In 2015, Indonesian-born Singaporean author Clarissa Goenawan won the prestigious Bath Novel Award for unpublished and self-published novelists for her novel Rainbirds, which—some two years later—is now seeing the light of day.
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.
Here we have planted the British flag among the ruins of the ancient capital of Singapura, the City of the Lion! Here we will advance the interests of the East India Company and raise the Malay people to their former glory.
Sir Stamford Raffles is the man most often associated with Singapore’s colonization, and John D Greenwood attributes these words to him in this new novel.
For a number of logistic, commercial and territorial reasons, books rarely circulate much outside the market they were published in. Asian-published books can as a result often, regardless of merit, end up largely unknown outside a relatively small domestic market, something that goes in spades when the book was originally published in a language other than English.
Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest has a long journey. Originally published in Chinese, Unrest won the 2004 Singapore Literature Prize. It took the better part of a decade for the English translation to become available in an edition from Math Paper Press in 2012. This (according to a note on the legal page, evidently somewhat revised) edition is from Balestier Press and is, for the first time, generally available internationally.
Political myth is in no short supply in modern Singapore. In our most familiar histories, material progress and political quiescence are the natural products of visionary—if at times heavy-handed—leadership. Episodes of subversion and suppression are no longer swept entirely under the carpet, but seen as the inevitable growing pains of today’s glitteringly successful neoliberal city-state.
Ronald McCrum is a retired British army officer, and in his prologue he sets out his conviction that in previous accounts of the fall of Singapore too much blame has been attributed to the military and not enough to the “seriously flawed” civil administration.
Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.
Nor is Singapore is widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.