Abraham's Promise by Philip Jeyaretnam: Leading Questions

Members of English 119, 1999

1. "I worried, how I worried, that forsaking the old ways might cause an immediate descent into anarchy, but believed that real learning took place in spite of, rather than because of, the old methods. So, fortified by the conviction that these were new times that demanded new methods and bold action, I began to see the boys' understanding of what they had been asked to translate. I strove to win them over by my earnestness, by the effort that I put in, by my breadth and knowledge and, most of all, by my delight in the poetry or the texts. At times I had to feign this, but believed any dissimulation ot be justified by the ends that I sought. I had to make the boys believe that they were engaged in something important, something that, if they too worked hard, they would learn to enjoy, and from which they would benefit...." (Jeyareynam, 95-96)

"But I refused to return to traditional methods. Instead I redoubled my efforts to win the interest and respect of my pupils. I took special care with the slower learners and the ones who seemed uncomfortable with my informality. The reward for my patience was the increasingly dedicated atmosphere of the classroom. At first some of the pupils resisted the changes. Perhaps they were worried that they could not cope with the additional freedom given to them, and feared that the absence of forced learning, euphemistically and somewhat fondly called 'spoon-feeding,' would be reflected in poorer grades in the examinations. Or perhaps they found it easier to deal with a teacher who acted as a teacher and did not confuse things by becoming a friend. They had been cautious, holding back in class, refusing to participate fully in discussions. But then, as it because clear to them that they received more attention than before, and therefore more rather than less guidance, they began to open up to me." (Jeyareynam, 97)

Abraham Isaac's role as a teacher extends far beyond that of a mere vocation. For this character, the title "teacher" forms the basis of his conceptions of self and identity, it sits at the core of the philosophies and missions that drive his life, as well as his story.

It seems that, as Jeyaretynam has crafted his tale, Abraham's struggles in the classroom parallel those of his homeland. His students, and even the teacher himself, reflect his countrymen and women who also are coming through a period of "old methods" of living and governance into a set of new social, political, and personal realities which confuse and conflict with the old. As the student-centered classroom that Abraham seeks to create may be called a more "democratic" learning environment, so too may the Singapore in which his classroom exists be thought of as reaching a more democratic level of existence. And, just as some of Abraham's students were confused by and wary of his new and unfamiliar teaching tactics, so too are Abraham's peers wary and sometimes resistant towards changes in their political and social landscape. The development of new political parties and the expression of these newfound voices is often squelched and looked upon skeptically. Breaking of the traditional customs of courtship, marriage, and gender roles are seen as blasphemy. However, these changes, at least in some part, are inevitable, and hybrids of custom, language, politics, and culture result.

Abraham sees himself as enlightened, as a modern man who recognizes the necessity of discarding the "old ways" of teaching in deference to a new kind of student and citizen who faces realities of life which render the old ways of living and learning irrelevant. The classroom is the colony, formerly under tight reign, subject to punitive measures of discipline, and an unquestioning acquiescence to the will of the ruler, or teacher. This leader assures his captive audience that what they are told to learn and do is for their own good, and they need not understand just why this is, so long as they obey their orders.

Abraham himself is caught in the conflicting yet coexisting ideals of tradition and innovation. He wants to abandon old ways, to make Hamlet something that his students read, not because the colonizing English said they should, but rather, because it may be read as "a study of the process of decolonisation," (98) as a text relevant to and useful in their own lives. At the same time, Abraham's argument for the necessity of learning both Latin and English is deeply rooted in the language and ideals of colonization and conquer: "'Latin is a wonderful language. Like English, it is the language of conquerors. And like English, it has been the vehicle for the spread of the Gospel.'" (13) Further, he maintains early on in this same discussion that "Part of a teacher's advantage is to seem different, to wear the authority of difference." (15) This, too, suggests a strong correlation between the role of the teacher and the role of the colonizer. The figure of colonial power derives much of his prestige and power from his difference, often assumed to signify superiority, from the people over whom he holds authority.

In modern educational terminology, what Abraham seeks to do is to create, out of a teacher-dominated classroom, a more student-centered environment for teaching and learning. The end result of this kind of restructuring of the classroom is a student who does not merely recite a passage of Latin because the teacher told him to do so, but rather, a student who can recite the passage as well as tell you what it means, how this meaning relates to him in his own world, and the relevance of the assignment to his larger learning goals. Through the character of Abraham Isaac, Jeyaretnam asserts that it is this kind of student model that makes for the most adaptable and successful post-colonial citizen of Singapore. However, the choices that Abraham must make are not simple. The old ways are deeply rooted in his experiences and will remain in existence, if only within his memories, throughout any attempts at innovation in his classroom. So it is also for people of Singapore-the old ways will continually be in the collective consciousness of the people, and the experiences and ways of the past in this way form a significant component of those of the present and future. [Valerie Braman]

2. In Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise , Abraham tries to justify his son's political apathy by the latter's apparent material wealth in the following passage:

He's (Victor) wiser than his father (Abraham) too, for he ab- jures politics, saying one can be perfectly comfortable keeping within the bounds set by our rulers, and that there's no reason why anyone should risk his career, or worse, for the sake of more freedom than he would know what to do with. His circumspec- tion has certainly paid dividends, for he has, at his young age, been able to afford a professional decorator to do up his apart- ment, located on the fringes of one of Singapore's best residential districts. [54]

Abraham notes ironically that the stable political atmosphere has produced a generation of youth who do not think about how their country is run and whose minds are consumed by material pursuits. He hints at the perils of questioning the ruling powers, not to mention opposing it. This point can also be taken as a subtle reference to the author's father who was a active member of the opposing party. This passage goes so far as to suggest that it is due more to fear of repercussions than to the lure of wealth that is responsible for the dislike of politics.

The son's explanation for abjuring politics" gives one the impression of a compromise, that perhaps there is no need to ask for more freedom. Yet at the same time, it also re ects the author's conviction that, like Abraham, one should live consciously and always look at one's surroundings in a critical light.

Jeyaretnam's use of the word "rulers" paints the government in an au-thoritative light and implies a patriarchal relationship between the people and their government, a view that both Abraham and his son, Victor, ap- pear to have in common. It is worthwhile to question how this attitude was cultivated in the Singaporean people, whether it was developed during the early days of independence or was re ective of the Singaporeans' relationship with the British during the colonial period. [Benety Goh]

3. "One learned to get along with them. To bow and scrape at the appropriate times. My father was useful to them, as a hospital administrator, and they never touched him or any of my family. But he did no more than the bare minimum. He did not like or respect them. Fear them, of course, everyone feared them. But all he did was keep working, keep doing his job. He did not raise money for them from the Jaffna community or anything like that. I stopped school after picking up enough Japanese to work as a translator. My father told me to stop, because the Japanese took over the schools and he was sure they would not last." [p. 49]

Has Abraham's father made a political stance, or is Jayaretnam creating a silenced male character to represent a historically self-muted Singapore?

"So if I am an old man, unable to open a car door, incompetent in the modern world of buttons and machines, I am still no worse than any other, no worse than that insolent driver, slave to the gears and levers of his machine. And in my mastery of Latin I have chosen precisely that speciality on which nothing depends, thus freeing myself from the chains of the system. I am not driven, like so many others, into justifying my life in terms of the extent to which others need that fragment of mankind's inheritance in which I have specialised. An absurd and meaningless justification, for what value is there in guardianship for the period of your working life over that tiny corner of the world? So what if the particular corner that you have chosen (tax law perhaps, or orthopaedic surgery) bestows on you a higher income than the average? Your life is no more valuable, you who watch the same television and eat food that, no matter how much more elaborately prepared, how much more expensive than your neighbor's, remains in essence the same. For life to be of value we must resist this dependence on others, this childish satisfaction in others' dependence upon us. If I have difficulty in obtaining gainful employment, such is a small price to pay for my liberation." [p. 40]

To the point of each of the two passages above, the reader is drawn into the life of the narrator, a Singaporean Latin tutor who, in youth both admired and respected his father. The respect may have been due to the stability and determination that young Abraham saw in his father. The first text takes as subject the native man in his employ, refusing to fulfill certain tasks -- a form of rebellion. As seen by this rebellious act, Abraham's father places priority upon provision for family. However, in the second excerpt, the reader encounters Abraham in adulthood. He renounces dependence upon others, and chooses the pride of his manhood over subjection to mechanisms.

If there is an actual admiration for the ruggedness of his father, is Abraham's refusal to submit to the modern technology a demonstration of the effects of that admiration? [Antwan Jefferson]

4. "It was Mr. Clarke who first made me understand that only in something that is wholly useless, utterly irrelevant, can we glimpse true beauty, the beauty of the divine." [p. 21]

Do others agree? Does Abraham have a point here? How does this theory play a role in the book and in life in general? What things can be categorized as wholly useless? Is there anything wholly useless? How about love, or even truth? In this situation, Abraham is talking about education--is education useless? When Mr. Clarke read Virgil, the words rolled off his tongue, mesmerizing Abraham as a student. He found the words beautiful, but useless? Irrelevant? Is there use in beauty?

I realize this question could become extremely theoretical, but I am curious why the author threw that passage into the book. Perhaps literature in general could be considered wholly useless--therefore divine? [Lisa Powell]

5. "No, don't mind me. You, you're full of promise. You can do great things. But you have to be strong. It's not good enough just to do the right thing. You have to be strong enough to make what you do count. Maybe you can do that. But only if you will yourself to be strong enough. You can't depend on anyone else to help, not even you love, least of all someone you love." (122)

In Abraham's attempt to converse with Richard, the student whom he is teaching, Abraham inadvertently preaches to Richard the dangers of love and trust, much to Richard's confusion. Abraham's inadvertent comment shows his confusion between the philosophical and ideological thoughts in which his mind rests and the reality of the situation surrounding him with respect to his failed relationships, his son, and his career. Abraham's life is that of confusion. Why do these words come out of his mouth when later he chastises his own son for not wanting to marry?

Abraham also represents the halfway transition between the traditional Jaffna values and modern values. Therein may lie some of the confusion in Abraham's mind about his desires and his values. We see that upon his marriage to Rani, Abraham claims to be modern, refusing to live with his parents for fear of an ill fate similar to that of Mercy. Rani works and Abraham helps a little around the house. However, he still clings to traditional values when he disowns his son for not wanting to marry, calling him an "unclean fruit of an unholy union." (169)

Is Abraham's confusion symbolic of the general confusion that the people of Singapore face at that time, struggling between the differences of cultures, religions, races, and generations? Can we generalize Abraham's life and claim it as indicative of the emotional plight of a country struggle to keep freedom and independence in its government while also escaping the indelible British influence?

The result of Abraham's confusion is his seeming paralysis during times when he should take action. For that reason, he lost Rose, he failed to avenge the loss of Rani upon Krishna, and he almost lost his last loved one, Victor. Abraham's father even called him a "butterfly." Abraham's confusion may partly stem from his inherent personality, but it is important to discuss the social conditions that may have had an impact upon Abraham's psyche and the rest of his life. [John Yang]

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Philip Jeyaretnam