Exploring Multiculturalism

 The Statesman

Sunday, April 21,2002 .

Exploring Multiculturalism 

And you thought Singapore was all about shopping festivals, and Malaysia about rubber plantations!

“When the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 made it clear that the Malayan Archipelago would be British… few would have thought it possible that one day, there would be natives from the Malayan peninsula and… Singapore writing in the totally new language called English.” This volume makes it clear that there is indeed a vibrant body of literature being produced in English by writers from the region.

Penguin India ‘s ‘The Merlion and the Hibiscus’ opens a window on 19 contemporary short story writers from Malaysia and Singapore . There is no one theme that ties the stories in this collection together. However, World War II and the Japanese occupation still clearly exercise a hold over writers from Singapore and Malaysia . Occupation figures in various forms in Chuah GuatEng’s ‘Seventh Uncle’, Gopal Baratham’s The Interview, Lloyd Fernando’s ‘SurjaSingh’, M Shanmugalingam’s ‘Victoria and Her Kimono‘, Wena Poon’s The Move and Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s Mr.Tang’s Girls.

In Seventh Uncle, the experience of living in Japanese occupied Malaya is what separates the women from the girls. Siew Hoon and Betty will always be ‘the babies’ to the family because they never had to learn Japanese or eat tapioca. The narrator-journalist’s father in the Interview strikes a similar chord: “The trouble with you people”, he frequently said, “is that you did not live through the war. You haven’t seen enough change and the suffering to value solid principles.”

The narrator reluctantly agrees to interview Brigadier Mason, ex-PoW, expecting him to castigate Japanese ‘atrocities’ and justify the British stance. However, his ‘story’ leaves her disturbed and distressed. She must accept at the end that the experience of the war gives the Brigadier a perspective she lacks.

M Shanmugalingam’s Victoria and Her Kimono is a parody of colonial hangover as well as a critique of Japanese occupation. Shanmugalingam vivdly portrays the occupation days when listening to the BBC or the failure to bow low at the Japanese sentry points would lead to extreme penalties.

Surja Singh is about a 28 year old INA soldier whose story we are told through discussions among his friends. The British have won Malaya back, and the narrator and friends are now busy denying their INA connections. The fact is that none of them was serious about the INA. They all had their own petty reasons for joining it. Except Surja Singh, the dedicated INA man who dies ‘mysteriously’. This is a story of guilt(hint!) and dislocation.

Bugis is a story of self discovery. Salmah wears a tudung only to convince her mother she is a ‘good’ girl so that she can go and hold hands with her boyfriend. The story is told from the point of view of a friend of Salmah’s. The narrator’s meeting with a transvestite on the MRT opens her eyes to the hypocrisy around her. At the end she rebels against prohibitions andpretentions by yanking the tudung off Salmah’s head.

In Seventh Uncle, a funeral serves as the occasion for a family reunion, for reinforcing old memories, reinventing old bonds, reclaiming family histories.Siew Hoon’s encounter with her cousins, Betty and no-brain Noneh, makes her think that Seventh Uncle was perhaps not what she has always believed he was.Noneh’s testimony of abuse is set up against the popular family perception of the man who has just died. Another well written story on the topic of child abuse is Ovidia Yu’s Kimmy.

Umej Bhatia is a name I will be looking for. His AWOL shows a remarkable way with words. AWOL exploits extensively and sensitively the connotative register of the English language.

But the most remarkable story in this collection is probably Catherine Lim’s Write, Right, Rite. It is about a writer selected to represent Singapore at an international writers’ conference. She is trying to write the truly representative ‘ Singapore ‘ story. Once she writes it, though, several institutions that claim to be authorities on the ‘correct’ idea of national culture, step in and ask her to protect and project the correct idea of Singapore .

The writer, in her anxiety to project ‘true’ Asian values, first obeys the Unit for the Revitalisation of Mother Toungues and changes the dialogues of a parrot in her story from Hokkien to Mandarin. Then the Department for the Enhancement of True Asian Culture makes her replace the enamel spittoon (deemed not a particularly appetising signifierof Asian culture) with a porcelain one, inlaid with mother of peral. And so it goes on until she submits a story different from the one she wrote. ‘Her’ story is lauded at the conference (“It makes use of disparate elements, so disparate and opposed that it has required a feat of imagination to pull them together into a story… the symbolism is tantalising and has so far eluded the judges”). She gets a special prize for “creating a new genre of the short story, and for opening up new vistas for creative exploration.”

Who, then, is the author of this prize-winning story? Write,Right,Rite is a critique not only of censorship and political correctness, but also of the ‘multiculturalism’ that the introduction identifies with Singapore and Malaysia . While there can be no question about the need for pluralism, one suspects that ‘multiculturalism’ has become a fashionable term whose use must be interrogated. Is ‘multiculturalism’ really as disinterested and neutral as it seems to be, or does it have its own silences, its own propensity to become part of certain hegemonies? These are questions that must be asked. And that is what this story does.

Many of the writers here have indigenised the English language. Malayan words and phrases work their way naturally into the prose of Che Husna Azhari,Chuah Guat Eng and others. It took my friend, Anthea, to explain to me whattudung, tudung saji and orang puteh are, but it is quite possible to read the stories here without knowing the precise meaning of such words – the context makes the sense clear enough.

This is a book I would recommend enthusiastically. That does not, however, imply that it meets all expectations. The relationsihp between English and other languages used in the region, for instance, seems to go largely unexplored (Suchen Christine Lim’s Tragedy of My Third Eye is a notable exception). Still, the book is well worth a read. It will whet your appetite for more of the same.

By Sayantan Dasgupta