Larger Intents and Amplifications

Part 1.2 of Singapore/Malaysia Fiction

Ban Kah Choon, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

The various possibilities as well as paradoxes that writing in English brought about would already be clear from the first part of your study guide but it is worthwhile to provide a summary as well as amplification of the key characteristics:

a. The need to 'domesticate' - to, as it were, 're-invent' - the language. This need took various forms; if you look at the explanatatory accounts to be found in the introductions and forewords by Wong Phui Nam, Edwin Thumboo and Ee Tiang Hong, you will be able to identify such an intent. In many ways, these writers were all writing in English, but remained uncomfortable with their chosen language. So one way of seeing a common literary project is to see how they created strategies to make English into a recognisably 'local' (Singapore/Malaysian idiom). A new language had to be created capable not only of reflecting the landscape which was, in a very real sense, being seen through new eyes, but also different in many ways from colonialism and its literature. Many writers in the 1950s and early 1960s experimented with Engmalchin, (as we have seen in the preceding part of this Case Study where 'the language [was] to be built around a selective basic English, with words from Chinese and Malay' (Thumboo, 1976, p.8). Nowadays we would call this an attempt to bring heteroglossia into the idiom. Debates about whether to promote local idiom, as in the case of Singlish or Manglish, can be traced to the Engmalchin movement.

b. Writers also saw their works in political and social terms - in the broader sense of a necessary effort to free themselves colonialism and its literature as well as the more specific one of giving voice to the Malayan landscape and its people. The aim was idealistic but in a sense perhaps slightly ambitious. Writers frequently took dismissive aim at colonialism, equatting its legacy, especially that of language, with the British imperial past of cultural, political or lingusitic dominance. Much of the discomfort and the subsequent failure of Engmalchin, with its efforts to rewrite the colonial language anew by simply incorporating traces of the local, can be traced to this deliberate distrust and rejection of the past even as writers continue to be entangled within its forms. For if the writer could only write in English, and if that implicated him in the colonial project, then he could never write. Self-distrust was one outcome. You might wish at this point to refer to the suggestions for Research Projects which invite you to think through some of these implications.

c. A closely related but often unstated point is the similar intellectual training and resultant social positions of these writers. While they may have come from different social classes (some were wealthy, others less so), they were all trained for, and sooner or later got absorbed into, the English educated middle-class elite by the university education they shared. Many of the influences and the unstated allusions in the writings proceed from this. While this may lead you to an understanding of shared influences and a realisation of a common social/economic outlook, there are also broader, theoretical questions such as Oedipal/power relations, and the effort by various generations of poets to reinterrogate and renovate the past in the light of this.

These three notions should provide a useful template for our discussion of fiction. For while, in a sense, fiction did not conform directly to any of these categories, we can still see them at work shaping and determining many of the concerns. And in our understanding of the influences, their differences as well as similarities, we may come to identify something of the importance, as well as the key qualities, of the fiction writer.

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