Singaporean Literature and the NUS English Department
By Gwee Li Sui
I am a scion of the National University of Singapore (NUS)'s Department of English Language and Literature. In the early 1990s, as a post-Cold War world arose, I found here the field that would later become my doctoral expertise: 18th-century Western literature.
But it was also here that I studied something called Singaporean literature under Edwin Thumboo and Leong Liew Geok. Upon obtaining my PhD at Queen Mary University of London, I returned here to work for a number of years. Then, exactly a decade ago, I wandered out of the classroom and into the so-called Real World of writing, out of which I have yet to emerge.
For me to discuss this Department's place in Singaporean literature is thus to speak as its Prodigal Son. A more familiar question I get is how it feels to have gone from an ivory tower into a hermit's cave. My answer: as a hermit, I get to read whatever I want. If, as a scholar, I am only reading what I want, I cannot be doing my job right.
For this reason, I do not claim to know everything about Singaporean literature but only what I have encountered, enjoyed and grappled with. My own view on the subject has changed many times. The field was already in flux when I started graduate work in the late 1990s; by the time I re-entered it, it was a wholly different creature.
But all this alters nothing of the fact I wish to state: the concept of Singaporean literature began at NUS, in its English Department. It is this Department's gift to not just Singapore but, more consequentially, world culture. We have somehow neglected to make much of it – and herein lies the crux of what Singaporean literature may need urgently today.
How am I locating an entire field here? I am, to be sure, not saying that no Singaporean writing existed before its institutional life. There was Munshi Abdullah's work in the 19th century and Teo Poh Leng's in the early 20th century. There was colonial-era newspaper writing and student writing in journals and magazines.
I also do not mean to say that a lot of Singaporean writers, or the best among us, came from this Department. The Department is right to hold up its legacy of students-turned-writers from Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng to, most recently, Yeoh Jo-Ann. But it truthfully has not produced many writers, let alone most of the finest, for a long while.
What the Department is the cradle of is the concept of Singaporean literature. The term as we know it today was first conceived, explored, discussed and taught here. Singaporean literature is, before anything else, an academic category that had needed to exist for a series of reasons.
First, there was the perceived work of what we describe using Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's words as "decolonising the mind". The project involved untangling us in Singapore from the legacy of Britain and creating primarily for ourselves. It was, in this sense, inextricably nation-building work.
Second, there was the necessity of developing for a young people literary culture – which should not be confused with mere literacy or language competence. Literacy is functional and social whereas literature will be life. It is one thing to use language to communicate and quite another thing to use it to imagine, to explore uncertainties and to inspire.
Third, there emerged the necessity of securing, through literature, a cultural voice, a way to recognise a people. This was initially understood in terms of constructing what we regard as almost a bad word today: a canon, a library to represent us. We sought in writing – to take a phrase Edwin Thumboo means for the Merlion – "an image of ourselves".
Any such concept of a country's literature has always been practical; it is never about aesthetics or literariness per se. It exists to address or expound something else or to do something more. For example, is a clarity of British or American literature seriously insisted on outside of teaching institutions as if either has real-world relevance?
We therefore do well to understand the contrivance of Singaporean literature, its engineered-ness, lest we treat it as a real thing! The concept is not a clear field like Southeast Asian politics or feminist or queer studies. A student of mine once noted wisely how we often spoke of "Sing Lit" as though it were a genre. We say we read it in the way others say they read romance or science fiction or fantasy. Is this not true – and curious?
I wonder if we have developed this odd sense by coming to the concept too soon – that is to say, after others had made theirs but before we had enough writing. The context may have resulted in an absurd sureness that we know or can know what Singaporean literature means.
But, increasingly, this placeholder term does not seem to work as we expect it to. It has not worked for a while now. It is not just literature about Singaporeans, such as with a Kuo Pao Kun play or a Philip Jeyaretnam novel, or literature for Singaporeans, such as with a Catherine Lim short story or a Rex Shelley epic.
For a long time, I ran with the mere notion of writing by Singaporeans – but that, too, has grown tricky. What about all those who left our shores, such as Wena Poon, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed and Kevin Kwan? Or Malaysians who live among us, such as Leong Liew Geok and Dave Chua? What about that assorted group that is the current toast of the town: migrant writers? Do they, with their unvarnished experiences of our society, not count?
It is the ambiguity we have let slide that we must look harder at now. Even when we talk openly about writing by Singaporeans, there is an immediate falsification. We generally do mean writing in English. We ignore the Chinese, Malay and Tamil trajectories, at best gesture to them, and then assume they say and do the same thing.
But they do not – and we know it now because of growing effort in translation and dialogue. Chinese literature still has strong interest in nation-building and belonging. Malay Singaporean literature has a coat of religious discourse largely absent in English Singaporean literature. Traditional and modern Tamil poetry contest openly over the experiments of language.
But we scholars, critics and readers bat our eyes to these and then stay unwed. By doing so, we make it easy for others in academia who do not know better to assume our monoculture or the adequacy of English Singaporean literature to speak for all. We let this literature be linked freely to other countries' literature along postcolonial or ethnic lines when it is obvious and more urgent to link it to our other-language literatures.
As such, much work remains for the academic study of Singaporean literature, and, after decades, its importance is only being felt. I want to break it all down into three key categories for recovery as a means to comprehend the specificities of what lies ahead.
First of all, there is our invisible literature. This refers to works that were published but, for reasons not necessarily related to intrinsic merit, not read, known or discussed. I can think at once of the books of Chandran Nair, Said Zahari, Elangovan, Rosaly Puthucheary and Kelvin Tan among several others.
Second, there is our aborted literature. These are works that could not come to exist in print because of external conditions, be they social, political, economic or personal. Such disappearances need a different sort of skilful excavation that seeks unfinished drafts, marginal documents and intimate accounts.
Third, there is our opaque literature. We have here the works that cannot be engaged precisely from their being in another language. The challenge, to be clear, does not involve just translating non-English works into the English language. English writing, too, should go into the other languages and be read in them. The flow has to go both ways.
As you can see, all three categories are quite distinct, troubling what we would otherwise assume confidently as Singaporean literature. To proceed in a concerted way, I propose that real transformation has to entail much undoing as well as doing.
By undoing, I first suggest that scholars face up to what Singaporean literature as concept has done or has only been doing. This engagement is meta-critical and not inevitably judgemental. We should ask whom it has helped so far and how. Conversely, whom has it not helped and why?
Second, we need to confront how, in the way Singaporean literature is done, not just scholars but teachers are complicit in its shape. What does this shape reveal, and what ethical problems come out of that complicity?
Third, scholars must dare to unlearn what we assume to be culture against a wider history of writing and a history of literary production in Singapore. For example, the concept of merit itself may need to be reassessed in the light of whether we have been treating language more from the angle of an English aesthetics than from a less decided multilingual one.
What scholars are to do is similarly threefold. As Singaporean literature is multilingual, no single academic department teaches all of it – and this has to be addressed. Multilingualism implies not just different concerns and styles but also multiple trajectories of development and engagement.
Second, the study of Singaporean literature must be informed by a knowledge of material culture. Ismail S. Talib has been alone in faithfully chronicling our print life in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature for over two decades. But his devotion, while heroic, is not enough as there are several more enclaves we need researchers to go into: the slam scene, SingPoWriMo, Instapoetry and so on. All these multiply with the fact that we still need different angles and interpretations for each.
On the same note, we also need to study the direct influence of publishers, booksellers, the press, the National Arts Council, prizes, personality cults and more on what gets written or read. Who or what determines what exists? To do this right, we should seek to put a critical distance between what individuals and bodies say they are doing and what they are actually doing, and to assess both their self-packaging and their impact.
Third, Singaporean literature has always had different genres: not just socio-realist, historical and political fiction but also speculative fiction, romance, children's fiction, experimental writing, biography, creative non-fiction, comics, e-poetry and so on. We need to recover horizontally, into the current environment, as well as vertically, into the archives.
I have started by admitting how I do not know everything in Singaporean literature to comment authoritatively. But it may be this self-awareness that returns my lack as Delphic wisdom since at least I know that I do not know. To retain the concept of Singaporean literature as its gift and legacy, the NUS English Department has to help reinvent it now. The shoe no longer fits, and we must not hope that the toe will go away if we ignore it long enough.
It is because ignoring creates new ignorance, which cannot be the business of academia. As such, with a sense of purpose and not postcolonial distress, we should consider Singaporean literature, after all these decades, as still literature-in-the-making. It has not arrived; it is not "a thing". Our academic study needs to keep exposing given meanings – before this lofty matter we call Literature. What does Singaporean literature bring to Literature?
QLRS Vol. 18. No. 4 Oct 2019