“Writing Emergency: Teaching Singapore Literature in an Historical Frame” by Philip Holden

“Writing Emergency: Teaching Singapore Literature in an Historical Frame”
Philip Holden

Literature and history have been uneasy companions for a very long time. Confucians and Platonists have been sceptical about the distance of literary texts from the truth: Aristotelians, in contrast, have seen literary texts as embodying higher truths to which history cannot aspire. My interest in putting literature and history together’s more mundane: literary and historical texts have the potential to rub against each other in interesting ways. For me, teaching Singapore Literature in Singapore offers unique possibilities in thinking through the relationship between literature and history, to ask students to question narratives they already know, and to consider how they might be remade. What is most important to me is that these narratives aren’t simply intellectual understandings of the past: they also profoundly influence the ways in which we understand our own lives, think of our own place in a larger social order, and act upon the assumptions we make.

I’ve taught a course in Singapore Literature in my department for over a decade now. I first taught EN3263, Singapore Literature in Context, in 2003, when two of my colleagues who had developed an earlier module retired and I, somewhat reluctantly at first, took it on. I’d already been in Singapore for a decade, and read and taught a number of Singapore texts, but I’d always thought of literature as a means of questioning a wider social and political world, and I was thus hesitant to teach a module that might indulge in canon-formation or implicitly tie literary texts to a national history. The previous version of the module had covered canonical texts in Singapore and Malaysian Literature in English in the period from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Over the years I taught the module I changed its scope to cover a much longer period, from early Straits Chinese writing at the end of the nineteenth century to contemporary diasporic and Singapore-based writers. I focused the module more closely on Singapore, but I used Malaysian and other Southeast Asian writers as a counterpoint, and indeed in recognition of shared literary connections that persisted after 1965.

Teaching such a module as a historical survey meant, inevitably, that I created a canon of representative works, excluding others. In 2008 I and two co-editors published Writing Singapore, the first comprehensive historical anthology of Singapore Literature in English. The anthology became a set text for the class, supplemented with additional plays and novels. Writing Singapore offered new possibilities yet imposed new restrictions. More Singapore writing was readily available to students in a historicized form. At the same time, the process of canon formation and the decisions on selection and exclusion that had vexed myself, Shirley Lim and Angelia Poon when we devised the anthology were rendered largely invisible.

To encourage students to ask questions about the way in which the literary texts they were reading were framed, I thus started the class with two theoretical essays that took us a long way from Singapore. The first, Alain Ricard’s “Museum, Mausoleum, or Market” was written in 1987 and discusses the manner in which national literatures were framed in various African countries in the post-independence period. For Ricard, the concept of a national literature involves a series of intertwined yet mutually contradictory interests. National Literature as a museum attempts a precise description and classification, looking at the setting of the text, the citizenship or residence status of the author, and whether the genre in which it is written can be considered a high cultural form. The mausoleum is another kind of cultural monument, a normative approach to the question of a national literature that looks for idealised texts expressive of a state-sponsored vision of national identity. Ricard, as is sceptical of such impulses, dismissing them as “a rather distressing phenomenon” which substitutes “a revised past and a bureaucratic identity” for the possibilities of self-knowledge literary texts might bring (298). As an alternative, he proposes the model of a national literature as a market, not so much of financial but of cultural exchange. Such a model respects the autonomy of writers who go through moments of competition and also solidarity: national literature as a market thus offers heuristic possibilities in thinking through the possibilities of nationhood.

In discussions in class, I have used the essay not to confirm Ricard’s own preferences, but rather to prompt the recognition that a national literature is not just a fact of nature to be discovered and analysed:  it is consciously–and sometimes unconsciously—manufactured following normative principles. Literary texts, similarly, are not simply passive illustrations of national histories or identities, but actively participate in the ongoing, never completed, negotiations concerning history and identity. I supplemented the Ricard essay with a further reading. Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s essay “Art as Technique” attempts to define qualities that make a literary text uniquely “literary”. Literary techniques, Shklovsky suggests, slow down the act of perception, breaking our habitual ways of seeing the world, and forcing us to see social realities again, as if for the first time. In Shklovsky’s vision, Singaporean literary texts have the potential to defamiliarize, to startle students out of ways of seeing Singapore they have grown comfortable with, and to promote new thoughts about history, identity, and the social world around them.

That said, I was growing dissatisfied with the module and some of the responses it engendered from students. Any historical survey runs the risk of falling into a passive historicism, in which the autonomy of the literary texts is forgotten, and they simply become illustrative of moments in a historical narrative we already think we know. Early Straits Chinese writing thus became an exercise in the imitation of colonial models, no doubt with some sly subversion. The University of Malaya writers of the 1950s, in a parallel manner, were illustrative of new nationalist visions and attempts, paralleled elsewhere at other moments of decolonization, to produce an authentically local voice in English. Poets such as Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng, and Arthur Yap, in turn, represented different responses to the unsettled place of English-language poetry in the early years of the post-independence developmental state, when English was conceived of as a language of science and technology but not of cultural belonging. There were two dangers here. The first was a plotting of a literary history that followed a standard postcolonial studies model, moving from colonial imitation through emergent nationalism to a post-national cosmopolitanism. Such an approach tidied up the texts by foregrounding those that fitted into a postcolonial Anglophone literary history, but it reduced Singapore Literature in English to a minor illustration of a process more fully developed elsewhere. And there was a further danger: these literary texts simply served as signposts on a historical tour following a developmental narrative that students already knew (although often surprisingly dimly) from National Education. The full potential of literary texts to “talk back” to present understandings of history, to defamiliarize that which had become familiar, was attenuated, if not entirely lost.

In 2014, I returned to teaching the module after a two-year leave of absence. Knowing that pedagogical style and content are interlinked, I altered both. I changed the class from a lecture-tutorial format to two smaller seminars, and I incorporated an activity that took students out of the classroom, working in the Necessary Stage’s archive, and through this research proposing a new production of an earlier play. I also attempted to reframe some of the material in the module so that it reflected historical conflicts, rather than simply being part of an evolving literary history.   I thus inserted a week initially entitled “Writing Emergency,” between discussion of Straits Chinese and University of Malaya Writing. The notion of emergency, I emphasized to the students, originated from the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960, but was not confined to a description of the guerilla conflict and its immediate effect. Rather, emergency became a heuristic through which we might think of the experience of life in the period from early 1942 to August 1965, from the beginning of the Japanese occupation through to Singapore’s exit from Malaysia and its establishment as an independent nation-state. The period was marked by constant and disorienting political change, violence by both state and non-state actors, and a reworking of the citizen’s relationship with the state through the superintending of disasters and developmental planning. As the title of Loh Kah Seng’s Squatters into Citizens suggests, indeed, this was a time in which notions of citizenry and indeed a national “public” were brought into being. The period was also a time of intellectual ferment and discovery, in which various forms of art had vital roles to play. National Education tends to smooth out the contradictions of the period into a simple narrative. The trauma of the Japanese Occupation fanned demands for independence, and then, in Singapore, the People’s Action Party successfully overcame competition from other parties in the 1959 election that led to internal self-rule.  In this story, the PAP survived showdowns with both the pro-Communist left and with Malaysian communalists to superintend Singapore’s reluctant but necessary departure from Malaysia in 1965. My intention was not to attempt to impose an alternative historical narrative, but simply to allow the provisional nature of the social, politics, and identity at that time to emerge through literary texts.

To explore the period, I thus chose four short stories written by authors who were politically active: each, indeed, was a member of a political party that offered a radical challenge to the status quo. The first chronologically was S. Rajaratnam’s “The Tiger,” an allegorical text set in rural Malaya first published when the author was in London in 1942, around the time at which he appears to have first become concerned with Malayan, rather than Indian, nationalism.

“Fellow Student Shen Yu Lan” in The May 13 Generation (SIRD, 2011)

The second was “Fellow Student Shen Yu Lan” by He Jin (Lim Kim Chuan, writing under the pseudonym Wei Jia rather than his usual penname), who was involved in Chinese middle school activism in the 1950s, and became a member of the Malayan Communist Party. We used a recent English translation in class, but students who wanted to research further and who had Chinese reading knowledge were encouraged to read the Chinese original. The story follows the conventions of socialist realism, and is narrated by a class monitor at a Chinese Middle School who is initially skeptical about the political commitment of a new student, Shen Yu Lan, whom he finds difficult to control. As the protests against the colonial government leading to the May 13th 1954 demonstrations gather momentum, however, he finds himself impressed by her, almost despite himself. Yu Lan works selflessly for the movement, rejects a boyfriend who wants to accompany him to China, and finally defies her parents. The story ends with Yu Lan’s parents agreeing to support her in the anti-colonial struggle, and the narrator’s exclamation of delight that his fellow student’s consciousness has been raised.

Kassim Ahmad’s “A Common Story,” first published in the late 1950s, is less easy to classify. The shortest and many ways the least tonally consistent of the three stories, it follows its protagonist, Yusuf, through a process of return from Singapore to the rural kampung from which he came. Yusuf, like Kassim, attends the University of Malaya in Singapore, but finds himself disillusioned with “conditions of culture” that include “Beethoven at one end and Bill Haley at the other.” An interracial romance started as a “ritual sacrifice on the altar of cultural integration” fails, and he returns to the countryside to the puzzlement of his parents, seeking to rediscover his “soul” (139-140). Kassim would later become chairman of the Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia, and be detained in Malaysia under the Internal Security Act. The fact that Kassim was still involved in political and social commentary in late 2014, facing trial in the Shariah High Court in Putrajaya for allegedly insulting Islam even as we studied his short story, added immediacy to our discussions.

The final story, Lee Kok Liang’s “It’s All in A Dream” was published in 1964, after the detentions of Operation Coldstore and subsequent waves of arrests by security forces in Singapore and Malaysia.  It begins with its protagonist on a train with his wife and child, leaving the city where he has been arrested and interrogated. Through flashbacks to his detention, readers come to realise that he has in all probability obtained his release by betraying his friends, but this discovery is partially concealed by the protagonist, and is not accompanied by any self-discovery or political epiphany. At the end of the story the protagonist falls asleep on the train and enters a disorienting, nightmarish dream that is nonetheless more vivid than the mundane reality that surrounds him. The story concludes with his desire to fall asleep and escape into the dream once more, “[i]f not tonight, then the next night, surely” (166). Lee’s story displays the fragmentary narrative structure and shifting perspectives characteristic of modernism. The author is best known as a Malaysian short story writer and novelist, but we should not forget his long career as an activist lawyer in Penang, as well as his participation in both municipal and state politics as a representative of the Socialist Front. For him, as much as for the other two writers featured, literature and politics were closely intertwined.

In a lecture to the students before online and tutorial discussions, I outlined some of the historical events that the stories responded to, as well as discussing allegory, realism, modernism, and the use of archetypal material drawn from folk traditions, an element that might inform a reading of Kassim’s story. Yet I also emphasized that there was something interesting about the short story itself, which made it different from the novel. As I’ve discussed in more formal academic work, the short story becomes a dominant genre at moments of social and political transition: in May Fourth Movement China, for instance, in the Philippines under the Commonwealth in the 1930s, or in Indonesia during the period of decolonization (Holden). In one sense it is a pedagogical genre: people writing prose fiction for the first time usually begin with short stories, especially if they are writing in a new national or dominant language that is in the process of being standardized. Short stories are pedagogical in a second sense: they are often used on syllabi, and in creative writing classes, because their use permits the sampling of a wider variety of authors and texts. In another sense, the short story is uniquely mobile. It is often first printed in magazines or journals, as each of the stories we are discussing here was, and then reprinted in author collections and anthologies. It often moves across languages, requiring neither the time needed to translate the novel nor the degree of attention to literary aesthetics that the translation of poetry necessitates. Finally, there is perhaps something intriguing about the short story as a form, due to its length. Unlike with a novel, a reader cannot become immersed in the world of a short story for very long: the story ends, and the experience of reading is left behind in a return to a material world. This experience of being briefly transported and then returned enables the short story, very precisely, to do Shklovsky’s work of defamiliarization. In a famous statement on the short story Frank O’Connor, himself a skilled short story writer and prominent anti-colonial activist, noted its marginality as a genre: unlike the novel, which promoted stability and grand narratives, the short story, O’Connor suggests, seems provisional, often thematizing “a submerged population group,” or those “the fringes of society”(4, 5).

After the lecture, to prepare for formal discussions in tutorials and responses in written work, I encourage students to post in an online forum, in response to an open-ended question that I pose. The idea here was to pull back from an instant analytic response as much as possible, and to think about how the story works on a reader: to observe oneself reading, and then to become aware of how the story works on and manipulates a reader through the way it is constructed. One question thus simply asked students which of the three stories to enter into a dialogue in which they stated which of the stories they preferred, and why.

The responses were in many ways surprising. I expected students to favour the Rajaratnam and Lee Kok Liang stories for two reasons. First, they were more complex in terms of authorial intentional use of literary techniques, and students in literary studies are schooled to appreciate technical sophistication. Rajaratnam’s story, for example, featuring the killing of a tiger in a Malay kamoung, and a series of unsettling parallels between the animal and a pregnant Malay woman protagonist, and was thus readable in terms of allegory and reference to a British literary tradition. Second, conceptual material such as Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization is, on a superficial level at least, easier to apply to modernist works that consciously distort perception, rather than realist works that claim to objectively represent a world. This was true of many responses to Lee’s story, which praised its use of literary techniques such as stream of consciousness, a frame narrative, and manipulation of point of view. At times, such replies led to students moving beyond the text’s history to humanist universals: one student, for instance, identified the story as expressing a timeless and historically non-specific conflict between private ideals and public compliance, moving away from the specific historical context,  and thus neglecting much of its potential. Some of the best students did manage to discuss the text’s politics in complex ways. There was, for example, an interesting debate about racialization in Lee’s story. One student noted that the protagonist’s othering of members of the security forces – his reference to a “Malay police constable” (159) and a “Sikh policeman” (160) while never referring to his own ethnicity–seemed to replicate imperial discourse: another felt it represented a critique of the surveillance and classificatory mechanisms of the state. Yet these responses, though sophisticated, tended to be highly analytical, divorced from an immediate affective response to the text.

Responses to “Fellow Student Shen Yu Lan” were the precise opposite. Students tended not to read for technique, but for content and emotional identification. Several complained about the awkwardness of language in a translated story, and the heavy-handed didacticism encouraged by the narrator. Yet many students who read the text liked it, and chose it as their favourite among the stories. The story tended to promote emotional identification from readers, who found themselves caught up in the middle school students’ idealism, and their passion for social change. This in turn led to a discussion of literary aesthetics, and whether an attempt to reach a wider audience might be more important than producing a highly self-conscious and self-referential aesthetic object. Yet students ultimately looked through literariness of the text and simply identified with characters, without considering the way in which the realist text was constructed, technically, to give the illusion of being an objective representation of the world.

In reading all of the stories, students often tended to place them back into historical narratives that they already knew, or thought that they knew. One, who had either slept through or missed both lecture and tutorial, wrote a long essay about “Fellow Student Shen Yu Lan” in which he muddled up May 13, 1954 with the intercommunal disturbances in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969, and produced an elaborate thesis about why the text made no reference to Malay characters. Another, again reading anachronistically, identified the tiger’s two cubs as Singapore and Malaysia respectively, despite the fact that the story was written over twenty years before Malaysia’s foundation. More understandably, several students identified the unnamed “Party” in Lee’s “It’s All in a Dream” as the Malayan Communist Party, despite considerable evidence in the text that it is a legal opposition party campaigning openly.  Likewise, He Jin’s membership of the MCP also influenced historicist assumptions in readings of his story. One student said he found the story invaluable because it had allowed him to briefly inhabit the consciousness of a Communist middle school student, and thus to see history in a wider perspective. While He Jin clearly follows Mao Zedong’s prescriptions on social realism, and the students use leftist organizational techniques and rhetoric, there is no explicit suggestion in the text that they are MCP members, and indeed the word “Communist” does not occur in either He Jin’s or Lee’s stories.

In this context, the responses to Kassim’s story were most interesting. As students rightly suggested, “A Common Story” seems initially to be a didactic realist parable with similarities to “Fellow Student Shen Yu Lan.” In He Jin’s story the epiphany concerns the protagonist’s renewed commitment to continual struggle to build a socialist society; in Kassim’s story it is ethno-nationalist, with Yusuf leaving the city to rediscover his soul in the kampung.  Yet the consequences of this epiphany are ambiguous: it is unclear what Yusuf will do on his return. As students pointed out, the chronology of the story is complex, and mimes this sense of indecision. The story begins with Yusuf’s arrival back in the countryside among “his rustic folk,” attempting to recover from a “disease, or malaise … too sickening to be trivial, yet too subtle and elusive for words” (137). It then moves back to his arrival in Singapore to study, and his years there, but as it moves forward it never quite returns to the narrative present. In one way, politics in “A Common Story” is less visible than in the other two narratives: there is no reference to actual political events, nor are processes of activist organisation or detention shown. Instead, we have the plenitude of the social world of a society in transition: “Hemingway, the Week-Ender, blue films, love-making in the parks, prostitution in the backlane, democracy in the Assembly House, the voice of freedom rolling out of River Valley Road, and in one corner of the University Library … Marx and Lenin, read a thousand times” (139). And yet, as this quotation shows, Kassim’s story references Communism, Marx and Lenin repeatedly. Before he came to university in Singapore, Yusuf recalls, his kampung was “fenced in”  by security forces because “some damnable gang called the ‘Malayan Communist Party’ wanted to conquer the country” (139). On his return, many of the villagers regard him as a “sort of Communist.” At university, he has been told by a friend that his leftist commitments are only mere sophistication on his part” (138). Another alternative, however, is suggested: “perhaps,” the text wonders, “Yusuf had been born a Communist and Marx and Lenin had only baptized him” (138). In a final conversation with a friend, describing the failure of his romance with a Chinese woman, Yusuf is asked whether he talked to her about Communism. He refuses to answer (140).

Student responses to “A Common Story” thus managed to bring the aesthetic appreciation shown in discussions of “It’s All in a Dream” together with the emotional identification associated with “Fellow Student Shen Yu Lan.” Kassim’s story’s structure encouraged an identification with Yusuf, and at the same time left students puzzled by the consequences of his epiphany at the narrative’s end. A further difficulty was the lack of a stable narrational perspective. At times, one student noticed, we were clearly outside Yusuf’s consciousness, with an external narrator making judgements about him; at other times, we clearly had direct access to his thoughts and perspectives. Yet at some of the most crucial moments, the precise perspective of narration as ambivalent. Did the comment “Yusuf had been born a Communist and Marx and Lenin had only baptized him” simply explain something Yusuf himself was thinking, or was it the judgment of an external party, making a judgment about his life? In discussions in class, Kassim’s story thus led most readily into discussions regarding the way history is made, the manner in which either dominant or oppositional narratives are adopted in storytelling, and the relentlessly provisional nature of the social world from which they are drawn.

I finish writing this essay at a time at which my university’s annual review takes place. We fill out forms listing our achievements over the last year, enter our publications into databases, pore over the qualitative comments in our student’s feedback, aware that it is the quantitative scores: citation and impact factors, student feedback on a 1-5 scale, that will gain greater attention. What were our aims and objectives in teaching, we are asked? Did we achieve them? What new knowledge did we generate? Sometimes I sit down to write a specific response, unsure if it will be read, and what reaction it might provoke. My best classes, I write, have ended up going in a direction I had not planned for, and could not anticipate. I may make discoveries in archival work, but the core of the knowledge I and others in the humanities produce is not new: it is reflective, causing us to look again at ourselves and our relationship to our own and other worlds, including historical ones.

In an essay written some twenty years ago, British scholar Catherine Belsey attempted to respond to the growing sophistication of museums and “living history” exhibits, in which visitors interacted with actors playing historical figures. The immediate experience of such institutions, Belsey argued, was the polar opposite of the experience of reading traditional history texts. “Living history” presented the historical past without mediation or explanation; traditional historical narratives, in contrast, placed all historical incidents within the comfort of a story that was so much part of common sense to be transparent to the majority of readers. Yet neither of these projects  was able to address the dynamic relationship between history and the present, the fact that historians in the present, working with “residues the past has left” but it interpret them from the vantage point of the present and thus “make history” by “making a story that differs from the one contemporaries would have made” (110). Crucially for Belsey, history becomes not so much a process of storytelling, but a process of reading a large and varied number of cultural texts for contradictions and conflicts.

In Singapore today, we confront the situation Belsey described, but on a scale at once much larger and more intimate. Web sites such as the Singapore Memory Project or photographs accessed on the click of a mouse of touch of the screen at National Archives’s Archives Online promise an access to the past that appears personal and unmediated, to “collect, preserve and provide access to Singapore’s knowledge materials” without meditating on the process of collection (“FAQ”). Yet in the same sentence, the concluding phrase “so as to tell the Singapore Story” hints at Belsey’s traditional history: a normalized, unquestioned framework in which these apparently unmediated fragments will each be placed, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Pedagogy working at the junction between literature and history, in contrast, opens the possibility of making new stories that respond to new circumstances and that bring together the personal, the historical, and the social in new, and often troubling ways.

Philip Holden researches Singapore and Southeast Asian literatures in English. From 2000-2018 he was Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, and he has also served as Vice President of Singapore Heritage Society.


Belsey, Catherine. “Reading Cultural History.” Reading the Past: Literature and History. Ed. Tamsin Spargo. Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2000. 103-117. Print.

“FAQS.” Singapore Memory Project <http://www.singaporememory.sg/Help-Info#faqs>. Accessed 23 Jun 2015.

Holden, Philip. “Reading for Genre: the Short Story and (Post)colonial Governmentality.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 12.3: 442-441.

Kassim Ahmad. “A Common Story.” Writing Singapore: 137-151.

Lee Kok Liang. “It’s All in a Dream.” Writing Singapore: 156-166.

Loh Kah Seng. Squatters into Citizens: the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2013.

O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. 1962. Cork: Cork City Council, 2003.

Poon. Angelia, Philip Holden and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, eds. Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009.

Ricard, Alain. “Museum, Mausoleum, or Market: the Concept of National Literature.” Research in African Literatures 13.8 (1987): 293-303.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998: 17-23.

Wei Jia [He Jin, Lim Kim Chuan]. “Fellow Student Sheng Yu Lan.” The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle School Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950sI. Ed. Tan Jing Quee, Tan Kok Chiang and Hong Lysa. 341-362.