Where is the Reference Point? An Examination of Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise

John Yang, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Part 2 of "Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature"

Political independence frees a nation from the colonial impositions and oppression by the empire. However, independence also ushers in a new set of problems. A newly independent nation seeks an identity and a direction. Does it continue practicing the colonial traditions and institutions before independence? Does it hearken an idealistic "pre-colonial" era free of any influence from the empire? Or does it renounce both colonial oppression and pre-colonial nostalgia and attempt to create a unique identity in the 20th century?

Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise explores the confusion of protagonist Abraham, who grew up during the era of British rule but now lives alone during burgeoning peace and prosperity. Abraham criticizes his son Victor's generation for lacking focus and direction while also forgetting their Jaffna values, but he forgets that he criticized his father for disapproving of his own seemingly progressive lifestyle. Throughout the novel, Abraham looks to his memories and to his son for symbols of identity and pride, yet he denounces other people's expression of them. Abraham uses food as an example of this confusion and search for identity over lunch with Victor:

"I don't understand all these new restaurants, all these new tastes. No wonder young people are so confused today. They don't grow up on a steady diet . . . so they lack a clear reference point -- Jaffna cooking, Cantonese, whatever. It's just a jumble . . . Thai, French, hamburgers. No wonder everyone is so confused."

Victor smiles: an amused, tolerant and patronising smile. No one takes an old man seriously. (57)

Although this passage only refers to food, food in this context can be taken as a microcosm for direction. Many directions and many options are available in the search for social and political identity, yet none of the choices seem worthy enough. None of the choices provides a solid foundation from which one can build his national identity and in which one can take pride. Therefore, Victor's focus on wealth and social status does not please his father enough because Victor lacks the desire for a wife and family (more importantly Abraham's grandchildren) indicative of traditional Jaffna culture. At the same time, Abraham's symbolic confusion over identity prevents him from acquiring a share of the flourishing wealth of the independent Singapore.

More than extolling the virtues of modern Singapore, Jeyaretnam seems to expose the cultural confusion of a newly independent nation. The citizens of Singapore are politically free from their colonial oppressors. However, can they free themselves from Britain's remaining cultural influence? Abraham expresses this powerful dilemma most eloquently: "I am not nor will ever be truly free. Why is it that I still feel this is a battle I might have won, when surely it was lost centuries ago?" (40)

Political independence may then seem irrelevant after the British had taken their cultural independence centuries earlier. Does Jeyaretnam express the pre-colonial nostalgia of a newly independent nation? It seems that he disagrees with the point because of the substantial material progress that modern Singaporeans enjoy. Abraham must rely on Victor at times for financial support. Abraham is stuck in a bubble of his own notions of identity and pride and thus comes into conflict with every character in the novel. He disowns his son and must later beg for his forgiveness after he realizes that Victor is the only person he has left. Political independence does not imply freedom of one's soul from preexisting cultural institutions. Independence leaves a person like Abraham lonely, without a foundation, guide, or reference point to start building his cultural and political identity.

Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature

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