Essay: Growing with history in Isa Kamari’s novels

By Mitali Chakravarty

Isa kamari novels - Kampong Scene by Lim Cheng Hoe

Kampong — scene by Lim Cheng Hoe


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Burnt Norton, TS Eliot

When I walk down the Singapura River and see the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles look down at me from the pedestal near Victoria theatre, I feel I know the man well, not because I have ever met him but because Isa Kamari, the celebrated ASEAN writer, brought him to life in his novel, 1819.

Downtown and around Singapore, one can get glimpses of the history of the island in architecture, sculpture and art. These can be directly related to the stories written by some of the local writers. The multi-faceted Isa Kamari is one such writer who holds me spellbound, taking me on a journey of exploration to the past to help infer the present. Isa – winner of the S.E.A. Write Award (2006), the Cultural Medallion Award, the highest award conferred on writers and artists in Singapore (2007), and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang, the highest Malay literary award (2009) – has written all his novels in Malay. Most of them have been translated into English. The translations continue to have the fluidity of his own style, of which we get a glimpse in his first English Novella, Tweet, his maiden venture into writing in English.

His writing is intense and makes one empathise with the past and present as he deftly shuttles between different periods of history, weaving it into the current fabric of the island. You live and emote with the characters – feel sorry for the Malays, the Bugis (seafaring folk from Sulawesi) and animosity towards the British rulers who manipulated the islanders by indulging them in opium and fanning their differences, following the policy of divide and rule, the favourite policy of the Raj to maintain power across its colonies, the effects of which are still evident in countries like India and Pakistan.

Isa takes us on a historic adventure through time in his novel 1819 to a past where Singapore was won by the British in a tussle for power with the Dutch, who had earlier ruled it ‘as a part of Riau’. In those days, it was often referred to as Pulau Ujong or Temasek. The island was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor, who was controlled by the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Bugis. At that time the borders of countries were fluid and adapted to the ruler’s needs. Johor and Singapore were part of the kingdom of Riau. It was the British who finally made sure with a treaty in 1824 that the Dutch and the locals would have no say in the administration or trade of Singapore. The British would hold the sole power.

Taking advantage of the local ruling classes’ love for a life of ease, the new rulers introduced opium and encouraged them to indulge. In a daze of opium, the Bugis and the Malay handed over the island to Raffles. Raffles, the ‘official founder’ of Singapore, signed the papers to take over the island from the local Malays. The British created different colonies for different factions of Muslims, like the Bugis, Malays and the Arabs. As the historic character of the first resident of Singapore, Farquhar, gives out in the novel, the British would ‘split and rule’ the kingdom so that they could gain ascendancy over the country and the region.

For me, 1819 brought to life how Singapore came into being. Raffles has to be given credit for identifying and visualising the potential of Singapore as a great trading port. Isa gives him full credit for that. At the end of the chapter titled “Keystone”, Isa writes, ‘He (Raffles) saw himself as the chosen one. He folded his arm proudly across his chest. He’d light the torch of imperial Britain in the region, and that tiny island of Singapore would be the keystone to the enterprise.’

Isa Kamari novels -- Sir Stamford Raffles

That is exactly what I feel the statue of Raffles is ruminating by the river, standing in front of the elegant buildings that line the river walk of Singapore. That the negative impact of imperialist greed fed on the local differences and cultures and tried their best to erase the dignity of the way of life of the indigenous population is an outcome of nineteenth century imperialism as we know it… all in quest of gold, god and glory, something Isa Kamari has brought out very well in 1819.

Other issues, such as Raffles’s hatred of slave trade, are well highlighted in the novel. ‘Raffles refused to listen to any of his (Farquhar’s) explanations, insisting the British had never been involved in the slave trade in the archipelago and that it was against all civilised principles.’  Similarly, the need for literacy and the ability to think clearly is evident in the writings of Munsyi Abdullah, Raffles’s writer. His writings in the book are from his original papers, translated into English. ‘Now, if one is stupid due to lack of knowledge, when does one start learning? Wouldn’t it be better to start acquiring it when one is young, when the mind is fresh and vigorous like a new plant with the ability to grow big and strong to propagate many twigs and branches, and provide bountiful harvests of fruit when matured? If  a man is educated at an early age, he will grow up to be a useful citizen.’

Isa’s description of life in the kampongs (villages or Malay settlements in local parlance), which remained an essential part of life in Singapore for a long time, from before the advent of the British, is fascinating. The colonies created for the locals by the British were also basically kampongs. You can get a glimpse of these in almost all his books that have been translated to English and in the paintings in the National Gallery of Singapore. Houses were built on stilts, people led a simple life devoid of modern amenities, but is that the best way to live?

Isa’s novel, One Earth explores this question when a second generation Singaporean bumps into a grave sweeper and starts ruminating on his grandmother’s life. The grandmother, Aminah, is the Chinese Swee Mei adopted and brought up as a Malay Muslim in a kampong. This character is modelled on Isa’s own grandmother who was of Chinese descent. You have an intermingling of Malay, Indian and Chinese among the residents of the kampongs that essentially brings out the soul of the local Singaporean, beyond race, beyond borders. Historically, Isa has not only explored the intermingling of all races in Singapore but also focused on major events that changed the lives of the local inhabitants; the Japanese invasion of Singapore and the race riots of the 1960s.

One experiences the cruelty of the Japanese, the poverty, and eventually, the struggle to be free of the occupiers. There are references to communism, PAP (People’s Action Party) and Malay politics and a description of how finally Singapore became a separate entity from Malaysia. Those in the island of Temasek wanted to be a part of Malaysia but the imperialists and politicians gave a parting blow. When one reads of the partition, one is struck by the thought of how many countries and families were separated as a result of imperialism. Did these countries exist as separate entities before the imperialist occupiers created the sense of boundaries?

One such novel that explores how lives have historically been torn by borders drawn by skin colour, religion and race is Isa’s Nadra, the story of a Dutch girl, Maria Hertogh, torn by her love for her Malay foster mother and husband and forced to adopt the ways of Holland. Her return to Europe was used as fuel for the 1950 riots in Singapore. This incident brought to the forefront the racial intolerance practised by the imperialist regime. In his book, Isa shows the lack of scruples of the governing imperialists and how mobs act without thinking. It is a moving account that not only makes us live through the pages of history but also reflects on how these boundaries destroyed the sweet and endearing Maria and turned her into a depressed and cruel woman, avoided by her children, one who even attempted to murder her Dutch husband.

A cross-reference to the trial of Maria Hertogh is made in Isa’s novel Rawa that goes back to around 1950. A comment by a kampong leader, who lived on the brink of the river Seletar, shows how some of the locals had no involvement in these riots. In Rawa, Isa portrays the Orang Seletar who lived peacefully in boats, and their eventual integration into the mainland of Singapore. Rawa also recounts some of the history depicted in 1819. Isa’s stories flow into one another naturally. In fact, both 1819 and Rawa talk of the early history of Singapore dating back to the thirteenth century and earlier, of the legend of Sang Nila Utama, said to be the founder of Singapura in 1299. There is plenty of local lore covered in conversations. However, Rawa also deals with larger issues like how history has been often misrepresented, which brings to mind Winston Churchill’s famous quote, ‘History is written by winners’.

When his grandson asks Rawa if their ancestors were pirates, he responds by saying, ‘That’s nonsense, San. Orang Seletar were not the only ones living here at that time (1819). There were many Malays too, and others like Arabs and Indians. Singapore even had a Malay administration in Bukit Larang (Fort Canning) at the time.’

History is indeed brought to life by novelists. Rawa stretches from the 1950s to 1990s with more references to the past history in conversations. Another novel about the same period (1960s to 1990s) by Isa is Song of the Wind. While Rawa is a lyrical novel that integrates the past and present beautifully, Song of the Wind reflects on the darker aspects of people’s inability to cope with rapid urbanization. It is the story of a Malay child, Illham, who moves from a kampong to an HDB flat. In the process of integrating religion with modern life, he loses sight of reality. He finds himself in the depths of a prison from where he writes a book reflecting on his life of simplicity in the kampong, the movement to a more complex environment and his inability to comprehend the risk of endangering the security of the country, in the process illuminating the dangers of acting on fears and following without thinking. This book again explores the historic policies that made Singapore and depicts how life changed suddenly from that of a simple village to a complex city, within the span of a decade – between Illham’s childhood and adulthood. It is an innocent child’s journey to adulthood, coping with changes in life brought about by the movements of history. Harry Aveling, a professor at Monash University, explains this conflict beautifully in his essay, “Rethinking Islam in a Troubled World: Religious Themes in the Novels of Isa Kamari”.

‘The first half of Isa’s novel deals with the childhood of the protagonist, again named Ilham, in Kampung Tawakal and Ang Mo Kio, his education at Whitley Primary School and Raffles Institution, and National Service in the Police Force.

Told in the first person, the second half of the novel describes Ilham’s involvement with a heavily politically committed form of his faith at a time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, and a fear in Singapore of secret organisations whose intentions might be to overthrow the government. Ilham is arrested for his naïve involvement with a group that models itself on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and studies not only the scriptures and the hadith (traditions relating to the life of the Prophet Muhammad) but also the controversial and highly idealistic works of Syed Qutb, Hasan Al-Bana, Maududi, M. Natsir and Maryam Jameela. Ilham voluntarily renounces the group after a short period of police investigation. Still only 21 years of age at the end of the novel, he sees himself as slowly leaving behind him the darkness of the “eclipse” into which his experiences have taken him.’

In both Rawa and Song of the Wind, we see communities go through losses while integrating into modern day life in Singapore. It is interesting to see how Rawa depicts the beginnings of a well-integrated child who has the traditions of the past and modern technology in Hassan or San, Rawa’s grandson. The full fruition of a vibrant child who has the best of the past and present is perhaps developed in the character of Illham in Isa’s novella Tweet, as he takes us on a journey through the Jurong Bird Park. He is the inspiration that blooms in the present day to create harmony between the past and present. The Tower, on the other hand, is a novel in which Isa elaborates on how if one dwells too much on material success, one ends up with ‘Festivities celebrating loneliness’, builds glass towers in hearts and separates the self from true enlightenment. The journey from the past to the present finds completion with The Tower and Tweet, both reflecting different aspects of the movement towards creating a vibrant city that cherishes excellence.

In all these novels you get a glimpse of history, not just of dates, events and debates but also of the spiritual development of man. Harry Aveling talks of ‘hope and harmony’ being the cornerstone of Isa’s novels. The local newspaper, Berita Harian, says it deliberates on the history and the multi-racial aspect of Singapore in a way that cannot be ignored. In my experience, his novels have helped me understand the spiritual and the historic evolution of this island and its people.

The indigenous inhabitants of Singapore, cheated by Raffles, travelled through history in Isa’s novels, to become an affluent, gracious and educated community of people, independent and able to excel in the modern day world.



Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared  as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at

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