English in Malaysia and Singapore
Singapore's pragmatic approach towards English has been best summed up by its current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in the following statement: “Our mother tongues carry with them values, ancient cultural heritages and a sense of identity. To lose some of this, because we need to speak English, an international language of business and science, is painful, but it is a rational trade-off to make.”
Owing to this cosmopolitan outlook and business environment, English has emerged as the pivotal, bridge language in Singapore. In fact, English is so widely used in the country and has become such an integral part of the society, that the concern there, unlike in Malaysia, is, as Thumboo explains, “how to prevent other mother tongues from weakening.”Notwithstanding this fear, which is a valid and legitimate one, especially since language is associated with identity, writers in English have taken full advantage of the situation and have made significant advance in all the genres – poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama. In the early years of independence, some scepticism was expressed towards literature (poetry in particular) as it was seen as a “luxury” (Lee Kuan Yew's phrase) that Singapore could ill afford. But that scenario has changed as Singapore is now trying to marry commerce with culture and turn itself into an Arts hub. In the manifesto of the Ministry of Information and the Arts, it is stated as a priority objective that, “To ensure sustained growth in the long run, Singapore must forge an environment that is conducive to innovations, new discoveries and the creation of new knowledge.”
However, although commerce has opened up the environment for English and literary activities in English, excessive technological growth, which engenders a consumerist culture, also breeds an environment contrary to literary growth. This is an ambiguous situation that writers in Singapore have to tackle, each in his or her own way. I recently put this question to some of the Singaporean writers, as to whether or not they are intimidated by Singapore's all steel, glass and chrome culture. The answers ranged from yea, to nay, to yea and nay. But no matter how much the writer might be smothered by Singapore's “good” life, it has to be acknowledged that there has been a veritable explosion of literary activity in Singapore in recent years, with new writers emerging with new energy, enthusiasm and eagerness to experiment with new themes and forms, while the more established writers have continued to produce yet more profound and resourceful works. A cursory look at Literature in Singapore, published by the National Arts Council in 2007, or a recent anthology edited by Angelia Poon, Shirley Lim and Philip Holden, A Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature (2009), would show how much has been achieved by writers in English in the island nation since Independence.
The Malaysian case
Malaysian literature in English will soon attain its seventieth anniversary since its modest inception in the late 1940s, initiated by a small group of college and university students in Singapore. Singapore was the academic hub of British Malaya and the only university of the colony was located there, therefore it was natural that a movement in English writing should have started from there. Nonetheless, given the current cultural and political rivalries between Singapore and Malaysia, it is rather ironic that a Malaysian tradition of writing started in a territory that now sees Malaysia as the “other.” There is a second irony with regard to this tradition, however; that is, it started not during the heyday of colonial rule as in the case of India, but just before the retreat of the Raj to its native shores. If we consider, say 1947 or 1948 as the starting point of Malaysian Anglophone tradition, or 1950, the year that saw the publication of Wang Gungwu's Pulse, it is hard to miss the inherent irony in the timing of its inception because India and Pakistan were already independent in 1947 and Malaysia was to become independent in a few years, in 1957. Of course there were practical and political reasons for this late commencement of the tradition, and yet the fact that English writing should begin in the years immediately before the departure of the British cannot be ignored either.
Given the time that has lapsed and the new milestone that the tradition is about to reach, it would be appropriate to interrogate the glories and sorrows, possibilities and perils, of this tradition. The questions to be addressed are: What has Malaysian literature in English accomplished in the last sixty over years? Why has it failed to keep pace with the growth of literary activity in other postcolonial centres, say Singapore and India? What are the future possibilities of this tradition? To what extent have the writers of the tradition contributed to Malaysian nation-formation and to the cultivation of a dialogic sensibility that Malaysia so requires for coming to grips with its plural cultural environment? The article seeks to deliberate on these issues, with the purpose of providing a brief account of Malaysian Literature in English.
To be continued