The Straits Times

Saturday, June 22, 2002

Yes, Size Does Matter 

Singapore and Malaysia share enough common strands to illuminate major literary themes like race and gender, but only when they are put together 

WHATEVER squabbles may seem to divide the two territories every now and then, Singapore and Malaysia are compelled towards union in many ways, even when it comes to anthologies of short fiction.

The Merlion and the Hibiscus, launched on Monday by Professor Tommy Koh, brings together 19 stories, 11 by Singapore writers.

The merger underlines two key points: literature’s unif ing force and the abiding commonality of peoples that common politicking and personal agendas deny and damage.

The two countries need to join forces partly because they are still too small in the universe of world literature to command attention separately. Size does matter. Put together, there are some strands from the two places’ shared history that illuminate some major themes in literature, including race, gender, politics and the ghosts of colonialism.

On race, recent real-life events lend a certain currency and relevance to reaffirm that truth is more bizarre than fiction. For instance, the tudung is mentioned in the very first sentence of the first story, Bugis by Affian Sa’at, about a transvestite sighting that stirs self-knowledge of desires that are not so easy to cover.

The fragility of appearances is further exposed by other stories about the majority Malay community.

Malaysian engineering professor Che Husna Azhari’s story Mariah is about an attractive nasi seller who stirs the libidos of every man in the village, including the Imam.

Malaysian lawyer Karim Raslan goes even further in his story Neighbours, which strips bare the deepest thrusts of desire and the emptiness beneath modern life and nominal religion, in such characters as a woman who realisesshe is “a parasite who fed off the lives of others”.

Coincidentally or other wise, stories focusing on the Chinese community also tend to take up the gender theme of female oppression as well.

Malaysian academic Shirley Lim’s story Mr Tang’s Girls features a woman who thinks that getting married is something to boast about, while SingaporeanSuchen Christine Lim’s Tragedy Of My Third Eye features a girl who thinks school makes her stupid because she cannot cope with the work.

The Indian community also gets a fair hearing, as they should given the book’s lineup of editors. Kirpal Singh s Monologue II has a Sikh character who contemplates the meaning of the “knot of hair on his head”. Lloyd Fernando’sSurja Singh is about a soldier who faces the dilemma of divided national loyalties during the Japanese Occupation.

The most overtly political story is Catherine Lim’s Write, Right, Rite, about a Singaporean writer’s submission to an international short storywritingcompetition which the authorities demand to be rewritten to fit national requirements of political correctness.

Her satire may be less subtle than the other stories, which touch on human foibles. But the superficial crudeness is itself a comment on a bureaucracy ruled by the engineer’s approach of rigid dehumanising practicality.

If the great theme of the legacy of British colonialism still dogs all English writing, the colonialism that haunts these stories is that of the more recent Japanese Occupation of World War II.

The memory of subjugation and suffering permeates stories such as GopalBaratham’s The Interview and M. Shanmughalingam’s Victoria And Her Kimono.

Overall, the book’s selection of stories is representative in its coverage of the major ethnic communities. It also shows people of the two countries gripped by the same struggle to define and defend their identities, whether by religion, gender or other some other yardstick.

The spread is fair also when it comes to the choice of writers, including for example the “big three” of Malaysian writing: Fernando, K. S. Maniam and KeeThuan Chye. If the big names of Singapore writing are well represented, so too are relatively “younger” writers.

Diplomat Umej Bhatia’s story AWOL touches on the popular Singaporean topic of army life, while journalist Zuraidah Ibrahim’s Hamid And The Hand Of Fate may invite interpretation if the title character’s physical disability as a metaphor for the community’s hurt self-esteem.

This anthology’s impact will be enhanced by its Penguin brand name, never mind if it comes from India rather than the more coveted heartland of the shared colonial master — perhaps the next milestone for writing from this region.

Given that most people still judge books by their covers, it should bring Singapore and Malaysia to the world — as one unit, whatever else hap pens in the world of rhetoric and recrimination.

By Buck Song