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Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002

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Good Intentions Point to Critical Needs
Assumed premises exclude sceptical arguments

By Rajeev Patke

Singapore Literature in English: A Critical Reader
eds. M.A. Quayum and Peter Wicks
Universiti Putra Malaysia Press (2002) / 447 pages / SGD 41.99

A corpulent book, handsomely dressed. A well-intentioned book, which offers Singapore a pat on the back, saying, See, the critics have said that your writers have “arrived” (even if this saying is done mostly by Singaporeans about themselves). An ironic book, in the sense that Singapore should have had the presence of mind to do this job first, and better. Has Singapore writing in English “arrived”? Is it time for a literary history of English in Singapore? The book offers enthusiastic assent to the first question, while it evades or avoids the responsibilities entailed by the second. A thriving literature needs a good base in criticism. Does the book succeed in putting together sufficient evidence for the claim that Singapore has such a literature and for the parallel claim that it also has the criticism that such a literature needs?

To set the stage for that kind of debate would need a very different kind of book, and a much sharper one. The only essay that raises such questions about the writing is by Jan Gordon, and it sits awkwardly here because it is atypical and also because it is dated. The book as a whole is benign rather than critical. It does not argue a canon, it assumes one. It does not give the skeptical side of the argument a hearing. It is not interested in the supposition that to do so would constitute a truly critical reader. Instead, it proceeds to talk about and around what looks in 2002 a staid and sedately dated canon, addressing itself less to the writer or the mythical general reader than to the student anxious for a fact or an opinion to dress up an academic essay. It largely ignores the considerable excitement that surrounds the truly young writers of today. Except for Edwin Thumboo, Robert Yeo and Kirpal Singh, it ignores the poetry. It addresses writers who sometimes write short stories without addressing the form as such and its popularity in Singapore. It is biased in favour of the novel as a genre. Its contributors share many features, among them association with Professor Quayum when he taught at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore.

That is not a problem in itself, but to have several contributions from the “usual suspects” is worrying. The chance to show that Singapore writing draws attention from more than just the same familiar local academics is missed. If Singapore writing is going to get wider attention, a book that might help show this happening might be of more service than one that leaves the impression that Singapore writing gets written on only by the same small group of friends and colleagues. Without looking very far for alternatives to the excessive duplication of membership that is its vice, we can ask, What happened to those frequent and shrewd essayists from Australia: Anne Brewster, Bruce Bennett, and Dennis Haskell? What happened to Chin Woon-Ping? What about Malaysian writers who have written acutely about Singapore writing? In brief, the book misses the chance to use a wider range of critical opinion. The book ignores the relation between popular and high-brow. It is too elevated to look at what actually sells in Singapore, and to wonder at why it does. It includes essays – without explanation – which still mention Arthur Yap as a young writer! I doubt if the writers are likely to get much sustenance or provocation from the kind of criticism contained in this book. I doubt even if they need to feel gratified if included, and disappointed if excluded.

I would argue that the size of such a book can mislead. Singapore has rarely had the quality of criticism that might help its writers, and I believe that a team of editors would be hard put to compile a book of genuinely constructive criticism even half the size of this portly compilation. And that might even be a healthier thing to do. There are several reasons why the good intentions of the book come to less than what is needed. It is a miscellany, which lacks coherence: it piles up dated review next to chatty interview next to plain and plodding student study-guide essay next to authorial apologia next to elaborate academic survey next to the rare and genuine piece of sharp and constructive criticism without explanation or context. It is ahistorical, whereas what is needed is a historically informed and informative as well as interpretively self-conscious editorial presence which must be explicit to the reader about a number of issues. What is included in such an anthology is hardly as self-evident in its significance as the editors suppose. The notion that everything is of equal and implicit significance is misleading. Texts – especially critical texts – need contexts that are not always borne by or in-between their lines. That is why a historical approach was needed, one that identified the issues of the various decades or phases in the development of creative writing in Singapore, and sifted them from those that have persisted. A critical essay serves a limited and specific end. They are not all suited for inclusion in a Casebook, as if to be embalmed for posterity as the critical canon to accompany the writers’ canon. What is needed is a book whose organization makes provision for more than just authors and genres. We need more essays like the one by Philip Holden, which puts a finger on some of the more sensitive issues that link writing to the life of the body politic outside writing. We need some attention to the issue of English in relation to writing in the other languages of Singapore, and in relation to translation and transposition as an activity and as metaphor. It is no use telling ourselves that words like modern and postmodern apply to Singapore quite as they get used in Paris or London or New York. We need more discussion of the terms that might apply for the experiences that local writers deal with, and to how they deal with them. We need something on censorship, both literal and figurative. We need something on how the younger writers relate, or do not relate, to the preoccupations of the older writers. We need something on the historicity of literary experience in Singapore. Finally, we need something on how robust and frail, on how precariously marginal and yet vitally central writing is to the life of Singapore, as a set of communities and cultures rather than a nation. I do not wish to appear excessively unkind. Only because these editors have worked hard to put together this kind of book does one perceive the need for another kind of book.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002


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Return to Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002

  Other Criticism in this Issue

Packing Quite A Punch
Chia Yueh Chin reviews last three women.

dowhile doodah
Koh Jee Leong reviews dowhile.

Coming to Terms with Terror
Jeremy Samuel reviews September 11 and Political Freedoms.

But Some Are More Free Than Others
Toh Hsien Min reviews Why Do People Hate America?.

Art Pitted Against Travel
Barnard Turner reviews The Art of Travel.

Related Links

Singapore Literature
External link to the National University of Singapore.

Singapore Literature: A Select Bibliography of Critical Writings
External link to the National University of Singapore.

Finding a Tongue: Language and Dialect in the Singapore Short Story in English
External link to the National University of Singapore.

Articles on Singapore literature
External link to Ethos Books.


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