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.
Writers do not merely write to satisfy the needs of an audience. Otherwise, they would be writing very much to a formula. There are, of course, books written in such a manner and Singapore has, itself, some very successful ones that deal in the main with the occult and with sex, two staple items on the popular diet. Nonetheless, most writers have sought to bring their own voice to the tradition they have inherited, and it is in the way they have modified their heritage that the distinctive manner of their achievements can be found. Philip Jeyaratnam is no exception. He has the capacity to work within the inherited conventions of fiction as well as extending its possibilities. Before Abraham's Promise (1995), he published a collection of short stories, First Loves (1967), and a novel, Raffles Place Ragtime (1992). By his own admission, he began writing to combat the tedium of National Service. Like many of the writers it was realism that attracted him, 'the minutest detail' of life as he did his soldiering. Unlike his first novel, Abraham's Promise is a more thoughtful and crafted novel that is even handed in its treatment of Abraham, who lives a life of heroic dreams, and those around him who are caught in the web of circumstance. The book is neither polemical nor deliberately weighted towards one point of view or another. Here is its true strength - its presentation of a variety of views and possibilities. If we come to admire Abraham's heroism and dreams, we also see his shortcomings, how these drove him into a dogma as severe as those around him whom he despises. It is this heterogeneity that gives the novel its dignity and power. What we come to endorse in the end is Abraham's humility, his ability to recognise his flaws and to celebrate his triumphs.
The story is told through the reminiscences of Abraham Isaac, once a teacher of Latin and now seventy yeas old. Like the language that he teaches, there is much of value in his life but these same values are now threatening to become valueless in the world that he inhabits. In a sense, this is represented by his very successful son, who refuses to thread the same path as him - whether in terms of politics, career, marriage or sexuality. What his son inherits - and what Abraham realises at the end of the novel - are not the external trappings of a family name but something more vital, an ability to think for himself and to make his own way. It is this in this 'teaching' that Abraham succeeds whereas literally he is a failure as a teacher, having been dismissed by the authorities. Our discussion will, however, be focused on the way the novel draws together and uses the main concerns of Singapore/Malaysian literature that we have been talking about.