Southeast Asia as Method

Singapore Unbound presented the panel “Innovations in Southeast Asian Narratives” at the Association of Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Oregon, 2019. We are pleased to publish in a series of three blog-posts the talks given by the panelists Gina Apostol, Alfian Sa’at, and Laurel Fantauzzo. You can read Gina Apostol’s talk here. Below is the talk by Alfian Sa’at.

The moderator Lawrence Lacambra Ypil framed the talks and subsequent discussion with these opening remarks: “Innovation" is a concern with newness of form, yes, but really the newness of a relationship to subject matter. When I think about our panel, I think about what it means to continue to write—in spite of and because of everything that our region has gone through and is going through—and the ways you as a writer have chosen to position yourself in relation to our region—a relation that is political as it is aesthetic. I'm interested to know in what ways you are attempting to "innovate" in your own work. In general, I think it would be great to hear how you see your work in relation to the our region’s literary, political, and cultural history.”

Alfian Sa’at is an award-winning Resident Playwright with W!LD RICE, one of Singapore’s most recognized theater companies. His published works include three collections of poetry, One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript; a collection of short stories, Corridor; a collection of flash fiction, Malay Sketches, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize, and named a Best Short-Story Collection of the Year by Electric Literature; two collections of plays as well as the published play Cooling Off Day. He has also translated two novels, The Tower by Isa Kamari and The Widower by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed from Malay into English.

Southeast Asia is a region of enormous complexity. I say this as someone who was born and lives in Southeast Asia, specifically the island-state of Singapore. There are so many ways to map and describe the region, and just a mention of some of these ways will give us a sense of its bewildering variety: a predominantly Buddhist north and a Muslim south, with border regions rocked by nationalist and secessionist movements like those in the south of Thailand and the Philippines. One must also make mention of that remarkable outlier which is the Philippines, the larger of the only two Catholic countries in Southeast Asia. There’s mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. There are the countries along the great Mekong river and then those of the Malay archipelago, home to 17,500 islands.

Other configurations: the countries called the ASEAN 5, which in 1967 formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, conceived of as an anti-Communist bloc during the Cold War. And then those countries with socialist histories, often inextricably tied to war: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, dragged into conflict because of American fears over the domino theory of Communist infection among contiguous nations. And then of course Myanmar, ruled by a brutal military junta for decades and recently in the news for the Rohingya crisis, one of the greatest tragedies of our newborn 21st century. There is also Brunei, a tiny Sultanate of less than half a million people, running on fast-depleting petrodollars and very recently in the news for introducing laws that call for the stoning of those who have committed adultery or homosexual acts. One mustn’t forget the youngest country in Southeast Asia, East Timor, which won its independence from Indonesia only in the year 2002.

Growing up in Singapore, I was often exposed to stories from the neighbouring countries of Southeast Asia—and yet not exposed enough. Another coup orchestrated by the military in Thailand. Another terrorist bombing in Indonesia. Another instance of flagrant corruption in Malaysia. To be in Singapore was to be not at home in the region, aspiring instead to join the club consisting of industrialized, Confucianised countries further north. As a matter of fact, Singapore is often lumped together with the Asian tigers, namely, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. It seemed as if Singapore’s nationalism was constructed out of negation—a supposed sanctuary of political stability as well as great wealth in a restive, Third World region. But all nationalisms are built on exceptionalism, and Singapore was not an exception to this.

At the same time, it was also difficult for me to feel at home in Singapore. Being part of an indigenous minority in Singapore, meaning the Malay community, I had to reckon with many of the images that were inherited through the colonial classification systems introduced by the British. Hence the Chinese—many of them migrants to Singapore who provided the labour necessary for the development of colonial capitalism—were often praised for being hardworking. On the other hand, the Malays, many of whom refused to participate in the colonial economy or were sometimes prevented from doing so, were labeled as lazy. Pseudo-scientific theories of environmental determinism—such as the notion that the natives of the tropics were disinclined to work because of the superabundance of food supplies that nature had provided them—began to take root. Frank Swettenham, a British Resident in Malaya, wrote the following in his book ‘Malay Sketches’, published in 1895:

“The real Malay is a short, thick-set, well-built man, with thick black hair, a dark brown complexion, thick nose and lips and bright intelligent eyes. He is a good imitative learner and when he has energy and ambition enough for the task, makes a good mechanic. He is however lazy to a degree, is without method or order of any kind, knows no regularity even in the hours of his meals, and considers time of no importance. His house is untidy, even dirty but he bathes twice a day, and is very fond of personal adornment in the shape of fine clothes.”

And here is Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, parroting these colonial attitudes:

“Three women were brought into the Singapore General Hospital, each in the same condition and needing a blood transfusion. The first, a Southeast Asian, was given the transfusion but died a few hours later. The second, a South Asian, was also given a transfusion but died a few days later. The third, an East Asian, was given a transfusion and survived. That is the X factor in development.”

In many ways, my experience as a Southeast Asian writer is informed by these multiple senses of not being quite at home. It is to be in a Singapore that embraces its colonial heritage as a means of signaling to the world that it is open for business, or that it is willing to dismantle or suppress its own local labour movement in the service of global capital. At the same time it is also to be a Malay person in Singapore who resists colonial discourses that work to devalue my own cultural heritage. So when asked by Larry about innovations in Southeast Asian literature, I find that I can only speak from my own location. And one of the things I am thinking of is that one of the ways Singapore literature can break new paths is to find a way to become Southeast Asian literature. This might sound a little confusing, because Singapore is geographically situated in Southeast Asia. But I am thinking of a conceptual realignment in how we produce our literature, a re-imagining of our audience—not the global Anglophone, represented by the reading markets of the US and the UK, but those of the region, whose national languages include Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, Filipino, Khmer and Vietnamese. To rephrase a term popularised by the Taiwanese cultural theorist Chen Kuan-Hsing, it is a way of conceiving ‘Southeast Asia as Method’.

In Singapore, a national literature emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in response to worldwide trends towards decolonisation. There was some angst in the beginning about writing in the coloniser’s tongue, and in those heady days of Afro-Asian solidarity we imported the debates that roiled the world of African literature. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe believed that the English language could be appropriated, could be used as a weapon by the colonized, as a counterargument against colonization. But Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo believed it was the duty of African intellectuals to advance their own language. In his words, ‘when an intellectual abandons it to write in another language, it leaves his language with one less mind’. One might say that Achebe’s position won the day in Singapore. Nevertheless, there was still lingering unease over the authenticity or authority that English possessed, which gave rise to a lively almost-creole called Singlish, whose substrate is English but whose syntax and lexicon have been modified based on influences from the Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin as well as Malay and the Indian language Tamil. One can argue this has in fact been one of the innovations in Singapore literature. As a matter of fact, a collection known as ‘Sonnets from the Singlish’ won the Singapore Literature Prize for Poetry in the year 2014. But this kind of project only draws from a decolonizing impulse. According to Chen Kuan-Hsing, “decolonisation is the attempt by the previously colonized to reflectively work out a historical relation with its colonizer, culturally, politically and economically”. He distinguishes this from deimperialisation, which he called “work that must be performed by the colonizer first—to examine the conduct, motives, desires and consequences of the imperialist history that has formed its own subjectivity.”

Considering Singapore’s relationship to its Southeast Asian neighbours, which includes the following: the import of migrant labour to power its economic growth, the burning of forests in Indonesia for its investments in the palm oil industry, the purchase of sand from devastated coastlines in Cambodia for its construction industry, its positioning as a hub which results in brain drain from its neighbours, it is not difficult to see how the wealthy island-state has practically transformed into a modern-day imperial power. And thus I wonder about the kinds of literature that might be produced with this kind of deimperialising consciousness. This will involve a pivot, a reckoning, not just from Singapore towards the region, but also, for example, from metropolitan Bangkok towards the rural heartland of Isan, Manila towards Muslim Mindanao, Kuala Lumpur towards the aborigines of its forest interiors. For a long time, Southeast Asia has been peripheral to World Literature. That situation might not change in the near future. But it is certainly time to pay attention to our own peripheries.