Ridzwan Dzafir is a notable Malay in Singapore. He used to be Singapore’s representative to ASEAN, hence his moniker: “Mr. Asean”. He also held senior positions at the Trade Development Board and was an ambassador to South America. Along the way, he wrote a book about his life, a book in which I played a role.
Last year, Ridzwan Dzafir published: “Ridzwan Dzafir : from pondok boy to Singapore's 'Mr ASEAN' : an autobiography”. Its publication came as a surprise to me. You see, Ridzwan’s son in law, Charles Barton, with whom I had worked on and off over the last decade, had promised to tell me when it was coming out. He had indicated that it was to be soon after I had last spoken to him. However, months passed, indeed, a good chunk of a year had passed – and I heard nothing.
This puzzled me, you see, early in the millennium, I had been given a manuscript by Charles Barton, to edit, written by Ridzwan Dzafir. I had been told very impressive things about Ridzwan Dzafir and had been led to believe that he was a “Great Man”. At least, that is the impression all the talking up of him, had left on me. Therefore, when I opened his manuscript about his life, I had high expectations of his writing. I could not have been more disappointed. The document was the most poorly written – indeed, illiterate – document I have ever seen produced by an adult. Virtually every sentence had grammatical errors. The language was clumsy. Much of it was “Singlish” in syntax and cumbersome in structure. Sentences were long, incomprehensible and very, very dull. It was, in short, shockingly badly written.
It became immediately clear that my “editing” job, had turned into a rewriting job. What made it even more of a job, than it might have been, was that there was no soft copy of this book: that had been lost. I was left, therefore, with a large pile of paper, typed with illiterate sentences, in a very boring style, to work with. I had no choice but to retype the entire book. As I did so, I rewrote every single sentence in the book, to eliminate grammatical errors, make the sentences comprehensible and make the words flow more smoothly. Sometimes, I had to work very hard to work out the intended meaning, of his torturous sentences, and render them in good English. It was not an easy task, because his writing really was the poorest I had ever seen, in one who spoke English as a first language. Yet, I worked hard at it, because of my respect for his son-in-law, Charles Barton. I wanted to do a good job.
One peculiar characteristic of the book was that there was so relatively little of the personal in it. It was, largely, about his bureaucratic career as a leading civil servant. In time, I would be asked to interview Ridzwan to gather personal stories, for planned incorporation in the book, to give it some life. I did two such interviews. I don’t know what use was made of them.
Anyway, I worked quite a few weeks on the book, every day, rewriting and editing his turgid work, into something readable. At last, I was done. I called Charles Barton to come and collect it, which he duly did.
As he left with the newly rewritten book and the original “manuscript”, I said one thing to him: “If it is ever published, make sure I am credited, for what I have done, on it.”
“Who needs credit?”, he replied.
”Without credit,” I answered patiently, “no-one can build a career. I need to be credited for my work.”
He nodded in reply.
I had made my position clear, on the offchance that it would be published. At that time, however, there was no indication that it ever would be, for it was, I had been told, being put together for his family.
It should be noted that the revised manuscript I handed Charles Barton was much improved over the original. It was now, at least, a readable work, whereas before it had been quite the most impossible book to force one’s eyes over.
Many years passed. My interviews with Ridzwan Dzafir were added to the tally of the work done by me. Yet, no word came on publishing. Finally, I heard that Editions Didier Millet would be publishing it. On being told this, I told Charles: “Make sure I get a copy…and don’t forget the credit.”
A couple of years passed and I had still heard nothing about publication of the book, so, one day, I entered Ridzwan Dzafir’s name into Google. I was shocked by what I saw: “Ridzwan Dzafir : from pondok boy to Singapore's 'Mr ASEAN' : an autobiography”, had already been published.
I clicked on the first link to mention the book and found a site that had uploaded the first few pages of the book.
I read the dedication. Then I reread the dedication. Then I looked carefully over the introductory pages looking for what should be there, but wasn’t. There was no mention of my name, or of the endless work I had put in, on the book, making it into a readable manuscript, from the biggest pile of illiterate rubbish I had ever had to read. I felt sick. Ridzwan Dzafir had broken his word to me. So, too, had Charles Barton. I hadn’t been credited at all – despite the fact that this book would never have happened had it not been for my painstaking input.
There was, however, a list of other editors and staff on the book, listed carefully. I could have laughed at the sick joke that was. The first person to edit and, in fact, entirely rewrite the book, was me – but I wasn’t credited at all. I had done much more work on the book than any of the names listed from Editions Didier Millet, since they had the benefit of working from my revised manuscript which had, at least, been improved to the level of comprehensibility.
I rang Charles Barton about it.
“Ridzwan’s book has been published.” I said to him, knowing that he would know this already. “How come you didn’t tell me?”
”I was hoping you wouldn’t find out.”, he said, rather disappointingly, for one I had long considered my friend.
“I am not credited at all, Charles.” I was hurt, but there was none showing in my voice. I was more amazed that Charles had told me nothing.
“I asked them to. I called them about it when it came out – but they said that there was a general credit to friends and family. I thought that wasn’t good enough.”
“I should have been credited Charles. I put a lot of work into that book. Don’t you remember that after I gave the book back to you, I said I should be credited if it were ever published?”
“I did ask.”
“It is not your fault…”, I said, thinking it could either have been Ridzwan’s fault – or the publisher’s.
“I am glad you think it is not my fault.”, he said. I almost felt him shift from one side to another as he did so.
The conversation ended unhappily, for me, anyway. It was the last time I ever spoke to Charles Barton – despite us being what I had thought of as good friends, for almost 10 years. You should note that this was his decision, not mine. He never returned my emails, thereafter. It seems that his father-in-law is more important to him than any friend – even if that father-in-law, claims credit to himself where it is not due, and doesn’t thank those who helped him, along the way.
I wrote to the publisher and asked them why I hadn’t been credited. They said that they had only done what they had been asked. That left two possible culprits: either Charles Barton never reminded Ridzwan Dzafir to credit my work – or Ridzwan deliberately omitted to thank me, despite the fact that his book would never have happened without my help, all those years ago. Then again, if Ridzwan Dzafir, was at all like his press, (which he isn’t), he would naturally have credited me, without prompting, for all the work I had done on his behalf. That he didn’t, is especially telling given the absurdly saintly public image he has.
Let us consider what is happening here. Ridzwan Dzafir’s original manuscript, had been not only unpublishable, but utterly unreadable. It had been, quite simply, impossible for any normal human being to get through. Indeed, that was why the job had been passed over to me, to do – because none of his own family could muster the attention required to do it. It had languished for years, in their hands, but not a one, of an extended family, had had the fortitude to work on it. An outsider was sought, because no insider would do it. So, I did it: I rewrote the entire book. One would have thought that my request to be credited, as having done so, would not have been too big a thing to ask: after all, without my work, that book would never have got to the stage of being published – yet, I see something dark in the failure to credit me. Anyone reading, “Ridzwan Dzafir : from pondok boy to Singapore's 'Mr ASEAN' : an autobiography”, might be left with the impression that Ridzwan Dzafir can write – when this is just not true. So, a possible interpretation of the failure to credit me for my work on the book, is that Ridzwan Dzafir wanted to create the false public impression that he was a fairly competent writer. He is not. He is, in fact, a wholly incompetent writer.
I do wonder, now, at how Ridzwan Dzafir succeeded so stellarly in his career. Did he do all the work himself – or did he develop great skills in securing the credit for himself, of the efforts of others? I wonder because how he handled the publication of his book, is an indication of the latter tendency. Ridzwan Dzafir has gathered to himself the credit for all the thousands of changes I made to his book, to improve its readability. Without the changes, the book, if published, would have told the public something surprising: Ridzwan Dzafir is essentially illiterate. Yet, now, the public are being told that Ridzwan Dzafir can write. The book as published had been rewritten by me – then edited again by a whole team of people from Editions Didier Millet. You must note, however, that Editions Didier Millet have actually introduced grammatical errors and stylistic failings (in my view) which were not there, in my revised manuscript. In revising it, I think they have put back some of the “Singlishness”. So, in that sense, the manuscript, as published, differs from the one I put together. They have also reordered it.
I can’t give a complete assessment of what they did to my revised manuscript because Charles Barton never kept his promise to me to give me a copy of the book. I am not going to buy a copy of a book that does not credit me for the work I did on it.
I lost a friend over this. Charles Barton and I have not had any two-way communication since. Yet, my response to this is coloured by a few observations. I asked Charles what he had asked them to print, in the dedication. He said: “I have kept no record of it.” I replied: “It will be in your email.”
His only reply to that was silence, total silence.
This does seem to indicate that it is quite possible that Charles Barton did not mention me in the dedication at all. It is also quite possible – indeed, probable – that he did not mail them, at all – or if he did, that that mail does not say, what he first told me, it said.
Thus, I am left to ask: what kind of friend have I lost, anyway? What kind of friend would do, or allow done, what Charles Barton did, after all the work I put in, on Ridzwan Dzafir’s book? Then, again, I had met Ridzwan Dzafir many times, socially, over the years, and for interviews. What kind of man doesn’t thank someone for all the work they have done on their behalf?
Perhaps, the only real, substantial thing I have lost here, is credit for the work I had done. I am not sure whether I have lost anything, in truth, on the human side. Perhaps, I never had what I thought I had, in that department in the first place.
Many people contributed to Ridzwan Dzafir’s book. Ridzwan wrote the first draft. However, I entirely rewrote it. Then, a large number of people worked further on it. Ridzwan Dzafir’s book is, now, very distant from the illiterate mess, I had had to work with. That should be remembered by anyone who actually gets to read it.
A final thought: perhaps the fact that Ridzwan Dzafir would not credit for his editing and rewriting, someone who had done so much work, on his behalf, is the most revealing aspect of the book – more revealing than any of its contents about the true nature of this unaccountably respected man. Note: Ridzwan's writing is "illiterate" when held up against the standard of what is conventionally thought of as good english. It contains innumerable errors of grammar, indeed, more than I have ever seen in anyone except a student of English as a second language. There are other failings, too, (see text above) but I think I have conveyed the general idea.
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Labels: Charles Barton, editing, Editions Didier Millet, not credited, rewriting, Ridzwan Dzafir, Ridzwan Dzafir from pondok boy to Singapore's 'Mr ASEAN' an autobiography, Trade Development Board