The World of Singapore/Malaysian Fiction

Part 2.3 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.

Kok Liang's story is, however, important for another reason - the world that he presents is essentially a very ordinary one. It is, by that token, also close to popular sentiments. Both the assumption of an audience, and the reception of the work, are of equal importance here. Unlike poets who had always more or less written for a rather small and exclusive group, fiction writers had always pitched their work for the largest possible audience. In the case of fiction, an obviously serious work such as Gopal Baratham's A Candle or the Sun (1991) rubs shoulders with a populist book, written for accessibility, like Russell Heng's True Singapore Ghost Stories (1992). In addition to blurring the distinction between what is obviously literary and what is obviously populist (or commercial), fictional writing also takes advantage of a larger and more varied readership. Writers like Baratham have crossed over genres - Moonrise, Sunset, for example, is a murder story (a crime noire form) with strongly philosophical undertones. The net of fiction is much wider, and this inevitably raises questions as to what a reader might decide to include as part of the literature of Singapore and Malaya. What comes about in some measure from the very nature of fiction itself, its inclusiveness as well as the relative freedom, also means that writers have a greater variety of stimulation to draw from. Writers are also in a sense more engaged with the shaping of the reader's sensibilities and concerns. Novelists, for example, have taken the lead in tackling issues of Singapore's past and her heritage - issues that have currently gained importance and acquired urgency.

It is useful to recall that as early as 1971 Lim Thean Soo had already published a book of historical fiction, Southward Lies the Fortress, about the siege of Singapore in February l942. He followed this up in 1976 with Destination Singapore, a novel about espionage during the Pacific War, and efforts to steal the plans of the naval base in Singapore. These are obviously historical novels, and like Thean Soo, many writers have turned to their attention to the reinterpretation of past events, some even taking the reader back several generations to early immigrant days. While we see these nowadays as in some ways fulfilling a need by writers to understand their historical roots, perhaps not enough credit is given to the way therse writers realised that there was a hunger for identity and history as well as for the way they set about trying to fulfill this. Such writers have in their own ways anticipated the loss of cultural heritage and the need to re-establish links with the past.

Closely associated with these ideas is the mimetic nature of the literature with writers often seeking to present us with a 'slice of life', almost that of a photo-realism about events and character. Many set their novels against recognisable historical events - Abraham's Promise, for example, moves from the Second World War to the early days of independence. Baratham's A Candle or the Sun touches on the threats to the security of Singapore. Goh Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long (1972) has the Vietnam war as its context, and Lloyd Fernando's Scorpion Orchid works out the fate of its four protagonists amidst the political upheavals of the 1950s with their strikes, racial problems and communist insurgency. In fact, many writers carry this trend much further, going on to semi-autobiographical works - while we are reminded of Thean Soo here, Tan Kok Seng's trilogy, starting with the very successful Son of Singapore (1974) is another example, as is Kelvin Tan's All Broken Up and Dancing. (1992). Even when the story is not set against historical events, their authors make it a point to emphasise the specificity of the narrative. Here is Robert Yeo's Holden Heng being woken from sleep,

POM! POM! Suddenly he was jolted by the distant but distinct shots of piling. They're starting early this Sunday, the blasted developers, he thought. They had pulled down the row of shophouses off Orchard Road and started piling for the Plaza Singapura shopping complex (Yeo, 1986, p.3).

The persistence of such markers of time and place suggests that the writers are not merely using these for atmosphere, to provide an indication that this is a Singapore novel, but that experientially the narratives draw relevance and significance from historical moments. And, of course, even when such markers are not overtly stated, they remain as strong suggestions, as in Catherine Lim's short story 'Adeline Ng Ai Choo'. While this powerful story can be read and appreciated on its own, the schoolgirl's suicide announced in the very first line of the story gains poignancy when the unspoken assumptions of the teachers as well as their attitudes towards success are understood


Behind the differing and conflicting voices - from the teacher's letter to the principal, Ms Ramalingam's suggestion as well as in Adeline's diary - we can trace out the critique of a highly competitive and unforgiving examination system where to fail is to be stigmatised. Adeline's death gains impact from this 'hidden' and unspoken narrative, which the story's readers will share if they are from Singapore. Such 'mimetic' (i.e. imitative or representational) markers, if we may so call them, play a larger role than creating context and atmosphere. They create another layer of expectation and narrative, which the 'knowledgeable' reader will access and be able to enter into dialogue with. We have here an important characteristic of 'local' fiction, which has often been described as being merely mimetic and realist. Here we can see the presence of another narrative - one that is inferential and allusive rather than stated. Beyond the more obvious markers of time and space, we have a subtext that promotes discussions of other issues, putting before the reader matters that are often not directly stated. Such issues raise a number of questions that are central to the study of post-colonial literatures. Are we concerned with just context or does the whole problem of contextualisation allow other themes to shine through? Is this not, in the end, a good reason for the study of post-colonial texts - that the reader of post-colonialism will be that much more alert to nuances and ideas which other readers from outside the cultural context may not be able to see. Or, is all this possibly an indication of parochialism? Is it a plea for a special kind of knowledge and attentiveness, and when we do this are we not in effect narrowing the possibilities of a literary text? These are questions that you will have to answer.

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