Part 2.2 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.

You will recollect that in the first part of the General Introduction, Dennis Walder discussed Frantz Fanon's views (from The Wretched of the Earth, 1961) on the evolution of a national literature. Fanon hypothesises the development of the native intellectual from the initial phase of having 'assimilated the culture of the occupying power', to a second phase in which 'the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is', to a third and final phase, in which 'he turns himself into an awakener of the people' (Walder, 1990, pp.270-71). Does such a model apply in the cases of Malaysia and Singapore? The expatriate Malaysian writer Chin Woon Ping believes that while Malaysian poetry in English has not passed beyond the second phase, Singaporean poetry has (Chin, 1983, pp.27-8). Thumboo, in a selection commemorating Singapore's twenty-fifth year of independence, listed five freedoms as the goal of what he called post-nationalism. From these five - 'political, economic, cultural, psychological and linguistic' (Thumboo, 1990, p.xxv) - he felt that Singapore had achieved only the first two.

The role of the writer in this region often gets discussed in terms of a paternalistic society; but the poet as woman can reflect a very different and more personal assessment of where, and to whom, the writer owes her dues. V.S. Naipaul has spoken of the permanent malady to which the ex-colonised subject is prone: mimicry (and so has Homi Bhabha). The Malaysian-born expatriate writer Shirley Lim, from a position triply subjected - by race, gender and language - chose to appropriate the freedom made available through submission to the coloniser's language and culture, even if ambivalence has discoloured her choice with the shades of 'corruption'. What she got through that assimilation, she claims, was access to all that is promised by individualism:

We are all mimic people, born to cultures that push us, shape us, and pummel us; and we are all agents, with the power of the subject, no matter how puny or inarticulate, to push back and to struggle against such shaping. So I have seen myself not so much sucking at the teat of British colonial culture as actively appropriating those aspects of it that I needed to escape that other familial/gender/native culture that violently hammered out only one shape for self. I actively sought corruption to break out of the pomegranate shell of being Chinese and girl (Lim, 1996, p.104).

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