By Mitali Chakravarty
Singapore has completed more than half a century of independent existence. It is now a thriving country with an intrinsic personality of its own. What went into making Singapore a distinctive island cannot be just found in history books but between the borders of fact and fantasy, where lingers fiction that tunes us to the distinct flavour of this unique metropolitan city-state.
As Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father said in one of his speeches, Singapore started with people of “many races who speak many languages, who worship different gods, who have different diet habits” and yet they all unified under the banner of a single flag. The kind of culture that evolves out of the union of these diversities is best explored in stories that are of the people, by the people and for the people.
These are some novels that showcase the culture and history of Singapore and how it evolved out of the colonial past to become what it is today. These are all books that focus on issues against the backdrop of a national landscape. The issues addressed transcend to become larger than the personal. Some of the writers are Singapore Literature Prize and S.E.A. Write Award winners and have been translated to multiple languages.
- 1819 by Isa Kamari: Translated from Malay into multiple languages, including English, it takes us back to the date Raffles set foot on the island. It explains how the colonial British Malaya, of which Singapore was a part, came into existence, with a larger focus on the Malay community. An easy smooth read, it is interesting to see the influence opium had in shaping the history of British trade and expansion.
2. A Bit of Earth by Suchen Christine Lim: Though geographically set mainly in that part British Malaya that now belongs to Malaysia, this novel captures the pioneering spirit that makes Singapore what it is today. The rags to riches story of a Chinese immigrant and how he evolves from an absolute pauper into a force to be reckoned with is the story of many towkays (a business owner or boss). When the protagonist is sent back to his land because of a single ‘transgression’, one wonders at the colonials — was that just or unjust ? One has to read to decide … An enchanting novel that weaves through the intricacies of plot and the multiplicity of races and ethos, it is truly emblematic of the distinctive Pernakan culture that evolved in the Peninsula. The novel leaves a lingering sense of yearning when its ends. One wishes it did not end…
- Singapore Saga: Chasing the Dragon by John D Greenwood: John D Greenwood is an American professor, but he did a lot of research during his tenure in Singapore and came up with three books that defines The Singapore Saga. The second book of the saga, Chasing the Dragon, gives the story of not just the colonials but of their perception of the ‘natives’ and the early pioneers. It is interesting to see how far the colonials were willing to go for gold, glory and God. He has also focused on how Singapore played an important role in South East Asian history.
4. Rawa by Isa Kamari: A novel spanning an era when Singapore came to its own. It starts with the Orang Seletar, the original inhabitants of the island who drifted between the different islands of Malaya, and to their resettlement into the modern city state, into iconic HDB houses. It refers back to Singapore’s 700-year-old past. Touching upon issues that go hand in hand with development and the spread of modern civilisation, it is a lovely read and an unstoppable one!
- A Different Sky by Meira Chand: This novel spreads across forty of the most transitional years in Singapore’s life when from being a part of British Malaya, it evolved to part of Malaysia and lastly to Singapore. Meira Chand has woven history, facts and fiction with such skill that the book is unputdownable. A compelling read that shuttles between different time frames and creates a feeling of the passing of an era… how Singapore evolved and changed with its spray of races and intermarriages.
6. Bondmaid by Catherine Lim: A novel that deals with an affluent Chinese family and the tragic love story of a bondmaid and her young master, it perhaps helps us wonder how efficacious were the colonial laws? That bondmaids continued in British Singapore, despite the attempts to abolish slavery that have been chronicled in classics like 1819 and also mentioned in Chasing the Dragon is amazing! Contrasts are created between the opulence of the rich household and the poverty and sordidness of the home and relatives of the bondmaid. The story gives a glimpse into the concerns of Chinese immigrants in the 1940s and 1950s, though the plot and narrative leaves one wanting.
- Fistful of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim: The novel that won the first Singapore Literature Prize lasts the duration of a single train journey, but it uncovers both the past heritage and the current day concerns of a young woman, torn asunder by her emotional needs. It takes the reader on a journey through immigrant stories of all races — Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian… A powerful way of telling Singapore history and how it arrived at its present multi-cultural perceptions, where race boundaries are overcome to create a truly heterogenous population and a smooth and easy read.
8. State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang: Winner of the 2018 side of Singapore Literature Prize, the novel highlights a lesser known side of Singapore history, the leftist movements and the political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia from 1940s onwards. The telling is done by the stories and memories of the extended Low family members. A book that dwells on concerns that would deal with only a small group of people, it finds the voice of dissenters in Singapore.
- The Magic Circle by Charmaine Chan: Shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018, this memoir takes us on a whirlwind tour of Singapore, where nurtured by the developmental efforts of the government, Singaporeans move on to larger concerns and adopt the whole world as their home. The only book to touch upon why often Taoists converted to Christianity, the telling journeys to the sunny side of Singapore and beyond, the more positive family structures, love and bereavement. These are all tied with the flavours of indigenous cuisines and complex relationships of families and friends! A read I thoroughly enjoyed.
10. Singapore Decalogue by Zafar Anjum: A large section of Singapore population is made up of newly arrived immigrants to date. Singapore Decalogue is the story of such an immigrant in the early 2000s. He evolves as he experiences different aspects of life and through his interactions with locals and more immigrants. It is brings out the issues faced by a newcomer to Singapore beautifully. The book is a smooth, quick and easy read, empathetic and leaves a lingering note in your heart. A book that I would unhesitatingly recommend.
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
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