Finding a Tongue: Lanaguage and Dialect in the Singapore Short Story in English

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)

The most controversial area of discussion with regard to the short story in Singapore in English concerns the writer's search for a language that accurately and appropriately mirrors his or her perceptions of the world around him.

The choice of English as a written medium of expression over and above the ethnic languages met with some censure in the first decade of Singapore writing. This was because English was seen as a foreign language which carried with it, a culture and history alien to Singapore. This culture was perceived as possessing values which ran counter the Singapore's traditional value systems, value systems which Singapore was at pains to preserve if it was to maintain cultural and community cohesion. At best, the English language was the language of education and of social interaction, serving as a neutral bridge for communication between races. As such, the English language had always been considered primarily a "working language" and never as a medium of cultural self-expression. This strict dichotomy, established by early language policy-makers, made it such that any attempt to create a literature in English was almost seen as cultural betrayal.

The very act of writing in English (even apart from the writer's choice of message, subject or mood) must already be associated with "otherness", "alienation" and "Westernisation", which raises a prime question: Can one write in English and still reflect Singapore (that is, Asian) values and identity? Can there be a Singaporean English language writer.

At the International Chinese Writer's Forum in 1983, Professor Edwin Thumboo, then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore, postulated that the inability of local writers to create real characters could be attributed to their writing in a language that was not their own. He said that unlike writers of Tamil, Chinese and Malay literature, the English-language writer and his creation were not one with their linguistic community -- while being rooted in the local culture, they employed a language which carried with it a completely different cultural and historical tradition.

Because it lacks a base of a community, sizeable, complete and rooted here, those who use the English language creatively for literary purposes at least, enter a kind of hinterland, an auxiliary area in which we function for professional and other practical purposes. [Yong Pow Ang, "Local Writers Can't Find 'Real' Characters," Singapore Monitor, p. 5.]

Thumboo concludes that this explained the 'singularly modest' achievement in Singapore literature in English. While Thumboo's discussion was not focused upon the short story genre, his view reflected the prevalent opinion that the English language was inadequate to the task of creative expression of Singaporean culture. To a certain extent, this reflected the imperative that Singapore should be distinct from the colonial British and the necessity that language had to evolve and encompass the experience of Singapore within the fastest possible time. According to Shirley Lim, writers in the English language were perceived as cultural suspects because they are seen as importing western values into society which might undermine the basis of social cohesion.

In choosing to write in the English language and, more importantly, in accepting the standards, form, and traditions of British and American literature, the English-language writers, especially those in the first tradition, are exhibiting a certain colonialist and/or cosmopolitan mentality, not always consonant with nationalist or indigenous identity and values. ["The English Language Writer" in Management of Success, p. 539]/P>

Although the fear of loss of culture and identity may be unfounded, the question remains as to clear solution to the problem of language choice. Very often, Singapore writers already perceive of themselves as being monolingual, their ethnic culture as being as foreign to them as the culture of the West.

Yet it is a fact, lamentable or otherwise, that English-language Singapore writers are actually monolingual. A. L. MacLeod, in 1966, recognised that "the generation who acquired their university education in the 1950s generally regarded English as their first language" (McLeod, 1966, p. 313) Ong Teong Hean in 1975 pointed out that since he was educated in the colonial period between 1935 and 1959, he was "monolingual [in English]" (Ong, 1975a, p. 64). And Simon Tay, speaking of writers of the 1980s, notes that the English-language writer "have little choice of a generation, my generation is emerging of which many have little or no knowledge of another language. (Tay, 1984, p. 57).

It is therefore ironic that the English language writer functions as a bridge between the culture of the past and the culture of the present. The modern reader, being primarily monolingual, would not have access to the traditions of the past, if these were not rendered reinterpreted in English. Accounts of cultural events such as street wayangs, customs and festivals associated with birth, marriage and life are faithfully reproduced. The English-language short story writer draws from the rich treasure of myths and legends from Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures and preserves them not only for future generations who may grow up without access to these traditions, but for other cultures may not have primary contact with these myths and legends.

Despite the early controversy which continues to surround the legitimacy of a Singaporean literature in English, Lim notes that it is precisely this group of writers who have "emerged to flourish in Singapore's exciting, energetic, and dynamic last twenty years, but even Mandarin, Malay and Tamil has suffered a decline or failed to take off." ["The English Language Writer" in Management of Success, p. 532]

Main Web Page Singapore Literature bibliography Next Section

Last updated 21 December 200l;
Thanks to Mark Bernstein for correcting a typo.