Past Tense, Future Perfect
Creative survey of Singapore's history is laudable even as it falls short of questioning the established narrative
By Theophilus Kwek
Written Country: The History of Singapore through Literature
To paraphrase a character from Alan Bennet's play The History Boys, Singapore's past is treated by many of its present inhabitants merely as "one damned thing after another". As other commentators have observed, events – from momentous human disasters to daily accomplishments – are often notched perfunctorily onto a broader arc of economic development. Public decisions to sacrifice familiar landscapes in the name of progress, such as the closure of Bugis Street and the redevelopment of Marina Bay (both captured in Written Country), are routinely accepted here as necessary evils.
Gwee Li Sui argues persuasively in the introduction to his new anthology that a proper grasp of the nation's history must surpass a "mere collation" of events to "become a different kind of knowing". Singapore's literature, he suggests, not only serves as a record of past happenings, but by processing and refracting experience, helps us grow a memory that is "both factually sound and emotionally consistent". The writer as historian is in a position to crack open the "outside of events" and represent them in such a way that "enables them to cleave again to life". This volume, which matches a selection of Singaporean writing to fifty milestones, thus sets out to add depth and vitality to our timeline.
This is a task it approaches with considerable grace and aplomb. For the uninitiated, Written Country is a worthy introduction to Singapore's prose and poetry in English, with a smattering of drama. The chronological selection ensures a variety of styles, and helpfully situates each piece against domestic developments such that the tonal breadth of the writing can be appreciated fully in context. For those already at home in the National Library's 'Singapore Collection', the volume's inclusion of old favourites (Hedwig Anuar) and public figures (Tan Hwee Hwa) alongside recent, previously unpublished material (by Simon Tay and Alistair Martyn Chew) as well as new commissions (from poets Felix Cheong and Heng Siok Tian, among others) provide a refreshing experience.
Written Country must also be commended for its inclusion of politically controversial episodes in Singapore's history. Riots which accompanied Singapore's journey to self-government – over National Service, Maria Hertogh's (Nadra binte Ma'arof's) custody, bus workers' rights, and other issues – as well as both Operations Coldstore and Spectrum feature prominently among the anthology's milestones. While some choices of spokespersons for these episodes are perhaps questionable (such as Robert Yeo's somewhat curiously-titled 'Moon Madness' to commemorate the riot on Prophet Muhammad's Birthday in 1964), other selections judiciously surface important literary and historical documents (like the late detainee Said Zahari's poem 'Anti-National'). Given recent sensitivities over the re-examination of these events in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, this volume (which received a National Arts Council grant) marks a small but promising step towards historical evaluation.
Despite its many qualities, there are three deeper flaws in Written Country. First, in its self-conscious foregrounding of "defining moments", we lose sight of the nation's rank-and-file. Where is history's miscellany? Gwee argues that "key historical moments" presented here are major (political) checkpoints in Singapore's recent past, and that the chosen texts reflect its people's "general mood". By focusing on these events, however, which correspond roughly to the timelines in Social Studies textbooks, we do little to revisit lived, social experience in a meaningful way. Changes like the shift to English-medium education, the slow death of dialect, the opening of the MRT, and the creation of 'ethnic enclaves' – amply represented in oral histories – elude these pages. Conversely, many pieces feel unconvincing precisely because of their eagerness to speak for the nation. Meira Chand's 'An Assortment of Knives', clipped to a moral-of-the-story ending ("in a stray moment of violence, everything was wiped out, and the struggle back to health must begin again."), and S. Rajaratnam's 'A Nation in the Making', with its depersonalised characters ('Malayan', 'Pessimist', and 'Optimist'), both come across as oddly didactic, and sit uneasily with Gwee's claim to have chosen "factually and emotionally precise" texts.
The book's second shortcoming is its uncritical approach to the idea of the nation. Every nation is, at heart, an idea – in historian Benedict Anderson's words, an "imagined political community" with its own "characteristic amnesia" – and as such, there are two possible tellings of a nation's past. Any literary history must tread a line between chronicling the experiences of a national community, and reflecting the development of the idea behind it. This anthology errs on the side of the former: we read far more, in a sense, about "one damned thing after another", than about how writers saw, or added to, the national imagination. Of course, with some reading between the lines, one can discern that the nascent nation emerging in Lim Thean Soo's sketch of 'Fortress Singapore' is quite a different creature from the later, bureaucratic meritocracy of Catherine Lim's 'The Malady and the Cure'. But this seems shy of the book's purpose, which prioritises the story of the nation's eventual success over its sense of self. A phrase Gwee employs in the introduction, where he speaks of "constructing history through … creative publications", is telling: these works are fit into an accepted jigsaw, not used to test or trace its limits.
Finally, Written Country does itself no favours by limiting the range of those whose writings are used to tell the nation's story. Among the post-Independence selection, only one – a worthy inclusion, Muhammad Sharif Udin's Bengali poem 'Little India Riot: Velu and a History' – is by a non-citizen, and one other ('The Civil Servant' by Roger Vaughan Jenkins) by an expat-turned-Singaporean. Age-wise, Sharif is also one of the youngest in a selection that misses an entire post-Alfian Sa'at generation of published and unpublished writers, coming of age in Singapore in its more recent past. Moreover, throughout the selection, men outnumber women among the contributors by 28 to 12, and with the exception of the Enactment of the Women's Charter in 1961, the protagonists invented or remembered in these pages are largely men. What makes these omissions more serious is the fact that there are obvious opportunities for greater inclusiveness. Sections of Rex Shelley's novel The Shrimp People are used to chronicle three separate events (the Chinese Middle School riots, the first City Council elections, and the bombing of MacDonald House), while an extract from another Shelley novel, A River of Roses, is chosen to illustrate the enactment of the National Service (Amendment) Act in 1967. Surely we are not so pressed for good writing that the same (male) author should speak on four different occasions?
Gwee pre-empts this criticism in his introduction, where he asserts that the collection was "never meant to have as its top priority a broad survey of Singaporean writers". The repeated use of Shelley's work (and that of others) is defended on the grounds that they "have written on historical subjects more than others and often better", while the prevalence of established writers is to be "treated as a testament to how these have indeed produced some of the country's best writings". Be that as it may, it seems counter-intuitive that an anthology intended to "generate reflections and commentaries (on history) from within" and tread "brave, new terrain" in our literary understanding should fail to embrace greater literary diversity. One is led to surmise that perhaps, if only a demographically narrow subset of writers has written "well" about a particular selection of events – already problematised above – the timeline ought to be re-looked. Maybe these are not the events (or standards of "factual and emotional precision") that matter, and have mattered, to Singapore's visibly wider writing community. Or, although Singaporean titles in English were comprehensively considered for this volume, maybe we, collectively, should look further afield, beyond markers of language and citizenship, for our national narratives.
The flaws perceived and described here are, of course, are not wholly the fault of Written Country's assiduous editor (whose labours are amply described in the introduction). We cannot blame him, for instance, for the fact that many successfully published works of Singaporean literature have not challenged prevailing ideas of what the nation is or should be. Singaporean Anglophone writers have, to a large extent, found it far easier for various reasons to respond descriptively to the shape of events – the clearest hint we get of a call for a different kind of Singaporean society in the latter years of this selection is found in Sharif's aforementioned poem, translated from Bengali by Shivaji Das: "Look, there Velu goes with empty hands / while Development, Progress, Civilisation laughs". Gwee's efforts to break new ground with this anthology, one imagines, have only been complicated by our wealth of what he calls "artistically competent", but perhaps not terribly imaginatively daring, writing in English. It is possible that as younger writers explore the greater latitude of a new political environment, and as more long-neglected pieces come to light (such as Tharman Shanmugaratnam's poem 'The Self and Others', calling for a Singapore that will not "barter the conscience for / the narrow security of status"), there will be cause to revise and re-issue this anthology some years from now.
Since its release in early 2016, Written Country has quite deservedly become the subject of some public interest, enjoyed by many on the grounds of its merits, and ranking high among the 'popular titles' in our national broadsheets and local bookstores. If the first step to self-knowledge is self-recognition, Singaporean readers will benefit from its fastidious attention to major events, bite-size selections from literary history, plain presentation of past controversy, and balance of pre- and post-independence work (9th August, 1965 features roughly mid-way through the volume) – all essential qualities of any history. But it will take a much, much bolder book to re-configure the 'national' timelines, ideas, and voices we know so well, and welcome a wider past, and perhaps a wider future, into its ambit.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016