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The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Mohamed Latiff Mohamed

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/ Singapore 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                     —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Singapore as you feel or see it?

Singapore is a small city-state, and is known as one of the most developed countries. Unfortunately, I feel that there is a sense of insecurity among her leaders, especially because of her geopolitical situation. Hence, the feeling of insecurity drives her to seek support from America, and now, China, due to economic considerations. Perhaps this is because Singapore feels underequipped to face future challenges, as the country still regards herself as a little red dot in the region.

The vision and concept of Singapore's Malay literature is unclear, especially for younger writers: nowadays whatever they write is considered literature. They should be committed to context and figure out which side they are on. National identity and tradition should be the basis of writing. It could be that an inferiority complex has made younger writers seek external traditions at the expense of their own. While it is not wrong to learn from other traditions, it is important to first appreciate and know our own. One needs to stay grounded and empowered by one’s own identity and culture. Writing is not about attaining international status. How directionless! Perhaps this is due to the political changes that have taken place in Singapore. Important positions are occupied by those who are English-educated. This has had an impact on upcoming generation in terms of how Malay language and literature are regarded.

A certain romanticism has also limited the development of Malay language and literature. The learning of language has been romanticized; literature is now regarded as a form of entertainment, trivialized. This reveals the mind-set of the establishment. There are better ways to develop language and literature, with a sense of nationalism, rather than through romanticized song and dance. Our awards, competitions, other activities should emphasize intellectual ability and rigor.

The media plays an important role in providing a space and platform for sharing different forms of art and literature, so it is important that they have a strong sense of national spirit and an affinity for language and literature. This spirit of nationalism should be alive not only in the Malay community but across all communities in Singapore. Universality should not mean that we eradicate representations of our ethnic culture and identity; nor should this notion of nationalism be about racism.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The separation of Singapore from Malaysia . . . I cried when I found out. And I was only fifteen years old. It is heartbreaking, as I see it as a loss of Malay sovereignty. Our merger felt like a dream come true; the subsequent separation signaled the loss of Malay power, after having been colonized for many years. The people were not taken into consideration before the decision to separate was made by Malaysia’s prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. I think there was a lack of adab, courtesy, in handling the matter. How is it possible that there are writers who don’t have strong feelings about this event? As if some issues were not pertinent to society when their impact still remains with us today. It is important to look deeply into history.

What is the most extraordinary detail in the city, one that goes unnoticed by most?

None. I’ve joked with my granddaughter that Singapore is a great city in the world, Singapore is the cleanest city in the world. The younger generation do not know, nor are they able to discern, what is fact or fiction with regards to the history of Singapore. Many historical elements have been deleted or sidelined, especially our historical links with Malaysia, in particular Johore and the Malay Sultanate. Surprisingly, we have better access to such evidence in London than here.

What writer(s) from Singapore should we read?

I recommend Mohamed Pitchay Gani Mohamed Abdul Aziz’s Seking, Suratman Markasan’s Penghulu Yang Hilang and Isa Kamari’s books. Also: Kirpal Singh and Robert Yeo.

Is there a place in Singapore that you return to often?

I like the sea and islands, especially the Southern Islands, where the aura is different because I feel the Malay spirit. After 1964, many of the islanders moved out. Also, perhaps Changi, because I get to view the islands from Singapore. It elevates the semangat, the spirit in me, when I get to view the remaining village houses. I go to Changi once or twice a week and it inspires me to write poems—and I mean quality writing. It is important to really get to know places so that one’s observations are more grounded; it will make one a better writer or critic. One should not write of things that one has only a vague idea of but no real experience. For instance, if you want to talk about prostitution, you should have at least made an effort to set foot in Geylang.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Istana Kampung Gelam (now known as the Malay Heritage Centre). I would write about things that anger and disgust me. Malay writers often congregate at sarbat stalls. We are marhaen and, more often than not, the working class. That is why our writing is often realist, not absurdist or romantic.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Most places, from Istana Kampong Gelam to Geylang Serai, evoke a sense of nostalgia in me that can bring tears to my eyes. It is not just the Malay houses that make me sorrowful, but also the Chinese houses. I can still remember the streets I used to walk, the market where my mother used to go to in the evening because things are cheaper at that time, and the location of the 10-cent cinema. It no longer intrigues me now; it only makes me think of the foolish Sultan who sold his country—that made me really sad.

Where does passion live here?

My son keeps inviting me to live with him in Australia. I have tried living there for a few months, but I know I am unable to leave this place. I love the Malay community very much, perhaps because I love my mother, who’s Malay. Sometimes I wonder why I bother staying on and writing about the Malays, fighting for what is right, when it is often unappreciated. It is very hurtful indeed. I tried to stop but I just cannot stop. I still believe it is important to write about and record the injustices and events in a country and community. I hold on to a line in Taha Jamil’s poem that reverberates in my soul—“Yang Berhak Akan Kembali Pada Yang Hak” (“Rights will return to the rightful”).

What is the title of one of your works about Singapore and what inspired it exactly?

My novel, Batas Langit (the English translation is titled Confrontation) and two of my poetry anthologies that are being translated—Bila Rama-rama Patah Sayapnya and Segumpal Api Selingkar Pelangi. I feel that my life experiences, the historical elements and political anecdotes, must be recorded for future generations.

Inspired by Levi: “Outside Singapore, does an outside exist?”

It is not my practice and tradition to seek an outside. I don’t need to be outside Singapore to write. We don’t have to be immersed in external traditions to be able to write. Certainly, if you are aiming for material wealth, yes, go beyond Singapore. But if you are passionate about writing, it must come from within, where one writes out of a sense of humanism and not for wealth or popularity. The best writings that can last are those born of turbulent and volatile conditions, where one has to portray injustices in order to make them known and to resist them. Nowadays, a lot of writing is beautiful, but somehow too affected and modern, too lacking in historical consciousness. One should not simply write about “beautiful” things, but should seek to correct the wrongs that one sees in society. But of course, the environment molds the writer, too.

Translated from Malay into English by Annaliza Bakri.


Mohamed Latiff Mohamed is one of Singapore’s most prolific and respected writers in the Malay language. His many publications include the poetry collections Bagiku Sepilah Sudah (Pustaka Nasional, 2002), Bila Rama-rama Patah Sayapnya (ASA’50, 2007), as well as novels Kota Air Mata (Solo Enterprise, 1978) and Batas Langit (Translated and published as Confrontation, Epigram Books, 2013). A recipient of many literary accolades, including the SEA Write award (2002), the Tun Seri Lanang Award (2003) and the Singapore Literature Prize in 2004 and 2006, he was conferred the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest arts honor in 2013.

Published Jul 28, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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