Culture and Change: The Rise of the Singapore Short Story in English

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)


The history of Singaporean literature is closely connected with the country's own inception as a republic in 1965. Autonomy, first from its British colonial masters and later by separation from Malaysia, gave rise to the urgent necessity to find a separate and distinct national identity, one that could clearly be called Singaporean. The endeavour to establish this identity is echoed in the literature through the themes they raise. In particular, this is most true of the Singapore Short story which was by comparison to other forms of literary expression most prolific during the early years of Singapore's history.

This study first provides a brief historical overview of the Singapore Short story written in English after which it examines the development of the genre through its first decade dating from 1978 and subsequently, the next ten years to the present.

The Short Story in Singapore

Singapore is a cosmopolitan Asian city, unique in that there are four major language groups promoted by the government. From the very beginning, English was chosen as the language of government, law and social discourse. Being the native language of none of the ethnic groups, its choice favoured none. The presence of the different ethnic communities with their strong cultural identities and heritage suggests that the influence they exert over the development of Singapore literature cannot be insignificant. Chinese literature dates more than 3,000 years while the classic Hindu tales of Mahabarata and Ramayana are well-known, passed from generation to generation and transplanted to the alien soil of Singapore, both by merchants who travelled to these regions in the 14th century as well as through the influx of migrant workers well into the 19th and 20 century. Further add to this rich mixture, Malay culture which has seen the integration of Portuguese and Dutch language and culture from its earliest colonial influences and the strong sway of Islam.

Yet, in the early history of Singapore literature, the threads of each literature developed very separately from each other. The Singapore short story written in Chinese in the sixties and early seventies had probably more in common with one written in Hong Kong in the same language. The Singapore short story written in English drew from Maupassant and Poe rather than reflected the rich cultural ethnicity of its populace. There was consequently no 'borrowing' between the ethnic languages to express the commonality of a Singapore identity. What is significant is that Singapore literature in each distinct language community individually faced the challenge of defining what that culture is in the context of an newly adopted homeland and coming to terms with change.

The short story written in English had its obscure beginnings in the then-University of Singapore. There, the first generations educated at tertiary level in the English medium began to experiment with the mode of expression of the short story. The first published record of the short story in English in Singapore was in 1959; The Compact, edited by Herman Hochstadt represented incipient efforts of local writers to produce a volume of stories in the English medium.

It was in 1978, in the introduction to the seminal Singapore Short Stories, Volumes I and II, the editor Robert Yeo observed that

if the published output of short stories is compared to that of poetry in English in the same period, it will be seen that there are fewer writers of short fiction than there are poets. Nearly a dozen individual collections have been published but no book of short stories by a single author has appeared.

In the interim, there were only two other significant attempts to promote the short story form. These were Stories from Africa and Asia, edited by Chandran Nair and Theo Luzuka, and The Sun In Her Eyes: Stories by Singapore Women, edited by Geraldine Heng. These two collections were said to have registered the start of a "concerted effort in making the short story assimilate the Singapore life and locale."

Within the same year of publication of Singapore Short Stories, a modest volume of short stories made its mark on the local literary scene. Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore by Catherine Lim sold 3,000 copies on the local market within six months. This naturally rendered Yeo's earlier assertion untrue; this was the first collection of "short stories by a single author." Soon, other writers such as Goh Sin Tub, Lim Thean Soo and Gopal Baratham formed the wave of writers issuing collections of their works.

Today, the acceptance of Singapore short story in English as a unique genre is unquestioned. Little Ironies has since sold well over 45,000 copies and undergone ten reprints. It has been accepted by Cambridge Examinations Syndicate as the text for the General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level Examinations. Lim has published seven collections of short stories to date. Her second book, Or Else the Lightning God´┐Ż & Other Stories is also studied in schools and her other books have found their way into required reading lists.

Demand for collections of locally written short stories has also led to the re-issue of collections. Early anthologies by Gopal Baratham, Goh Sin Tub and Nicky Moey have been reprinted under new titles. Wong Swee Hoon's The Landlord & Other Stories, first published in 1984, was reissued in 1991 under the title A Dying Breed and included three new stories. Philip Jeyaretnam, then a relative newcomer to the literary scene, amazed literary circles when his debut collection, First Loves, clung to the top position of the "Times Best Sellers" List of Books for a record of more than forty weeks.

The significance of Jeyaretnam's achievement and that of his fellow writers marks the change of perception of local writing. Where once local literature had a less than popular following and there were prejudices regarding styles and standards of writing, the rising volume of sales of short story collections is the best indicator of an increasing acceptance of literary works locally written and published.


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