Given the political climate of control and the social ethos of money-making as the most respectable profession, one will be hard-pressed to find a literary tradition, mush less a resistance literary tradition. There are, however, a handful of writers in Singapore – Haresh Sharma, Alfian Sa’at and Kuo Pao Kun - whose works do not just reflect on the social and political realities but also the people who are marginalised by the Singapore success paradigm.
Tuesday, 19 October 2004
by Wong Souk Yee
Haresh Sharma has written over 30 full-length and short plays, many of which deal with the pressures of growing up, school, working life, getting married, being trapped, being pushed to the edge of society. Lanterns Never Go Out shows a competitive education hothouse that drives both parents and children to the edge of neurosis, taking away the important role of play from their childhood. Still Building uses the motif of buildings to represent the paradox of progress and entrapment. In Off Centre Sharma writes about the people who are of little consequence to the fast and savvy Singaporean society – the VITBs (Vocational Industrial Training Board), the “N” levels (students in secondary schools who are streamed into a non-academic course of study), the hawkers and mainly, the mentally ill.
Alfian Sa’at’s poems and short stories evoke a disturbing sense of social injustice, and I would consider many of his works to be pissed-off or protest poetry. In a country that criminalises the homosexual act, Sa’at writes about the moral and emotional dilemmas of same-sex relationships, casual gay sex in public places and police raids of gay hangouts. The arrogance of the ethnic-Chinese-dominated PAP, specifically Lee Kuan Yew, towards their Malay neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, and their insensitivity and outright insult of their own ethnic-Malay citizens are also a frequent theme in Sa’at’s work. Most importantly, in his poem “Mr. Chia Sits in His Dark Cell” Sa’at protests against the political oppression in the island state. The eponym, Chia Thye Poh, was an opposition parliamentarian at the time of his arrest and was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for 32 years. Chia and the destruction of political opponents by the ruling juggernauts is a rarefied theme in the literary scene in Singapore.
From the 24 plays Kuo Pao Kun has written in his lifetime, I have chosen Mama Looking for Her Cat (1988) for an extended discussion in this essay. This play, like many of his other works, has become a classic in the Singapore literary consciousness. Most of all, the text exhibits characteristics that run counter to the discourse of nationalism and thus lend itself to a theorisation of Singaporean resistance literature.
Resistance to the nationalist discourse can be seen in the play through the characters’ refusal to be incorporated into the language discourse which, this essay argues, discriminates against the ethnic minorities and older Chinese who speak only Chinese dialects. In the play, Mama would only speak Hokkien even though it is a dying language soon to be eliminated by English and Mandarin. Despite being marginalised by her linguistic “impotence”, Mama resists being absorbed by the language discourse by asserting her cultural difference/otherness through the speaking of only Hokkien.
The government’s policies on multiracialism and bilingualism, a cornerstone of nation building, is based on the concept of the inviolable traditions and identity of the origin of each race. One of the effects of these official policies is the reduction of the cultures and identities available to Singaporeans to three politically constructed groups of Chinese, Malays and Indians. That is, our culture and identity are defined by our race and if we are lazy and stupid, it is because of our race and our racial culture. Kuo Pao Kun stands this logic on its head with the breakthrough in communication between Mama and the Indian man in the play, each understanding the other better than their own children, who chase away their cats, can understand them. Instead of being constrained by their “essentialist” ethnic difference, the two have been liberated by and share a range of human culture, such as loving cats, friendship and of growing old. They share the predicament of having their cats chased out by their children, a metaphor for the chasm between age and youth, cemented by official language policies. Their commiseration and solidarity with each other challenges the notion that culture and identity are defined solely by race and language.
The form of resistance I have identified in Mama Looking for Her Cat is not any radical call to action for an alternative society nor is the writer part of a national movement to change the existing hegemonic order in Singapore. Because of the social and political conditions, there is not yet a national movement in Singapore that challenges the power structures of domination. What I hope to have shown is that literature offers activists and detractors of government policy an effective form of cultural work in which critical or resistance narratives can be constructed. Further, as part of the wider discursive field, literature is a means for readers to interrogate and resist government discourse through a practice of critical reading.
Although both writers and readers/audiences do not form a united counter-force to bring about any fundamental reform, they are nevertheless able to destabilise what Gramsci calls the “common sense” mentality in society and transform power relations within the existing order. In this quieter but arguably more thoughtful manner, resistance literature does complement the more vocal but fledgling reform groups in Singapore, such as the opposition political parties and a handful of non-government organisations, to contribute to social change.