianak, Ketapang, Sintang, Banjarmasin, Kutai and Samarinda. It was the lingua franca for most of Insular Southeast Asia and even in parts of Continental Southeast Asia, and to be found in Southern Thailand, in the provinces of Satun, Patani and Nakorn Sithammarat, and some islands in Southern Philippines. This time-span of traditional Malay literature covers a period from the earliest beginnings of oral works, through the inscriptions on stone and metal, and through further developments in oral storytelling, the advent of writing. In the decades of the 18th and 19th centuries a collision with western colonial powers and their cultures has resulted in a literature that reflected this traumatic confrontation and also, the so-called ‘modern’ elements. Along with this too we notice the rise of the new genres of the report, the travelogue, the autobiography and biography, which interestingly are prominent antecedents of modern literature.
For scholars of Malay literature in the region the great oral bulk of stories and poems are as important and are as sophisticated as the written ones. Here too are to be found the roots, the early concepts, the prevailing aesthetics and also the different styles and art of narration. While oral literature began with the settling of the land many centuries ago it is also at present, in many places, especially those far away from the big cities, still quite alive. Stories are being told, poems sung and incantations repeated in everyday rituals or everyday situations. In Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang for instance, there are still some performances of the makyung dance-drama, while in Kelantan and Johor the wayang kulit, puppet theatre, is staged, though quite infrequently now. In the meantime, pantuns, the all-time favourite four-line verse form, are at present still quite robust.
While surviving as their roles as lullabies, verses for wooing, and proverbs, they are aggressively colonizing cyber space. What scholars of Malay literature consider to be oral literature would now include many different forms and genres, from the so-called ‘soother of woes’ stories, or penglipur lara, to the proverbs, mantras, pantuns, legends, comic and animal tales. While these are essentially narrated to entertain, they also provide much practical instruction, guidance for living, and moral lessons for those who would seek them, for many were/are those who found their moral lessons from literature. As its very name indicates, it is oral, not only in its composition but also in its narration and essential characteristics. The narrative devices used are, subsequently, oral too—like repetition of lines and sounds, a beauty culled from the music of language, where stock phrases and description are among its main features.