The Singaporean Culture of Caution

Lim Siew Yea, MA

The literary culture of Singapore often avoids politics. Although Singaporean literary works often deal with contemporary social reality and its ills, they show a general reluctance to link politics directly with them for three reasions. First, some writers believe that art must be divorced from politics to safeguard artistic integrity while others think politics irrelevant to discussions of social issues.

However, the most powerful reason for this reticence is, perhaps, the "culture of caution" in Singapore that "rejects the notion of a free market of ideas," fearing that it may lead to political controversy (The Sunday Times 9.4.89: 9). As Charles Cher, Heinemann Publishers Asia's managing director, asserts, "We don't want to be caught in controversy. It is good commercial sense to protect the business rather than throw caution to the wind" (The Sunday Times 9.4.89: 9). Whatever the reasons for this reticence to engage�in a critique of politics in literary works, one thing is undeniable: the uncriticised assumptions of Singapore's politics obscure the inherent limitations and contradictions that it encompasses.

Nevertheless, although most Singaporean writers show indifference or misgiving about politics, there are still some who are politically and socially engaged. Unlike many writers who have portrayed politics as a distant force bearing little influence on the individual and the social scene, two writers -- Gopal Baratham and Suchen Christine Lim -- haved broken free from this political passiveness and apathy. In their works, both Baratham and Lim articulate the powerful influence politics has on social norms, public affairs, and individual people. In fact, for these two writers, politics bears a direct relation to the individual, subtly and persistently conditioning his thoughts and deeds and thus serving to make or unmake him psychologically and socially.

[This essay has been adapted, with kind permission of the author, from Politics and Self: Gopal Baratham and Suchen Christine Lim, her 1996 National University of Singapore Master's thesis. GPL]

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