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from the October 2016 issue

In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Singapore was a multilingual island long before the concept was formally enshrined in its constitution in 1963. A short story by literary pioneer Makadoom Saiboo published in 1888 noted that to succeed on the island, one had to be fluent in Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Boyanese, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannadam, Telugu, Marathi, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Turkish, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. Seventy-seven years later, with Singapore’s independence, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English became the official languages of the fledgling nation, reflecting the ethnic composition of the island’s main residents and its history as a British colony.

Lacking in natural resources but blessed with a pragmatic and efficient government, Singapore embarked on an aggressive open-economy development policy. Now in power for over half a century, the government has been perpetually reinventing the island and its people to ensure that Singapore remains the preferred destination for foreign investors and tourists. This has made Singapore one of the most affluent and developed countries in the world but the success has come at a high social cost, not least in terms of the loss of its cultural and built heritage.

This issue features a selection of Singapore works originally written in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. The authors of the four pieces of fiction were children or teenagers when Singapore gained independence and will remember the Singapore that existed before the period of rapid development and social transformation. In their works one can discern a common theme of change and loss, something often observed in Singapore’s post-independence literature. These pieces paint a picture of a Singapore that has ceased to be, but in doing so illuminate the state of the country today. The issue also includes translations of a Chinese play by the late Kuo Pao Kun and a Malay essay by the late Masuri S. N. Both men were doyens who left indelible marks on the wider cultural scene in Singapore. They were already accomplished artists when Singapore attained self-government, and their pieces provide the context of the processes at work that shaped Singapore and its literary scene in the early years of nationhood. Finally, the issue includes the translations of two poems by the esteemed Tamil poet KTM Iqbal, who reminds us that regardless of how much or how fast things change, there will always be certain things that are universal and timeless.

With globalization, many nations are now grappling with the forces of immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and modernization. Singapore’s size, location, and history have given it a head start in dealing with these developments and their consequences. Its literature reflects these experiences, and we hope that the works will find resonance with readers around the world.

© 2016 by Dan Feng Tan. All rights reserved.

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