Gopal Baratham: A Retrospective
(9 September 1935 – 23 April 2002)
By Teng Qian Xi
When I heard of Dr Gopal Baratham’s death, my first thought was: so that’s the first writer to go. It is a macabre kind of milestone for the country; to have all of one’s writers still alive is a privilege for Singapore’s youth. One of its oldest writers in English, Gopal Baratham’s life spanned many of the key events in Singapore’s recent history – he grew up during the Japanese Occupation, began his medical education in the 50s and spent 25 years as a neurosurgeon in the UK, then Singapore. His remarkable achievements as a writer are paralleled by those as a surgeon – he is probably the only person who was elected president of the ASEAN Association of Neurosurgeons and awarded the S.E.A (South-East Asia) Write Award in the same year (1991).
Most of Baratham’s literary achievements occurred in the last years of his medical career, throughout which he, like his character Hernie Perera in A Candle or the Sun (but with a much more strenuous profession), kept writing steadily in between working hours. He had begun writing long before his first short story was published in 1974 in Commentary, a publication of the National University of Singapore Society which he went on to help edit; in the mid-60s, he began a novel called Fuel in Vacant Lots which he never finished. By the time his first and most controversial novel, A Candle or the Sun, was published in 1991 by a London publisher called Serpent’s Tail, he had already published stories in various literary journals, which subsequently appeared in two collections during the 1980s. Figments of Experience (later reissued as Love Letter and Other Stories), People Make You Cry and Memories that Glow in the Dark (published in 1995) were reissued last year as a single volume entitled The City of Forgetting, with an introduction by Ban Kah Choon and his interview of Baratham.
My first encounter with Baratham’s work (not counting the time I flipped through Sayang at the age of fourteen; the book fell open at one of the sex parts which didn’t interest me enough to make me want to read the rest) was through this volume. I found it a rather baffling introduction at times, perhaps because in The City of Forgetting the stories are not arranged chronologically so there is an inconsistency in their quality. Ban Kah Choon may compare the writer to “the magician who stands before the unknown to decipher what has yet to be written” but in several of the stories, the didacticism and in-your-face critique strips much of the magic from the narrative. As Lim Siew Yea writes in Caricature, Characterization, and Political Criticism in Gopal Baratham's Writings, “The satiric mode, especially in the form of caricatures, proves an effective tool for criticism in short stories, since in them the author has to simplify matters to bring about a quick judgement of the political system. Nonetheless, without psychological depth, his characters remain caricatures who appear either as vicious perpetrators or ignorant victims, in either case incapable of effecting change.”
Baratham’s stories are peopled with more than just perpetrators or victims, but the latter do tend to dominate. The frustrated hopes, illusions and excesses of the characters in his stories are nothing if not recognisable, but they are often types, and unsurprising and uninteresting as characters. The overwhelming of the medium by the message is something that afflicts most of his more explicit socio-political critiques. “The Personal History of an Island”, a retelling of Singapore history in the narrative voice that begins as that of a child and evolves, I found disappointingly didactic. Granted, it’s hard not to agree with the points Baratham was making in that story – that no ideology is reliable, remember everything since you can change nothing – or, for that matter, in any of his stories, but he seems to be more involved with the plot and the message than making the language exciting. He is a better storyteller than a writer; being a product of these postmodern times, this is why I am less excited by Baratham’s stories than I am by, say, Claire Tham’s. Baratham’s stories did not make me (as the cliché goes) see differently, nor did their language hit me; Tham’s did both. But as Marshall McLuhan says, the medium is the message, and more so in the case of literature. Some of the stories, such as “Love Letter” (in which quirky and poetic dialogue succeeds in “filling out” the two mysterious never-named lovers) are exempt from this, but at other times, Baratham seems so eager to make sure a message is declared in large print that complexities of character and atmosphere get left by the wayside.
His other two novels, Moonrise, Sunset and Sayang I shall only touch on briefly here. Moonrise, Sunset was published in 1995 with Serpent’s Tail Mask Noir imprint, a crime thriller which I found a good read, with a marvellously eccentric cast of characters (including, to quote the blurb, “an American psycho-sexual healer and his matronly psychic sidekick”), but a book I wouldn’t go back to. It was the last novel Baratham published, and before he died, he was apparently working on a sequel to it. At least, with this book, one didn’t expect too much psychological depth; on the other hand, Sayang didn’t grab me much more than it did when I picked it up at fourteen. The Christian allegory was a bit overdone; it was as if the plot was an excuse for the allegory. As with the stories, Baratham is a little too eager to tell the reader about redemption, about how man is ignoble, about transience, instead of showing it.
In the short stories, one can trace the concerns that later appeared – I’m tempted to say more interestingly – in A Candle or the Sun and his contributions to public debate in Singapore. The criticism of the Singaporean ethos of conformity and rationality, as well as the questioning of memory, rhetoric and history which I often found forced in his stories became more exciting, less pedagogical in A Candle or the Sun. It seems to be more known as the book that no-one in Singapore would publish than one that people actually read. Admittedly the time of its release must have accounted for some of its impact – 1991 was less than four years after the 1987 arrests under the Internal Security Act, in which more than twenty people were charged with a Marxist plot aimed at overthrowing the state, and detained without trial. Few were prepared to take on the unknown (and thus seemingly infinite) risks involved in publicly criticising the ruling party; writing a book that criticised Singapore’s political and social climate pretty fervently would not make anyone in the People’s Action Party (PAP) happy, even if one was a successful neurosurgeon. (That, I suppose, was what was in the mind of local publishers, so the book was published by Serpent’s Tail in London.) On the other hand, by that time Baratham had already left his post at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and was in private practice, so in a sense he had nothing major to lose even without the little note on the flyleaf stating rather disingenuously: “This is a work of fiction. Any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons places or events is purely coincidental.”
Nonetheless, I must admit I was surprised by how stinging A Candle or the Sun was, although I did read the book looking for specific targets. The protagonist of the book is Hernie Perera, the manager of the furniture department of Benson’s store, who writes stories in his free time. The book traces his life’s collapse, one of the reasons for which is a “street paper” that begins to appear, and about which he eventually betrays his lover to the authorities (represented by Samson Alagaratnam, an old friend and government official). The “street paper” is a very specific indictment of the culture of compliance in Singapore, denouncing the exchange of the right to freedom of expression and assembly for “good housing, safe streets, schools for your children and … enough [pay] for three square meals a day and a colour TV.” It was full of references to PAP policy, such as “Your masters kennel you in neat boxes, doctor your females, control litter size according to pedigree and tell you what names you can give your pups.” More telling was the portrayal of the overreaction of the authorities in the novel to the relatively harmless source of this “subversion”, a Christian sect of young people called the Children of the Book (of which Hernie’s lover Su-May is a member) and their (ab)use of the incident to further other political ends.
But beyond such specific targets, it is the issue of compromise that Baratham explores in A Candle or the Sun that continues to resonate today. The book does not just criticise a repressive political climate; state restriction does not directly affect most of the characters. It is their willingness to “concede” to the might of the state and sacrifice not just principles, but people, that taints most people. One might say Baratham condemns compromise but not the compromisers. Although in these portraits Baratham still depends on caricature and the satiric mode, but here he is more successful in creating more complex characters. The protagonist of the book, Hernie Perera, is not a noble or exceptional person – one might say none of his characters are – and never really becomes one. In that sense he is recognisable; when his undemanding job at a department store is threatened by managerial changes he readily accepts an old friend’s offer of a job at the Ministry of Culture despite an acute awareness of the necessary costs. About these he remarks laconically, “I suppose this loss of self-respect is what distressed me. It must be something that all whores grappled with” and tries to “compartmentalise” his life and resolve the dissonance between job requirements and security. However, in the end his betrayal is not really political – we never see him forced to write propaganda it is a desire to get back at Su-May for planning to leave him to do good in Africa that provokes him into betraying her and her group. Yet his loyalties waver, and this sees him eventually choosing to help Su-May and her friend Peter Yu (the leader of the Children of the Book and organiser of the street papers) escape. And in his willingness to sacrifice security and suffer for their escape, there is redemption. As with the stories, Baratham’s vision of the human condition contains some hope.
After the publication of the book, Baratham became an outspoken critic of the government, doing so largely with impunity unlike writer Catherine Lim, whose two Straits Times articles in 1994 caused Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to declare that his authority should not be challenged by “writers on the fringe.” A 1996 Asiaweek article on “political gadflies” in Asia described Baratham as having been “luckier” with state response to his views; in the article, he was stoic about being seen as “the government’s token liberal”. This article also contains a good summary of his reasons for what he does:
In a way he had come to terms with the system – an article on censorship in the “killed” issue of Commentary in 1994 showed that he had already accepted that there will be a “boundary within which artists can operate”, symbolised by a circle. Yet he called for a circle “maybe not with very sharp edges”, together with “a second, outer circle, reflecting the ideal that ‘there is a grey but unlimited area into which art must expand: an infinite penumbra’”. Presumably he also applied this model to anyone wanting greater freedom of expression; he himself would continue pushing OB (out-of-bounds) markers in many ways.
The Caning of Michael Fay, which Baratham published in 1994, showed some of these developments in his views. It is a detailed and compassionate study of the issues surrounding the Michael Fay incident in 1994, and in this book, Baratham examines Singapore’s restrictive legislation together with so-called American liberal values. It is a comprehensive and impassioned reflection on justice and the need for humanity in a pragmatic system. Moreover, the interviews he conducted of people ranging from Fay’s parents to an ex-chief flogger from the Prison Department of the Singapore Police Force reflect a belief in the pluralism of truth that resurfaces in later pieces. One assumes that it is in this spirit that he wrote to The Straits Times Forum page in 1997 questioning the objectivity of national education, especially regarding the 1962 Referendum. “I would rather our youth find out the facts from as many sources as are available and be given the option of making up their own minds,” he wrote. This sparked off a fierce exchange of letters on the Referendum and related issues between Mohamad Maidin, Parliamentary Secretary for Education, and Dr Lee Siew Choh, who was the last secretary-general of the Barisan Sosialis (an opposition party of the past).
In Baratham’s last years, he continued to resist conformity by showing public support for fairly unpopular causes. When To Be Free: Stories from Asia’s Struggles Against Oppression by Dr Chee Soon Juan came out, he reviewed it for Asiaweek in 1999. Dr Chee is the leader of one of the few opposition parties here – the Singapore Democratic Party; he currently faces lawsuits by the leaders of the PAP for making unsubstantiated statements during election campaigning last year. To Be Free was not reviewed in Singapore and was not carried by major bookshops here. Baratham went on to attend the “Abolish ISA” event at Hong Lim Park (also the location of the government-designated “Speakers’ Corner”) organised by Dr Chee on International Human Rights Day 2000, where he spoke out against the ISA and the 22-year imprisonment of Chia Thye Poh, Singapore's longest serving political prisoner.
In the light of all this, the death of Gopal Baratham feels like less of a loss to local literature than to critical discourse in Singapore. The Straits Times lauded him as a “free spirit” when reporting his death; since we can never know how many more occasions he might have spoken up but refrained, I shall not use the same title. But it is crucial to mark the passing of one who was not afraid to speak up in favour of letting contesting voices tell their stories. In a feature in the Singapore Medical Journal titled “A Book I’d Recommend to a Colleague”, Baratham recommends Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. He ends his article with: “...those who have found and believe they have a monopoly of the truth reside in lunatic asylums or in the palatial edifices that tyrants build for themselves.” Both his public criticisms and his books were ways of subverting a system that so often seeks to monopolise the truth. In a city where forgetting becomes easier and easier with each new building and monument and policy change, Gopal Baratham’s contribution to Singapore debate and memory is something that cannot be forgotten.
by Gopal Baratham
Short story collections:
- Figments of Experience - People Make You Cry - Memories that Glow in the Dark - The City of Forgetting (edited and with an introduction by Ban Kah Choon)
- A Candle or the Sun (Serpent’s Tail, London; 1991) - Sayang (Times Books International, Singapore; 1991) - Moonrise, Sunset (Serpent’s Tail, London;1995)
- The Caning of Michael Fay (KRP Publications, Singapore; 1994)