Universal Force

Gaudy Boy, our new imprint, celebrated the US release of Alfian Sa'at's short-story collection Malay Sketches at Revolution Books in Harlem on Thursday, March 22, 2018. Warm thanks to everyone who came to celebrate with us. A lively discussion after the readings! For those of you who could not join us, you may enjoy looking at the photos taken by Joel Arthur and reading what the speakers said about why Alfian Sa'at matters to our moment.

Introduction by Jee Leong Koh

Good evening, everyone. I’m Jee Leong Koh, the publisher of Gaudy Boy. And Kimberley Lim over there is the Managing Editor. I want to thank Revolution Books for hosting this event celebrating the release of Malay Sketches, a short-story collection by the Malay-Muslim Singaporean author Alfian Sa’at. I moved to Harlem just a little over a year ago and was so pleased to find a bookstore that believes in the social mission of fine literature. You will see, when you browse the shelves after the event, a careful selection of books that are passionately engaged in making our world a better place.

Gaudy Boy is a new literary imprint of the NYC-based literary non-profit Singapore Unbound. The mission of the press is to bring urgent and excellent voices of Asian heritage to American attention. We’re so proud to publish as our inaugural title Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at. I’d like to give you a sense of Alfian’s world for those of you who do not know much about Singapore. For those of you who do, I beg your patience.

Modern Singapore is commonly thought to begin with its founding by the British in 1819, but that is a Western colonial narrative that we’d be wise to be chary of. The history of Singapore goes much further back, to the Muslim Malacca Sultanate, even further back to the Hindu Majapahit empire, and even further back to the Buddhist Srivijaya empire. Islam came to Southeast Asia with Arab traders in the 7th century and became widespread among the populace in the 12th century. The point is that the region has always been overrun by empires, religions, and trade. Islam eventually became the main religion of the region, the main religion of the modern nation-states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. These countries, together with southern Thailand and southern Philippines, also constitute the ethnic Malay world.

By the twists of history and the machinations of politicians, when Singapore became independent in 1965, it was dominated by the majority Chinese race who practiced either Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity. The Malay-Muslim community found itself not only doubly minoritized within Singapore, but also cut off by the new national boundaries from the rest of the Malay-Muslim world. It is in this context, a matrix of losses, that Alfian Sa’at writes his poetry, plays, and short stories.

When Alfian was here in NYC in 2016 for the Singapore Literature Festival, he liked to introduce his reading from Malay Sketches by telling his audience that Malay Sketches was also the title of an 1895 colonial work written by Frank Swettenham, the British Governor of Singapore. The report focused on the supposedly racial traits and habits of the Malays. By adopting the title but changing the content, Alfian is writing back against the empire. But he is doing more than revising the colonial past. As Harold Augenbraum, the former Executive Director of the National Book Awards, sees it, Alfian is “less the promise of a new generation of post-colonial writers than he is the leading edge of transition to an exciting and contemporary national literature of Singapore.”

One small sign that Alfian is indeed the leading edge lies at the start of his collection. The very first story “The Convert” is not about the typical Malay-Muslim Singaporean, if such a type exists. Instead, as its title boldly proclaims, it is about a Chinese Singaporean who takes the counter-intuitive, non-pragmatic step of converting to Islam out of love for his beloved. In doing so, he undertakes to learn, by bitter experience, what it means to be a minority. I suggest he can be read as a figure for the reader, whom Alfian invites to convert temporarily, if we’re not already Malay-Muslim, in order to experience and understand the prejudices and injustices that a stigmatized identity attracts, as well as the strength of family bonds within the community.

First up, we have the fictionist, playwright, and translator Jeremy Tiang read and respond to a story from the collection. Then political scientist Norashiqin Toh will follow with her reading and response. I will return to read a third story to you, after which we hope you’d ask us a lot of questions about Malay Sketches and why it matters to the USA now. Please welcome Jeremy Tiang.


Jeremy Tiang read “Overnight" from Malay Sketches, and then spoke about the significance of the story for him.

I presume Alfian wrote this story with a primarily Singaporean readership in mind, which means he was able to rely on shared context to situate the characters with a minimum of explanation. The campers are coded as Malay Muslim, while the Park Ranger at the end says “understand or not”, a typically Chinese formulation. Thus without it being explicitly stated, the Singaporean reader knows this is a story of the way a minority group is being forced out of a public space by authority.

The other aspect of Singaporeanness in the story is the mention of the “kampung”, a trope of Singaporean nostalgia that is frequently used to evoke an idyllic past. Although Farisha shares these fond memories of her childhood on Pulau Ubin, she has clearly acclimatized well to the middle class lifestyle she now has, and has so far forgotten her origins as to be apparently unaware that the people she is camping amongst are in fact homeless.

Where the story derives its universal force is in its final moments, when Farisha is confronted with the desperation of the people in the next tent, and despite her longing for the “kampung spirit” of the past, she chooses in that moment to focus on her own concerns, even as the authorities evict her less fortunate neighbors. Whether in Singapore or elsewhere, the impulse to protect our own instead of helping others is a powerful one, and here Alfian Sa’at shows how easy it is to fall into this way of thinking, and how insidious it can be.


Norashiqin Toh read “Visitors” from Malay Sketches, and gave her thoughts on the story.

Like the protagonist in the story, Hidayah, I have often struggled to describe myself to others, although this has been the case long before I moved to the United States. Like Hidayah, I have grown conscious about the way I present myself, the identity that I choose to lead with in any interaction. Granted, the hijab that I wear puts my Muslim identity at the forefront by default, but still I have found significant room for maneuver. 

As a social scientist, I should begin first by recognizing that the term identity can cover a multitude of social categories, including gender, class, language, nationality, religion, etc. But today I want to focus specifically on ethnic identity, which includes the concept of race. I hope to weave together a discussion based on my personal experiences as a multi-racial individual, as well as my academic background in political science. 

Growing up in Singapore, I never identified fully as a Chinese or a Malay. In school, I studied Chinese as my second language, and sang Chinese songs when I went to karaoke with my friends. But at home, I lived on a diet of Malay dishes, and spoke to my late grandmother, who lived with us, in Malay. On an abstract level, I would not be able to choose the ethnic group that I identified with more. In specific situations, however, I find my affinity towards each group varying based on the social environment that I am in. As Walt Whitman writes in “Song of Myself,” “I am large. I contain multitudes.” I have simply learnt to heighten the saliency of a particular identity in response to my surroundings. 

What this demonstrates, I think, is that ethnic identity is not an exogenous given. In my discipline, scholars have turned away from a primordialist approach to ethnic identity, which conceives of ethnicity as an inherited characteristic that is static, and difficult to change. Instead, most now fall into the constructivist camp, which acknowledges the fluidity of ethnic identities. Although sticky, ethnic identities are ultimately still malleable, shaped by social, economic, and/or political processes. The implication, then, is that a large aspect of ethnicity is socially constructed. And since individuals can and will choose their identities strategically, we have to be responsible in how we mobilize these identities. 

There is a deep human connection that can be achieved through highlighting shared culture and group affinities. But this can easily be turned into animosity towards “the other,” those who do not partake in the same traditions, especially in the presence of power imbalances and superiority/inferiority complexes. A lot of work in political science is disheartening on an emotional level, demonstrating how effectively politicians and elites manipulate the saliency of ethnic identities for electoral purposes, resulting in violence and other unsavory consequences. Sadly, we can see some of this playing out in America today. 

As a society, I think we have to be conscious of these manipulations, and to resist them. Here, I think, literature can play an important role. Engaging with voices and stories from other ethnic groups is a good way to guard against the dichotomization between the self and the other, to create understanding, to blur the lines that divide. I am so glad that Gaudy Boy has brought Malay Sketches to the United States, and look forward to the discussions it will inspire.


Jee Leong Koh read “The Borrowed Boy” from Malay Sketches, and then spoke about the story.

In the story Junaidah responds to a charitable appeal with an eager heart, and learns that charity is full of moral ambiguities. Isn’t it cruel, she asks herself, to pick one child and not another? As we might ask of ourselves, isn’t it cruel to pick one charity to support and not another, a refugee to welcome into the country and not another? And the charitable heart is liable to construct intricate fantasies of relations and belonging, to imagine that by taking a child under one’s wing for a day, one can make him part of the family. Alfian very slyly tells us that while Junaidah ventures into the orphanage, her husband and own son wait in the car, in disagreement with her action. Finally, the charitable heart is full of good feelings towards itself, so when we learn we are not the first, nor the biggest, nor the fastest, we are unreasonably disappointed. All these feelings and thoughts we share with Junaidah as she thinks back to the fasting month and ahead to the festive day. We live through them with her.

What about the child Mydeen, whose name, we’re told, is spelled not with an i, but with two e’s? Even his Jawi name separates him from the other Malay children. His name orphans him further. He is dark-skinned. He is of Indian and Malay extraction, and so he is a Peranakan, except that he is not what Singaporeans usually think of when they think of the Peranakans. In the common imagination, Peranakans are of Chinese and Malay extraction, they are highly educated, they are highly articulate, and they are the best cooks. Alfian subverts this stereotype of the Peranakans by showing us a Peranakan child who is of Indian and Malay extraction, a badminton player in Primary Two, highly reserved, and who enjoys lontong and rendang, once a year. When he slips his hand into Junaidah’s hand on their way out, what is he thinking? Is he impatient to get out of the orphanage, we flatter ourselves in thinking. Is he just doing what he always does every year with a new family that picks him up, we pity him in thinking. Or is he being calculative, to worm himself into our affections, we defend ourselves in thinking. Like Junaidah, we don’t know. The story, told entirely through Junaidah’s perspective, not only permits us to live through her, but also protects Mydeen’s human privacy.

And what about the receptionist? So eager to explain that the orphanage treats the children well, but not indulgently. “We had lontong and rendang today. You know lah, once a year.” So ready to explain the object of charity to the patron. “She told Junaidah that he was in Primary Two, a badminton player, and that he was quite reserved.” She is doing her best by the orphanage, the children, and the patrons, but it is noteworthy that despite her title—receptionist—she does far more talking than listening. Hearing her talk, we the readers become the true receptionist of the story. Reading Alfian’s short stories, we practice the art of attentive listening.


The readings were followed by Q&A with the audience. The lively discussion revolved around the topics of newly assertive ethnic identities in Singapore, the domination of the state narrative, the distinction between narrative and values, the depiction of family in Malay Sketches, and the queerness, or lack thereof, of Malay Sketches in comparison to Alfian’s other writings.

Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at’ (USA: Gaudy Boy, March 1, 2018) is available for purchase here.