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from the October 2016 issue

Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism

This piece is an edited and revised excerpt from Singapore Malay literary doyen Masuri S.N.'s paper “New Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism,” delivered in Malaysia in 1982. Singapore had separated from Malaysia just seventeen years prior to that, but the differences in the Malay-language literature of the two neighbors had already become apparent due to the different trajectories of their social and economic development. While the author writes about the Malay literary scene in particular, the larger processes of globalization, urbanization, and modernization that shaped Malay literary production also had a major role in influencing the larger cultural sphere in Singapore, especially the island’s vernacular literatures.—Dan Feng Tan 

Prior to the separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, literary works produced by Singapore Malay writers were seen as “Malaysian literature,” a perception that persisted until the early 1970s. Even after the split, writers on the island still saw themselves as part of the larger Malaysian writing community due to the common language used.

Many Malay writers who had pioneered and influenced the literary scene in Singapore had chosen to move to Malaysia before the separation. Among the writers who were born in Singapore and who chose to remain, there was a resolve to continue to engage in creative writing as one body of Malay literature in its widest possible meaning. In Malaysia, newspapers and magazines published columns by Singapore Malay writers, especially between 1965 and 1969. Malay works on both sides of the straits were virtually indistinguishable in terms of form, theme, or style. It was only in the early 1970s that differences became apparent, due to the impact the different systems of governance had on language, the economy, society, education, and culture.

Singapore is a city-state located at the crossroads between East and West, exposing it to the world’s cultures. In the early 1970s, with the advancement of science and technology, the country underwent rapid transformation. To ensure its survival and growth, the government focused on industrial development, zoning various parts of the island for heavy and light industry. The government’s economic policy of encouraging foreign investment brought many multinational corporations to Singapore. Many new factories, especially those engaged in electronics manufacturing, were built. This provided jobs for the new graduates churned out each year. In addition, the government’s education policy emphasized training in English, mathematics, science, and a second language. There was a focus on turning out students fluent in at least two languages and bilingual ability was made a requirement for entry into university.

Other than focusing on economic development and industrial expansion, the government also placed much emphasis on housing the island’s population, a task that it carried out with great efficiency. High-rise public housing with comprehensive amenities was constructed. Over a short span of time, most villages were demolished and well-planned modern housing projects took their place.

All of this led to fundamental changes in the way of life of the island’s residents, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, or cultural backgrounds. The Malay community, especially those who had lived in the zinc- and attap-roofed houses—such as those in the kampongs of Geylang Serai, Pasir Panjang, Radin Mas, Bedok, and Air Gemuruh—were resettled in the new housing estates. Most of the kampongs had residents that came from a single ethnic group. Many of the former rural residents now had to get used to living with neighbors of other ethnic communities. Gradually, they acquired a new way of life from their exposure to the common experiences shared by other Singaporeans across the island. They became used to life in a cosmopolitan city.

In the early 1970s, there emerged a new group of writers in their twenties. They had graduated from secondary schools that used the Malay language as the medium of instruction. Among the new breed of writers were Djamal Tukimin, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Nor Yusman A. Majid, Noorhidayat, and Ajaki. Their outlook and attitudes differed from the writers who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, but we can see in them the legacies of the earlier writers. They were active in producing new works and often met informally to discuss literature. They also invited young poets from Malaysia to Singapore for regular poetry recitals.

This group of poets who began writing from the early 1970s got their start in a period when literature was disintegrating. Writing an authentic poem is difficult because the art of poetry is closely linked to finding solace in the midst of the noise of a city. The conditions of modern life make it almost impossible for a poet to achieve this state that is so critical to the creative process. While many new poems were produced during this period, an analysis shows that they were mainly responses to urban living on a cosmopolitan island. The poems are not dissimilar to poetry written in other cosmopolitan cities of the world.

It’s worth looking at some of this poetry’s more significant features here. First, with the advent of this poetry, the poet adopts his individual self as the starting point, that is, his own experiences. In my opinion, this stems from the pressure that the poet experiences within himself, which causes a psychological crisis, emerging as a main theme in the crafting of the poetry. The poet writes not for satisfaction or ambition, but because of a compulsion to write. These writers generally fall within the “romantic aesthetic” category. That is, they try to find their Self in the process of writing. Because what they experience or observe in reality is dark and depressing (unlike what they perceive in their imagination), their poems are a continuous struggle to appraise the authenticity of their feelings in confronting the discouraging realities of the world.

The young poets of this generation regard the writing of poetry as an artistic endeavor, meaning that their works must be based on freedom, authenticity, and criticality. They are individualistic in assessing deeper meanings beyond the surface. The poems are usually critiques of the problems they see within their own culture. At the center or the starting point of these poems lie the poet’s perceived victimhood by his culture and the political state. Hence, the poet becomes a kind of “cultural hero,” although perceived in the negative. The poet struggles to write poems that tell the Truth while confronting the issues that have victimized his community. But sometimes, the poet fights for art as a main source. Such poems usually have three characteristics. They draw connections through implications; they believe that the quality of artistic works can be judged by the concerns raised in them; and they show a deeper interest in the root causes of a perceived problem. The poet writes his poetry as a shield against the alienation experienced as human society and ways of life change under the impact of science and technology. Hence, the poems often involve Islam and an emphasis on faith in Allah. Often, the poems protest against injustices and express a desire for improvements to be made to the social, political, and other spheres of modern life.

In general, Singapore Malay poetry written in the early 1970s would feature one or more of these themes. However, one could observe differences in the thoughts and attitudes of the individual poets as they strove to develop their own identities.

Even though there were disagreements between younger and older writers due to differences in outlooks and perceptions about observing and exalting the human condition, these were never entrenched nor did this stop the flow of new creative works, particularly in the poetry and short story genres. Regrettably, there has not been any scholarly or comprehensive study that charts the continuity between the writers in the eras of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Thus, a new Malay literature gradually emerged in accord with the wider general conditions of Singapore society. After 1970, Singapore became an industrial society synonymous with the experience of an abstract society: human consciousness had become abstract. Clearly, the writers were “new beings” that could give life to society while experiencing society in a detached manner; Singapore is a pluralistic society, comprised of citizens of different ethnic backgrounds, with the Chinese making up seventy-five percent of the population and the Malays and Muslims making up thirteen percent. Indian and Singaporeans of other origins compose the rest; the government of Singapore recognizes English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil as the official languages of the country; the education policy of Singapore allows schools that provide education in the four official languages. Every major ethnic group in Singapore—that is, Chinese, Malay, and Indian—has the freedom to develop their own culture.

Understanding the above allows us to better understand the development and progress of the new Malay literature in Singapore. Overall, Singaporeans today enjoy a better life. Singaporeans are more prosperous in the material sense. However, when we look at the development of culture, especially literature and, more specifically, new Malay literature, we see worrying signs.

With a higher standard of living, Malay Singaporeans in particular have become less interested in culture, especially literature. Those who are interested are mainly cultural organizations such as Majlis Pusat (a conglomeration of Malay organizations in Singapore), ASAS ’50, Perkumpulan Sriwana (focusing on dance), Perkumpulan Seri Kemuning and Kelab Panggung Negara (focusing on drama and theatre). These drama groups organize regular performances but see lukewarm responses.

The Singapore Malay community has become more focused on issues that advance material comfort. At the same time, community support or positive encouragement of literature is wanting. Writers have to struggle on their own, whether in terms of literary creation, activities, or even appreciation.

Given that many parents now choose to send their children to English-medium schools, it is very likely that we will see a decline in the number of people who have an interest in, and who are able to, appreciate Malay-language works. There is a small audience for new Malay literature in Singapore and it is difficult to integrate Malay literature into the wider society. There is a shortage of literary critics who are serious in analyzing and critically assessing the works of Malay writers; and it is difficult even for important and substantive works by Malay writers in Singapore to be published and showcased because of a shortage of willing publishers.

The younger English-educated generation express themselves better in English and have a stronger command of the language compared to their mother tongues, especially in areas related to culture and literature.

While I have described some worrying signs, that does not mean that I am in despair over the future of Malay literature in the face of the wave of cosmopolitanism that has swept the city-state of Singapore. This is especially so if we understand that the language of literature is deeply spiritual and not something where the benefits can be immediately seen.

I believe that cosmopolitanism will have both positive and negative effects on new Malay literature. One positive effect is that the Malays in Singapore, in being part of a pluralistic and cosmopolitan society that is exposed to the different cultures of the world, will be exposed to new experiences that can become basic ingredients in the production of their own literary works. In other words, with an exposure to and an appreciation of world cultures, there is the possibility of a deeper Malay literature that is strong in expression and that deals with the conditions of all humanity. On the other hand, there is a risk, in my opinion, that an inferiority complex may develop within the Singapore Malays, because the community is a minority in a cosmopolitan country. A sense of inadequacy could develop when interacting directly with other cultures or a way of life that is based on science and technology that is always in a hurry and rapidly changing. If such an inferiority complex takes root, Malays could be drowned in the wave of cosmopolitan urban life without being able to shine with their own unique identities. This will lead to literary works that are rife with self-pity and that wallow in anguish while begging for sympathy.

Based on what I have described above, I feel that there are many obstacles to the development of a new Malay literature in Singapore. For example, how do we cultivate an audience for the future? How do we protect works that have literary value? How do we compete with the popular entertainment magazines and popular novels that are mass-produced and draw a wide audience? And how do we find and plant the seeds for new writing talent so that the Malay literary tradition in Singapore can continue? To me, what is more difficult is how to raise the people’s consciousness with regard to the importance of having a cultural life (in the literary sense), one that is an integral part of them to the extent that they do not regard literature as solely the responsibility of writers.

Edited and condensed version by Dan Feng Tan of Masuri S.N.’s “New Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism,” 1982. All rights reserved.

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