Strangeness in a strange land
An anthology of speculative fiction by Malay writers makes for a mixed but intriguing read
By Stephanie Ye
Singa-Pura-Pura: Malay Speculative Fiction from Singapore
A couple of months ago, the Radin Mas Constituency Office decided to put up some decorations in celebration of Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Presumably meant to evoke Malay culture, the decorations comprised an empty stage strewn with dry leaves, topped with an "attap" roof (a printed plastic sheet) and, off to one side, a fluorescent-green coconut tree. Completing this Malay mise-en-scène was a standee of a couple in traditional-looking outfits, with holes where their faces should be so passers-by could stop, insert their own faces, and pose for a photo.
Wittier and more knowledgeable commentators than I have already deconstructed this rojak of tired tropes. But the core controversy was the fact that the photo used for the standee was not posed by models, but was in fact the wedding photo of private citizens, pulled from the Internet and used without the couple's permission. I was struck by the almost-body-horror of the act: the theft and violation of an individual's image for public amusement. As an act of appropriation, of erasure, it's so literal that, as the saying goes, you couldn't even make it up.
The othering and dehumanisation of racial minorities has recently been in the spotlight, both in Singapore and abroad, due to various events of varying degrees of violence. As a Chinese Singaporean, I thus admit that I approached Singa-Pura-Pura: Malay Speculative Fiction from Singapore, in full self-flagellating, ethnic majority mode. Who better to reveal the weirder, stranger, darker possibilities of Singapore, than the indigenous people of this isle? I was primed to support this anthology even before reading a single word. (Speaking of judging a book by its cover, here I would like to make a shoutout to the gorgeous cover art by Muhammad Izdi, inspired by the cosmic Gunungan of Javanese culture.)
But of course, that is a pretty condescending attitude to take, not to mention that it adds to the unreasonable pressure of minority excellence. Anthologies, after all, tend to be a mixed bag, something perhaps inherent to any enterprise that tries to be as inclusive as possible whilst adhering to a specific theme. So it is with Singa-Pura-Pura. There are some stories I felt were mediocre; some were competent; some were thoroughly enjoyable; and some deeply impressed and moved me.
Edited by academic, writer and translator Nazry Bahrawi, this anthology brings together 13 stories, most of them written in English and some translated from Bahasa. The anthology divides its stories amongst four sections whose titles cheekily marry Malayness and futurism: "Spectres of Sihir", "Tech Bahru", "Smart Mamat City", "Famili Nuclear". In a possibly unconscious but bracing reversal of the bulk of Anglophone Singapore literature, Chinese characters in these pages are incidental, in fact largely missing.
In his excellent afterword "Malays Speculating Futures", Nazry notes that he decided to translate the Bahasa stories into English in order to reach the widest possible audience. (He also decided to use the term Bahasa -- literally "language" -- rather than "Malay", in order to emphasise the link between Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia, "situating Malay Singaporeans within the wider Malay Archipelago.") But even as he had to bow to Anglophone dominance, an editorial decision of his I admired was the choice to leave numerous Bahasa words and phrases untranslated, eschewing footnotes and compromising only with a glossary at the back of the book. This encourages a reader unfamiliar with Bahasa to derive meaning from context -- which, fittingly, shouldn't be an issue for any reader willing to enter the made-up worlds of speculative, science-fiction and fantasy stories.
Quite a few stories are familiar speculative fare in which technology has been used to organise and dehumanise. In "Quota" by Maisarah Abu Samah, happiness is a limited commodity of which each human is assigned a share; in "Gold, Paper and Bare Bones" by Farihan Bahron, retirees consult chips embedded in their palms to check how many more points they need to achieve the coveted "Retiree" status of free medical treatment, mortgage forgiveness and discounts on drinks and food. In "Mother Techno" by ila, the protagonist Siti relies on an AI virtual assistant to help her communicate in Bahasa with her invalid mother, even as she races against a government-mandated deadline to herself conceive a child.
I was also intrigued by some meta links between stories, with its hints of references and influences within the writing community. For example, in "Mother Techno", ila quotes a song by artist bani haykal, whose own story about an experimental squatter's community communing with nature and AI, "Isolated Future #2: MacRitchie Treeptops", is the next in the anthology; both stories also make passing reference to Tengah, a former military training area in Western Singapore that's now planned as our "first smart and sustainable town" -- indeed, an ambitious concept that will, hopefully, give rise to even more imaginative speculations.
In contextualising the stories in his anthology within a larger Malay literary movement, Nazry muses on Chinese Singaporean writer Ng Yi-Sheng's observation that the 1950s ghost stories of Othman Wok could be the first examples of Singaporean speculative fiction. Meanwhile, in the forward by Malaysian author and playwright Faisal Tehrani, he posits a pedigree that goes back even further, to the 16th-century Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals): "Which other culture in the world can boast of a king who, having reigned over vast territories on land, then decides to plunge into the depths of the sea to explore other possibilities?... The moment he descended into the sea was when the Malays began speculating all manners of their future."
Given this lineage, perhaps it's unsurprising that some of the stories I felt were strongest were those that feature Malay folklore and supernatural elements. While I tend to look askance at editors including their own work in an anthology, Nazry's own "Tujuh", a crime story where horror meets a taste for contemporary South-east Asian art, has my vote as one of the creepiest and most inventive in this collection. Another noteworthy story is the noir-ish "Second Shadow" by Noridah Kamari. With the mark of Orwell's influence (Nineteen Eighty-Four, and its totalitarian state Oceania, is indeed referenced in the tale), it serves up its version of surveillance with a sharp, supernatural twist: ""At what point can we say that a government has successfully established Oceania?... When its citizens fear their own shadows".
One of my personal favourites is Diana Rahim's "Transgression", which, like "Second Shadow", features a disobedient silhouette. Nazry notes in his afterword that Diana's story was inspired by a Malay folktale about a sea princess who falls in love with a fisherman. The protagonist is a motherless young woman with a strained relationship with her troubled father, who discovers her shadow starting to take on a life of its own. This development does not so much alarm but comfort: "In fact, since the day of her shadow's rebellion, she began to feel it radiating a profound tenderness towards her. It was a tenderness without cause but with an origin. It felt beautiful, but alien. It did not make any sense even to her, but she knew that her shadow rebelled, moved, because it loved her."
Her father has turned to religion to try to break free from the hold her absent mother has on him, making this story one of several that explore the intertwining of Islam and the Malay identity: "Her father began to pray consistently since then. He taught her to pray and would remind her to perform her prayers. He fasted on Thursdays and donated to mosques. He stopped going to the sea, and though it took years to remove the proof of those haunting years, his deep tan from the daily swims eventually faded."
This tension between religiosity and spirituality is also inventively interrogated in Nuraliah Norasid's "Prayers From A Guitar", which vivisects a toxic marriage in which a sanctimonious husband has literally tried to eradicate the music in his wife's life: "Call it a whisper from God or intuition, but he knew that she still kept it, all these years in spite of everything he had taught her. And then, at the back of the wardrobe, nearly perfectly concealed by folded and rolled stacks of the coloured clothes she barely wore anymore, were audio equipment—some cables and a single stereo speaker crowned with a row of silver knobs. In a case, leaning on its side, just barely fitting into the already large wardrobe—a specific request on her part when they were renovating the house about seventeen years ago—was a rectangular guitar hard case."
To inelegantly steal this metaphor, I would say that this anthology is one step towards bringing literature by Malays out of the dusty corner of the SingLit closet to which it has long been relegated by the dominant Anglophone Chinese literati. At the very least, it certainly does, as Nazry states as one of his aims, "challenge the perception that Malay literary writing is perpetually lamenting lost places and tradition in the forms of displacement and nostalgia, though these themes are certainly present in some of the stories here". After all, as Faisal Tehrani wrote in his preface: "If not for the Palembang prince named Sang Nila Utama who had encountered a creature akin to a lion after being forced to beach himself on the island in the wake of a storm abound with lightning; if not for this attempt at speculating, it could be that Raffles might not even have had a port city to discover."QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021