Origins and Development

Part 2.1 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.

Fiction was never the favoured literary mode or language of writers in Malaya, and when it was attempted, much of the early efforts took the form of short stories. In fact, early attempts to write fiction were neither deliberate nor sustained. Poetry, in a way, reflective of the then colonial literary ideology, was seen as the test of creativity; and the best works of literature, it was often felt, should be in that medium. Fiction writers did not set out to be writers in the way that poets who felt that they had a calling sought to be. Catherine Lim - one of Singapore's best known fiction writers - calls herself a 'cultural anomaly' (the description itself is significant!), and reveals how she drifted, almost by accident, into her present career as a short-story writer and novelist.

In 1974, I was in the Regional Language Centre (RELC) on an English Language Teaching course, with teachers of English from the other Asean countries.... As part of the course requirements, we had to produce some instructional materials for use in schools. I had an idea. I would write six short stories and call them 'Supplementary Reading Material for Secondary Schools' and the stories would be 'local stories' (Lim, 1991, p.371)

Her tone, you may wish to record, while ironic, is also faintly apologetic, almost as if except for fate, she would not have begun her successful career as a fiction writer.

In any case, the process is similar to what happened where poetry was concerned in one respect. As with poetry, fiction once again was started and championed by the university educated elite, although without the driving consistency of poetry. Here the impact of the undergraduate magazines (Singa and Lidra) and the university journals (Monsoon, The Cauldron, Temasek, Focus and Tenggara) were important, often providing the first platforms for writers. Some of the writings found their way into anthologies such as The Compact (1959), and Bunga Emas (1964), the latter surely suggesting an emphatic reference to Engmalchin. Robert Yeo, in the introduction to his selection of Singapore Short Stories Vol. II, gives the credit of being the earliest fiction writer to S. Rajaratnam, who was already writing in the 1940s. Yeo notes,

S. Rajaratnam was very likely the first, for he was writing short stories in the forties.... (Yeo, 1978, p.viii).

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