Causeway Communiqués: Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature

December 1, 2014

This lecture was first read at the #FAST: The Cooler Lumpur Festival on 21 June 2014. It was then published in the following essay form in Silliman Journal, Volume 55.2 (2014). Permission has been sought to reproduce it here.


Help me to swim here. Allow me to frame my lecture with some urgent conditions.

I need to stress firstly that I will be focusing on Singaporean-Malaysian literature in English. I have highlighted this to Umapagan Ampikaipakan, the Cooler Lumpur Festival director, and made my contrite confession to him that I feel ill-equipped to address literature in any other language, except perhaps German. It does not matter if the terrain is Singaporean or Malaysian literature: I cannot speak with knowledge outside of writing in the medium of English.

Secondly, I must say that I do not know enough of the most recent works from Malaysia, and, by “the most recent,” I need a forgiveness gap of five to six years. This gap is considerable—I will admit it—and I hope that you will point me in new, exciting directions during this festival and beyond.

Yet, to be fair, it is not a simple failure on my part as a Singaporean critic not to keep abreast of trends in Malaysian English-language literature. This unfortunate outcome is tied in many ways to how our separate book cultures and industries have been developing over the years. They have been developing, not necessarily in a conscious or an explicit way, to become apart. To be distinct does not have to involve being apart, and yet here we are. This is also what I like to address here, and I shall get to it in time.

Thankfully, I do know the most recent Singaporean literature and, in fact, know it much better than many people in Singapore. It is a happy boast: after I left the academic world in 2009, a lot more books and drafts of books by Singaporeans land on my table, strangely enough. This is both to my pleasure and the pleasure of the respective writers and publishers.

So I have basically knocked down about three quarters of your expectations for this afternoon’s lecture. The pool of our time together should now be shallow enough for me to look like an Olympic swimmer. But what then am I going to engage if I will not deal with just the recent—one meaning of the word “contemporary”—and I will not deal with Malaysia per se, in a lecture title with “Malaysian” in it?


If you do not mind, I like to deal with the term “Singaporean-Malaysian.” This is a quality and a category that does not seem to exist much as a point of social or literary discussion these days. We do not teach it in our schools and universities in both Singapore and Malaysia. We do not involve it as part of, or constructive to, the future of our separate literatures. Yet—and this is telling— when we in Singapore hear of Tash Aw or Tan Twan Eng win a prestigious international prize, we respond with outright envy but also quick, quiet pride. This response surely betrays a nuanced form of being absent to or straining against the other.

I want to unpack “Singaporean-Malaysian” by declaring that I have been involved myself in a number of projects with this concept in big and small ways. Arguably, the major project for me has been a two-volume title called Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature, published in 2009. This was an academic work, which Mohammad A. Quayum, Wong Phui Nam, and I edited; and there was really no critical collection of essays done in this way before it, nor has there been since.

When these books first came out, a scholar in my old university had asked me about the title and the word “Singaporean-Malaysian.” He queried: “Don’t you mean to say ‘Singaporean and Malaysian literature’? ‘Singaporean-Malaysian’ sounds revisionist to me.” “Revisionist”? I would have understood him better had he said “dated” because “revisionist” was an odd choice of word. What then is the historical truth of our two countries in cultural terms? From our dawn of sorts, can we talk about national literatures or, worse, nationalist literatures? What about world literature or literature as known through global capital, through what sells? Yet, these are the perspectives that have started to establish themselves.

Let us be sure: the idea of something Singaporean-Malaysian does not use an abstract frame. It describes a historical and cultural marker, a condition of people, a point from which Singaporeans and Malaysians can know how we have travelled, what we have become, are still becoming. Historically, the times when we have shared parts of ourselves with each other are longer than the times when we do not share with each other. We are a culturally compatible people split by fifty years of politics now and carried away on different waves of large, international interests.

As such, to use the term “Singaporean-Malaysian” is firstly to admit a political reality, of two distinct centres of power and even identity-making that has defined it. But the hyphen in the term also makes another admission, of the aspects that continue to bind us by default, by the conditions of time and geography. It highlights what we can only try to ignore but can never erase. The hyphen is ever-present, but it is highly elastic too. In this light, how we persist to pull and twist will always say a lot about ourselves, our fantasies of self in social consolidation.

Sharing Borders

Coming back to the two-volume Sharing Borders, these books trace English-language literature from the point it took root in colonial Malaya back in the 1940s. Volume One starts at where it all began and looks at the impetus and matters of urgency in this literary emergence as well as the themes that a newly self-conscious people had found attractive.

Yet, as the project is organised chronologically, by Volume Two, the part I edited, we see not just Singaporean and Malaysian literature concerned each with its own immediate state of being. Singaporean English-language literature was also surpassing its Malaysian counterpart in the sheer quantity of writing produced as well as in experimental exploration. This was felt early in the 1980s and became exponentially true from the mid-1990s onwards, when publishing in English literally exploded in Singapore with the rise of independent publishers.

Washima Che Dan and Noritah Omar have contributed an essay titled “Writing Malaysia in English: A Critical Perspective” to my volume. In it, they describe how the Malaysian situation became what it is largely because of the designation of Malay as the national language, with its socio-political use that followed. By means of this designation, the Malay language has become, in post-war Malaysia, the foremost symbol and aggregator of national identity. Its status had repercussions on the role English and other ethnic languages could play in the life and psyche of the country.

This point may be extended by us to say the reverse about Singapore’s case, Malay being also the designated national language of the island. Yet, in real life, Malay plays only a symbolic role in day-to-day reality while English as the lingua franca in Singapore’s multiculturalism, its bridge language among ethnic communities, takes centre stage. Thus, interestingly enough, in the absence of colonial strictures, the colonial language in Singapore survives as the quintessential empty signifier and, in this capacity, a culturally, if not politically, neutral language.

However, this prominence of English comes with its own price. It exacts a cost from any sense of identity an ethnic language can be said to strengthen and stabilise. As such, through English, Singapore is turned to a far-reaching international discourse and can catch the winds of global change quickly. But the island’s roots in place, in its history and even common culture, become flimsy.

In the Beginning

Here we have again that curious manifestation of the hyphen in a Singaporean-Malaysian condition, where the hyphen highlights a twist and, through it, a connection nonetheless. One part inverts the other while the other, like a spectre, gazes back.

The historical form of this relationship between the two is more direct. If we look into Singapore’s and Malaysia’s shared past, we can perhaps acknowledge a start in the Chinese Straits writing that linked both at the turn of twentieth century. We can also remember the so-called Singapore Writers’ Movement ’50, or ASAS ’50, that played such a formative part in the establishment of modern Malay literature in the two countries.

But, as far as multicultural, English-language literature goes, the idea of “Singaporean-Malaysian” legendarily began in the ferment of creative restlessness in the then University of Malaya based in Singapore. The pioneer Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo has recounted as much in Sharing Borders Volume One, saying: “The two literatures had a common beginning… The formative mood was distinct, clear, and pervasive.” [1]

In print form, we can trace this beginning no further back than to The New Cauldron, which was the official organ of The Raffles Society of the University of Malaya. Its first issue appeared in the Hilary Term of 1949-1950. This amateurish and experimental journal emboldened its writers, and, in time, they issued their first literary anthology Litmus One: Selected University Verse: 1949-1957. The slim book carried poems by names who are now iconic in the English-language literature of Singapore and Malaysia: Edwin Thumboo, Ee Tiang Hong, Lloyd Fernando, Wong Phui Nam, and so on. This anthology was followed by another, simply titled Thirty Poems and published in 1959.

Although the editors of these works were not named, in view of how their introductions aimed to position the contributions, we may guess that they were among the contributors themselves.  These writers had a clear stance: they sought to establish a properly English style of expression as opposed to the “Engmalchin” writers, that is to say, writers who pursued free, indigenised experimentation.

The “Engmalchin” movement was a loose historical group whose varied styles were ultimately encapsulated in the word “Engmalchin” itself. “Engmalchin” was a portmanteau word, a mishmash of known words—in this case, English, Malay, and Chinese—to create a new word. The idea of “Engmalchin” was to explore the possibilities of creating a distinct poetics for the region by cutting and joining different languages to enable a so-called Malayan idiom, very much like how Frankenstein makes his scary monster.

So this stylistic response from some poets to the “Engmalchin” writers was actually Singapore and Malaysia’s first literary debate. Here then is yet again another shared aspect, another affirmation of the hyphen: the two cultures had the same first literary controversy!

The Slash and the Hyphen

The tumultuous 1960s—when Singapore and Malaysia joined and then split again—temporarily hampered further coordination. The first poetic collaboration after this was Edwin Thumboo’s The Flowering Tree: Selected Writings from Singapore/Malaysia of 1970. It was published by the Ministry of Education in Singapore for circulation among pre-university youths. The collection featured names such as Goh Sin Tub, Wang Gangwu, Mohamad Haji Salleh, Lee Tzu Pheng, Cecil Rajendra, Arthur Yap, and Chandran Nair.

However, what I want to highlight here is the title and specifically its oddest part, the word or rather non-word “Singapore/Malaysia.” What it technically signals is an interim phase, even in 1970, a time still between being culturally Malayan and being distinctly Singaporean and Malaysian. The slash is, in other words, a type of the hyphen, effectively its precursor. It seems to be teasing a sense that Singapore might as well be in Malaysia or that Malaysia was also in Singapore. This slash is like the line in a mirror dividing between a thing and its reflection or, in this case perhaps, between two reflections.

The Flowering Tree was more than a project that brought together writers from the two sides of the Causeway. It had a clear, pragmatic goal, one of forming a body of English verse from a base that was quantitatively and qualitatively inadequate in both. The book was, in this sense, also a record of the non-arrival of distinct national and cultural identities. It testified to a state of being as yet unable to name what had come into being in the separate terrains.

In the psychology of Jacques Lacan, we talk about a coming into consciousness of difference demanded by the future and, as such, a point between “two deaths.” In the “first death,” the end has already arrived, but the self does not know it yet or does not know how to understand it. It is a trauma waiting for the Real of the rupture to manifest, to firm up; that is, it is waiting for a “second death.” The slash in “Singapore/Malaysia” precisely represents a porous membrane, one that still allows things or meanings to be transferred, things or meanings to remain ambiguous even as the future of a distinction, of impermeability, is already visible.

To make this point clearer, let me point to how, just three years later, in 1973, Thumboo issued another seminal but undoubtedly more competent anthology called Seven Poets: Singapore and Malaysia. This was published by the Singapore University Press, the precursor of today’s NUS Press. The seven poets in the volume were Ee Tiang Hong, Thumboo himself, Wong Phui Nam, Goh Poh Seng, Wong May, Mohamad Haji Salleh, and Lee Tzu Pheng. Another three years on, Thumboo issued The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore, which was published by Heinemann Asia.

The titles of both these anthologies already clearly register the separate political entities of the countries: the “second death” seems to have descended, the rupture recognised. However, if one wants to see a little of the trauma still present, lingering behind the words, one can still note how the name orders are flipped as if there were still a wish for singularity. Thus, it is Singapore and Malaysia in one and Malaysia and Singapore in the other. The interchangeability or unconscious confusion invites us to keep feeling a connection twisting to be different.

In prose, another curious instance of such ambiguity can be observed. The first significant post-independence collection of stories was, of course, Twenty-Two Malaysian Stories: An Anthology of Writing in English, edited by the late Lloyd Fernando and published by Heinemann Asia in 1968. It included Malaysians such as Kassim Ahmad, Awang Kedua, and Shirley Lim, but it also had Singaporeans: Stella Kon, Goh Poh Seng, and Lee Kok Liang. Is that not curious?

One can explain away this mix of Malaysian and Singaporean writers by highlighting that 1968 was still rather close to the stormy events of political emancipation. Yet, Fernando’s sequel Malaysian Short Stories, published in 1981, a full thirteen years later, seemed to undermine the point. This second collection now introduced K. S. Maniam, but it also continued to feature Stella Kon, specifically through three stories which, in Fernando’s words, “capture, precisely, the spirit of modern Singapore.”[2] To be sure, the word “Malaysian” in the title has shifted subtly, from an identity marker of the writers to their mere thematic interest, therefore, permitting Kon to remain. The new stories are, according to the book’s back cover, “vignettes of Malaysian life”: “Punjabi-Malaysian, Chinese-Malaysian, Tamil-Malaysian, Eurasian-Malaysian.”

Subtle Crossovers

Such tweaking preserves a Singaporean-Malaysian quality even as a distinction is maintained outwardly, and it has always existed since. If this had not been engaged much in academic inquiry and institutional thought, the reason is less its lack than how it must render individual categories and their frames unstable. As such, where an instance emerges, the tendency is to treat it as incidental.

But consider the following cases:

1. The writer we regard as the father of modern Singaporean autobiography, Tan Kok Seng, wrote a famous trilogy of books. The first was called Son of Singapore (1972), but the second was titled Man of Malaysia (1974). The two books dealt with how he turned from a coolie in Singapore to a driver for a British diplomat in Malaysia. Tan’s third book was called Eye on the World (1975).

2. Some of the stories of Catherine Lim, that doyen of Singaporean fiction, involve a vaguely non-descript Malayan background as a means to evoke feelings of tradition and location. Malaysia is not just a creative backdrop but also a recuperative one for some Singaporean writers. For example, Alfian Sa’at’s recent Malay Sketches (2012) was written and put together when he was living or rather ”hiding away” in Malaysia.

3. Lloyd Fernando’s important novel Scorpion Orchid, published by Heinemann Asia in Kuala Lumpur in 1976, was about four friends during Singapore’s racial riots in the 1950s. His other novel Green is the Colour involved a cross-cultural love affair set against the aftermath of the 13 May 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur. However, he had it publish first with Landmark Books in Singapore in 1993.

4. There are other writers originally from Malaysia, fiction writers Dave Chua and Shamini Flint, graphic novelist Sonny Liew, and poet Leong Liew Geok, who made their names in or through Singapore, that is, through wider opportunities that became available to them in Singapore.

5. On that note, inversely, we may point to now-recognised Singapore-born writers Wena Poon and O Thiam Chin, who could at first only secure the interest of a commercial publisher in Malaysia. Both Poon and O became known through their early books published with MPH. MPH itself began as an institution in Singapore from the late-nineteenth century through much of the twentieth century.

6. Approached by an international publisher for a book idea with global readership, Dipika Mukherjee, Kirpal Singh, and Mohammad A. Quayum made revealing decisions. They edited for Penguin Books a collection called The Merlion and the Hibiscus: Contemporary Short Stories from Singapore and Malaysia in 2003. The contributing writers included Catherine Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, K. S. Maniam, M. Shanmughalingam, Alfian Sa’at, Wena Poon, and Karim Raslan. Notably, there were more Singaporean writers than Malaysian ones, but the chosen Singaporeans further have some working Singaporean-Malaysian connections.

7. Closer home, what about the collections of short stories that expressly ignore national labels and prerequisites to present culturally identifiable, “warm” writings? Silverfish Books has given generous space in volumes of Silverfish New Writing to not just established but also new writers from Singapore, some such as Yeo Wei Wei making their debut through it.

8. Inversely, there is Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, first published by Singapore’s Math Paper Press and now by Epigram Books. Malaysian science fiction writer Zen Cho has contributed to Lontar before, and I understand that her new book Spirits Abroad is now published by Fixi Novo and will be launched at this festival.

9. Academically, Asiatic: IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature, edited by Mohammad A. Quayum and hosted by the International Islamic University Malaya, has consistently paid good and steady attention to both literatures. There is no equivalent for this kind of work in Singaporean universities despite their much lauded international ranking. The cutting edge of research strengthening—though not yet uniting—Singaporean and Malaysian literature remains in Malaysia.

10. Likewise, Malaysian newspapers such as The Star and The New Straits Times have often featured Singaporean writing. The same may not be said about the Singaporean press and its attentiveness to what goes on in Malaysia. It is a lamentable state of affairs that fails to exploit the logic and practicality of linking both reading cultures. But, to be sure, Singaporean books themselves struggle to get a major share of reviews at home. This, therefore, appears to be more a quirk in how domestic readership is imagined or constructed by Singaporean newspapers.

Official Anthologies

In these instances, we find the sporadic, disorganised crossover moments that make it difficult to talk about self-relation, relation to one’s own interest or image, as a pure thing. We have relied, have always been relying, on the other to help occasionally to maintain our being in our own worlds. These organic and intuitive or subconscious crossovers are what make inter-state diplomatic projects properly political because they are perhaps unknowingly inclined to make politically created differences visible.

The work becomes ironic. The state-sanctioned anthologies highlight the hyphen that joins both countries as signifying not so much a porous membrane, a lingering slash, as a relation between two more concrete things, two more “authentic” words. We are, in other words, only gazing at each other, across a good wall or rather a good bridge. I sense this, being

I sense this, being myself involved in small parts in two of such recent projects. These goodwill projects were initiated by the Malaysian Institute of Translation and Books and the National Arts Council of Singapore. The first was Dari Jendela Zaman Ini or From the Window of This Epoch (2009), which collected a hundred poems, fifty from each country and each presented in both English and Malay. However, while Singapore chose poems across the language mediums of English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, Malaysia made interesting and revealing choices. It had poems from great Malay poets such as Zaen Kasturi, Rahimidin Zahari, and S. M. Zakir as well as Raja Rajeswari Seetha Raman, Chu E Liang, Poul Nanggang, Raymond Majumah, and Jair Sulai, all of whom wrote in Malay. The separate selections described—and brilliantly presented to itself and to the other—political realities.

The same may be observed in the second and more recent anthology Melangkau Jambatan Kedua: Cerpen Terpilih Dari Malaysia dan Singapura or Beyond the Second Link: Selected Short Fiction from Malaysia and Singapore (2012). Now, in a stronger, more orchestrated perception of an “imaginary pure relation,” both Singapore and Malaysia were represented only by stories in the Malay language, which were then translated into English. The ethnic other uniformly disappeared in both self-images!


What must now come to us as clear and fascinating is this distinction and polarity between how the notion of a relation is maintained at a national or political level and at an organic social or cultural level. We should not feel compelled to prefer sides but may, in fact, see this whole range as indicative of all the possibilities between these tent-poles to construe a Singaporean-Malaysian terrain. There is the official layer, and there is the contingent non-political layer.

These should offer us excitingly at this time a range of messy connections, connections underscoring or undermining connections, that must challenge the way we think about Singaporean or Malaysian literature separately. We must see the whole tacit realm where we have been participating in each other’s literary culture—with a festival or not—and where we have affected the life of those in the other who aspire to write in English. We must learn not to be shy about this Great Uncertain, this seeming No-Man’s Land, and we must learn to speak such a space into common legitimacy, into its gaining of a rightful place in our popular consciousness.

I wish that we can go on to confront our common attempts, on the one hand, to attach literature to socio-political life at large and, on the other hand, to detach literature from the realist-historical and truly be free to explore genres. I wish that we can work on our cross-distribution of books and get our readers to talk to one another and not just to the other’s writers. I wish that we can, through literature, elucidate the gaps in each other’s cultural memory by presenting new perspectives and questions so that we can see in each other our larger self. I wish that we both solve once and for all the issue of translation by not just reading my English in Malay and your Malay in English but also celebrating on a national level your own English and my own literature in other languages.

We should be seeing our own failings and challenges in this terrain encircled by the term “Singaporean-Malaysian.” I envision a time when we can approach it not as an academic whim or a diplomatic gesture but as actual knowledge, with qualities and traits that can be marked down critically and with excitement.

Gwee Li Sui

[1] Edwin Thumboo, Preface, Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature I, edited by Mohammad A. Quayum and Wong Phui Nam (Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council of Singapore, 2009), 6-10, 7.

[2] Lloyd Fernando, Introduction, Malaysian Short Stories (Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Asia, 1981), vii-xiv, vii.


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