Race in Malaysia & Singapore: A Literature Review

While identity is an issue in both Singaporean and Malaysian literature it appears in different forms within each. In Malaysian literature the emphasis that the Malaysian government has placed on ethnic difference is obvious. Individuals are aware of their status as Malay and “non-Malay.” (see ‘Malayness‘ and Being Malay/non-Malay). Despite the government’s claims that they are taking strategic steps towards constructing a unified national identity, adoption of a national language (Malay) and similar Malay-dominant legislation has accomplished the opposite.

The actions of the Malaysian government have deepened racial divides as displayed by the cultural conflict and division in Lim’s Joss and Gold (Jeyathurai, 2009). While Singaporean literature addresses the issue of national identity, it is not so much an issue of creating unity within (which tends to be the Malaysian theme); Singaporean writers are concerned with creating a voice and space for Singaporean literature.

In “Singapore, Literature and Identity” (1998), Peter Wicks writes that “Singaporean authors have taken more reflective and evaluative approaches to the vexed question of Singaporean identity” (Wicks, 2). Wicks writes that Singaporean Gopal's-sayangidentity is one that is “both dynamic and inclusive” (Wicks, 3) or at least more inclusive than that of Malaysia. While Malaysian writers like Lim, Teo, and Maniam strive to help Malaysia embrace hybridity, Wicks writes that “Singapore’s identity is essentially hybrid” (Wicks, 3). Wicks evaluates Gopal Baratham’s novel Sayang in which an Indian-Tamil man is married to a Chinese wife and does not travel much “having all that I need on the island” (Wicks, 4).

The novel, according to Wicks, is founded on underlying themes such as hybridity of religion, culture, and people. The statement “having all that I need on the island” and the main character’s pride in Singapore shows that he is comfortable with hybridity, unlike the characters in Lim’s novel who are preoccupied with the idea of Malay versus “non-Malay.” Or, as Lim’s character Abdullah explains: the social climate in Malaysia is such that the people of Malaysia are like “oil and water” and “cannot mix,” in fact Abdullah believes it is best to keep “like with like” (Jeyathurai, 2009).

images0IYGQBHXSingapore, on the other hand, is likened to tea by Simon Tay in the short story “A History of Tea”. Tay writes “I lift the lid and they are all in the pot: Grandfather Chang, Beverly’s Grandfather Jones, Grandmother Tee…the Tees and Tehs…the Rajendrans, Beverly’s English-Jewish boyfriend I have never met…” (Wicks, 4) Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo, who is regarded by The Straits Times (Singapore) as the man who “spearhead[ed] the creation of a Singaporean literature in English,” also embraces Singapore’s inclusive multicultural society. His publication Third Map (1993) is said by Sharon Teng to have “established his reputation as a national poet committed to articulating a cultural vision for a multicultural Singapore.”

Literature and Legitimacy

Language (Voice)
It is interesting to note that this multicultural Singapore includes English while, in the past, Malaysia’s government has made efforts to differentiate between Malaysian culture and foreign-ness. That which is acceptable (i.e. the Malay language) is categorized as Malaysian while English and other “non-Malay” languages and customs (despite their influence and history in Malaysia) are considered foreign.

6903eb07a69b4e70aa5942b6549426f0 Malaysia’s separation of the foreign or anything “non-Malay” is again made evident in Lim’s character Abdullah, who refers to English as a “bastard language.” Lim’s choice of the word bastard—a word used to describe an illegitimate birth—problematizes the ethnic divides in Malaysia. Here Lim demonstrates how the divide between so-called indigenous and non-indigenous peoples is actually a differentiation between legitimate peoples (citizens) and illegitimate peoples (aliens), with the latter not enjoying the full privileges of citizenship and ultimately becoming alienated.

Although it is possible to experience alienation as a result of migration, as with Hsu-Ming Teo’s main character in Love and Vertigo (who returns to her mother’s native country of Singapore after living in Australia all her life), Joss and Gold illustrates the lives of individuals who have lived in a country their entire life—whose families have lived there for generations—and yet they experience “alienation” (Jeythurai, 2009). Jeyathurai points out that while Li An’s passion for English literature could lead to the assumption that Li An is being “overtaken by the colonizer’s language, Lim highlights that it is Li An who is in possession of the language” (Jeyathurai, 74).

morningcruise_blogspot_comThis is both a peculiar and yet logical reading, considering the fact that the Malaysian government hoards citizenship by making it exclusive to Malays. English is accessible to Li An, the fact that the Malaysian government frowns upon her use of it makes her possession of it an act of defiance. Li An’s character mirrors Malaysian writers like Lim who choose to write in English. The use of the English language is therefore one of the signs of “dissatisfaction among Malaysian ethnic minorities who have become far less willing to tolerate a government and national identity that denies them the full privileges of their citizenship” (Jeyathurai, 65).

Cultural Spaces
the-return-ks-maniamAside from the use of the English language there is another trend among Malaysian novels, specifically Lim’s Joss and Gold and K.S. Maniam’s The Return (1981). In Joss and Gold the Chinese are accused of living among themselves separate from other communities; meanwhile, in The Return, Maniam intentionally carves out a space for the Bedong Indians in Malaysia. According to Jeyathurai, “There is a need to outline a space for themselves in the face of a government that has pushed out non-Malays in the creation of the national identity” (Jeyathurai, 70).

2154433This trend also occurs in a more recent novel, Preeta Samarasan’s debut novel Evening is the Whole Day (2008). Set in 1980s Malaysia, Samarasan’s novel transports the reader to a Tamil Indian community outside the town of Ipoh. Chinese and Malay characters are introduced here and there, but Samarasan makes the reader aware that she is providing a private tour of the Indian community on Kingfisher Lane. In a country where non-Malay inhabitants are not granted full citizenship, groups like the Tamil Indians and the Chinese create cultural spaces based on their traditions, beliefs, values, and politics. This is not an unfamiliar phenomenon, race politics and division in the United States prompted African Americans to create their own cultural spaces in areas like Chicago and Harlem.

“Can the Subaltern Speak?”
Although Singaporean literature celebrates its multicultural identity, and Malaysian literature attempts to express the discontent of certain alienated groups, Tamara S. Wagner suggests that their writers do so at a significant cost. Wagner critiques the methods of Singaporean and Malaysian writers in her article “Emulative Versus Revisionist Occidentalism: Monetary and Other Values in Recent Singaporean Fiction” (2004).

resized_9781865082783_224_297_FitSquare Wagner writes that “the vast genre of diasporic fiction that conflates authors’ ‘‘exotic’’ origins rather indiscriminately, contributes to globally marketed literature from Singapore or Malaysia [that is] primarily about subaltern women struggling to find true love in a patriarchal society.” Wagner accuses Hsu-Ming Teo’s Love and Vertigo and Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s Joss & Gold of having “further contributed to the region’s only recently developed role in the internationally marketed postcolonial exotic” (Wagner, 80).9780718142551

Singaporean author Hwee Hwee Tan is also accused of endorsing the exotic: from her suggestive title of her 1997 novel Foreign Bodies, to its “exotic” cursive lettering, and its use of the familiar relationship between an Asian woman and a white male. Wagner accuses such authors of marketing the exotic in order to promote themselves, while simultaneously victimizing themselves (Wagner, 2006).

Another critique Wagner makes (which is the reason for Wagner’s concern) is that writers like Lim and Ming, “third-world” intellectuals who choose to live in the “first world” function, are considered to be ‘natives’ (“Within that space”) and “not only ‘natives’ but spokespersons for ‘natives’ in the third world […] serving as providers of knowledge about their nations and cultures. The way these intellectuals function is therefore inseparable from their status as cultural workers/brokers in Diaspora […]” (excerpt, Chow, 1993) (Pillai, 2010).

National Imagination
While Wagner’s critique concerning the postcolonial exotic is valid, Wagner’s second critique points out the complexity of national identity and the notion of belonging. The idea of “Our country/No Country” (excerpt, Joss and Gold) is prevalent in the writing of Singaporean and Malaysian writers. Like Lim, Malaysian writer Lloyd Fernando explores the concept of national identity.

In M.Y. Chiu’s article Imagining a Nation: Lloyd Fernando’s Scorpion Orchid a20791a13a5ec5b1dc2b7c_mand National Identity (2003), Chiu discusses scholar Ien Ang’s concept of a “‘national symbolic field’—the intertwining of history to create a symbolic field of feelings and experiences that can be called national imagination.” Chiu writes, “This national symbolic field appears in Lloyd Fernando’s Scorpion Orchid (1976) as a vision of a comprehensive national identity.” However, Wagner questions the extensiveness of such an identity arguing that she is not sure she can credit writers like Hsu-Ming Teo as Malaysian writers since, despite Malaysia being her place of birth, Teo has spent most of her time in Australia.

It is ironic that Wagner places such weight on Teo’s time spent abroad because this question of nationality, or the possession of it that is (who can and cannot call themselves a national), is present in Teo’s novel Love and Vertigo. In the novel Teo’s main character appears to have no place of belonging; she is ethnically Chinese and her nation of origin is Malaysia, but she grew up in Australia. Wagner’s observation is true, these writers (like all writers) are translating places and experiences for those who may never be heard.

In Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (2003) Robert J.C. Young writes that “No act of translation takes place in an entirely neutral space of absolute equality. Someone is translating something or someone. Someone or something is being translated, transformed from a subject to an object…” (Young, 140). Young also discusses how migrants (like Teo) are physically translated from one place to another. “Having [been] translated…migrants then encounter there other translated men and women, other restless marginals, and translate their experiences to each other to form new languages of desire and affirmation” (Young, 142). That is, Ming’s experience as a translated person (ethnically Chinese, Malaysian by birth, Australian by her locale) enables her to provide another interpretation of what it means to be Malaysian. It enables her to speak for Malaysians like her, the other translated men and women.

hospitalityWagner’s questioning of writers like Lim and Teo (translated writers) as Malaysian writers relates to the concept of home/nation/belonging versus foreign-ness, a practice that Deborah L. Masden refers to as hospitality. In “‘No Place Like Home’: The Ambivalent Rhetoric of Hospitality in the Work of Simone Lazaroo, Arlene Chai, and Hsu-Ming Teo” (2006) Masden defines hospitality as “…culture itself and not simply one ethic among others. Insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and to others, to others as our own or as foreigners, ethics is hospitality; ethics is so thoroughly coextensive with the experience of hospitality” (117).

However, Ang believes this practice of hospitality (inclusion/exclusion) has been disguised in an effort to resolve race issues. In “The Curse of the Smile: Ambivalence and the ‘Asian’ Woman in Australian Multiculturalism” Ang writes “racially and ethnically marked people are no longer othered today through simple mechanisms of rejection and exclusion, but through an ambivalent and apparently contradictory process of inclusion by virtue of othering” (118). In the article Ang makes it clear that Asians in Australia are more tolerated than accepted, a process Ang identifies as an act of ‘hospitality.’ Acts of hospitality appear in Malaysian and Singaporean literature in two forms respectively: tolerance and multiculturalism.

Acts of Hospitality

The problem with tolerance, according to Ang, is that it does not do away with the imbalance of power because “the dominant majority is structurally placed in a position of power” (Ang, 40). That is, the majority possesses the ability to choose whom/what to tolerate while the minority “can only be at the receiving end of tolerance, or, if they are for some reason (e.g. having the ‘wrong’ religion) considered beyond the realm of the tolerable [they are] deemed unworthy of being tolerated” (Ang, 40).

In Joss and Gold, this imbalance of power is evident within the racial politics of Malaysia when Abdullah discusses the consequences of Malays like himself being pushed too far. Abdullah’s opinion is Lim’s way of demonstrating that the Chinese and Indians are at the receiving end of tolerance. Tolerance is an example of a contradictory practice of inclusion because it creates marginalized groups/“Others” in Malaysia. This marginalization is the source of dissenting voices in Malaysian literature.

Both tolerance and multiculturalism, despite their best intentions, are problematic according to Ang. “…the ideal of ‘living with difference’ has been put forward as a way beyond homogenizing definitions of identity politics” (Ang, 38). Ang explains that “ the historical tensions [caused by] race relations are not solved by multiculturalism, but, on the contrary, made more complex and complicated” (Ang, 38).

This means that while Singaporean writers work to create a literary voice and space that celebrates Singapore’s multicultural society, Singaporean literature (like any other literature) is not without its flaws. And, moreover, its writers should be wary of oversimplifying a complex issue by assuming that they are capable of speaking for all Singaporeans. However, because Singapore embraces multiculturalism and hybridity, Singapore’s national identity, according to Wicks, is “evolving” with its literature. Malaysian writers, on the other hand, continue to challenge a national identity that excludes them from the national narrative of Malaysia.

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