Attitudes toward Colonialism in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Like many postcolonial novels from Africa, Abraham's Promise contains a passage in which an ordinary citizen recalls the good old days of colonialism. After a political discussion about "the party of the future," a friend comments to his father, "Politics, politics. In my time we never had to worry about such things. The British took care of everything. Am I speaking correctly, Isaac?" [105]. Here such a remark suggests that the average older Singaporean doesn't want to take responsibility for demanded for citizenship, but in African novels, such Chinua Achebe's Antills of the Savannah, such a complaint represents a more fundamental disappointment with independence.

Jeyaretnam himself makes such a potentially disillusioned contrast between the colonial past and the independent present in one of the novel's moment of high comedy. When Abraham, who has written a political letter to a newspaper, is called into the headmaster's office, he steels himself for condescension and rebuke. Instead, the headmaster compliments his writing and then gives him advice clearly intended to protect one of his best teachers:

"I read your article. Fine piece of writing. Now, I have no objections to it or to your continued involvement in the Union or whatever. I've also heard good things about your [100/101] teaching. A number of parents have said that their sons have become much more interested in English and Latin, and much more hardworking, because of your teaching. Keep it up. I have just one thing to say."

I curled my lip, to express contempt for the censure that must follow. ]

"Please exercise your discretion carefully. Remember, the pupils' success in exams comes first. Their political awareness second. That's all." [100-101]

Poor Abraham! According to his own narration of this episode, he can't even make himself a proper political martyr. But as we soon learn, Abraham at one point in his career does become a martyr to principle -- and a particularly generous one at that when he refuses to testify falsely against Krishnah, who had an affair with his wife. Why then, one wonders, does Jeyaretnam include this passage? Certainly, it provides a means of characterizing Abraham, both as an inept would-be political activist and as a narrator so honest he tells tales on himself. Does Jeyaretnam here have a political point as well?

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Philip Jeyaretnam