On the Subject of Race
Alfian Sa'at sketches what it is like to be Malay in Singapore
By Laremy Lee
Two years ago, a couple of friends and I watched the premiere of Charged by Chong Tze Chien, a play with a National Service setting that explores tensions between the Malay and Chinese communities in Singapore.
Those I watched the play with were ethnic Chinese Singaporean, English-educated professionals with an upper-middle/lower-upper class background. I am an ethnically mixed (Chinese-Indian), English-educated professional with a middle-class background.
When the play ended, I exited the theatre with this unspoken sentiment: This was a great play that more ethnic Chinese Singaporean people need to watch so that they know how minorities in Singapore feel. And true enough, my friends had this to say collectively when we discussed the production over drinks: This was a great play and we didn't know Singaporean Malays felt that way.
Alfian Sa'at's Malay Sketches is a timely and valuable addition to the Singapore literary canon for three reasons:
* Like David Mamet's Race, Malay Sketches reveals that race is the elephant in the room that few in Singapore can or want to talk about;
* Like Chong's Charged, Malay Sketches is a provocatively powerful and brutally honest work that speaks about the subject of race, since few in Singapore can or want to talk about it; and
* Finally, Malay Sketches is if I may be allowed to humbly draw on Matthew Arnold's concept of 'touchstone texts' a stylistically and technically well-written text that serves as a standard bearer for established and aspiring writers alike.
Three stories from the text exemplify this.
'The Convert' is the first story the reader encounters and presents a conflict between Jason, an ethnic Chinese Singaporean career soldier, and the military organization he is employed in.
But what's a Chinese man doing in a text entitled Malay Sketches, you might ask.
The story is premised on the closely intertwined relationship between religion and race in Malay culture; to be Malay in Singapore is usually to be Muslim as well, and, as Alfian points out time and again in the text, to be Malay in Singapore is usually to be marginalized. Hence, after Jason converts to Islam to marry the woman he loves, the soldier is deemed a liability and is transferred to a less 'sensitive' military vocation.
It is a tale that could well be non-fiction because of the seldom-discussed but well-known rule in the Singapore Armed Forces that Muslims are not usually deployed in military vocations deemed crucial in terms of having the ability to majorly impact the course of a battle e.g. tank commander or fighter pilot. This is due to an inherent fear in (the mainly Chinese Singaporean) military commanders and politicians that Muslims can become turncoats if a war were ever to be fought against our neighbouring Muslim-majority countries.
Hence, Alfian depicts the soldier's frustrated resignation towards a fate engineered for him by forces larger than himself through his symbolic protection of his wife as she sleeps:
'Shallow Focus' uses the motif of photography to discuss the gap in aspirations between the Malay and Chinese communities in Singapore, and is aptly demonstrated in the opening lines of the story:
Here, Alfian dexterously portrays the first of the divides between the Chinese and Malay communities the educational divide. This is important in Singapore: as educational status is very often an indicator of social mobility, a person's educational status is very closely tied to his and, possibly, his family's socio-economic status.
Similar to 'The Convert', to be Malay in Singapore often has associations with something else. In this case, Malay-ness is very often linked to being of a lower educational and socio-economic status, or what is often termed by politicians as the 'Malay Problem'.
Now that the protagonist has crossed this chasm at his mother's underlying behest, the irony is to be found when he realizes his photographer is none other than "Min Heng a secondary school classmate, and [his] fiercest academic rival" (p. 74).
It's unclear if Min Heng has dropped out of the rat race or has transcended the paper chase. But it is clear that the nameless protagonist (nameless because he is like many others of his ilk) has had to fulfil his mother's expectations for reasons larger than his own dreams so as to keep up with the Joneses; so as to raise the community's standing; so as not to let it down and turn the 'Malay Problem' into reality:
Yet Alfian is not always the fierce "critic of society and country" that Professor Rajeev S. Patke once described him as 'Child', the penultimate story in the text, takes a slightly different tack. It is reminiscent of (and, perhaps, an authorial tip of the hat to) Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee because of their shared thematic concerns as well as their similar use of spartan diction, indefinite third-person pronouns and present tense. Compare:
Both tug at similar heartstrings, but Alfian's is not an artful copy that the apprentice has made of the master's work. While Coetzee painfully recollects an awkward childhood, Alfian captures a sepia-tinted picture of an earnestly lived one:
Though Malay Sketches is mainly made up of hits, there are a couple of misses, too two of which are as follows:
First, there is the problematic title: Malay Sketches takes its name from a collection of anecdotes of the same name by Frank Swettenham, the colonial governor of the Straits Settlements from 1901 to 1904. These anecdotes describe Malay life on the peninsula from a foreigner's point of view, but Swettenham was not just any foreigner; he was a foreigner who had successfully integrated with the locals to almost become one of them, but yet remained someone who straddled the margins between outsider and native.
Hence, the title has been cleverly borrowed to demonstrate the parallels that Alfian's vignettes have with Swettenham's Sketches; one might go so far as to argue that it is part of the continued reclamation of the identity of the colonized in a post-post-colonial age. Unfortunately, Alfian has also subsumed the role of the colonist; the outsider commenting on Malay life, thereby rendering the text itself problematic: is it meant to be critique, vindication or both?
Secondly, there is a reinforcement of stereotypes. Coupled with the ambiguous purpose of the text (to some extent), the vignette form the narratives take may consciously or unconsciously reinforce stereotypes about the Malay community. Flash fiction renders character development impossible because flash fiction is just that a flash; an insight.
Thus, Alfian often resorts to negative stereotypes of the Malay community such as the lazy native, the promiscuous slut, the drug abuser and so on to quickly convey plot points and themes to the reader within the limited timespan each story has.
The corollary of this: the reader enters the text, is given short glimpses into the lives of a spectrum of Singaporean Malays, and departs, having some newfound understanding of Singaporean Malays. However, the reader departs while still retaining concepts depicted by the stereotypes on display that become even harder to dispel, in spite of the best efforts of the text.
Perhaps a future novel or novella about the same subject matter will provide more room for developing a character that can create new understanding and resist stereotypes of the Malay community in Singapore.
I started off the review with an excerpt from Mamet's Race to illustrate the similarities between Race and Malay Sketches. Race arrived at a crucial point in time in 2009, to fill a gap between whites and blacks in the American conversation a gap where topics like historical baggage, prejudice, perceptions and the like were hard to discuss.
Race did not make these topics any less controversial; they still are difficult topics and will continue to be difficult topics in time to come. But one thing about gap-fillers in conversations is that they act as a bridge between two points of view, which helps keep conversations going. And in ongoing conversations, difficult topics that are consistently discussed become less difficult to talk about over time.
Similarly, Malay Sketches is an important addition to the Singaporean conversation because of its relentless insistence at discussing the topic of race in Singapore something most Singaporeans shy away from (in true Singaporean fashion) to maintain 'racial harmony'. Nevertheless, Singaporeans aren't going to suddenly start discussing the topic of race in Singapore in more depth tomorrow (in true Singaporean fashion) just because of one text.
But as long as Alfian continues to explore the subject matter depicted in Malay Sketches, this conversation about race will carry on, once present and future Singaporeans have enough encouragement to begin this conversation, akin to the protagonist in 'The Drawer':
QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012