Far Eastern Economic Review

July 4, 2002


Much successful modern writing comes in the form of exotica of one type or another. Unfamiliar histories and colourful domestic dramas set in the steamy Subcontinent fill the pages of award-winning literature, adding spice to the cappuccino aroma that pervades modern book-buying. Curiously absent from these lists, however, is one of the truly exotic settings for modern writing in Southeast Asia .

The Malay Peninsula was once fertile ground for great authors like Conrad and Greene. Today, its relative literary neglect is all the more remarkable considering that Malaysia and Singapore are among the few countries in Asia where English is an official medium of expression-more or less. Happily Penguin has taken the plunge and brought together this delightful collection of stories by writers from both countries. It was a good bet on high-quality writing, though readers less acquainted with local culture and history may miss some of the nuances. “Stories of complaint and lamentation” promise the collection’s editors. These are multiracial societies with post-colonial hang-ups, so what comes across is a mix of masked prejudice and unfulfillment. All the stories in one way or another build on the insecure nature of these two societies. They charm with the absence of arrogance, but frustrate with their equivocation.

There are stories that convey mixed feelings about the former English colonial overlords-as in Gopal Baratham’s “The Interview” and M. Shanmughalingam’s ” Victoria and her Kimono.” Both stories reflect on the Japanese occupation, which left people of the peninsula feeling ambivalent over which was preferable-British colonial rule or Japanese overlordship. “I not only think English, I even see English,” muses the Tamil schoolteacher in ” ictoria and her Kimono.” Yet, he is saved from execution at the hands of the Japanese army by his wife, speaking Japanese and wearing a kimono. Her only perception of English was of a language spoken badly by the villains in popular Tamil movies.

A more contemporary theme dwells on the complex family chemistry of the Straits Chinese-one that leads writers like Shirley Geok Lim, Simon Tay andHwee Hwee Tan into labyrinths created by second marriages and the wider Chinese diaspora. There’s a striking candidness about these writers and often more than a hint of sexual impropriety, which takes readers behind the screen, corroding those much-vaunted traditional family values.

Absent for the most part are the heavy political themes of freedom and religious tolerance that often dominate coffee shop conversations. The editors possibly wished to avoid controversy-and ensure that the book escaped banning by prickly authorities. Yet traces of dissent appear, as in the charming and poetic “AWOL” by Singapore writer Umej Bhatia, whose story dwells on the boredom of adolescent existence in Singapore ‘s public housing estates, and Catherine Lim’s delicious send-up of Singapore ‘s cultural minders.

By Michael Vatikiotis