The Quest Motif in the Singapore Short Story in English

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)

The search for an identity which could be called uniquely Singaporean is mirrored in a very prominent Jungian motif which runs through many of the stories: the universal motif of The Quest. Both seen in the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail and the Chinese myth of the Journey to the West, The Quest symbolises man's desire for existential self-assertion or identity and truth, the finding of which will lead to fulfilment and happiness. C G Jung who originated the theory of the Collective Unconscious divides The Quest into different categories, such as the Quests for Adventure and Treasure, Love, Perfection, Happiness and Wisdom.

The will to succeed by gaining wealth is a legacy from the migrant forefathers who sailed the seas to Singapore to escape the extreme poverty of their homelands. We are reminded of this time and again. In "The Devil and the Kungfu Man"(The Landlord & Other Stories) by Wong Swee Hoon, the narrator Weiji sees the parallel between his father who came to Singapore as a cloth-peddler and the kungfu man who demonstrates the strength of his medicinal wares by staging pugilistic skills. Both came to Singapore to make money. The kungfu man represents the old traditional systems and Weiji's father with his entrepreneurial skill represents a modern in the making. One man succeeds and one does not. The arrest of the kungfu man can be seen as a rejection of the old traditions as changes to this society are instituted.

This quest for Treasure and Wealth appears frequently as characters in the short stories are driven either by necessity for survival or greed to attain more. Obsession with wealth causes women to make their choices of marriage partners according to the size of the bank accounts rather than the depth of their affections. In "The Marriage" (Little Ironies), Helen marries the old and decrepit Ling Aw Siak admittedly for his money. Pearl in "Love" in the same collection, considers the financial standing of the man she is supposed to be in love with before she finally decides to marry him. Equally foolish is the desire to attain wealth by get-rich-quick means. In "Lottery" (Little Ironies), Ah Boh is a compulsive gambler who waits "patiently for the realisation of her dream of overnight wealth. In the meantime, her old mother sometimes went hungry and Ah Boh went about in clothes and slippers worn thin." Mrs Alice Wee, a teacher who is also a compulsive gambler steals school funds and blames an intellectually-challenged student in Ho Kin San's "Tze Yong". In the Quest for Wealth, real values such as integrity and humanity which marked a older and gentler society are sacrificed.

Wealth is but one facet of Treasure. To scale the social ladder to get to the top is the larger objective of human endeavour, according to the Singapore short story. Catherine Lim paints a picture of Michael's keen political ambitions which overrule his discontentment with his marriage. When he realises that if he were to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, his opportunity to attain this position would be lost, he experiences a sudden "Change of Heart" Such stories mirror the concern with the driven mentality of most Singaporeans who are dedicated to their pursuit of wealth and position simply because it means a better life and happiness.

The different objectives pursued whether wealth, love, perfection or happiness can simply be collectively deemed the Great Singapore Dream, a nirvanic state of being which all Singaporeans aspire to. This is not unlike the American Dream with its fundamental beliefs about the right to the individual pursuit of happiness. However, with the pursuit of any dream, there is always disillusionment. Characters in search of their identity and self-fulfilment always find that reality has a bitter aftertaste. In "The Landlord" , Boon Keng leaves his wife and old mother to chase his dream of being an illustrator. Instead of finding fulfilment, he finds the emptiness of his dream.

In "Adeline Ong Ai Choo", the protagonist is a young student who does not possess high scholastic abilities but is continually under pressure to perform well. There is a sense of an eternal treadmill which turns and goes nowhere and finally unable to cope, Adeline chooses to get off: she commits suicide. The extremity of her actions reflect a strong reaction to the social pressures to achieve. For those like Adeline Ong Ai Choo, the quest is one that leads to death and destruction and there are just too many casualties along the way.

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