An authentically Singaporean cat in an authentically Singaporean setting.

An authentically Singaporean cat in an authentically Singaporean setting.

Last month, I received an email from a student at my old secondary school. She’s working on a project about the impact of globalisation on the Singapore literary scene, and asked to interview me as I’d addressed that a bit during my talk at the school earlier this year.

She sent me two questions, which I found very thought-provoking. They are:

1. Something much debated in this era of globalization is the East vs West cultures. Do you feel the need to use categorically Asian stereotypes- ideals, personalities, setting etc- in your novels such that it is considered authentically Singaporean? (Since as a nation we consider ourselves to be of the Asian culture and avoid ‘westernization’.)

2. What do you think comprises a Singaporean story in this era of globalization?

With her kind permission, I’m reproducing her questions here along with my replies. To add a bit of context to her questions, she later told me that she formed them after doing a survey of people and finding that many believe Singapore is Westernised and lacks its own culture.

Her project sounds really exciting, and certainly beats studying for the O levels, which was what I was doing at her age (students at my old secondary school now go on straight to the A levels). At any rate, I enjoyed answering her questions, and thinking my answers through made me clarify my perspective on many issues.

So here they are:

  1. Something much debated in this era of globalization is the East vs West cultures. Do you feel the need to use categorically Asian stereotypes- ideals, personalities, setting etc- in your novels such that it is considered authentically Singaporean? (Since as a nation we consider ourselves to be of the Asian culture and avoid ‘westernization’.)

This is a complex question that contains a lot of assumptions. I’ll address the one in your first sentence, the one in your last sentence and, finally, address the central question.

‘the East vs West cultures’

When speaking of cultural conflict, the phrase ‘East vs West’ is a popular one – I myself use it quite often. Yet, what do we really mean by it?

First of all, there is no monolithic ‘West’ or ‘East’. The United States is very different from Poland in many ways, yet they are both Western. Singapore is very different from India, yet they are both Eastern. Meanwhile, adopting an East-West dichotomy means entire continents are ignored (South America, Africa). And the concept of ‘versus’ presupposes a conflict already, where the reality might be closer to compromise, mix or fusion.

Thus, speaking of ‘East vs West’ can be simplistic and limiting. Perhaps a more meaningful way to frame the debate would be ‘individuality amidst hegemony’.

What is ‘individuality’ in the context of culture? It’s about the elements that make a culture unique. In the case of Singapore, these might include (and are not limited to):
– Singlish;
– city-state;
– majority Chinese yet not part of China; significant Malay and Indian minorities;
– hot all year round;
– short history as a nation (which is why we do so much investigation/soul-searching into the Singaporean identity or lack thereof – your project itself is a reflection of this uncertainty).

What about ‘hegemony’ in the context of culture? Hegemony is where one culture dominates others. At this point in history, we like to say there’s ‘Western hegemony’. If we want to be really accurate, we should say there’s ‘Anglophone hegemony’ (dominance of English-speaking cultures). If we want to be brutally honest, we would say there’s ‘United States (“American”) hegemony’ – with a bit of a British colonial hangover thrown in.

Such cultural hegemony is not due to any intrinsic superiority of the dominant culture, but follows political/economic/military hegemony. To put it very, very simply, for the past century or so, the United States has been the most powerful country in the world because it’s so big and rich. It produces a lot of things, which people elsewhere in the world want and use. Thus, many people around the world are interested in what the United States says and does. Meanwhile, other countries that share a similar language and culture (i.e. Britain; to a certain extent Canada/Australia/New Zealand) also benefit from the spotlight, alongside countries that the white American majority feel they have ancestral links to (i.e. most of Western Europe).

So, ‘individuality amidst hegemony’: To what extent do we, should we, and can we adopt the culture of the dominant country, given that we are not citizens or residents of that country? Does adopting a foreign culture come at the expense of developing our own? Does prioritising our own culture over a foreign one come with the risk of being parochial? Is it possible to enjoy the best of both worlds, or can the twain never meet?

‘Since as a nation we consider ourselves to be of the Asian culture and avoid “westernization”

I don’t know that this statement is true. The very fact that we are exchanging emails in English is evidence that we’re fine with certain aspects of Westernisation. Not to mention the Hollywood movies we watch, the English children’s books we grow up with, the Anglophone boybands and rock stars that are popular here. (Also, the fact that you go to a school named after an Englishman, with a Greek goddess for a mascot.)

Indeed, Singapore is Westernised to such an extent that it would be unrealistic to write a short story in which, for example:
– characters wear only cheongsams/baju kurung/saris;
– characters live only in shophouses or kampungs;
– characters constantly spout Chinese idioms and never use Western slang.

We ‘consider ourselves to be of the Asian culture’, certainly – but that’s because we are of the Asian culture. We are a country in South-east Asia and most of our population is of Asian ethnicity. Therefore, it is a marginalisation of our own culture if we always write stories in which, for example:
– characters have only European names and European physical features;
– characters live only in places that have four seasons;
– characters speak only formal English and never use Singlish/Singaporean slang.

‘Do you feel the need to use categorically Asian stereotypes- ideals, personalities, setting etc- in your novels such that it is considered authentically Singaporean?’

I’ll begin by addressing the phrase: ‘categorically Asian stereotypes- ideals, personalities, setting etc’.

First, I suspect (hope!) you mean ‘archetypes’, not ‘stereotypes’. Admittedly, the two are similar in that they are both comprised of easily recognisable characteristics. However, an archetype is often a starting point from which a writer develops a fully fleshed character. A stereotype, on the other hand, is an end result: a character that is made up of nothing but clichés. In other words, a caricature.

Second, are there really ‘categorically Asian stereotypes/(archetypes)’ – or are you just quick to categorise anything with an Asian characteristic as, well, Asian first and foremost, with other characteristics regarded as secondary? What, for example, is an Asian stereotypical ideal? Or an Asian stereotypical personality? Is a nerd a stereotypically Asian personality? Are there no nerds in non-Asian cultures? What about the pushy parent – perhaps that’s an Asian stereotype. Yet there are parents in big American cities who are also very pushy in trying to get their children into the best private schools and the Ivy League. Are these non-Asian parents Asianised/Easternised? Or do pushy parents exist everywhere, in every culture?

Would a kopi tiam be an Asian stereotypical setting? Maybe an HDB flat? American writers write about diners and motels. Are they writing about categorically American stereotypes in order to be authentically American? Or do they just write about diners and motels because they are as common and iconic in the United States as kopi tiams and HDB flats are in Singapore?

So that’s my take on stereotypes/archetypes, Asian or otherwise. Now I will address the broader question, which can be rephrased as: ‘Do you feel the need to write about Asian things so that your stories [I haven’t published a novel yet!] will be considered authentically Singaporean?’

I guess I ‘feel the need’ in as much as any author ‘feels the need’ to write about any particular subject in any particular setting. Let’s take Charles Dickens. He was an Englishman who wrote a lot about English people in England. Did he ‘feel the need’ to write about English people in England, so that his novels might be considered authentically English? Or did he write about English people in England simply because he was himself an English person, living in England? Because he observed the people and culture around him, and wanted to write stories about them?

I suppose I could write a story about English people, set in England. But why should I?

First, I am not English, nor do I live in England, so why should my imagination inhabit that space?

Second, there are already a lot of English writers writing about English people in England – they don’t need help from the outside to create even more stories about English people in England.

Third, I am a Singaporean living in Singapore. Why wouldn’t I write about Singaporeans in Singapore?

Fourth, if Singaporean writers living in Singapore don’t write about Singaporeans in Singapore… then who will? A foreigner? Or maybe Singapore and Singaporeans are so boring that we don’t deserve to have stories told about us?

I think the fact that we even ask this question of ourselves – why Singaporean writers write about Singapore – reflects how the current Western hegemony has led us to marginalise our own culture.

Yes, ‘write what you know’ is a cliché and places limits on an author’s imagination. I don’t actually agree that authors should only write what they know. (Otherwise we’d never get historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy.) But that being said, it is also perfectly natural to write what you do know, or to use that as a springboard for leaps of the imagination.

In conclusion: Yes, perhaps I do make it a point to write about Singaporean things. Because not to do so would be to treat my own people and culture as insignificant.

  1. What do you think comprises a Singaporean story in this era of globalization? 

First, I don’t think that the state of globalisation in any given era is relevant to how Singaporean (or American, or Brazilian, or Zimbabwean) a story is. Countries and cultures exist whether there’s globalisation or not.

Second, I think a Singaporean story is Singaporean in the way an American story is American, a Brazilian story is Brazilian, and a Zimbabwean story is Zimbabwean.

Thus, let’s say there’s a country named C.

In my opinion, an C-ian story fulfils at least one of the following:
1. written by a C-ian;
2. set in C;
3. centres on a C-ian character or characters.

You can replace C with any country you wish.

Perhaps a more pertinent question is, who or what is Singaporean?

For the ‘who’, it’s not a simple matter of citizenship – there are Singaporeans for whom citizenship is just a convenient passport; there are non-Singaporeans who are woven inextricably into the fabric of our society.

As for the ‘what’, it goes back to ‘individuality amidst hegemony’ and what makes a culture unique. Earlier, I gave five of the most obvious examples of what makes Singapore unique; of course there are many more, and perhaps writing – and reading – stories by Singaporeans, about Singaporeans, in Singapore, is one way of discovering what these others are.

**

So that was my lengthy reply to my many-times junior, and I hope it comes in useful for her project! To end on a lighter note, I thought I’d reproduce here a humorous Facebook note I wrote a year ago, about tropes in Singaporean literature (yes, despite my dissertation about archetypes/stereotypes above, I myself love a spot or two of stereotyping!).

EVERY SINGAPOREAN NOVEL EVER
(after http://the-toast.net/2014/05/28/every-english-novel-ever/)

1. Life In HDB Is Depressing And Hot
2. Grievances Against The Gahmen
3. Clever Young Person Goes To England Or America For University And Is An Asshole About It
4. Gossiping Auntie, Half Of Whose Speech Is Italicised For Dialect
5. Malay Or Indian Friend Turns Up To Show That The Chinese Author Isn’t Racist
6. But There’s A Eurasian Character Who’s Kind Of Slutty
7. ‘No Ma,’ He Said Condescendingly
8. The Moon Represents My Heart
9. Something Weird Happens As Speculative Fiction Is Now Trendy
10. Aloysius Is Frustrated And Sweaty As He Walks To His Brand-New BMW
11. I Don’t Want To Visit That Uncle Who Lives in JB
12. The Paper Mansion Burnt At The Funeral Signifies Unfulfilled Earthly Ambitions
13. There Is A Traffic Jam On The PIE
14. The Domestic Maid With Sorrowful Eyes
15. No One Enjoys The Barbecue At East Coast Park

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