English in Malaysia and Singapore
There are quite a few anthologies and individual collections of short stories that have come out since the publication of Lloyd Fernando's Twenty-Two Malaysian Short Stories (1968) and MalaysianShort Stories (1981). Some of the early short stories were also published in local journals and magazines, such as LIDRA and Tengarra. Many of these stories focus on poverty and destitution in Malaysian society in order to expose its class and caste hierarchy. They also argue that indigence is not a race problem but a class problem; the oppressed and the humiliated are found in all the various ethnic groups in the country. Poverty was acute in Malaysian society in the aftermath of independence because of the Japanese Occupation and the Communist insurgency in the forties and the fifties respectively, which had thrown the country's export economy into disarray, causing, as historians Andaya and Andaya suggest, widespread “unemployment, food shortages, poverty, poor health and general uncertainty.” But poverty still remains a problem in some sectors of the society, in spite of the country's phenomenal economic growth in the last twenty years. This is because of the lack of equitable distribution of wealth among its citizens.
The themes of poverty and class distinction are highlighted in SiewYueKillingley's “A Question of Dowry,” PretamKaur's “Pasang” and “Through the Wall,” Shirley Geok-lin Lim's “Hunger,” and Dina Zaman's “Philippa” and “Night and Day.” All these stories show how impoverishment affects the life of the social and economic “other.” Killingley's “A Question of Dowry” is the story of an Indian couple who fail to marry off their daughter because they can't raise the money required for her dowry. The story critiques the age-old tradition of the dowry system in Indian society, which the Malaysian-Indians, unfortunately, have failed to relinquish despite their departure from their homeland; but the story also shows how lack of money can adversely affect the life of an individual and a family, since Sivasothie, the young girl whose marriage falls through because of lack of dowry, faces the prospect of remaining a spinster all her life and being a social stigma for her parents (as unmarried women are seen very unkindly in the Indian culture).
PretamKaur's “Pasang” is the story of a young Punjabi boy, Chranpal, who is so poor that he can't even afford a pasang or a top, which he desperately requires to mingle with the rest of the children. It is most touching when the little boy goes to his mother for money to buy a top and all the mother can do is to helplessly squall at him, “Well, you can sell me and buy a top for yourself…. Top, top, ten cents, ten cents, forever, you have eaten my ears with your endless noise. Go away. I don't have any money.” The story can be read as an allegory, as the boy's failure to mingle with the rest of the children for lack of a top can be seen as the failure of the Malaysian poor to enter the mainstream community and stake their claim in the new country for lack of resources and means. “Through the Wall” depicts the lives of two poverty-stricken families, one Punjabi and the other Chinese, who have large families but share a house, partitioned by a plank wall. The Punjabi man keeps cows, while the Chinese is a trishaw peddler; one day the latter's wife gives birth to a beautiful girl but the family is so impoverished that they are forced to sell her to two Malay women for $90.00. This shatters the mother emotionally and forces her into isolation and insanity. Both the stories highlight the problems of privation in the minority communities in Malaysia and show how children were deprived of their normal childhood or mothers of their maternal love owing to their overwhelming penury.
Poverty is also the dominant theme in Shirley Lim's “Hunger,” in which the eight year old protagonist, Chai, experiences acute deprivation and hunger despite her being a bright student and intellectually gifted: “She had this secret machine inside her that could eat up books, swallow them whole, then give them back in bits and pieces, as good almost as before she ate them.” At recess in school, when all the other children rushed to the stalls for food or ate their “fried noodles or sardine sandwiches or rice cakes,” Chai “waited in the classroom till she thought they had finished eating, then she went out to play with them.” Of course, Chai's problem is compounded by the fact that her mother has deserted the family and left her with an unbearable emotional hunger as well. Thus deprived physically and emotionally, Chai eventually sacrifices her innocence and yields to the temptation of a guava from a neighbouring old man, who in exchange “put his hand under her dress and stroked her front.” The next day, the girl collects a ten-cent coin from the paedophiliac old man and allows him to stroke “her arms and chest, his eyes shut mysteriously.” On the third day, however, the girl resists the temptation realising that the old man has nothing more to offer than money, while she needs both love and money. The story shows how poverty can bring destructive and grievous ill in society, although the story also critiques parental irresponsibility in the mother who has selfishly abandoned the family, as well as the practices of sexual abuse and exploitation of children by the materially empowered but morally hollow haves of society.
Dina Zaman's two stories, “Philippa” and “Night and Day,” also deal with poverty and the lives of the marginalised and the often forgotten in contemporary Malaysia. “Philippa” is the story of an immigrant Eurasian-Indonesian woman who has come to this country as a domestic help, and Midah, a transvestite, who lives a shady life in the seedy streets of Kuala Lumpur. They are the lowest of the low and live in extreme destitution and near sub-human conditions, and their agonies of being the insulted and the humiliated are underscored in the narrative. “Night and Day” is the story of an economically underprivileged male prostitute and his psychologically confused, alienated but economically empowered female client. There is also a transvestite in this story, who is seen as marginalised even within the layer of the marginalised, as the male prostitute, who is himself poor and seen with considerable disdain on account of his lowly occupation, treats the transvestite as worth less than him. This shows that class hierarchy in Malaysian society is far more complex than one might think; there is the binary of the rich and poor, but within the dichotomy there are layers of distinctions and classifications which will need to be deconstructed and reconstructed if a horizontal or equitable society is to be accomplished – a task that is monumental if not overly idealistic and utopian, but well worth the aspiration for a new and growing nation.
Gender hierarchy and the ruthless victimisation of women (including young girls) and their fortitude and endurance are addressed in Shirley Lim's “Journey,” “Life's Mysteries,” “Mr Tang's Girls” and “Sisters”; Hilary Tham's, “The Discovery” and “Unborn Tomorrow”; Cynthia Anthony's “Nannan,” K.S. Maniam's “Mala,” CheHusnaAzhari's “Mariah” and Dina Zaman's “The Fat Woman.” These are stories written and published over a period of about thirty years and by writers from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but they all share the common theme of gender binary and oppression of women in a tradition bound, androcentric society. “Journey,” Lim's first published short story, written when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Malaya, is about a young girl who witnesses her mother's distress in an abortion and comes to realise that in spite of her personal courage and resourcefulness, the mother is a victim of her reproductive organs (she has seven children and is pregnant again) and an indifferent, unfeeling, egocentric male world; her journey of life is viciously manipulated and controlled by the good-for-nothing father who is totally obsessed with gambling and sees his wife as nothing more than a sexual object, without the subjectivity and agency of a human person. “Life's Mysteries” reveals the anxieties of a ten year old Swee Liang about being a girl instead of a boy, which she thinks has been mysteriously causing her parents to drift apart; in her innocence, the girl considers a sex change operation so that she can get her father's love again and help reunite the parents.
“Mr Tang's Girls” is the story of four girls in the second family of Ah Kong, an affluent but insensitive and traditional father, who fails to cope with the growing sexuality of the eldest girl. He tries to marry her off to one of his assistants as his second wife. His anxieties are eventually transformed into a nightmare in which he is first seduced and then murdered by the eldest daughter. “Sisters,” an excerpt from Lim's second novel, Sister Swing, is a rewriting of “Mr Tang's Girls,” with a more comical ending. Here also the polygamous father, who likes to dominate and have full control over his family, fails to cope with the growing sexuality of his daughters and dies of a heart attack one night when he suddenly and most shockingly discovers his daughters looking at their private organs in a mirror in their room. These two stories are somewhat different in that they depict the subordination and othering of women but also provide resistance to male authority through caricatures of the father.
Tham's “The Discovery” embodies a powerful criticism of men's obsession with women as sexual objects. It begins with a young man's discovery that the father he idolised is a philanderer and ends with the young man himself following in the father's footsteps after his marriage. Kim San, who has seen his mother's sufferings from his father's betrayal, fails to learn from the experience, which shows the author's scepticism about men's sexual integrity and honesty and their inaptitude for maintaining honest matrimonial relationships. “Unborn Tomorrow” tells the tragic tale of a girl's drowning in the sea in the resort town of Port Dickson because the family chose the boy over her for swimming lessons. The message of the story is loud and clear – such gender discriminations and derelictions are not only disabling for the individual but they can also eventuate in the untimely death of a person.
In “Nannan,” Cynthia Anthony pays tribute to a Burmese-Portuguese grandmother who survived the cruelties of a stepmother and a vicious husband, who not only had extramarital affairs but also abused her physically. The traumatised woman gave birth to fifteen children and endured six abortions but never gave up on her family; only when her youngest child finished his education did she file for divorce and find her freedom. The story encapsulates the sufferings of countless Malaysian/Asian women who endured all hardships and hostility for the sake of their families and found emancipation in love and devotion for their children and/or grandchildren. K.S. Maniam's “Mala” recounts the life of a young Indian girl abused by her parents and exploited by her husband. Mala marries Sankar to escape her sufferings at home with her parents, triggered by her bad performance in school, but the husband exploits her sexually to meet his own appetite as well as to get mileage with his business clients.
(to be continued)