Flaws outshone by collection's contribution to local literature
By Chew Yi Wei
Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature
The publication of Writing Singapore has been, in many ways, a long time coming. Singapore turns 45 in August, and the nation's literary scene has, in the past half-decade, witnessed some growth, hence the timeliness of this anthology's publication.
English literature in Singapore has evolved to becoming a Singapore literature in English; more proudly and perhaps with a slight nationalistic idiom, implicit is also a Singaporean literature in English. This anthology, though distinctly titled An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature, does make a subtle endeavour in presenting a Singaporean literature, a Singaporean voice – a sense of ownership and entitlement.
The editors must be credited for a very comprehensive general introduction, in which efforts are made to secure tight definitions and justifications regarding the often messy and complex task of anthologizing. Firstly, due acknowledgement was made to other older anthologies of Singapore literature, which, in turn, provided reason for the editors to explain the critical difference between this particular anthology and the rest:
This is the first anthology that has managed a comprehensive taxonomy of genres, time period and literary merit. That such a synthesis and organization is made is critical to the nation's literary development. Because nothing exists in a vacuum, a nation's evolution must also be reflected in its writing. The anthology does an excellent job of classifying Singapore literature according to significant events in its history: literary history is therefore taken apart and placed alongside national chronology. In the same vein, the provision of the timeline (1612-2008) aids in the enterprise of registering events as they have taken place.
What I find questionable, however, is the location of the start of Singapore's history at 1612. Surely, this is not so much a recording of history but an interpretation of it; this becomes not an historical condition but a historiographical one.
Having said that, it is of course a necessity, due to the book being an historical anthology; however, one must question if this is a beginning of Singapore's history or Singapore's literary history. They are, of course, inextricably linked, but one must not dismiss their difference, no matter how tenuous. To answer this question, one must analyse the timeline – compiled by Geraldine Song – right at the beginning of the anthology very carefully. Titled "Timeline of Historical Events and Literary Publications", the editors clearly meant this to be an historical anthology based on Singapore's literary history, for "Publications of Literary Works" are listed alongside "Historical and Political Events".
1612 happens to be the year that the Malay Annals were written. This proves the editors' conviction that Singapore's history and literary history do not begin with the British. In the process, this new delineation of the nation's beginnings questions the branding of "English literature" as opposed to "Singapore literature (in English)", thus providing a stronger justification of the titling of their anthology.
It is tempting, at this juncture, to applaud their boldness; however, the massive time gap between 1612 and 1819 remains unaddressed. At least a good two centuries are allowed to pass without any particular explanation. If Singapore's history and literary history began in 1612, did nothing happen between then and 1819? Unlike the abovementioned period, the years post-1819 are recorded without gaping chasms in between. As a result, this ends up being a case of reconfiguring chronology for its own sake, rather than achieving anything historically valid.
The anthology splits of Singapore's literary history into three distinct periods: Literature pre-1965, between 1965-1990 and 1990 to the present. Sufficient reasons are given by the editors for their categorizing, most ostensibly classifying Singapore's literary history in line with the unfolding of the country's political discourse.
It is heartening to note that each period brings with it a greater number of local writers. The reasons are not surprising, considering the initiation of programmes by the Ministry of Education to promote the study of the arts, programmes like the Creative Arts Programme and the inclusion of texts written by local authors as part of literature lessons.
National initiatives like these have played a critical role in the promotion of local literature to Singaporeans, and the editors ensure that they examine the flourishing of Singapore's literary history in light of these developments. Though I find the arguments for the segmenting of Singapore's literary history into these three periods to be extremely useful in charting the progress of the nation's literature, I still see some problems.
The editors divide the anthology into three sections based on the significance of the political events that took place in the given period: the publishing of the Malay Annals in 1612, Independence in 1965 and the handing over of the country to Goh Chok Tong from Lee Kuan Yew in 1990 mark primacy the editors place on Singapore's political history.
But was 1612 chosen based on literary event, and the next two on political ones? This makes one wonder why other political events were not highlighted. Wasn't 2004 a significant year for Singapore too, with the handing of power from Goh to Lee Hsien Loong? Why is it that the editors choose the reign of Goh rather than the ascension of the younger Lee as a milestone in the nation's literary history? Why should Singapore's literary history be classified according to this period of Singapore's history? Granted, Goh was key in liberalizing the cultural landscape of Singapore during his term, but does that preclude other significant events that might have influenced the demarcation time periods with regard to the nation's literary history? Was the publication of the various literary works merely fortuitously concomitant with the given historical event(s), or were they deliberately published in line with the event?
This inconsistency notwithstanding, efforts to detail the growth of literary works must be given due recognition, because, aligned with such an order are the "decisions regarding canon and canonicity". The editors ensure that they underscore the difficulty in canonizing qua the act of anthologizing, with the awareness that they are, after all, dealing in postcolonial scholarship. Political considerations and canonizing of new literatures in English cannot be examined in isolation; both exist together because the former necessarily agitates or necessitates the latter. Particular attempts are, therefore, made to place local writers in the canon, with an assortment of non-Singaporean writers placed in different time periods.
This brings me to my main point of contention – inclusivity and its value in the anthology. The anthology does not claim to be exclusive, nor does it claim to be all-encompassing. However, there is a weakness in the arguments given for the inclusion of non-Singaporean authors.
I do not deny a need for inclusion but the inclusion of non-Singaporeans has its implications. The editors are generally clear in their defence of the direction of Singapore literature: they view its concurrency with history, taken from the perspective of the "new millennium" and thus "anticipate that the anthology itself will encourage fresh historical analyses, stimulate new cultural productions, and contribute to important constructions and revisions of individual and national identities". Indeed, what they mean by "fresh historical analyses" needs further elucidation. What constitutes a fresh historical analysis? How would this impact the value of inclusivity? What kinds of works should be included and by whom should they be written?
To possibly answer questions that might arise regarding the inclusion of non-Singaporean authors, the editors provide a brief analysis of how each author's work has relevance to Singapore. For example, Philip Holden justifies the inclusion of Guillemard's and Purcell's poems in the 1930s and 1940s as being "transitional". Qualifying their works as being momentary is, of course, an attempt by Holden to legitimise their presence in a constantly changing Singapore, but it stops short at saying "both now seem increasingly out of place in contrast to more complex efforts to appropriate the English language and literary forms to comment on a Singapore context". If, indeed, it is "out of place", as Holden critiques, why are they still included? He cites that they have traits typical of colonial writing, such as "[the opposition] of a tropical to a temperate landscape", but this alone does not warrant their place in the anthology. There is no fresh historical perspective offered, except for the fact that these works were written about Singapore in that particular period. The poets still remain outside colonized culture, viewing and writing another culture they do not understand. Their fixation with the tropical landscape is simply a condition of the "contact zone", the "social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination" – where the local landscape is objectified and exoticised by the settler.
This is further exacerbated by the inclusion of Joseph Conrad's "The End of the Tether". Holden cleverly uses Hugh Clifford as a counterpoint to Conrad, with the former criticising Conrad for displaying "none but a superficial acquaintance with the Malayan customs, language or character". Such a move might seem to legitimise Clifford's inclusion here. However, Holden mitigates Clifford's legitimacy by situating the latter's work in "fantasy" – an impossible "amphib[ious]" state that Clifford desires to be "to escape the constraints of the colonial order of things while at the same time not giving up loyalty to imperial power". Clifford's desire for duality prevents him from writing outside the colonial discourse; his voice – despite it being remarkably less arrogant than Conrad's – still remains irrevocably foreign, thus making his inclusion in the anthology highly questionable. Holden, once again, remains reticent about Clifford's paradox.
Finally, the inclusion of Isabella Bird's travel narrative within the British pantheon is merely an attempt to provide a female voice in the colonial narrative, as opposed to the predominantly male, patriarchal one; it does not add value to a specific Singapore literary narrative in this anthology. Bird the traveller invariably falls into the trap of exoticising the landscape as "spectacle". That such an inflated imagination of Singapore is proffered by Bird proves once again that "the colonial model teaches the exoticist that the Other is a conspicuously different order of being". In all the above examples, the only effect achieved is an othering of the colonial object.
Based on these reasons, the abovementioned works hardly merit a place in the anthology. They could, at best, function as pre-1965 transnational literature (about Singapore), but to place them in the corpus of Singapore literature would certainly be a stretch. Relooking history can be a liberating endeavour, but one must be circumspect in being a little too inclusive, for such an approach devalues the notion of inclusivity.
Anthologizing, like a nation's literature, is a work-in-progress and I look forward to reading more anthlogies as Singapore literature continues to develop. Faced with the hard job of anthologizing and the sensitive task of canonizing, the editors have succeeded in coming up with the best solution, for now.
Singapore has come a long way in its journey of building a national literature and having an anthology implies that the nation has reached a milestone in its literary development. The selection of works, having the potential to be slightly more exhaustive, is good enough as there is only so much that can be included in an anthology. It is commendable that a range of pertinent themes in each time period are included.
Flaws aside, this anthology is a step forward in Singapore literature which should be treasured. I am immensely proud of it and would recommend it to anyone wanting to gain a deeper insight into Singapore.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010