What is Singapore/Malaysian Writing in English?

Part 2.4 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.

At any rate, to ask questions like these is to remind us of a key debate that has always plagued writings outside the Anglo-European world. This is, of course, the notion of standards and of quality. There is a whole spectrum of opinions here - with some arguing that post-colonial literature is read for its exotic qualities, or because it affords a measure of self-recognition to the reader, but that they can in no way be compared with the best works of literature from the United Kingdom or France. For others, post-colonialism challenges the canonical nature of Anglo-European literature and its discourses of cultural power. Post-colonialism allows new voices to emerge, and presents the reader with new experiences in a unique idiom. Whatever the case may be, you may feel that literary works should be judged according to aesthetic values and that special claims for their place should not be made. How important would you think it is to be able to say that you read Abraham's Promise not simply because it is a novel by a Singaporean, but also because it is an important novel with something to say? If you are of this persuasion, you then need to be able to define what you mean when you say that a novel is a good novel.

One way through which critics have attempted to approach this issue is through the notion of periodisation. Dividing texts into some chronological order, critics go on to argue for a development from the simple to the more complex. By implication, this suggests an increase in the quality of works as time progresses. Concepts of tradition and development are often closely allied to such periodisation, and writers are seen to be building upon (and improving upon!) previous influences. This is a highly questionable approach, not least because it does not follow that an earlier work is always the poorer one. Historical tradition may work in the case of literatures that evolve their languages from scratch; but if we think of Shakespeare or Milton, we can see how dangerous is the assumption that earlier works are the lesser in quality. However, a favourite way of approaching Singapore/Malaysian literature at one time was to periodise it. As Shirley Lim points out, periodisation does not simply divide texts into a chronology of genesis and publication, but goes on to make claims about their quality. She notes that,

According to many Singaporean critics, young Singaporeans today form the fifth generation of English-language writers.... to many of these same critics, Singapore's English-language literature has undergone a process of development from the 1940s to the 80s similar to that perceived in the post-colonial literatures of Australia, Canada, and the West Indies. The theory [is] that post-colonial literatures go through three stages of development - the first imitative of the mother colony's literature; a provincial stage when writers turn to local colour and nationalistic themes; and a final stage of confidence when writers are free to explore whatever they wish... (Lim, 1985).

Shirley Lim, with good reason, is suspicious of such a view of things. As our earlier analysis shows, from the start Singapore/Malaysian writing in English already reveals many of the themes which preoccupied later writers. Lee Kok Liang's 'Return to Malaya', for instance, shows a sophistication in the use of the heteroglossic and of dialogicity which is as complex as Catherine Lim's efforts at a much later stage. In addition, it cannot be said that the later writers were more confident than the earlier ones; many of the theoretical considerations advanced in the earlier days possess a potency and power that later writings lack. All these suggest that it would be unwise to use periodisation as a means of determining achievement. Simply to be a later writer does not endow a writer with better skills or a more profound voice. However, this self-evident statement still needs to be made, as the tendency remains to think of the literature in terms of a growth from infancy to adulthood.

Despite the dangers of periodisation, it is still useful to have before us a chronological map of the most important moments in the writing of fiction. The first stories written by S. Rajaratnam in the early 1940s are clearly important, laying, as it were, the desire to narrativise local events and to think imaginatively with a local voice. The first important development must be given to Lee Kok Liang whose Mutes in the Sun (1964), both in terms of quality as well as sustained narrative style, represents something quite radical. How significant this volume of short stories is can be seen in Lloyd Fernando's remark in the 'Introduction' to Twenty-two Malaysian Stories (1968), that the anthology 'represents exhaustively the best writing in English in this form by Malaysian and Singapore writers over the last dozen years or so up to 1966' (Fernando, 1968, p.2). Lee Kok Liang is represented by six of those stories, and his is clearly the most powerful voice among the writers then. In a way, this came to represent the pattern for the next twelve years.

Despite a number of new voices, such as Rebecca Chua, Goh Sin Tub and Geraldine Heng, writing remained very much occasional. Stories continued to be published in journals like Commentary or Focus, but there was little sign of sustained writing. These were years of ferment and considerable economic disruption, as we have noted, and attention was invariably given to survival over everything else. But although the output was low, writers did not stop; indeed, many of the writers hat have gone on to make major contributions started here. Three names come to mind - Gopal Baratham, Catherine Lim and Goh Sin Tub. Each has added substantially to the published oeuvre of Singapore fiction. Just before the new decade, Catherine Lim published Little Ironies of Life (1979). This collection, from which 'Adeline Ng Ai Choo' is taken, already bears all the hallmarks associated with Lim. We are presented with carefully drawn character types easily recognisable in Singapore society. Whether these are school-girls, taxi-drivers or teachers, the common chord is struck immediately. What Lim is usually not given sufficient credit for is her equal skill with the use of dialogue and speech. Not only does she possess an ear for the affectations and quirks of Singapore speech, but she is also able to use these structurally as heteroglossic discourses. It is, however, not just the stereotypes that carry the meaning of her story, but more so the way dialogues interact together.

Another writer to note here is Gopal Baratham, who brought out his first book of short stories, Figments of Experience in 1982. Gopal represents, one might say, the other extreme of Singapore writing. Here he is similar to Hwee Hwee Tan, and significantly both have chosen to publish abroad, making their choice and success of being published overseas into an ideological issue. Gopal's emphasis is on the story and its art. For him, art is like the well wrought urn of the American New Critics: Cleanth Brooks adopted this phrase from a poem by John Donne to represent an ideal of formal perfection in literature. The urn of such an ideal of art stands alone ,and politics and society are incidental to its purpose. Yet paradoxically, despite his claim that art stands alone. Gopal's works have often been read for their social significance and themes, demands many are not prepared to meet. Both Catherine Lim and Gopal Baratham have gone on to publish extensively.

In the period in which short fivtion was gaining prominence, Singapore's first novel was published. In 1972 Goh Poh Seng brought out If We Dream Too Long. Surprisingly, this achievement has not been given enough credit and insufficient attention is paid to Poh Seng. There are certainly many things that we can fault the novel on - it is clearly derivative of the bildungsroman form, and owes a lot to works like Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, as well as to the fashionable theories of existential angst (i.e.agony). Despite all these drawbacks, which have made some critics dismiss the novel as a young man's work, Poh Seng shows us how quietly desperate life must have been in the sixties. Kwang Meng may have his dalliance with Lucy the bar-girl ,or Anne the trainee teacher, but in the end he recognises that they too - like him - seek escape, an alternative. Lack of opportunities closes doors and in the end limits his life. As in Gopal Baratham, Catherine Lim or Philip Jeyaratnam we see characters trying to go beyond the limitations of space and system. For Poh Seng, the Singaporean is the perpetual immigrant, forced to struggle for opportunities truing to break free of the conditions of birth and land. In a key episode in the novel, Kwang Meng's uncle suggests that the young man

try his luck in Sabah. There were opportunities there awaiting the young and the adventurous, the stout of heart. Kwang Meng toyed with the idea. Why not? After all, like almost everybody else in Singapore, he was of immigrant stock: his grandparents sailing from the Middle Kingdom in those improbable small junks for the unknown tropics, for the Southern Seas, not knowing what lay ahead (Goh, 1972, p.113).

It could be argued that thematically the corollary of the heteroglossia of discourse is restlessness, often depicted as a search for purpose by the young. In this novel, Poh Seng puts in place a theme that anticipates later developments. Many subsequent writers have followed in his footsteps - from Robert Yeo's Holden Heng to Hwee Wee Tan's Foreign Bodies. It is, however, also a theme that finds a chord in the stories of immigrants - both Catherine Lim and Christine Lim Su Chen are among writers who have used the immigrant history of Singapore to comment on issues of origin and the transformation of society. If there is one shared characteristic between the style and the theme, it is the sense of vitality and energy that marked fictional writings. Whether it be the restless angst (agony) of Brinsley Bivouac (because his 'original name sounded too green', p. 4), inherited from a mix of Bruce Lee and frustration:

The one gift that Bruce left Brinsley was anger. He taught Brinsley that Anger could pull you through anything. He You could cry, fight and be rude. But Anger was the secret behind it all (Tan, p. 20).

In the street life of the gangs that roam through various parts of 1950s Singapore of Shark Head and Smiling Boy, in Spider Boy, we see the same high level of energy and desire for purpose. Central to all these is, of course, not just the novel as a work of identity but also a sense of the frenetic pace of life that urban living brings. And interwoven with such concerns is always the realisation of the larger political and social entity of Singapore the nation state as it undergoes fundamental reshaping. Even Spider Boy, which is set amidst the claustrophobic world of Chinatown backstreets, stinking canals and gambling dens that made up the lives of the street gangs, has echoes of the turmoil:

It is always the non-English-speaking Chinese who join the Communist guerrillas under the mysterious Chin Peng. Sometimes Curfews were imposed in certain areas of Ipoh, Kalantan, and Penang, which is not far from Chin Peng's headquarters along the Thai border (Spider Boy, p.109).

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