The Significance of Uselessness: Resisting Colonial Masculinity in Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise

Philip Holden, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Copyright © 1998 by Philip Holden, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.
    Only in something that is wholly useless, utterly irrelevant, can we glimpse true beauty, the beauty of the divine.
    --Philip Jeyaretnam, Abraham's Promise
    It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world.
    --Theodor Adorno, "Commitment"
  1. In August 1966, a year after Singapore's traumatic separation from the Federation of Malaysia, its young Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addressed a meeting of school principals. Concerned that Singapore might remain "a passive society, . . . meek, self deprecating, self-effacing"(1), Lee reached back to his own experience at Raffles Institution, the flagship of the British colonial secondary school system, as a founding metaphor for the discipline required of the new nation:
    There was a Principal at R.I. who was a disciplinarian, but he cared. And those of you here will know when I say Macleod [sic] and will say "Yes, the chap really cared." He cared for the pupils. He caned them. He took a personal interest . . . . This was his school and he was going to mould character of this school and he did it. (11)

    The ideal educational product for the emergent nation, Lee argued, would be similar to a product of Geelong or Eton, "strong, robust, with great intellectual discipline" (7), fully equipped with the resolve to pursue the quest of nationhood.

  2. Lee's speech provides a startling example of what the Indian critic Ashis Nandy has termed the "shared culture" of colonialism which "may not always begin with the establishment of alien rule in a society and end with the departure of the alien rulers from the colony"(2). As Nandy himself recognises, this shared culture was marked by an "ideology of male-adulthood" (17). Feminism's recognition of gender as "one of the fundamental categories of cultural production" (Showalter 9) should encourage us to investigate the manner in which Lee effortlessly aligns gender and nationalism, boys' school and emergent nation.

  3. To project the future of Singapore forward, Lee reaches back to an ideology of colonial masculinity from the late nineteenth century. Such an ideology emerged from Evangelical Christian practices in the first half of the nineteenth century, which departed from earlier visions of masculinity in their stress upon governance of both the self and the outside world (Davidoff and Hall 234). In the later half of the nineteenth century, such self-control was often expressed through industrial or mechanical analogies; manliness represented disciplined control over natural forces, just as the steam engine and other industrial technology managed "the natural energy of water and fire" (Sussman 11). The Empire was a natural place for such masculinity to be expressed and to be textualised in stories of adventure (Dawson, Bristow, Phillips) which would then reproduce manliness as an object of desire for young readers.

  4. Lee's own experience as a pupil in Raffles Institution would have exposed him to such naturalised ideological formations. D. W. McLeod, whose discipline the adult Lee so fondly remembered, instituted a syllabus of instruction which included, in its literature component, texts of British masculine adventure in the Orient such as A. W. Kinglake's Eothen.[1] When the Chinese Reform Movement in the Straits Settlements at the turn of the century demanded the rights of "Straits-born" "King's Chinese" to be considered British subjects, they did so within the gender-inflected language of late nineteenth-century European nationalism, extravagantly showing "the restraint and self-control so dear to the middle class" (Mosse 13). "We, who are British subjects," wrote reformer Lim Boon Keng, "must prove by the lives and conduct and works of our people that we are deserving of the citizenship of the British Empire" (23). The proof of good citizenship, another contributor to Lim's magazine urged, would be the achievement of masculine self-discipline, so that the Straits Chinese might join the ranks of "the most virile element of the people of the Empire" (Civis Britannicus 109). Lee's recycling of colonial masculinity in the service of nationalism, then, emerged from the shared discursive field of colonial culture and might indeed alert us to the "impact of the colonial experience in the making of British masculinity" (Sinha 10), to the question of how much British identity was itself impacted by the "shared culture" of colonialism.

  5. Lee's early gendered equation of disciplined body and disciplined nation has been maintained in government discourse as a rhetorical backdrop to, and even justification of, Singapore’s post-independence economic success. Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan have described post-independence national discourses in Singapore as "state fatherhood," continually manufacturing crises which must be managed by "the proper mechanisms of correction" (356) upon a feminised body politic. Wee Wan-ling has noted that Lee's public discourse of nationhood as Prime Minister and later as Senior Minister has continued to be marked by "English-style, late Victorian manliness" (726), in which the fear of the loss of cultural rootedness is paralleled by a fear of emasculation. The metaphors by which Singaporeans live show how deeply-rooted is this gendering. English, one of Singapore's four official languages, is perceived as the language of technological development, of business and commerce. The other three languages, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and Malay (which retains a de jure if not de facto status as the bahasa kebangsaan, or national language), are designated as "mother tongues," feminised repositories of cultural ballast which will be pressed into the service of a masculinised, technologically-governed state.

  6. The ubiquity of such metaphors in the everyday life of Singaporeans argues, I feel, against any simple model of social indoctrination or overt, authoritarian social control. Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat has convincingly argued against the popular notion that Singapore’s development has been marked by "'unchanging' authoritarianism" (10), noting that the People's Action Party's success has been maintained through "its ability to develop an ideological system" (10) which Chua has characterised as hegemonic. The fantasy of Singapore as a smoothly operating machine harnessing natural forces in the cause of development, and the gendering of national discourse, is thus part of each Singaporean's consciousness: it is ideological in an Althusserian sense, marking "the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Althusser 36). Ideological structures and frameworks of this kind are notoriously difficult to contest because they become naturalised, constituting the common sense which frames political debate of issues of nationalism and citizenship. Opposition may conceal a prior submission, an unconscious acceptance of an ideologically constituted field of conflict.

  7. The continual emphasis upon and questioning of gender in contemporary Singaporean cultural production perhaps indicates a response to the gendering of the post-colonial state, yet it has seldom managed to radically displace the ideological framework in which issues are perceived. Kuo Pao Kun's 1995 play Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, for example, staged both in Mandarin and English versions, returns to the historical voyages of Zheng He (commonly romanised in Singapore as Cheng Ho), the Ming dynasty Chinese admiral who made several voyages to South East Asia. Zheng He's status as a eunuch and his neutering as a child by a nursemaid's tightening a piece of string in a process so slow and lovingly done as to be painless provide Kuo with a ready metaphor for the pleasures of material life in contemporary Singapore. Yet, even while making an incisive critique of the psychic sterility of such a model of development, Kuo stays within the bounds of the discursive identification of masculinity and the post-colonial state. Kuo's Singaporeans are eunuchs, but their normative state is presumably one of masculine potency.

  8. Philip Jeyaretnam, the subject of this essay, has direct experience of resistance to the People's Action Party's vision of modernity within the parameters laid down by the state. His father, J.B. Jeyaretnam, is a veteran opposition politician, presently serving as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. While equally committed to evolving and reframing Singaporean questions of social identity, however, Jeyaretnam has chosen to give these commitments voice in fiction.

  9. Both of Jeyaretnam's earlier works, First Loves, a short story collection, and the novel Raffles Place Ragtime work largely within individualised masculinist stereotypes. Vincent, the protagonist of Raffles Place Ragtime, works in Singapore's financial district, trading romantic assignations much as the Simex traders trade shares. Ah Leong, the protagonist of most of the short stories in First Loves, is more likeable and less sophisticated, enduring the drama of a first love affair before his approaching period of national service. Jeyaretnam does deal with important social issues in First Loves--the short story"The Final Eye," for instance, explores the position of Filipina domestic workers in Singapore--but no real connection is made on the metaphorical level between the familial operations of masculinity and the role of masculinity in the state. The state and the individual are opposed in these works of fiction, much of their energy coming from the resistance to authority by the romantic, and heavily gendered, individualism of their protagonists.

  10. Abraham's Promise, Jeyaretnam's most recent novel, is radically different from the earlier books. It is narrated in its entirety by Abraham Isaac, an elderly Ceylon Tamil former teacher who is tutoring a young boy in Latin in preparation for his "O" Level examinations. The contradictions of this position, the continued transmission of "something that is wholly useless, utterly irrelevant" (21) from the colonial past into pragmatic, contemporary Singapore by a man who has actively participated in the anti-colonial struggle, open up a series of aporias in the text of Jeyaretnam's novel. These aporias are marked by analeptic episodes in which Isaac returns to a series of events in the past, events that form competing narratives which initially seem unconnected but later intersect. Most of these narratives are personal: Abraham's relationship with his sister, Mercy, his estranged wife, Rani, and his discreetly homosexual son, Victor. They intertwine, however, with the central, political narrative of Abraham's dismissal from his post in a government school because of a letter he publishes in support of a Civil Service Union leader who has fallen into official disfavour.

  11. The novel can, of course, be read as a direct political allegory. The history of the Party which Abraham joins is clearly that of the P.A.P., and the "pompous, red-faced" Member of Parliament whom Abraham confronts at his pupil's parents' party promulgates a caricature of the post 1980s government discourse of Asian values. Allegory also operates on a slightly more displaced level. Advised by his friend Krishna not to publicly defend the head of the Union, Abraham nonetheless publishes a defence of the man in the Teacher's Union newsletter that he produces:

    How could they act so ruthlessly against one man who was only standing up for what he believed to be right? How could they destroy one man’s life just to frighten others? This was not what I had hoped for when I had supported a vigorous new government to tackle the nation's problems. (117)

    Few Singaporeans will miss the reference to the suit launched against Jeyaretnam's father by members of the People's Action Party Government, which led to his conviction in 1986, financial ruin[2]and suspension from Parliament for five years, or to other, more recent defamation suits launched by prominent government ministers against opposition politicians. Yet Jeyaretnam himself has largely eschewed direct political involvement and clearly sees the writer's function as political in a different sense, commenting that "a writer who is also a politician may lose his artistic authority, with readers interpreting his writing through a partisan prism." [3] Clearly, Abraham's Promise is not primarily intended to offer a "partisan" allegory.

  12. The refusal of partisan, directly oppositional politics in much of Abraham's Promise does not, however, result in an apolitical text. Jeyaretnam's novel attempts to shake or displace the ideological framework in which it is written, by a process of renegotiation of the connection between national destiny and masculinity. Such renegotiation may be viewed through the lens of a theorist who was also concerned with the complex process of resistance to dominant ideologies. In his essay "Commitment," Theodor Adorno rejects a Sartrean notion of free choice to write committed art in opposition to a regime or a philosophy, since "the very possibility of choosing depends upon what can be chosen" (91). Art which is capable of inciting social change, Adorno argues, works at "the level of fundamental attitudes" (91), and this work is paradoxically made possible only by art's autonomy, the artistic authority of which Jeyaretnam speaks. Looking at the work of Kafka and Beckett, which is not explicitly committed in a political sense, Adorno notes that the writers "explode from within the art which committed proclamation subjugates from without, and hence only in appearance. The inescapability of their work compels the change of attitude which committed works merely demand" (97). It is possible, I think, to make a similar claim for Abraham's Promise.

  13. Abraham's Promise is troubling for a reader largely because of the ambiguous central consciousness, Abraham Isaac himself. Abraham is alternately likeable and infuriating, passionately committed to social justice and yet nostalgic for colonialism, capable of great selflessness and also of great pettiness. From the perspective of his rented room in a three-room Housing Development Board flat in Toa Payoh, Singapore's first new town and now slightly faded proud symbol of its early development, Abraham speaks as one who has been left behind, shunted into an obscure siding on the fast track of national modernity. His own narrative asks questions even as it is written: Abraham is himself unsure whether his actions represent a passionate commitment to principle or a foolish clinging to ideals which have no relevance in contemporary Singapore. By writing a text whose narrator is so openly engaged in the process of its own interpretation, Jeyaretnam invites the reader to make further interpretations concerning the social constitution of reality in contemporary Singapore.

  14. Abraham himself is clearly a product of the gendered colonial disciplinary system of which Lee spoke so fondly to Singapore teachers. He remembers his British schoolmasters with affection, and worries that Richard, his young tutee, lacks a mental "framework" and will "drift if left to his own devices" (40). He prefers old-fashioned straight-backed chairs, which impose a discipline upon the body, rather than soft contemporary sofas (53), and emphasizes "moderation," remarking that "restraint is a virtue" (45). His conviction that manliness lies in the regulation of natural desires is further enhanced by his Catholicism and the Pauline split he makes between the flesh and the spirit. In his room at night, Abraham reads Augustine's Confessions, and struggles, against his physical hunger and growing philosophical disillusionment, to remember that "men" should "turn their thoughts away from nature and nature's appetites" (57). Fiercely committed to a vision of modernisation which erases tradition, Abraham feels uneasy about his "Tamil otherness" (75); in Serangoon Road, Singapore's "Little India," he notes that a "fear of contamination, in spite of myself, flies through me, as if I am unable to shake off the centuries of caste and tradition" (77-78).

  15. Armed with this gendered vision of the human condition, Abraham sees the nation's independence as the natural working out of contradictions in British colonialism, which found its justification in Enlightenment rationality and the Rights of Man, but which refused to extend these rights to colonial subjects. "All one had to do . . . finally, after all these years," he reflects of his attitude to independence, was to "put British theory into practice" (81). His criticisms of British imperialism and those of others he gives voice to are based upon Enlightenment premises: Lancashire's chief industry is the "theft" of jobs from India, and it is unclear why the British, according to their own principles, did not stay at home in the first place (31). Significantly, Abraham's dream of a post-independence society, of "a new nation, the possibility of rational men taking power, disinterestedly taking those decisions that tended to the public good" (86), is inspired by his reading of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.

  16. Abraham's vision of the post-colonial state is, of course, a common one shared by many nationalist intellectuals upon independence. British control could, paradoxically, never "fulfill the normalizing mission of the modern state because the premise of its power was a rule of colonial difference, namely, the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group" (Chatterjee 10). The newly independent state promises this fulfillment in the fullness of time: we have here a further example of Nandy's "shared culture" of colonialism. Abraham's critique of the Party is that they have failed to live up to this ideal: their authoritarian actions upon accession to power are based upon expediency, not upon pragmatism in the search of a higher good. Their philosophical movement from a universal modernity to a rhetoric of constructed "Asian values," which parallels a similar movement by the P.A.P in the 1980s (Chua 29-37), is attacked by Abraham as an expedient justification of authoritarianism and lack of consultation (74).

  17. Abraham's critique, based upon the principles of liberal democracy, is in many ways similar to Jeyaretnam's father's critique of the P.A.P. [4]Within the context of the novel, however, it is compromised. For a contemporary reader, Abraham's values seem suspiciously undifferentiated from those of the colonial state. The very principles of self-discipline which ensure his unflinching refusal to retract his article also lead to his callous dismissal of his sister Mercy's cries for his help in her oppressive marriage as "hysterical," requiring him to "slap her face and snap her out of this nonsense" (87). His refusal to take any responsibility for her eventual suicide further distances him from the reader; Jeyaretnam emphasises this by providing the reader with a competing account, a letter from Abraham's friend, Rose, in England, who clearly does feel that he bears some responsibility (93-94). Abraham's alternative view thus emerges as not so much a solution as part of the problem.

  18. Rather than accepting his narrator's liberal critique, which is in itself part of the "shared culture" of colonialism, Jeyaretnam uses it to open up contradictions in Singapore state discourse, particularly in the connection made between family and nation. The traumas of Abraham's own life--his wife's adultery with his best friend, his refusal to protect his abused sister, and his inability to accept his son's homosexuality--initially seem private tragedies, but the intertwining narratives inescapably show filiations between private and public stories of the experience of nationhood. Adultery, in which one of the active parties is a government M.P., questions the legitimacy of the "marriage" between Party and Nation; Abraham's grounds for non-intervention in his sister's abuse test governmental discourse separating "modernity" from "tradition"; Victor's homosexuality questions the state's self-constitution as a "fantasy of self-regenerating fatherhood and patriarchal power" passing on an image of itself to each succeeding generation (Heng and Devan 350). Abraham's existence, he comments, "has always been an examined life" focused towards "becoming a good son, good brother, good husband, good teacher and good citizen" (36). His failure in achieving his goals, Jeyaretnam suggests, is not merely a private one.

  19. Krishna, Abraham's closest friend and colleague in his young adulthood, is a visible embodiment of the contradictions of state ideology. He follows a relentless policy of pragmatism, "the term used to gloss over economic instrumental rationality" (Chua 19) by the early People's Action Party government after separation from Malaysia in 1965. "There can be no fine thoughts, no nice agonies of conscience," Abraham remembers him saying, "until a man has bread in his belly" (11). Similarly, Krishna is careful to explain to Abraham the reason why the Party fields only four candidates in the first elections after self-government. The reason, again, involves placing instrumentality before ideals:

    Any government would be hamstrung by continuing supervision of the British and in particular would be torn between the need to press for immediate independence and the need meanwhile to provide orderly and efficient administration. By staying out of government the Party would avoid this dilemma. It could call vehemently for full independence, spreading its influence among the rank-and-file while leading agitation against the government's sloth in achieving independence. (99-100)

    This is a fairly accurate account of People's Action Party strategy in the 1950s, and it is an explanation which Abraham, at the time, seems inclined to accept.

  20. Krishna's pragmatic philosophy is, however, challenged by Jeyaretnam's narrative strategy. Abraham remembers these incidents analeptically, in a narrative present informed by the knowledge of Krishna's eventual political demise and personal entanglements. The reader is not immediately made aware of Abraham's knowledge but is led quite early in the novel to suspect that pragmatism is, in fact, nothing but expediency. Recalling his discussions with Krishna, the older Abraham of the narrative present notes that "[e]very departure from principle and right conduct could find its necessity" in his friend's speech (11-12). Armed with this knowledge, the reader is likely to be more skeptical of Krishna's arguments than is the young Abraham: speeches such as "It's not a question of who's right or wrong . . . . We have to show who's boss. Only if we're feared can we do what has to be done" (116) are unpersuasive to a reader armed with retrospective knowledge.

  21. Krishna's covering of instrumentality with a veil of pragmatism extends from the political arena into his personal relationship with Abraham and in particular into his affair with Rani. I have noted how Singapore government discourse often represents the political life of the nation with familial and marital metaphors: Jeyaretnam, in a strategic reversal of vehicle and tenor, uses the metaphor of betrayal in personal relationships to question the activities of the state. On the details of the affair the text is relatively silent, Abraham commenting poignantly that "a void opened up inside me" (141). Most of Abraham's further dealings with Krishna are concerned with the aftermath of a betrayal that seems too painful to articulate and with discussions about the paternity of his son, Victor, born after Rani has left him. In these, Krishna expounds pragmatism as unerringly as he does in the political sphere, noting that he cannot "stop her from doing something that she insists upon doing" (153).

  22. It is Abraham's response to Krishna's adultery which is perhaps most unsettling for both the reader and the agents of social control in the narrative itself. Abraham's self-righteousness in giving Rani the right to leave juxtaposes unnervingly with his physical abuse of his wife. Yet his response to Rani and Krishna's relationship is marked by an even more puzzling refusal to act. He allows the divorce to proceed without naming Krishna and chooses not to contact the press and thus destroy Krishna's career. After Krishna's fall from grace, he is again presented with the opportunity for revenge, an officer from the Internal Security Department asking him to sign a statement certifying that Krishna had been spreading subversive Communist influence at St. George's. Again he refuses. In neither case does Abraham dramatize his reaction as heroic: in each case he himself seems to find it slightly puzzling.

  23. What Abraham's actions do resist is a gendered process of signification. They resist the notion of pragmatism and instrumentality which Krishna's earlier behaviour embodies, in which manliness is related to functionality, to a control of emotion through exhaustive self-discipline: Lee's vision of a "robust" nation. Yet they also resist the seductiveness of a counter-narrative of the male hero in romantic opposition to an oppressive state. Abraham's father urges him to oppose Krishna in these terms, to be a man, to "[s]tand up. Fight back. . . . Don't flutter away like some butterfly" (159). Yet it is the butterfly-like nature of Abraham's actions, their refusal to submit to the light of explanation, the straightening out of narrative as cause and effect, which gives them such power.

  24. Mercy's suicide is a similar aporia in Jeyaretnam's text: recounted from different angles by different characters, it is never quite reducible to stable significance. Mercy enters the narrative as a disruptive force. She refuses to play a conventional gender role, Abraham recounting how she spills tea on a prospective suitor to avoid marriage, breaking the embarrassed silence which follows with the "machine gun of her laughter" (64). What exactly occurs in Mercy's subsequent marriage is hidden: Abraham later assumes the relationship to have been abusive, imagining her husband, David, "his face swollen with drink, fists etching bruises into her body" (91). Yet at the time he refuses to intervene, claiming that his responsibility to her has ceased with her marriage. During her wedding reception, Abraham's comment that his mother is mourning "the loss of her daughter" prompts astonishment from Mercy: later, visiting her new house, he nods "awkwardly at her, avoiding the traditional Tamil embrace for relatives" (78). Mercy's suicide seems thus an accusation directed at Abraham's placing of social role before personal feelings, an accusation which again produces a complex response. Abraham notes, recollecting David's behaviour at Mercy’s funeral, that "I should have thrashed the bugger," but he lapses into inaction. When his friend in England, Rose, in reply to a letter he has written her, asks him not to blame himself for Mercy's death, Abraham is scandalised that "she dared to apportion blame, grant dispensation, and offer encouragement like some distant deity" (94), despite the fact that she is merely responding in a role which he has marked out for her as "a wholly distant, perhaps invisible, confessor" (93).

  25. The tension introduced by Rose, Mercy and Rani into the text of Abraham's Promise is never fully resolved. Jeyaretnam's novel cannot, I think, be seen as a feminist text in the manner of, for instance, Christine Lim Suchen's Fistful of Colours, which attempts to rewrite androcentric nationalist narratives from a woman's perspective. Indeed, it might be argued that Jeyaretnam offers up his women characters in order to achieve a certain discursive leverage. Mercy's suicide is paralleled by Rani's disappearance from the narrative after a scene of marital rape. Rose escapes victimisation, but she is scarcely an active participant in the events of the novel. Abraham's Promise clearly does not represent the only way in which a writer might intervene in masculinist discourse of nationhood. The unresolved juxtaposition of scenes of domestic violence and political betrayal in the novel, however, does encourage a questioning, a peeling back of the surface of Gramscian "common sense" which genders nationalist discourse in Singapore.

  26. In his reaction to Mercy's death, as in his treatment of Krishna and Rani's adultery, Abraham again acts like a butterfly: he is indecisive, and he flutters after different meanings across the landscape of his life, meanings which return to haunt him. Again, however, his reaction is not merely a private one but is framed within a larger political discourse. Mercy's cry for help comes when Abraham is sitting up late, reading, "stiff and straight-backed":

    I had been reading, yes, I can remember even now, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, its cover dark and sombre, the title typeset in heavy, portentous lettering. I had been dreaming of a new nation, the possibility of rational men in power, disinterestedly taking those decisions that tended to the public good, seeing myself perhaps among them, Abraham Isaac, ushering in a new age of enlightenment, a new order, when I was roused by the shrill ring of the telephone. (86)

    Abraham's refusal to aid his sister thus becomes associated with a rhetoric of the rational government of men upon which post-independence Singapore is founded. His actions as an elder brother split such rhetoric away from the familial relationships with which, we have seen, such government has been associated through Lee's promulgation of state fatherhood. Jeyaretnam's text works to displace the symmetries of state ideology, to peel back, uncomfortably, the seamless "surface of social life" (Adorno 92).

  27. Perhaps the most subversive element of Jeyaretnam's narrative centres on Victor, Abraham's son. Victor is, on one level, a model citizen of Singaporean modernity: unlike his butterfly father, he is "a beetle, clinging stubbornly to every inch of ground he gains" (178). He is pragmatic, and, Abraham notes, "abjures politics, . . . perfectly comfortable keeping within the bounds set by our rulers" (54), immersing himself in his career. Victor's difference lies in his sexuality, a discreet homosexuality hinted at continually but never explicitly named. Abraham's introduction of Victor, his puzzlement about why there is "no woman in the house" at Victor's flat, and his "uneasy" feeling about a call from Victor's friend Johnny, who runs an art gallery (55), alert the reader but make nothing explicit. Even in a scene when Victor tells his father about his sexuality, homosexuality still remains unspeakable:

    You want to know, you really want to know?" His voice is harsh and rough, and I shrink back. "I'm not going to marry. You understand?"

    I say nothing.

    "I'll never marry. You're a modern man. You must understand."

    My son's voice has changed from defiance to pleading, yet my body recoils. The car is too small for both of us. The air presses down upon me. (168)

    For Abraham, the hint of one form of sexuality outside heterosexual monogamy suggests another: "You are Krishna's boy," he tells Victor. "Go tell him what you are" (169).

  28. The silence in the text around Victor's sexuality is not, as a non-Singaporean reader might expect, because of a general social reluctance to discuss gay and lesbian issues. Much Singaporean theatrical work and some fiction, most prominently Johann S. Lee's Peculiar Chris, have been strongly affirmative of gay and lesbian identity. Indeed, it might be felt that Jeyaretnam's use of the homosexual in his novel is problematic, bearing analogies to Kuo's deployment of the eunuch: in each case, it might be argued, a political point is made by a reliance upon doxological notions of sexuality and gender. Certainly it is not Jeyaretnam's intention or concern to retrieve or valourize a Singaporean gay identity. Equally certainly, however, Abraham's homophobia is circumscribed by its place in the text: the reader is troubled by it, much as he or she finds Abraham's rejection of his Tamil heritage or the juxtaposition of domestic violence and public betrayal disturbing, but is not encouraged to endorse it. The silence surrounding Victor's sexuality seems a deliberate one, and one that again serves to destabilise the equation between post-colonial government and masculinity.

  29. The irony that Victor embodies is that an ideological subject interpellated by Singapore's "new order," in Jeyaretnam's terms, still resists. Abraham's resistance is public: his private self, we have seen, is founded very much upon the colonial principles of discipline, rationality, and government of the self which Lee's speech proposes. Victor also embodies a private/public split, but it is the reverse of Abraham's: a public conformity covers a private resistance. Abraham's homophobia is concentrated on the question of patrilineality, of the facts that Victor will not have a child, or that he may be the "unclean fruit of an unholy union" (169). Victor's homosexuality thus breaks Lee's equation between state and patriarchal family, disrupting the fantasy of "exact self-replication" (Heng and Devan 344) of social values in both public and private domains. Abraham's belated reconciliation with his son is based upon an acceptance of the impossibility of replication, upon the comprehension, however reluctant, of difference.

  30. The narratives of Krishna, Mercy and Victor intertwine with Abraham's, at times in harmony with Abraham's own narrativization of his life, at others wildly dissonant. No single message emerges from the text, no transparent "ineradicable connection" with a mimetically represented reality (Adorno 90). Rather, as a work of art, Abraham's Promise is autonomous in Adorno's sense, neither claiming to be completely apart from reality nor completely committed to a cause which leads to a simple existentialist choice, recognising again that "the very possibility of choosing depends upon what can be chosen" (91). Abraham's Promise peels back the face of social reality in Singapore, throwing light upon the metaphors by which it is constituted. Just as in Adorno's post-war Germany, so in Singapore hegemonic consensus means that "[t]his is not a time for political art, but politics has migrated into an autonomous art" (99).

  31. The possibilities which Jeyaretnam's text offers as autonomous art for the destabilising of ideological frameworks are perhaps best illustrated, in conclusion, in the governing image of the text. Abraham's name and the title of the novel itself recall the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, and the story is referred to twice in the course of the novel. When the Internal Security Department asks Abraham to betray Krishna, he chooses a predictable biblical metaphor in refusing to "be Judas." The ISD officer counters with another metaphor: Krishna, he notes, is "no Christ," but "a sacrifice, a ram that must die--figuratively speaking, of course--for the good of the nation" (163). This a proposition which Abraham refuses: he will not sacrifice Isaac if this act requires unquestioning trust in a higher authority to substitute the ram at the moment the knife falls. The second, more extended discussion of the story occurs when Abraham is teaching his young pupil, Richard. Abraham asks Richard if he knows the story, and Richard repeats it to him. Surprisingly, Abraham does not accept the conventional Catholic interpretation:

    "But have you ever thought of Isaac? At some point he must have realised what his father planned. Did he have such faith in God that He would intervene? How could he? He did not even know that God had spoken to his father. No, Isaac was ready to die. Why? Because he loved his father. He lay passively on the altar table, waiting for the knife. Love, boy, it leads you to sacrifice."

    "Even Abraham, he was caught between two loves."

    "Exactly. Sacrifice his son for the love of God. Or lose his soul for the love of his son. He was doubly vulnerable. And even though Isaac's life was spared by God, had not Abraham already betrayed his son?" (124)

    What Abraham hints at is the possibility of different histories, of sacrifice simultaneously being betrayal, of a multiplicity of meanings uncontainable by any discipline of self. In case the reader has not absorbed this, Jeyaretnam has Abraham meditate upon what he has just said. Is it just "sentimentality," he wonders, not insight, a "misplaced imagining of significance in the trivial tasks and duties that constitute my life" (124).

  32. Abraham Isaac's very name, indeed, confers upon him two identities, that of father and of son, executioner and sacrificed, betrayer and betrayed. The story of Abraham and Isaac thus dramatises a movement beyond Lee's vision of the nation as disciplined body to a recognition of multiplicity. At the end of the novel, Abraham reaches out to his son in spite of himself. As he watches the emotional "battles fought upon" Victor's face, he remembers his Father's voice, urging self-discipline, "harsh, imperious, 'Don't cry'"(177) but finds that he cries nonetheless. It is no accident that the novel ends in an embrace.


  1. McLeod's Syllabus of Instruction is preserved in Raffles Institution Archive, Singapore. Back

  2. See an Asia Online interview with J. B. Jeyaretnam after his appointment as non-constituency M.P. in 1997, Asia Online. Accessed June 11, 1997. Back

  3. These comments were made in an interview published on Singapore Press Holdings' Asia One Website. Accessed June 11, 1997. Back

  4. In his first speech to the new parliament in 1997, for instance, J. B. Jeyaretnam called for the repeal of the Internal Security Act, and a review of the defamation laws under which opposition politicians have been tried. Responding in the post-1980s ideological framework of Asian values, Straits Times columnist Koh Buck Song, in reporting Jeyaretnam's speech, noted that what "he was attacking--constraints on free speech, firm laws, protecting the reputations of public officials and so on--are really justified by racial harmony, honest Government, public safety and social discipline." Governmental discourse in Singapore is already inoculated against a liberal democratic critique: what is perhaps needed is a genealogy of the deployment of social discipline upon the body of the nation. Back

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