What Are the Prices To Be Paid For Peace and Prosperity?

John Yang, Class of 2000, EL 119, Brown University

Singapore boasts of wealth and prosperity greater than that of any other "postcolonial" country. Even Singapore's most underprivileged citizens live in modest style and situation, a level not yet realized by most of the world's underprivileged strata. Amidst this vast increase in wealth and prosperity, Gopal Baratham shows us the prices that Singaporeans pay for their comfort and security in his novel A Candle or the Sun. In addition, Baratham depicts a tyrannical government that will use any measures to preserve the status quo of Singaporean society.

Baratham tells us the story of Hernie Perera, a modest Singaporean who wishes for a better life and subsequently takes a job writing for his long time friend Samson. Unfortunately, to prove his loyalty to the government he must expose the "Children of the Book" Christian sect, a group of which his lover Su-May is a member. Hernie finds himself caught between proving his loyalty to the government and betraying Su-May. He ultimately pays the price for his wavering loyalties while Peter, Su-May, and even seem to accomplish what they had hoped, at the sacrifice of Hernie.

Even before Hernie decides to take Samson's offer, he knows the type of writing and propaganda he would be asked to do, stating

Once I accepted Sam's job, I was sure I would have to do things I found distasteful. In my writing, I would support causes of which I disapproved, distort reality if my masters wished, suppress truths inimical to their purpose. I suppose this loss of self-respect is what distressed me. It must be something that all whores grappled with. (85)

Hernie recognizes the disagreeable actions he would have to undertake, yet he decides to take it to free himself from the dead-end job at Benson's. He realizes that he would have to sacrifice his integrity in order to perform his duties as a national writer, or as he would refer it, "whore" himself to the government. He tries to resolve his dissonance between enjoying the act of writing and writing about things his does not enjoy:

Now, forced by circumstances to throw in my lot with Sam and his people, I realized that my insulation was not enough to protect me from an awareness I found extremely disagreeable. I had decided to compartmentalize my life, to live in sealed rooms that had no communicating doors. But words made this impossible. They crept like mildew along the walls, spreading from one room to the other, connecting them. (109)

Indeed, Hernie cannot compartmentalize his life, and he decides to help Su-May and Peter escape after he himself had exposed them. He lets his sentiment take the best of him, and he writes in his short story "Dutch Courage" that "whichever of us allowed sentiment to affect his judgement was doomed." (165) Hernie's words are prophetic for he is subsequently arrested and beaten by government officials.

Hernie's story represents the sacrifices one must make in order to improve his life in Singapore either financially or socially. Hernie cannot make these sacrifices. Is Baratham setting up an opposition between integrity and prosperity in Singapore? Must one accept a position similar to that of Hernie or even Anuita to even have a chance to improve? Is Hernie a victim of sentiment or a victim of integrity?

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Gopal Baratham