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Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

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Overworked Symbols Conceal Gems
The new Penguin anthology strikes the right chords

By Afiza

The Merlion and the Hibiscus
Edited by Dipika Mukherjee, Kirpal Singh and M.A. Quayum
Penguin (2002) / 240 pages / 250 rupees

In spite of the triteness of its title and cover design (featuring, you guessed it, a merlion and a hibiscus), this collection of nineteen contemporary short stories from Singapore and Malaysia presents some of the choicest pieces of literature from these two countries. Fortunately, the tales presented are much more vibrant than the rather insipid and uninspired symbols used in the title and cover design to represent Singapore and Malaysia – and certainly much more representative of local identities and experiences. Indeed, these stories deal with a wide range of issues that encompass different ethnic, gender, class, religious and generational identities in Singapore and Malaysia – as such, most of these stories will strike a chord with readers here and give valuable insight into the local psyche for non-local readers.

It is this sense of resonance that I found most appealing. As it is, many of my favourite works in this collection are those that I am able to identify with, or at the very least recognize as being part of a discernible local experience. As a Malay, I found the issues explored and the portraits offered of Malay/Muslim identities by Karim Raslan, Che Husna Azhari and to a lesser extent Alfian Sa’at, fascinating and certainly reflective of Malay identities – past and present. Che Husna Azhari’s droll portrayal of a village Imam plagued by the resurgence of passion in his life, who subsequently succumbs to the temptation of taking the attractive Mariah as his second wife, is particularly delightful for painting the religious leader as someone only too human and susceptible to the foibles of human nature. In ‘Mariah’ she humorously sketches the vagaries of male-and-female behaviour and relationships in a Kelantan village:

The men in the village were all excitedly handling this issue in their own ways. They had all at some time or other in their lives fantasized about having second wives, but, sadly, neither their wives nor their budgets were accommodating enough… Women wondered how she could have easily succumbed to the whole arrangement. The men, on the other hand, wondered what Koranic ayats the Imam blew on Cik Yam’s face to subdue her.

Che Husna Azhari also pins down an issue that the Malaysian television industry (and probably Malay society as well) appears to be obsessed with – that of marital fidelity and the practice of taking multiple wives. Here, the author gently pokes fun at several Malay institutions – such as the village community, the marital institution, as well as the religious institution – while successfully portraying the bustle and politics of village life in which everybody minds everyone else’s business.

This evocative rendering of the subject’s life and times is also apparent in many other works in The Merlion and the Hibiscus – whether they are of village or urban life; or of the Chinese, Malay or Indian communities; or of past or present eras. In Simon Tay’s ‘My Cousin Tim’, Ek Teng’s reminiscence of past times with his cousin vividly captures the nostalgia of his boyhood era (one could almost imagine the sepia tinge of that golden memory seeping from the page!):

I see the market and hawker stalls where we temporarily escaped the constant hunger of adolescence, the courts near the old tin quarries where we’d play all afternoon... the street of narrow houses, stylish brothels during the tin boom but run down even in our youth, where fat, dark women sat in the doorway under the red light and called us as we each, laughing, tried to push the other towards them.

There is also a reflection of changing times or identities in ‘Hungry Ghost’ by Hwee Hwee Tan, mirroring the tendency for some Chinese youths to turn their backs on the mysticism of their parents’ religion (that is, ancestor worship) and opt for the rationalism of Christianity instead; as reflected not only by the narrator’s refusal to pray to her deceased grandfather, but also to talk to him as well:

I shook my head. All that was in front of me was a photo stuck to a piece of rock. There was a lot to say to my grandfather – like how I knew why he took me to Haw Par Villa, why he told me those stories about the grave hugger – but I couldn’t say that to a slab of stone.

Her discomfort with her mother’s rituals and the extent of her alienation is evident when she just could not bring herself to communicate with “a slab of stone”. This conflict in identity is an ever-present issue as we attempt to reconcile the old and the new, the local and the global. Past rituals or social mores are now coming under greater scrutiny and at times are found wanting, and at times, given a nostalgic gloss (although most of the stories in the collection would fall in the former rather than latter category).

The attempt to reconcile conflicting aspects of Malay identities and values is also apparent in Karim Raslan’s ‘Neighbours’, as epitomized in Datuk Mus’ speech about religious interpretations and practices:

I might possess views about your behaviour which I could voice, were I inclined to do so, just as you would be free to reject whatever I have to say. Similarly, I am free not to have to act according to your interpretations of the Koran and the Hadiths – because interpretations are all that they are, neither wrong nor right, merely differing views pertaining to the same subject.

This perspective incorporating a more cosmopolitan and rationalized worldview with that of traditional Muslim faith appears to be reflective of the urban, educated “New Malay”. In depicting the changing nature of contemporary Malay society, Karim Raslan also appears to be propagating a more open and honest Malay society at the same time. Indeed, I was struck by the intimate and honest nature of his story, as he unflinchingly depicts a less openly acknowledged aspect of that society – that of gay and transvestite subcultures. The theme of stripping away the pretensions of society is echoed in Alfian Sa’at’s ‘Bugis’, as pretensions at the personal and societal level are unraveled towards the end of the story, leaving his protagonist wondering, “why the whole world has to pretend.” However, I felt that although both Alfian Sa’at and Karim Raslan worked with similar themes, the former’s story lacked the complexity and subtlety of the latter. For instance, the difference in style and tone in the resolution of these stories:

It was a rare moment, a moment of shocking clarity. She could see herself as she was – the pretence and the falsity of how she lived her life had slipped away. Everything around her was sheared of its innocence. It was all a sham. She was a fat, overweight woman, neglected by her husband, whose emotional life was so thin and insubstantial...


At that moment I ask myself why the whole world has to pretend. That pondan, with his broad face, his rough skin, who does he think he can fool? And Salmah, all of a sudden, becoming very religious, wearing that tudung of hers. And Bugis Street pretending not to be the place it once was, full of wolf-whistles and bras swinging from lampposts... I start feeling sick of pretending. I reach out and pull Salmah’s tudung from her head.


Although the apparent simplicity of Alfian Sa’at’s language and plot could be explained by his use of the first-person narrative of a polytechnic student, I much preferred Karim Raslan’s more sophisticated style – admittedly, it is more a matter of preference on my part (and a manifestation of my inner pedant), rather than a critical judgement of the authors’ competence. The diction and syntax of the stories in this collection do range between the colloquial (mostly in dialogues) – Alfian Sa’at being the only author to use colloquialisms extensively – to a slightly more formal usage of the language. I found that Kirpal Singh’s ‘Monologue II’ employed too much stylistic psychobabble:

Round and round the birds flew knowing some great moment was at hand. The darkness gathered. The light had been dimmed to hide the scar. He had wanted this so badly he did not know how to handle himself. She was there. She was ready. She was his. She was. As he sat alone thinking and wondering his mind meandered. [So did mine, coincidentally, while I was reading.] He had tendered. There had been public tenders, private tenders, tenders and just privates. Parts he knew existed below the waist which he was not to speak of.

While the meandering style is intended – and “meandering” describes the language and story to perfection – the story is too obscure and consequently could not hold my attention for long (lacking the temperament to actually enjoy this kind of esoteric work). Although some of the turns of phrases and words may be funny, I was much too annoyed by the meandering to be appeased – perhaps this is one of those works best enjoyed when in an altered state of mind!

Although there were a few stories that were not particularly interesting, I rather enjoyed most of the stories. The issues that I have singled out are but a few of the various themes and styles embedded in the nineteen short stories in the collection. The diversity of this collection is worthy of commendation. However, the most appealing aspect of this collection is that the stories are recognizably, indisputably Singaporean and Malaysian. Other readers may not identify with or enjoy the same stories that I did, but I have no doubts that there will be at least a few stories from this diverse collection that they will relish. There is indeed a “little something for everyone,” as the editors claim.

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002


Is the book a representative anthology? Discuss this in the Forum!

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Return to Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002

  Other Criticism in this Issue

Maiden Voyage Flounders on Lack of Distinction
Leonard Ng reviews kensai's Maiden.

Tales of the City
Jeremy Samuel reviews Postmodern Singapore.

Candle to the Sun
Toh Hsien Min reviews David Lehman's The Evening Sun.

Marrying Death to Beauty
Cyril Wong reviews Linda Pastan's The Last Uncle.

Related Links

The Merlion and the Hibiscus
External link to Penguin Books India.


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