The Significance of Uselessness: Resisting
Colonial Masculinity in
Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise
Holden, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Copyright © 1998 by Philip Holden, all rights
reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of
of Postcolonial Studies.
Only in something that is wholly useless, utterly irrelevant,
can we glimpse true beauty, the beauty of the divine.
--Philip Jeyaretnam, Abraham's Promise
It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to
resist by its form alone the course of the world.
--Theodor Adorno, "Commitment"
- In August 1966, a year after Singapore's traumatic separation from the Federation
of Malaysia, its young Prime Minister Lee
Kuan Yew addressed a meeting of school principals. Concerned that Singapore
might remain "a passive society, . . . meek, self deprecating, self-effacing"(1),
Lee reached back to his own experience at Raffles Institution, the flagship
of the British colonial secondary
school system, as a founding metaphor for the discipline required of the
There was a Principal at R.I. who was a disciplinarian, but he
cared. And those of you here will know when I say Macleod [sic] and will
say "Yes, the chap really cared." He cared for the pupils. He caned them.
He took a personal interest . . . . This was his school and he was going
to mould character of this school and he did it. (11)
The ideal educational product for the emergent nation, Lee argued, would
be similar to a product of Geelong or Eton, "strong, robust, with great
intellectual discipline" (7), fully equipped with the resolve to pursue
the quest of nationhood.
- Lee's speech provides a startling example of what the Indian critic Ashis
Nandy has termed the "shared culture" of colonialism which "may not always
begin with the establishment of alien rule in a society and end with the departure
of the alien rulers from the colony"(2). As Nandy himself recognises, this
shared culture was marked by an "ideology of male-adulthood" (17). Feminism's
recognition of gender as "one of the fundamental categories of cultural production"
(Showalter 9) should encourage us to investigate the manner in which Lee effortlessly
aligns gender and nationalism, boys' school and emergent nation.
- To project the future of Singapore forward, Lee reaches back to an ideology
of colonial masculinity from the late nineteenth century. Such an ideology
emerged from Evangelical Christian practices in the first half of the nineteenth
century, which departed from earlier visions of masculinity in their stress
upon governance of both the self and the outside world (Davidoff and Hall
234). In the later half of the nineteenth century, such self-control was often
expressed through industrial or mechanical analogies; manliness represented
disciplined control over natural forces, just as the steam engine and other
industrial technology managed "the natural energy of water and fire" (Sussman
11). The Empire was a natural place for such masculinity to be expressed and
to be textualised in stories of adventure (Dawson, Bristow, Phillips) which
would then reproduce manliness as an object of desire for young readers.
- Lee's own experience as a pupil in Raffles Institution would have exposed
him to such naturalised ideological formations. D. W. McLeod, whose discipline
the adult Lee so fondly remembered, instituted a syllabus of instruction which
included, in its literature component, texts of British masculine adventure
in the Orient such as A. W. Kinglake's Eothen.
When the Chinese Reform Movement in the Straits Settlements at the turn of
the century demanded the rights of "Straits-born" "King's Chinese" to be considered
British subjects, they did so within the gender-inflected language of late
nineteenth-century European nationalism, extravagantly showing "the restraint
and self-control so dear to the middle class" (Mosse 13). "We, who are British
subjects," wrote reformer Lim Boon Keng, "must prove by the lives and conduct
and works of our people that we are deserving of the citizenship of the British
Empire" (23). The proof of good citizenship, another contributor to Lim's
magazine urged, would be the achievement of masculine self-discipline, so
that the Straits Chinese might join the ranks of "the most virile element
of the people of the Empire" (Civis Britannicus 109). Lee's recycling of colonial
masculinity in the service of nationalism, then, emerged from the shared discursive
field of colonial culture and might indeed alert us to the "impact of the
colonial experience in the making of British masculinity" (Sinha 10), to the
question of how much British identity was itself impacted by the "shared culture"
- Lee's early gendered equation of disciplined body and disciplined nation
has been maintained in government discourse as a rhetorical backdrop to, and
even justification of, Singapore’s post-independence economic success. Geraldine
Heng and Janadas Devan have described post-independence national discourses
in Singapore as "state fatherhood," continually manufacturing crises which
must be managed by "the proper mechanisms of correction" (356) upon a feminised
body politic. Wee Wan-ling has noted that Lee's public discourse of nationhood
as Prime Minister and later as Senior Minister has continued to be marked
by "English-style, late
Victorian manliness" (726), in which the fear of the loss of cultural
rootedness is paralleled by a fear of emasculation. The metaphors by which
Singaporeans live show how deeply-rooted is this gendering. English, one of
Singapore's four official languages, is perceived as the language of technological
development, of business and commerce. The other three languages, Mandarin
Chinese, Tamil and Malay (which retains a de jure if not de facto
status as the bahasa kebangsaan, or national language), are designated
as "mother tongues," feminised repositories of cultural ballast which will
be pressed into the service of a masculinised, technologically-governed state.
- The ubiquity of such metaphors in the everyday life of Singaporeans argues,
I feel, against any simple model of social indoctrination or overt, authoritarian
social control. Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat has convincingly argued
against the popular notion that Singapore’s development has been marked by
"'unchanging' authoritarianism" (10), noting that the People's
Action Party's success has been maintained through "its ability to develop
an ideological system" (10) which Chua has characterised as hegemonic.
The fantasy of Singapore as a smoothly operating machine harnessing natural
forces in the cause of development, and the gendering of national discourse,
is thus part of each Singaporean's consciousness: it is ideological in an
Althusserian sense, marking "the imaginary relationship of individuals to
their real conditions of existence" (Althusser 36). Ideological structures
and frameworks of this kind are notoriously difficult to contest because they
become naturalised, constituting the common sense which frames political debate
of issues of nationalism and citizenship. Opposition may conceal a prior submission,
an unconscious acceptance of an ideologically constituted field of conflict.
- The continual emphasis upon and questioning of gender in contemporary Singaporean
cultural production perhaps indicates a response to the gendering of the post-colonial
state, yet it has seldom managed to radically displace the ideological framework
in which issues are perceived. Kuo Pao Kun's 1995 play Descendants of the
Eunuch Admiral, for example, staged both in Mandarin and English versions,
returns to the historical voyages of Zheng He (commonly romanised in Singapore
as Cheng Ho), the Ming dynasty Chinese admiral who made several voyages to
South East Asia. Zheng He's status as a eunuch and his neutering as a child
by a nursemaid's tightening a piece of string in a process so slow and lovingly
done as to be painless provide Kuo with a ready metaphor for the pleasures
of material life in contemporary Singapore. Yet, even while making an incisive
critique of the psychic sterility of such a model of development, Kuo stays
within the bounds of the discursive identification of masculinity and the
post-colonial state. Kuo's Singaporeans are eunuchs, but their normative state
is presumably one of masculine potency.
- Philip Jeyaretnam, the subject of this essay, has direct experience of resistance
to the People's Action Party's vision of modernity within the parameters laid
down by the state. His father, J.B. Jeyaretnam, is a veteran opposition politician,
presently serving as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. While equally
committed to evolving and reframing Singaporean questions of social identity,
however, Jeyaretnam has chosen to give these commitments voice in fiction.
- Both of Jeyaretnam's earlier works, First Loves, a short story collection,
and the novel Raffles Place Ragtime work largely within individualised
masculinist stereotypes. Vincent, the protagonist of Raffles Place Ragtime,
works in Singapore's financial district, trading romantic assignations much
as the Simex traders trade shares. Ah Leong, the protagonist of most of the
short stories in First Loves, is more likeable and less sophisticated,
enduring the drama of a first love affair before his approaching period of
national service. Jeyaretnam does deal with important social issues in First
Loves--the short story"The Final Eye," for instance, explores the position
of Filipina domestic workers in Singapore--but no real connection is made
on the metaphorical level between the familial operations of masculinity and
the role of masculinity in the state. The state and the individual are opposed
in these works of fiction, much of their energy coming from the resistance
to authority by the romantic, and heavily gendered, individualism of their
- Abraham's Promise, Jeyaretnam's most recent novel, is radically different
from the earlier books. It is narrated in its entirety by Abraham Isaac, an
elderly Ceylon Tamil former teacher who is tutoring a young boy in Latin in
preparation for his "O" Level examinations. The contradictions of this position,
the continued transmission of "something that is wholly useless, utterly irrelevant"
(21) from the colonial past into pragmatic, contemporary Singapore by a man
who has actively participated in the anti-colonial struggle, open up a series
of aporias in the text of Jeyaretnam's novel. These aporias are marked by
analeptic episodes in which Isaac returns to a series of events in the past,
events that form competing narratives which initially seem unconnected but
later intersect. Most of these narratives are personal: Abraham's relationship
with his sister, Mercy, his estranged wife, Rani, and his discreetly homosexual
son, Victor. They intertwine, however, with the central, political narrative
of Abraham's dismissal from his post in a government school because of a letter
he publishes in support of a Civil Service Union leader who has fallen into
- The novel can, of course, be read as a direct political allegory. The history
of the Party which Abraham joins is clearly that of the P.A.P., and the "pompous,
red-faced" Member of Parliament whom Abraham confronts at his pupil's parents'
party promulgates a caricature of the post 1980s government discourse of Asian
values. Allegory also operates on a slightly more displaced level. Advised
by his friend Krishna not to publicly defend the head of the Union, Abraham
nonetheless publishes a defence of the man in the Teacher's Union newsletter
that he produces:
How could they act so ruthlessly against one man who was only
standing up for what he believed to be right? How could they destroy one
man’s life just to frighten others? This was not what I had hoped for when
I had supported a vigorous new government to tackle the nation's problems.
Few Singaporeans will miss the reference to the suit launched against
Jeyaretnam's father by members of the People's Action Party Government,
which led to his conviction in 1986, financial ruinand
suspension from Parliament for five years, or to other, more recent defamation
suits launched by prominent government ministers against opposition politicians.
Yet Jeyaretnam himself has largely eschewed direct political involvement
and clearly sees the writer's function as political in a different sense,
commenting that "a writer who is also a politician may lose his artistic
authority, with readers interpreting his writing through a partisan prism."
 Clearly, Abraham's Promise is not
primarily intended to offer a "partisan" allegory.
- The refusal of partisan, directly oppositional politics in much of Abraham's
Promise does not, however, result in an apolitical text. Jeyaretnam's
novel attempts to shake or displace the ideological framework in which it
is written, by a process of renegotiation of the connection between national
destiny and masculinity. Such renegotiation may be viewed through the lens
of a theorist who was also concerned with the complex process of resistance
to dominant ideologies. In his essay "Commitment," Theodor Adorno rejects
a Sartrean notion of free choice to write committed art in opposition to a
regime or a philosophy, since "the very possibility of choosing depends upon
what can be chosen" (91). Art which is capable of inciting social change,
Adorno argues, works at "the level of fundamental attitudes" (91), and this
work is paradoxically made possible only by art's autonomy, the artistic authority
of which Jeyaretnam speaks. Looking at the work of Kafka and Beckett, which
is not explicitly committed in a political sense, Adorno notes that the writers
"explode from within the art which committed proclamation subjugates from
without, and hence only in appearance. The inescapability of their work compels
the change of attitude which committed works merely demand" (97). It is possible,
I think, to make a similar claim for Abraham's Promise.
- Abraham's Promise is troubling for a reader largely because of the
ambiguous central consciousness, Abraham Isaac himself. Abraham is alternately
likeable and infuriating, passionately committed to social justice and yet
nostalgic for colonialism, capable of great selflessness and also of great
pettiness. From the perspective of his rented room in a three-room Housing
Development Board flat in Toa Payoh, Singapore's first new town and now slightly
faded proud symbol of its early development, Abraham speaks as one who has
been left behind, shunted into an obscure siding on the fast track of national
modernity. His own narrative asks questions even as it is written: Abraham
is himself unsure whether his actions represent a passionate commitment to
principle or a foolish clinging to ideals which have no relevance in contemporary
Singapore. By writing a text whose narrator is so openly engaged in the process
of its own interpretation, Jeyaretnam invites the reader to make further interpretations
concerning the social constitution of reality in contemporary Singapore.
- Abraham himself is clearly a product of the gendered colonial disciplinary
system of which Lee spoke so fondly to Singapore teachers. He remembers his
British schoolmasters with affection, and worries that Richard, his young
tutee, lacks a mental "framework" and will "drift if left to his own devices"
(40). He prefers old-fashioned straight-backed chairs, which impose a discipline
upon the body, rather than soft contemporary sofas (53), and emphasizes "moderation,"
remarking that "restraint is a virtue" (45). His conviction that manliness
lies in the regulation of natural desires is further enhanced by his Catholicism
and the Pauline split he makes between the flesh and the spirit. In his room
at night, Abraham reads Augustine's Confessions, and struggles, against
his physical hunger and growing philosophical disillusionment, to remember
that "men" should "turn their thoughts away from nature and nature's appetites"
(57). Fiercely committed to a vision of modernisation which erases tradition,
Abraham feels uneasy about his "Tamil otherness" (75); in Serangoon Road,
Singapore's "Little India," he notes that a "fear of contamination, in spite
of myself, flies through me, as if I am unable to shake off the centuries
of caste and tradition" (77-78).
- Armed with this gendered vision of the human condition, Abraham sees the
nation's independence as the natural working out of contradictions in British
colonialism, which found its justification in Enlightenment rationality and
the Rights of Man, but which refused to extend these rights to colonial subjects.
"All one had to do . . . finally, after all these years," he reflects of his
attitude to independence, was to "put British theory into practice" (81).
His criticisms of British imperialism and those of others he gives voice to
are based upon Enlightenment premises: Lancashire's chief industry is the
"theft" of jobs from India, and it is unclear why the British, according to
their own principles, did not stay at home in the first place (31). Significantly,
Abraham's dream of a post-independence society, of "a new nation, the possibility
of rational men taking power, disinterestedly taking those decisions that
tended to the public good" (86), is inspired by his reading of John
Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.
- Abraham's vision of the post-colonial state is, of course, a common one
shared by many nationalist intellectuals upon independence. British control
could, paradoxically, never "fulfill the normalizing mission of the modern
state because the premise of its power was a rule of colonial difference,
namely, the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group" (Chatterjee
10). The newly independent state promises this fulfillment in the fullness
of time: we have here a further example of Nandy's "shared culture" of colonialism.
Abraham's critique of the Party is that they have failed to live up to this
ideal: their authoritarian actions upon accession to power are based upon
expediency, not upon pragmatism in the search of a higher good. Their philosophical
movement from a universal modernity to a rhetoric of constructed "Asian values,"
which parallels a similar movement by the P.A.P in the 1980s (Chua 29-37),
is attacked by Abraham as an expedient justification of authoritarianism and
lack of consultation (74).
- Abraham's critique, based upon the principles of liberal democracy, is in
many ways similar to Jeyaretnam's father's critique of the P.A.P. Within
the context of the novel, however, it is compromised. For a contemporary reader,
Abraham's values seem suspiciously undifferentiated from those of the colonial
state. The very principles of self-discipline which ensure his unflinching
refusal to retract his article also lead to his callous dismissal of his sister
Mercy's cries for his help in her oppressive marriage as "hysterical," requiring
him to "slap her face and snap her out of this nonsense" (87). His refusal
to take any responsibility for her eventual suicide further distances him
from the reader; Jeyaretnam emphasises this by providing the reader with a
competing account, a letter from Abraham's friend, Rose, in England, who clearly
does feel that he bears some responsibility (93-94). Abraham's alternative
view thus emerges as not so much a solution as part of the problem.
- Rather than accepting his narrator's liberal critique, which is in itself
part of the "shared culture" of colonialism, Jeyaretnam uses it to open up
contradictions in Singapore state discourse, particularly in the connection
made between family and nation. The traumas of Abraham's own life--his wife's
adultery with his best friend, his refusal to protect his abused sister, and
his inability to accept his son's homosexuality--initially seem private tragedies,
but the intertwining narratives inescapably show filiations between private
and public stories of the experience of nationhood. Adultery, in which one
of the active parties is a government M.P., questions the legitimacy of the
"marriage" between Party and Nation; Abraham's grounds for non-intervention
in his sister's abuse test governmental discourse separating "modernity" from
"tradition"; Victor's homosexuality questions the state's self-constitution
as a "fantasy of self-regenerating fatherhood and patriarchal power" passing
on an image of itself to each succeeding generation (Heng and Devan 350).
Abraham's existence, he comments, "has always been an examined life" focused
towards "becoming a good son, good brother, good husband, good teacher and
good citizen" (36). His failure in achieving his goals, Jeyaretnam suggests,
is not merely a private one.
- Krishna, Abraham's closest friend and colleague in his young adulthood,
is a visible embodiment of the contradictions of state ideology. He follows
a relentless policy of pragmatism, "the term used to gloss over economic instrumental
rationality" (Chua 19) by the early People's Action Party government after
separation from Malaysia in 1965. "There can be no fine thoughts, no nice
agonies of conscience," Abraham remembers him saying, "until a man has bread
in his belly" (11). Similarly, Krishna is careful to explain to Abraham the
reason why the Party fields only four candidates in the first elections after
self-government. The reason, again, involves placing instrumentality before
Any government would be hamstrung by continuing supervision of
the British and in particular would be torn between the need to press for
immediate independence and the need meanwhile to provide orderly and efficient
administration. By staying out of government the Party would avoid this
dilemma. It could call vehemently for full independence, spreading its influence
among the rank-and-file while leading agitation against the government's
sloth in achieving independence. (99-100)
This is a fairly accurate account of People's Action Party strategy in
the 1950s, and it is an explanation which Abraham, at the time, seems inclined
- Krishna's pragmatic philosophy is, however, challenged by Jeyaretnam's narrative
strategy. Abraham remembers these incidents analeptically, in a narrative
present informed by the knowledge of Krishna's eventual political demise and
personal entanglements. The reader is not immediately made aware of Abraham's
knowledge but is led quite early in the novel to suspect that pragmatism is,
in fact, nothing but expediency. Recalling his discussions with Krishna, the
older Abraham of the narrative present notes that "[e]very departure from
principle and right conduct could find its necessity" in his friend's speech
(11-12). Armed with this knowledge, the reader is likely to be more skeptical
of Krishna's arguments than is the young Abraham: speeches such as "It's not
a question of who's right or wrong . . . . We have to show who's boss. Only
if we're feared can we do what has to be done" (116) are unpersuasive to a
reader armed with retrospective knowledge.
- Krishna's covering of instrumentality with a veil of pragmatism extends
from the political arena into his personal relationship with Abraham and in
particular into his affair with Rani. I have noted how Singapore government
discourse often represents the political life of the nation with familial
and marital metaphors: Jeyaretnam, in a strategic reversal of vehicle and
tenor, uses the metaphor of betrayal in personal relationships to question
the activities of the state. On the details of the affair the text is relatively
silent, Abraham commenting poignantly that "a void opened up inside me" (141).
Most of Abraham's further dealings with Krishna are concerned with the aftermath
of a betrayal that seems too painful to articulate and with discussions about
the paternity of his son, Victor, born after Rani has left him. In these,
Krishna expounds pragmatism as unerringly as he does in the political sphere,
noting that he cannot "stop her from doing something that she insists upon
- It is Abraham's response to Krishna's adultery which is perhaps most unsettling
for both the reader and the agents of social control in the narrative itself.
Abraham's self-righteousness in giving Rani the right to leave juxtaposes
unnervingly with his physical abuse of his wife. Yet his response to Rani
and Krishna's relationship is marked by an even more puzzling refusal to act.
He allows the divorce to proceed without naming Krishna and chooses not to
contact the press and thus destroy Krishna's career. After Krishna's fall
from grace, he is again presented with the opportunity for revenge, an officer
from the Internal Security Department asking him to sign a statement certifying
that Krishna had been spreading subversive Communist influence at St. George's.
Again he refuses. In neither case does Abraham dramatize his reaction as heroic:
in each case he himself seems to find it slightly puzzling.
- What Abraham's actions do resist is a gendered process of signification.
They resist the notion of pragmatism and instrumentality which Krishna's earlier
behaviour embodies, in which manliness is related to functionality, to a control
of emotion through exhaustive self-discipline: Lee's vision of a "robust"
nation. Yet they also resist the seductiveness of a counter-narrative of the
male hero in romantic opposition to an oppressive state. Abraham's father
urges him to oppose Krishna in these terms, to be a man, to "[s]tand up. Fight
back. . . . Don't flutter away like some butterfly" (159). Yet it is the butterfly-like
nature of Abraham's actions, their refusal to submit to the light of explanation,
the straightening out of narrative as cause and effect, which gives them such
- Mercy's suicide is a similar aporia in Jeyaretnam's text: recounted from
different angles by different characters, it is never quite reducible to stable
significance. Mercy enters the narrative as a disruptive force. She refuses
to play a conventional gender role, Abraham recounting how she spills tea
on a prospective suitor to avoid marriage, breaking the embarrassed silence
which follows with the "machine gun of her laughter" (64). What exactly occurs
in Mercy's subsequent marriage is hidden: Abraham later assumes the relationship
to have been abusive, imagining her husband, David, "his face swollen with
drink, fists etching bruises into her body" (91). Yet at the time he refuses
to intervene, claiming that his responsibility to her has ceased with her
marriage. During her wedding reception, Abraham's comment that his mother
is mourning "the loss of her daughter" prompts astonishment from Mercy: later,
visiting her new house, he nods "awkwardly at her, avoiding the traditional
Tamil embrace for relatives" (78). Mercy's suicide seems thus an accusation
directed at Abraham's placing of social role before personal feelings, an
accusation which again produces a complex response. Abraham notes, recollecting
David's behaviour at Mercy’s funeral, that "I should have thrashed the bugger,"
but he lapses into inaction. When his friend in England, Rose, in reply to
a letter he has written her, asks him not to blame himself for Mercy's death,
Abraham is scandalised that "she dared to apportion blame, grant dispensation,
and offer encouragement like some distant deity" (94), despite the fact that
she is merely responding in a role which he has marked out for her as "a wholly
distant, perhaps invisible, confessor" (93).
- The tension introduced by Rose, Mercy and Rani into the text of Abraham's
Promise is never fully resolved. Jeyaretnam's novel cannot, I think, be
seen as a feminist text in the manner of, for instance, Christine
Lim Suchen's Fistful of
Colours, which attempts to rewrite androcentric nationalist narratives
from a woman's perspective. Indeed, it might be argued that Jeyaretnam offers
up his women characters in order to achieve a certain discursive leverage.
Mercy's suicide is paralleled by Rani's disappearance from the narrative after
a scene of marital rape. Rose escapes victimisation, but she is scarcely an
active participant in the events of the novel. Abraham's Promise clearly
does not represent the only way in which a writer might intervene in masculinist
discourse of nationhood. The unresolved juxtaposition of scenes of domestic
violence and political betrayal in the novel, however, does encourage a questioning,
a peeling back of the surface of Gramscian "common sense" which genders nationalist
discourse in Singapore.
- In his reaction to Mercy's death, as in his treatment of Krishna and Rani's
adultery, Abraham again acts like a butterfly: he is indecisive, and he flutters
after different meanings across the landscape of his life, meanings which
return to haunt him. Again, however, his reaction is not merely a private
one but is framed within a larger political discourse. Mercy's cry for help
comes when Abraham is sitting up late, reading, "stiff and straight-backed":
I had been reading, yes, I can remember even now, John Stuart
Mill's Utilitarianism, its cover dark and sombre, the title typeset
in heavy, portentous lettering. I had been dreaming of a new nation, the
possibility of rational men in power, disinterestedly taking those decisions
that tended to the public good, seeing myself perhaps among them, Abraham
Isaac, ushering in a new age of enlightenment, a new order, when I was roused
by the shrill ring of the telephone. (86)
Abraham's refusal to aid his sister thus becomes associated with a rhetoric
of the rational government of men upon which post-independence Singapore
is founded. His actions as an elder brother split such rhetoric away from
the familial relationships with which, we have seen, such government has
been associated through Lee's promulgation of state fatherhood. Jeyaretnam's
text works to displace the symmetries of state ideology, to peel back, uncomfortably,
the seamless "surface of social life" (Adorno 92).
- Perhaps the most subversive element of Jeyaretnam's narrative centres on
Victor, Abraham's son. Victor is, on one level, a model citizen of Singaporean
modernity: unlike his butterfly father, he is "a beetle, clinging stubbornly
to every inch of ground he gains" (178). He is pragmatic, and, Abraham notes,
"abjures politics, . . . perfectly comfortable keeping within the bounds set
by our rulers" (54), immersing himself in his career. Victor's difference
lies in his sexuality, a discreet homosexuality hinted at continually but
never explicitly named. Abraham's introduction of Victor, his puzzlement about
why there is "no woman in the house" at Victor's flat, and his "uneasy" feeling
about a call from Victor's friend Johnny, who runs an art gallery (55), alert
the reader but make nothing explicit. Even in a scene when Victor tells his
father about his sexuality, homosexuality still remains unspeakable:
You want to know, you really want to know?" His voice is harsh
and rough, and I shrink back. "I'm not going to marry. You understand?"
I say nothing.
"I'll never marry. You're a modern man. You must understand."
My son's voice has changed from defiance to pleading, yet my body recoils.
The car is too small for both of us. The air presses down upon me. (168)
For Abraham, the hint of one form of sexuality outside heterosexual monogamy
suggests another: "You are Krishna's boy," he tells Victor. "Go tell him
what you are" (169).
- The silence in the text around Victor's sexuality is not, as a non-Singaporean
reader might expect, because of a general social reluctance to discuss gay
and lesbian issues. Much Singaporean theatrical work and some fiction, most
prominently Johann S. Lee's Peculiar Chris, have been strongly affirmative
of gay and lesbian identity. Indeed, it might be felt that Jeyaretnam's use
of the homosexual in his novel is problematic, bearing analogies to Kuo's
deployment of the eunuch: in each case, it might be argued, a political point
is made by a reliance upon doxological notions of sexuality and gender. Certainly
it is not Jeyaretnam's intention or concern to retrieve or valourize a Singaporean
gay identity. Equally certainly, however, Abraham's homophobia is circumscribed
by its place in the text: the reader is troubled by it, much as he or she
finds Abraham's rejection of his Tamil heritage or the juxtaposition of domestic
violence and public betrayal disturbing, but is not encouraged to endorse
it. The silence surrounding Victor's sexuality seems a deliberate one, and
one that again serves to destabilise the equation between post-colonial government
- The irony that Victor embodies is that an ideological subject interpellated
by Singapore's "new order," in Jeyaretnam's terms, still resists. Abraham's
resistance is public: his private self, we have seen, is founded very much
upon the colonial principles of discipline, rationality, and government of
the self which Lee's speech proposes. Victor also embodies a private/public
split, but it is the reverse of Abraham's: a public conformity covers a private
resistance. Abraham's homophobia is concentrated on the question of patrilineality,
of the facts that Victor will not have a child, or that he may be the "unclean
fruit of an unholy union" (169). Victor's homosexuality thus breaks Lee's
equation between state and patriarchal family, disrupting the fantasy of "exact
self-replication" (Heng and Devan 344) of social values in both public and
private domains. Abraham's belated reconciliation with his son is based upon
an acceptance of the impossibility of replication, upon the comprehension,
however reluctant, of difference.
- The narratives of Krishna, Mercy and Victor intertwine with Abraham's, at
times in harmony with Abraham's own narrativization of his life, at others
wildly dissonant. No single message emerges from the text, no transparent
"ineradicable connection" with a mimetically represented reality (Adorno 90).
Rather, as a work of art, Abraham's Promise is autonomous in Adorno's
sense, neither claiming to be completely apart from reality nor completely
committed to a cause which leads to a simple existentialist choice, recognising
again that "the very possibility of choosing depends upon what can be chosen"
(91). Abraham's Promise peels back the face of social reality in Singapore,
throwing light upon the metaphors by which it is constituted. Just as in Adorno's
post-war Germany, so in Singapore hegemonic consensus means that "[t]his is
not a time for political art, but politics has migrated into an autonomous
- The possibilities which Jeyaretnam's text offers as autonomous art for the
destabilising of ideological frameworks are perhaps best illustrated, in conclusion,
in the governing image of the text. Abraham's name and the title of the novel
itself recall the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, and the story
is referred to twice in the course of the novel. When the Internal Security
Department asks Abraham to betray Krishna, he chooses a predictable biblical
metaphor in refusing to "be Judas." The ISD officer counters with another
metaphor: Krishna, he notes, is "no Christ," but "a sacrifice, a ram that
must die--figuratively speaking, of course--for the good of the nation" (163).
This a proposition which Abraham refuses: he will not sacrifice Isaac if this
act requires unquestioning trust in a higher authority to substitute the ram
at the moment the knife falls. The second, more extended discussion of the
story occurs when Abraham is teaching his young pupil, Richard. Abraham asks
Richard if he knows the story, and Richard repeats it to him. Surprisingly,
Abraham does not accept the conventional Catholic interpretation:
"But have you ever thought of Isaac? At some point he must have
realised what his father planned. Did he have such faith in God that He
would intervene? How could he? He did not even know that God had spoken
to his father. No, Isaac was ready to die. Why? Because he loved his father.
He lay passively on the altar table, waiting for the knife. Love, boy, it
leads you to sacrifice."
"Even Abraham, he was caught between two loves."
"Exactly. Sacrifice his son for the love of God. Or lose his soul for
the love of his son. He was doubly vulnerable. And even though Isaac's
life was spared by God, had not Abraham already betrayed his son?" (124)
What Abraham hints at is the possibility of different histories, of sacrifice
simultaneously being betrayal, of a multiplicity of meanings uncontainable
by any discipline of self. In case the reader has not absorbed this, Jeyaretnam
has Abraham meditate upon what he has just said. Is it just "sentimentality,"
he wonders, not insight, a "misplaced imagining of significance in the trivial
tasks and duties that constitute my life" (124).
- Abraham Isaac's very name, indeed, confers upon him two identities, that
of father and of son, executioner and sacrificed, betrayer and betrayed. The
story of Abraham and Isaac thus dramatises a movement beyond Lee's vision
of the nation as disciplined body to a recognition of multiplicity. At the
end of the novel, Abraham reaches out to his son in spite of himself. As he
watches the emotional "battles fought upon" Victor's face, he remembers his
Father's voice, urging self-discipline, "harsh, imperious, 'Don't cry'"(177)
but finds that he cries nonetheless. It is no accident that the novel ends
in an embrace.
- McLeod's Syllabus of Instruction is preserved in Raffles Institution Archive,
- See an Asia Online interview with J. B. Jeyaretnam after his appointment
as non-constituency M.P. in 1997, Asia
Online. Accessed June 11, 1997. Back
- These comments were made in an interview published on Singapore
Press Holdings' Asia One Website. Accessed June 11, 1997. Back
- In his first speech to the new parliament in 1997, for instance, J. B. Jeyaretnam
called for the repeal of the Internal Security Act, and a review of the defamation
laws under which opposition politicians have been tried. Responding in the
post-1980s ideological framework of Asian values, Straits Times columnist
Koh Buck Song, in reporting Jeyaretnam's speech, noted that what "he was attacking--constraints
on free speech, firm laws, protecting the reputations of public officials
and so on--are really justified by racial harmony, honest Government, public
safety and social discipline." Governmental discourse in Singapore is already
inoculated against a liberal democratic critique: what is perhaps needed is
a genealogy of the deployment of social discipline upon the body of the nation.
- Adorno, Theodor. "Commitment." Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. 89-98.
- Althusser, Louis. Essays on Ideology. London: Verso, 1984.
- Bristow, Joseph. Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man's World. London: Harper Collins, 1991.
- Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
- Chua Beng Huat. Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. London: Routledge, 1995.
- Civis Britannicus. "The King and the Empire." Straits Chinese Magazine 6 (1902): 106-113.
- Davidoff, Leonore and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
- Dawson, Graham. Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculine Communities. London: Routledge, 1994.
- Heng, Geraldine and Janadas Devan. "State Fatherhood: The Politics of Nationalism, Sexuality, and Race in Singapore." Nationalisms and Sexualities. Ed. Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer and Patricia Yaeger. New York: Routledge, 1992. 343-364.
- Jeyaretnam, Philip. Abraham's Promise. Singapore: Times, 1995.
- Koh Buck Song. "Jeya Dishes Out a Dusty Old Recording." Straits Times, 5 June 1997. 39.
- Lee Kuan Yew. "Transcript of Speech by the Prime Minister at a Meeting with Principals of Schools at Victoria Theatre on 29 August, 1966." Singapore: Ministry of Education, n.d.
- Lim Boon Keng. "Straits Chinese Reform. I. The Queue Question." Straits Chinese Magazine 3 (1899): 22-25.
- Mosse, George. L. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.
- Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1983.
- Phillips, Richard. Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure. London: Routledge, 1997.
- Showalter, Elaine. "Introduction: The Rise of Gender." Speaking of Gender. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Routledge, 1989. 1-16.
- Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The "Manly Englishman" and the "Effeminate Bengali" in the Late Nineteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.
- Sussman, Herbert. Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.
- Wee W.-L., C.J. "Contending with Primordialism: The 'Modern' Construction of Postcolonial Singapore." Positions 1 (1993): 715-744.
26 March, 2002