Exploring identity in a multi-ethnic community through fiction can be a sensitive subject. The importance people place on identity is often a prickly topic these days—especially in multi-religious, multiracial communities like that of Singapore’s five and a half million citizens. In November 2017, the Singaporean Institute of Policy Studies presented evidence that for the first time more Singaporeans identify with the city-state than with their own ethnic lineage. The remaining half of survey respondents, however, still felt a “simultaneous” identity of both Singaporean and racial heritage.
Yet these statistics only go so far in understanding the subject’s sensitivity for many people. Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches is a short story collection that achieves a balance between the sensitive nature of analyzing race and ethnicity from the perspective of a minority and a playful inventiveness by making the discussion seem lighthearted. First published in 2012 by Ethos Books, it will released early in 2018 for the international market by the new imprint Gaudy Boy.
In ethnically-Chinese dominated Singapore, Aflian’s perspective in these short stories is valuable for investigating the daily lives of those individuals who may not fit the stereotypical, Chinese-looking Singaporean. Alfian, who is himself a Singaporean Muslim of mixed Hakka, Javanese, and Minangkabau descent, is a creative interpreter of Singapore’s unique society for outsiders.
In total, Malay Sketches contains forty-eight stories. Some stories are more developed, traveling across many pages. Other stories are acute examples of flash fiction, only a paragraph or two in length. All the short stories in Malay Sketches show Alfian to be something like Singapore’s officially unofficial literary demographer in the sense that the author moves beyond, not only mere statistics, but also overworked stereotypes of the island nation.
A particularly endearing example of this stereotype bending is the twenty-fifth story in the collection, “A Howling”. Here a Singaporean, lower-middle class named Zaiton feels sorry for Sinta, a Javanese immigrant maid working for the Chinese family across the street. Zaiton and Sinta’s Muslim faith helps to solidify more than a passing relationship between Singaporean and immigrant. Later Zaiton confronts Sinta’s Chinese employers after she learns that Sinta is asked to bathe the Chinese family’s dog every week—an affront to Islamic tradition where believers are forbidden to come into contact with dogs. Zaiton considers hiring Sinta herself. When Zaiton confronts the employer on behalf of Sinta, she learns that the family has already asked Sinta many times if her washing a canine was okay. Their exchange highlights the complexity of identity in Singaporean society:
“Madam Zaiton, we really like Sinta, even if she’s just been with us for a month. If she doesn’t want to take care of the dog, it’s fine for us. But she’s a great cook.”
Somehow, Zaiton felt relieved. She was having second thoughts about the cost of hiring Sinta.
“My wife stopped cooking after our son died. It reminded her too much of him. She wanted to get rid of all the things that brought back memories of him. The only thing we couldn’t get rid of was the dog. Because the dog was the boy’s favorite thing in the world. And I know it sounds stupid to say this but I sometimes think there’s a bit of our son that lives in him. Because unlike our son’s books, or his toys, this thing… he’s alive, you know?”
“It’s not stupid,” Zaiton said.
Zaiton later reconsiders her offer to hire Sinta in light of the Chinese family’s personal experience. Sinta rearticulates her desire to stay with the Chinese family, as long as she is able to find a special clay-based soap stipulated by Islamic scripture for believers who handle “unclean” items like a dog. Identity is funneled through the lives and experiences of the individual. Those trappings of a larger group’s strictures, in this case Islam for Zaiton and Sinta, are challenged and reimagined in the light of real-world mitigating circumstances.
An additional example out of many is the humorous story, “The Barbershop”. Here the main character—who happens to be of Malay heritage but cannot speak his “mother tongue” with the proper dialect—makes use of vocabulary that illustrates the intricacy of everyday language in contemporary Singapore. The protagonist is forced to question his individual identity against a caricature which he realizes is too often foisted upon him by similar-looking, darker skinned Singaporeans. The use of local speech enriches Malay Sketches. A brief glossary of Malay and Chinese terms is included for those readers unfamiliar with the linguistic peculiarities of the city-state.
Perceptive and provocative, Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at is a critical exploration of identity’s place in contemporary Singapore. Stereotypes of yesteryear are disabused to reveal humanity in how Singaporeans of every heritage relate to each other in their daily interactions.
Principal issues of belonging to a larger tribe—that element that makes identity such a reoccurring theme in literature—are presented in the whimsical context of day-to-day urban living. In this sense, Alfian does well to make the most enlightening of these tales also be the most playful. Those secular epiphanies come at the cost of defanging one stereotype or another. The reader is left with a keen sense of having moved well beyond mere demographics of the city-state.