Beyond the First Decade: New Writers of the Singapore Short Story in English

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)

Along with the established writers who continued to write, there have been a number of new writers. There have been some remarkable collections of note, amongst them, Fascist Rock: Stories of Rebellion, a debut collection for young Singaporean Claire Tham. The common theme that runs through its stories is the rigidity of society's demands and her protagonists fight against these established systems in various ways. True to O'Connor's dictum that the short story "attracts" the "outlaws'. of society, Tham's protagonists are essentially social misfits. Tham shows a dear understanding of the teenage mind. This may be because Tham wrote most of the stories in the anthology when she was seventeen years of age. She shows an admirable command of the written language, a quality which immediately brought her to the attention of the judges of the National Short Story Competition in 1984. Dr Kirpal Singh, then Senior Lecturer in the National University of Singapore, describes how he

was struck by her vigour; a sense of life comes powerfully across... She is obviously well read and has a good command of the language... But the dialogues tend to sound false because of the formality of the expressions. It is as if she is afraid to record true conversations for fear of breaking grammatical rules. For example, there are no Singaporeanisms.

It is significant that Dr Singh takes issue with the "formality of the expression" and the lack of Singaporeanisms. Rather than a negative qualities, they reflect the writer's confident of a wider audience. Tham's ability to express herself well borders on the poetic. Her use of language is her strongest asset in the collection. Nevertheless, Fascist Rock was a promising first for this young Singaporean writer. This was followed by Saving the Rainforest & Other Stories in 1993 in which she continued to explore themes of the conflict between the individual and conventional society. In this second book, her characters continue to be quirky, rebellious although they seem slightly more adult than those of her first book.

Another young writer Terence Chua plumbs the depths of the imagination in his debut anthology, Nightmare Factory (1991). This collection of short stories is hard to categorise. There are elements of fantasy literature, science fiction and the modern fairy tale cleverly interwoven in the narratives. The presence of these elements which are universal in quality gives his stories a sense of timelessness and placelessness. Yet, there is an accompanying sense of familiarity about the experiences each of Chua's protagonists goes through. The book was quietly received, less than it deserved although Chua achieved the capability to locate the Singaporean experience in the universal.

What is also encouraging about new writers such as Tham and Chua is the fact that they have begun writing at a fairly early age. They are not afraid of experimentation, having had basic grounding as they are already famihar with craft and technique. Hence, the limits of creativity which marked the first decade have become extended and the vision of the new writers expands in scope and addresses larger issues than those that were seen in the first decade. Concern for deeper issues like morality, justice and equality finds greater expression in the stories of the second generation. One is also able to perceive a greater confidence and outspokenness about the younger writers which is affirmative of the growth of the Singapore short story.

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