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Self, Family and the State: Social Mythology in the Singapore Novel in English

  • Koh Tai Ann


Adopting an approach that situates texts in their historical, political and cultural contexts, this discussion suggests that a strictly literary estimate of Singapore novels in English is an unrewarding, debunking exercise which prevents a more appropriately serious consideration of the insights that can yield about class, contemporary values, issues and society in Singapore.



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A paper originally presented at the Asian Studies Association of Australia/Centre for Advanced Studies/Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Conference on “New Directions in Asian Studies” held in Singapore from 1–3 February 1989.

1 Frye, Northrop, “Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada”, The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 298.

2 Singh, Kirpal, “Singapore Literature in English: Prose Fiction”, Singapore Studies: Critical Surveys of the Humanities and Social Sciences, ed. Kapur, Basant, Centre of Advanced Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1986), p. 481.

3 Kirpal Singh, Singapore Studies, p. 482.

4 Singh, Kirpal, “An Approach to Singapore Writing in English”, Ariel 15, 2 (April 1984): 11, 12.

5 Kirpal Singh, Singapore Studies, p. 486. Among Singh's other “surveys” may be counted the following: Singapore and Malaysian Literature in English”, Southern Review X, 3 (1977); “Singapore Malaysian Fiction in English”, in South Pacific Images, ed. Tiffin, Chris (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1979); The Year That Was”, Kunapipi 5, 1 (1983) and An Approach to Singapore Writing in English”, Ariel 15, 2 (April 1984). He was also the editor of a special issue on Singapore and Malaysian Literature, Pacific Moana Quarterly 4, 1 (Jan. 1979).

6 Among these are Nallama (Winslow) Jensted's enthusiastic reception of the novel on its first appearance, Singapore Book World, 3 Nov. 1972, p. 61; a careful, laudatory review essay on both If We Dream Too Long and The Immolation by A. Sun of the University of Hong Kong in World Literature Written in English 18, 1 (April 1979): 172–78; and an article of mine which taking If We Dream Too Long seriously as a novel, compares it in detail and at length with Paul Theroux's novel St. Jack (1973), also set in Singapore of the same period and which might even have been influenced by Goh's novel. [”Intertextual Selves: Fiction Makers in Two ‘Singapore’ Novels”, Tropic Crucible: Self and Theory in Language and Literature, ed. Nicholson, Colin E and Chatterjee, Ranjit (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1984), pp. 163–91.

7 In contrast to the poetry, as I myself had noted in an English Department seminar in 1979, the prose work in English (chiefly in the form of short stories and autobiographies) was of more recent origin and there was not enough either collectively or by any single author from which to select a canon or derive generally applicable conclusions. But that was the situation up to the end of the seventies. “Singapore Writing in English: The Literary Tradition and Cultural Identity”, in Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia: Political and Sociological Perspectives, ed. Chee, Tham Seong (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981), p. 177.

8 Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957).

9 McKeon, Michael, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 3.

10 Holquist, Michael, Introduction, The Dialogic Imagination, trs. Bakhtin, M.M., Holquist, Michael and Emerson, Caryl (Austin: University of Texas, 1981), p. xxvii.

11 The desire for a “classic” of our own seems most nearly met from the ranks of poems: see Singh, Kirpal, “Towards a Singapore Classic: Edwin Thumboo's ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’”, The Literary Criterion XV, 2 (1980): 7487.

12 Ravenscroft, Arthur, “Third World Literature: Purpose or Indulgence?World Literature Written in English 23, 1 (1984): 25

13 Northrop Frye, The Stubborn Structure, p. 278.

14 Northrop Frye, The Stubborn Structure, p. 279.

15 Fernando, Lloyd, “The Social Imagination and the Functions of Criticism in Asia”, Culture in Conflict: Essays in Literature and the English Language (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1986), pp. 113, 117.

16 Watt, The Rise of the Novel, p. 7.

17 ”[People's Action Party] Agenda for Action: Singapore, City of Excellence—A Vision of Singapore by 1999”, Straits Times, 12 December 1984.

18 Shirley Lim, “Notes Towards a Local Fiction” (a paper originally delivered at the Department of English, National University of Singapore, 20 October 1983), Commentary (Singapore) 6,2 & 3 (August 1985): 84.

19 Lim, Shirley, Another Country and Other Stories (Singapore: Times Books International, 1982).

20 Lim, Shirley, No Man's Grove (Singapore: Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, The Shell Literary Series, 1985).

21 Kirpal Singh, Singapore Studies, p. 486.

22 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), p. 30.

23 Yeo's novel narrates the sexual misadventures of a bachelor who is defined in the novel as a “man whom women are still sampling”, among them being a “nymphomaniac”, a “feminist” and a girlfriend who leaves him to become a nun.

24 Leong Liew Geok, “Family Tale Meets Teething Problems”, Straits Times, 9 October 1982.

25 Soh, Michael, Son of a Mother, 2nd ed. (Singapore: Heinemann, 1981), p. 117.

26 Wicks, P. C., “Of Family and Irony: Catherine Lim and the Serpent's Tooth”, Commentary (Singapore) 7, 2 & 3 (December 1987): 98.

27 World Literature Written in English 18, 1 (April 1979): 173, 174.

28 Straits Times, 17 August 1959; Straits Times, Singapore, 17 November 1988.

29 Frye notes this with regard to Canadian “popular fiction” in his “Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada”, The Stubborn Structure, p. 298.

30 Chin, Ai-li S., Modern Chinese Fiction and Family Relations: Analysis of Kinship, Marriage and the Family in Contemporary Taiwan and Communist Chinese Stories (Cambridge, Mass.: Centre for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, December 1966), p. 33.

31 Michael Soh, Son of a Mother, p. 15.

32 Seng, Goh Poh, If We Dream Too Long (Singapore: Island Press, 1973), p. 37.

33 Lim, Catherine, The Serpent's Tooth (Singapore: Times Books International, 1982), p. 3.

34 Soo, Lim Thean, Ricky Star (Singapore: Pan Pacific Book Distributors, 1978), p. 260.

35 In a speech before Parliament, the Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, called for the retention of “Eastern” values which emphasized the “rights of society” and not “the rights of the individual” which should be subordinate. Parliamentary Debates, Republic of Singapore, Official Report, Pt. I, 25 February-29 March 1985, pp. 1,780. Singapore also annually celebrates a “Family Week” which was inaugurated in 1985. A “Community Week” was recently inaugurated in 1989.

36 Lloyd Fernando, see note 15.

37 In fact, much of Rice Bowl is based quite closely on events which occurred at the University of Singapore in the early seventies, and some of the characters, too, are perilously similar to the people who were involved in the events described.

38 “Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence” (W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”).

39 Kirpal Singh, see note 21.

40 Eng, Ooi Boo, Journal of Commonwealth Literature XVIII (1983): 111.

41 Ibid., p. 116.

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Self, Family and the State: Social Mythology in the Singapore Novel in English

  • Koh Tai Ann


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