Gaps between the Bars
Novel seeks to define a Singaporean identity in a cosmopolitan context
By Adeline Koh
Behind a Cultural Cage
In Modernity at Large, Arjun Appadurai made the interesting observation that transnational ideological landscapes have taken over the nation as the central determining 'imagined community' in late capitalism. These international landscapes – which he described, for example, as 'ideoscapes', 'mediascapes' and 'ethnoscapes' – connect communities across disparate nations and provide the central basis for identity-formation today. Even further, he theorised that these massive hyper-landscapes criss-cross networks of finance, the media, images and older concepts like race and ethnicity in order to create a new generation of global citizens.
It appears that in his new novel, Behind a Cultural Cage, Pranav S. Joshi is attempting to speak to Appadurai's point about newly imagined, transnational diasporic communities, using Singapore as a base point. The book charts the life history and development of an unlikely global 'cosmopolitan' subject – a young man known as Kenneth Lai, who interestingly enough is born in India and crosses the diverse national landscapes of India, Singapore and China throughout his lifetime. Lai, ostensibly, is the perfect example of what Joshi means by a person trapped within the "cultural cage." Being bound both to the diasporic communities of India and China, he constantly has to deal with the uncomfortable position of never completely fitting into the racial and social identities within each nation.
By taking Kenneth Lai as the focal point of the novel, therefore, Joshi attempts to unpack the stifling nature of given racial and ethnic affiliations that have become the "cultural cages" of our era. The thirteenth child born to a Chinese gynaecologist in a rural village in West Bengal, Kenneth is the unfortunate cause of his mother's death by childbirth, and grows up neglected by his parents – a situation which causes him to attempt to develop an "Indian mind" in order to fit into West Bengali society. Despite these attempts, however, he still finds himself looked upon with suspicion by his community. In an effort to escape his desolation in India and to find a space in which he feels more comfortable and 'at home', Kenneth then migrates to Singapore, where he is engaged by a Malaysian Indian scholar, Dr Deep, to join the LifeCage Organization, which teaches its participants success through a Maslow-ian version of a cage theory driven by socio-economic forces. Kenneth ends up falling in love with an American woman who he meets through the "LifeCage Organization", and their coupling further reveals how their cultural and national differences are at once deep-rooted and seemingly superficial, thereby further casting a critical lens on the oppressiveness of cultural identities.
Joshi's novel thus reads as an interesting effort to create a contemporary, Singaporean Kim – the story of a "cultural bastard" who grows up among a community of people who constitute what is commonly understood to be a different 'race' from his own. Like Rudyard Kipling's Kim, Kenneth Lai is a wanderer who flits across disparate cultural and geographical locations to try and uncover the teeming hodge-podge of his own variegated identity. Just as Kim is more at home with Indian languages than English despite being an English boy, Kenneth grows up in turn more conversant in Bengali than the Mandarin language, the tongue which has historically been used to unite the Chinese diaspora. Consequently, Kenneth presents a good example of Appadurai's main point – the difficulty of applying older national and racial concepts to the constitution of the new global subject. This point is further underscored by Joshi's sub-plot, which involves the Malaysian Indian man Dr Deep, or Kenneth's mentor – Kenneth's Indian parallel foil who cannot be completely happy in his adopted country of Malaysia.
While Joshi's book is an interesting attempt to capture the cosmopolitanism of the "New Singaporean" identity – one which has historically been formed by the confluence of the diasporic Indian and Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore – this novel is quite typical of a series of other novels produced by Singaporean novelists living in similar conditions over the past ten years. Perhaps one of the most well-known novels of this genre would be Tan Hwee Hwee's Mammon Inc., which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2004. Also about the difficulty of cultural exchange and translation, Tan's novel contained the interesting premise of the possibility of the cultural "Adaptor" – a person who would be able to create the possibility for the wealthy of the world to seamlessly fit into different geographical and social terrain around the world. Tan Teck Howe's 2004 The Secret Goldfish and Other Follies also speaks to the language of the difficulty of transnational exchange and the idea of "cultural cages" through the vantage point of a Singaporean student in England who attempts to bridge the idea of cultural incommensurability through his pursuit of the Trinidadian student Claire.
More problematically, perhaps, Behind a Cultural Cage leaves certain important racial categories or 'ethnoscapes' out of the picture in its effort to create a portrait of a dazzlingly complicated and cosmopolitan Singaporean society. This is indicated from the very beginning, from the novel's beginning with a quotation from Lee Kuan Yew, commonly considered the founding father of "modern Singapore": "The basis of our culture is what we inherited from our original countries, our original cultures." However, in Behind a Cultural Cage, the "original cultures" that have received the most important representation have been the Chinese and the Indian identities. While these identities have been given a complex, transnational and even postmodern treatment, the book's emphasis on these two cultural communities have left out some highly important racial communities in its critique – most obviously the Malay community, which has historically been considered the "original" racial community within both Singapore and the larger context of Malaysia and Indonesia.
This occlusion of the 'founding' community of Singapore is possibly what I have found most fascinating about the novel – maybe because it speaks most clearly as to the purposeful gaps within the ideological construction of the 'modern', cosmopolitan nation of Singapore, a construction which has taken the form of the National Education syllabus, the mythologisation of Singapore history through the development of a world-class museum, and an attempt to create a notion of Singaporean art. This nation-wide effort to create a modern Singaporean cultural identity – a process which began in 1989 with the release of the Singaporean government's 'Renaissance City Report' to turn Singapore into a 'world-class' city through developing culture and the arts – has, however, as narratives like Joshi's indicate, erected its foundations on a certain problematic erasure. In Behind a Cultural Cage, the originating community of the Malay people has been subtly expunged in the effort to problematise the dynamism of emerging Indian and Chinese global diasporic communities and financial networks.
Reading Behind a Cultural Cage from the lenses of the recent genre of Singaporean literature which focuses on globalised, cosmopolitan identities thus begs an important question. How has the 'modern', almost 'transnational' mythology of contemporary Singapore been built on the basis of certain important exclusions? Within the novel's own critique of the restrictiveness of 'cultural cages', which other 'cultural cages' are left out of the discussion? Consequently, reading Behind a Cultural Cage from this perspective reminds the reader of the many intentional lacunae that have been mandatory behind the building of national history and consciousness. One of the clearest historical examples of this subtle, unquestioned erasure can be seen, for example, from the irony behind the history lesson first learnt by every English schoolchild: Who was William the Conqueror? The answer to the question, of course, is: The first king of England. What gets erased from this lesson, however, is the obvious question: Conqueror of whom? Because, of course, the answer would be: Conqueror of the English.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 3 Jul 2008