Colonialism, Language, and Nation in Plural Societies

Part 1.2 of Poetry in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Rajeev S. Patke, DPhil (Oxon.) 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.

The colonial history of the Malaya peninsula begins with the acquisition of Penang by the East India Company in 1786. In 1819 Stamford Raffles on behalf of the Company established a trading settlement in Singapore. By 1826 the Straits Settlements had been established, leading to a colonial rule which was to last almost 140 years, broken only by the Japanese occupation of 1942-45. In 1946 the Malaya Federation was set up, while Singapore remained a separate Crown colony. 1957 saw Independence for the Malaya Federation, and 1959 brought self-government for Singapore, which merged with the Malaya Federation in 1963, becoming an independent republic in 1965.

The Federation of Malaya comprised indigenous Malays and immigrants, chiefly from southern China, and in smaller numbers, from Southeast India. Among the older immigrants were the Baba Chinese, who had assimilated more or less thoroughly into Malaya before the advent of the British. A later wave migrated towards the end of the nineteenth century, with others following in the twentieth. Malaysia and Singapore have thus been ethnically and linguistically plural communities throughout the period of colonial rule. As independent nations, they have pursued radically divergent policies in respect of race, language and education, with direct consequences for literature and culture.

Education in English was introduced into the Straits Settlements from the early 19th century. But the British seem to have been reluctant to give the locals wide and easy access to English: 'The British experience in India, where a connection was thought to exist between the spread of English education and the rise of nationalism, was a lesson in what to avoid in future' (Lee, 1989, p.21). The result was to entrench already existing communal and linguistic differences. After independence, Malaysia consolidated the legacy of separatism with a nationalism based on the ethnocentric concept of the Malay as the bhumiputra (son of the soil), and Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) as the official repository of national culture. The chief political consequence of this policy was the reluctant separation of predominantly Chinese Singapore from predominantly Malay Malaysia. In the literary sphere, it alienated writers from the ethnic minorities, forcing some to exile and others to long periods of silence. The Malaysian solution to its plurality thus estranged writers from English, and the language from local culture. In 1981 the Malaya poet Muhammad Haji Salleh could claim, on behalf of 'Many Malaysian poets' that 'the world has become one and it is a single reality' (Salleh, 1981, p.225); whereas, in 1984, from his self-exile in Perth, the Chinese Malay poet Ee Tiang Hong would write:

The fact is that there have been many and different orders of tradition in Malaysia, each with its own distinctive roots, and the several roots have tangled and intertwined for generations. It was a political decision, which determined which root should be nurtured, and which pulled out (Ee, 1987, p.15).

You will see how such bitterness seemed almost inevitable to writers in his situation from the extract selected from Ee for the Offprints Collection (no.00). The relation between ethnic politics and diaspora (a term already introduced to you in Case Study 1) is one of the key factors affecting the histories of Malaysia and Singapore, and how these have affected specific writers would be apt matter for a Research Project (suggestion 1).

In contrast to Malaysia, creative writing in English from Singapore has profited (and also been overshadowed) by the prominent role given to English as the language of science and technology (hence the key to post-industrial modernisation); the language of trade and commerce (hence the key to economic prosperity); and as the link language between its Chinese, Malay and Tamil populations (hence the unifying component in its two-language policy and the key to administrative efficacy as well as domestic security).

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