We Are Born with the Dead

December 1, 2016

a-luxury-we-must-afford-an-anthology-of-singapore-poetry-00This is my foreword to A Luxury We Must Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry (2016), edited by Christine Chia, Joshua Ip, and Cheryl Julia Lee. The book is a sequel to 2014’s A Luxury We Can Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry, to which I contributed the foreword “No Man But One is an Island”.

What comes at the end of a story? What comes at the end of something we tell ourselves in order to keep going? This question alerts us to the limits and risks of merging the forms of story with those of lived life. It is easily overlooked when lives themselves are submerged within a larger whole such as a nation. Yet, while nations often do have their own stories, very few truly run on them. Rome, for all its glory, did not need the trajectory of its founding myth of sibling rivalry. We note rather its Pax Romana – as we do the Pax Britannica, the American Dream, the Chinese Dream, and so on. But we have a Singapore Story.

What then happens when a nation sets itself on a journey as decisive as a story? To answer this more precise question, we remind ourselves first that a nation can be built on traditions, languages, aspirations, and ideals – many things so long as its people are bent on being together. There is no nation without some inherent desire to cohere. The nation is a wheel that spins on only because there are spokes enough attached to an axis. The word “nation” came from the Latin nasci, meaning “to be born”. The nation is being born at every moment. It ends when it can no longer re-enter the world with collected awareness.

A story is nonetheless a different thing, even an opposite thing. The plot of a story may seem like its driving force, but all of its elements actually conspire towards the end. A crisis may help to move an ongoing story along and serve as the centre from which it pushes towards a resolution. But, once this story is finished, the end becomes its real centre, the lens through which we see how everything holds together. The word “story” derived from historia, literally history: it is something over, closed. A story’s end is such a point of absolute clarity that, should it arrive poorly, we yearn for a better end, another end.

This is how we understand the basic tension we feel: while a nation is born to develop, a story develops to end. The two are never quite an easy fit. It is why a nation built on a story is doomed to a crisis of identity that no other nation needs to face. The narrated nation is a ticking clock, a winded toy where, at its fullness of energy, in the hour it attains wholeness, it will also be emptiest. After all, the completed story will have nowhere left to go. It will have run its course, and its last act will have expended everything. Its happily-ever-after becomes the point its characters – major and minor, heroes and villains – fade away and its readers awake as though from a dream.

In a sense, the central question all Singapore is facing now, in the middle of the 2010s, is a crisis of story. It is a problem of what comes next, what kind of future to anticipate now that the declared goals of stability, prosperity, and recognition are reached. This plight has been a long time coming. What the recent demise of The Man marks is not so much the arrival of this end as our means to realise that the end has already come about twenty years ago. Whether or not we will admit it, the Singapore Story has ended sometime in the mid-1990s. The terms with which the world hails Singapore as a First-World country entail it. The conclusion of The Man’s epic premiership symbolises it. The first book authored by The Man practically names it.

The Singapore Story began with a trauma of belonging. From the 1940s to 1965, an oblivious folk grew aware of their vulnerability to strong geopolitical powers from the Japanese and the British to the Indonesians and the Malaysians. Humiliation, suffering, deaths, conflicts, and rejection had seared their spirits. Breaking free, the new nation ventured into the unknown to make a name. It met with hardships and battled the spectres of a colonial past and Hydra-headed Communism. It faced a difficult transition from rural to modern life and pulled through various will-testing calamities. Against all odds, Singapore reached the golden shore of the twentieth century and became its last truly great city.

That this story is over is nowhere surer than in the grim fact that its author is dead. That we have been basking for years only in its afterglow is revealed in how we are increasingly romanticising the ingenious but idiosyncratic mind that once held it. To be sure, this notion of a nation grafted onto a story is not a problem per se since a nation can be built on many things. But what all storytellers will know is ways to cheat the structural limits of a story and defer an inevitable end. Any good storyteller should be able to complicate a plot, subvert expectations, and create multiple ends – building layers upon layers to keep a narrative going.

The real issue with the Singapore Story lies in how, during its telling, someone forgot to insert a new story. The wish for the main plot to stay simple and unchallenged had been so strong that nobody thought to spin a new one, weave in a new thread. In fact, at the critical end-point, the one kind of individual who could have truly transformed it was vilified and silenced. We must indeed learn to see the symbolic warning to all writers in the Catherine Lim Affair of 1994 as part of the Singapore Story too. There was a lost opportunity, a last chance when literary perceptions could have raised or renewed our collective thoughts but became a people’s forbidden luxury instead.

This grand misstep is what the editors of A Luxury We Must Afford – Christine Chia, Joshua Ip, and Cheryl Julia Lee – are responding directly to. They are, on the one hand, extending from where A Luxury We Cannot Afford, an earlier collection of poetic impressions on The Man, has left off. On the other hand, this new title is making up for lost time by confronting the institutionally abandoned value of literature. It is not the first to do so, and, in a way, all literary anthologies of the past two decades have been doing just that. But this volume may be the most strategic yet in staking a claim for literature on the nation’s socio-political future.

Short but vibrant works are assembled here to explore the remains of the day and to conjure futuristic visions ranging from shiny ones to fearful ones. A good part of the book reeks of death or at least lightness and confusion such as what plagues characters who somehow survive beyond the arc of a story. The voices feel the spasms of old life against the burden of present ghostliness. They look to the future as how underworldly shades look into the light, having no control of or belief in what they find there. These shuffle in dust and trade in fragments. The whole anthology is a symptom, and it speaks of a trauma of culture – which, if we are lucky, can mean the birth of a new story.

Gwee Li Sui

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