"There is certainly a cultural shift in the way literature is written": Singa-Pura-Pura Book Launch
Singa-Pura-Pura book launch was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 4 September 2021. You can watch the livestream above and the access full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
Especially in an anglophone-dominated genre, very little of Malay speculative fiction from Singapore is known to readers here and beyond. Yet contemporary Bahasa literature here is steeped in spec-fic writing that can account as a literary movement (aliran)—and unmistakably draws from the minority Malay experience in a city obsessed with progress.
(left to right) Diana Rahim, Nazry Bahrawi, Siti Hazirah Mohamad
Ariane: Good morning everyone! I'm Ariane from Ethos Books and welcome to the launch of Singa-Pura-Pura. It's been a while since we had an event, and actually more than a year since we've been to The Arts House, but now we're back in the Blue Room today and we would like to thank The Arts House for providing us venue support for this launch.
Thank you everyone for joining us online and in person today, and together with Nazry, we would especially like to give a shout out to the amazing contributors of Singa-Pura-Pura, some who are with us in The Arts House today. We really appreciate being able to come together during this time and we're looking forward to celebrating the launch of the book today.
If you have any questions for the panel, you can pose them on Slido throughout the programme today. You will find the link on the slides here, as well as on Facebook live and on our note-taking document.
Now, I'd like to get the launch officially started by introducing our moderator for the programme: Siti Hazirah Mohamad. Hazirah is a cultural enthusiast who believes in the redemptive power of words in effecting social change. A graduate of the Malay Studies programme at the National University of Singapore, she is particularly enamoured by the ability of alternative narratives in allowing us to reflect on and question everyday lives and lived experiences. Hazirah, please take it away!
Image: Book cover of 1515 by Faisal Tehrani
Text: “Mari kita rakyat Singapura, sama-sama berpura-pura”
Hazirah: Thank you, Ariane, for the generous introduction, and everyone for being here today. It’s so wonderful to see a live audience. I have Zoom fatigue. It’s always great when we can be together in these challenging times. Thanks to Nazry for allowing all of us to be here today. We have Nazry, the editor of Singa-Pura-Pura, and Diana, the writer of Transgression. Because of circumstances, we have Hassan who’s unable to join us physically, but we were able to beam him in true speculative fiction style, on Zoom. Must always remember that there’s a 5 second lag - if you see us waiting awkwardly, it’s because of the lag. Hassan, if you can hear me after the lag, can you wave?
Hassan: Can hear loud and clear.
Hazirah: Live and FB audiences can hear him too. We should be good now. Let’s begin. Mari kita rakyat Singapura, sama-sama berpura-pura. We know this is a play on the national anthem. Jumping straight into it, how and why did you convene this specific table of contents?
Nazry: First off, thank you everyone for joining us - Singa-Pura-Pura is a cross between an academic work and a creative work. I want to thank the contributors for generously giving their time to write. I research on Malay literature from the region. I’ve noticed (in SG) in the late 2010s that there was a common way in which writers were writing Malay prose and I’ve also noticed several books that were published in the style of speculative fiction. I’ve looked at English prose by Malay writers and could see the same trend. The book gathers a group of writers whom I consider to be pioneers of this aliran (‘movement’ in Malay).
Aliran refers to an organised movement such as ‘sastera untuk masyarakat’ (literature for society’s sake). This is a movement that’s very organised as you can see with ASAS 50, Singapore’s oldest literary organisation, which professes sastera untuk masyarakat as its ideology. As for Singa-Pura-Pura, none of the writers belong to the traditional idea of an aliran, but there’s a common way in which they came together as I’ve said.
So it can be considered a literary nonmovement, inspired by Asef Bayat’s concept of social nonmovements to describe the collective actions of non-collective actors that had led to the Arab Spring. Aliran Singa-Pura-Pura did not result in a political change, but there is certainly a cultural shift in the way literature is written. In fact, the writers in this anthology continue the tradition of speculating, which is why we also have emerging writers in the anthology producing new works. This is to show that the aliran is still evolving. For example, the aliran has crossed the division between both Malay and English writings.
Hazirah: The foreword is written by Faisal Tehrani with ties back to the history of Malay lit. He speculates alternate histories: what if Malacca did not fall and this female warrior went to Portugal and conquered it? It is written so evocatively that I went back and googled to which if a female warrior really did that. Spoiler alert: no. It’s so powerful and allows us to imagine a different reality. Speaking of reality, hopping on to Diana. How did Nazry approach you? Seeing your work categorised under Spectres of Sihir. How did that make you feel?
Diana: I think Nazry emailed me *laughs* For Sihir, I was thinking about my story Transgression, to put it very short, a story about a human man who had a baby with a Bunian woman. It was a very typical Malay speculative fiction. There’s a lot of stories like this that have already been made so I wanted to make my own version that kind of also jumped off the Ulek Mayang folktale that comes from the state of Terengganu and has its own ritualistic dance as well. As for it being categorised under the section Spectres of Sihir, I was also like “hmm does it really fall under that?” (translation: sorcery), I realised that there’s a negative connotation to it.
Hazirah: You can also say it’s mystical.
Diana: In the present context, it can be viewed negatively I guess?
Hazirah: With Islamisation, yes
Diana: Correct. So that’s another thing. My story was trying to look at that. How are these traditional, old-standing folktales and rituals viewed in the present? They were seen very neutrally for a long time but because of Islamisation, how they are viewed is very different. For it being categorised under Spectres of Sihir, I guess the story is still meeting up against that tension.
Hazirah: Transgressive, as a play on your title. Hassan, how did Nazry approach you? How do you feel about your story being categorised under Tech Baru?
Hassan: The story was written in 2011 - To be categorised under Tech (Baru) was good because it was something new and when I wrote it, social media wasn’t as rampant, it was still at its infancy. The idea of having a smart tombstone is something new.
So now when you look at it with all the technologies coming up, and if you were to Google, I think there’s a news in Turkey where they have a QR code on your tombstone where they show your life story, pictures and whatsoever notes – just by scanning your QR code, someone can know your entire history from when you are born to the day you die.
Hazirah: Going back to Nazry, in your afterword, you talked about decolonisation and you mentioned the Bicentennial. I want to point out that you also contributed a volume during the Bicentennial, published by Ethos Books, called Myth of the Lettered Native. Of course, this is a play on The Myth of the Lazy Native. But coming at it from a critical perspective, by contributing to that volume, are you also not contributing to the bicentennial narrative? Is this volume, then, in the context where last week the most privileged Chinese man in Singapore said there’s no such thing as Chinese privilege in this country. Is this book then a form of redemption?
Nazry: Thanks for that question. My honest opinion about the Bicentennial campaign is that it’s a campaign that has good and not so good aspects. I like the aspect of it trying to look at modern history of Singapore from the year 1299. Going back beyond the official narrative of 1819. Taking into account Singapore’s very strict bureaucracy, I think that’s actually a win in terms of official narratives.
The reason I decided to participate in the campaign even though I have some reservations about other aspects of it, such as the impermanence of this narrative I just spoke about. So for example, the four other statues that came up, we can argue whether these four were actually representative in the first place but the idea that there was an attempt to try to recognise other pioneers than Raffles is a good move. I think it’s a welcome move except that it then afterwards disappeared, right, and we are now back to that Raffles statue just standing outside here still looking down on us.
That part I don’t agree, but the reason I decided to participate in the campaign anyway is that it’s important to try to make your voice heard within official narratives and the way I did that was to focus on pre-1819 kind of history by looking at Sejarah Melayu and its symbolism in there. So I see this work as an extension of that minus the official bureaucracy. I would say it’s both an extension but also a kind of small critique towards that. Small not because I’m trying to be careful, but I think this work is one of many that can critique, you know, the official narrative.
Hazirah: You took the resources to write The Myths of the Lettered Native and then you went on to write this book, so I guess there’s space for multiple or contesting narratives, even within the same person.
Hazirah: I want to shoutout to our artist who designed the cover, Muhammad Izdi (@lepaklukis on Instagram). Don’t you think it’s amazing? People who say don’t judge a book by its cover but the first thing you see in the book shop is the cover.
Nazry: I like the idea of the tiger vomiting water, which is kind of a play on the Merlion which is really quite interesting because of course, you know, the story goes that the lion is not actually a real lion, right? Might be a tiger, right?
Diana: I like the hands in supplication, based on Hassan’s story
Nazry: It’s like a bonus fourteenth story. I didn’t plan for it, but it came as a pleasant surprise, actually.
Hassan: I like the supplication with the two crystals. It reminds me of The Matrix. You choose either one of it, whether you want to stay in reality or you want to go into the science fiction aspect of it.
Hazirah: Shout out to Ethos Books for providing a home for Malay narratives for Singapore. So I have a copy of Malay Sketches which is in some ways speculative too. I was telling Nazry just now – I love this story about a hantu tetek. It’s about a lady who found out she had breast cancer.
This book was launched right next door on 31 march, 2012. In some ways, this feels like a continuation of the tradition but with a younger audience, and a stable of authors. This was Alfian’s and he’s an individual author. So thank you, Ethos, for always providing a home for English Malay stories.
Lyrics: Puteri dua berbaju serong
Puteri dua bersanggol sendeng
Puteri dua bersubang gading
Puteri dua berselendang kuning
(Second princess wears a slanted blouse
Second princess with a slanted hair knot
Second princess wears ivory earrings
Second princess has a yellow scarf)
Diana: So, the Ulek Mayang folktale tells the story of a fisherman who was pulled under by a sea princess in the Bunian world and there was a ritual that was done to try and retrieve his soul back because his body is in the human world but his soul is not in his body. So there was this ritual that was done in which the healer came across different princesses until finally the final princess says, “Okay, those who are of the human world, return to the human world, and those who are from the sea, return to the sea.” So it’s a folktale that in essence also talks about this transgression between worlds and how, at the end, the balance and harmony was retained by everyone being in their own respective worlds. My story looked to jump off this folktale and look at how this harmony was not retained, or it was only put back much later when there was a child.
Hazirah: How did you come up with a description of the being, of the sea-princess in the story?
Diana: I didn’t name the Bunian woman as a princess, necessarily. Certain descriptions were from the song itself but also general descriptions that have been given by people who have said they have seen Orang Bunian. This part is the second verse (*sings second verse*) I practise in the shower.
Hazirah: Again, of course, the translation is a description of what the princess was wearing. I wanted u to sing this because we wanted to play the background music but I guess in the Zoom set up we forgot, it’s okay. The melody is very evocative and haunting, right? There’re people who say this story is like, berhantu right?
Diana: Yes yes. When people watch it they get like, something happened to them. I think it’s very interesting to read about it. Some people say the current lyrics of the song have been changed so that its power is not there and it can be retained as a piece of heritage, and they can perform it.
But even then, when dancers perform it, they omit the last verse, which is where they say a lot of the power of the song lies. Also, the part about the yellow scarf, some people say it’s actually like selendang hijau and it depends on where the background is. They said so because the princess was at sea and the sand is yellow, so selendang kuning. But if the background is at the forest, the song changes. Then it’s selendang hijau.
I think part of the mystique of these kinds of things is the purity of it has been changed, so that is part of the mystery, you are not left with the real thing and so that is part of its mystery.
I mean that’s what people say of the Quran also, like the real Quran is with god, we’re only getting a secondary version so to speak.
Hazirah: It’s interesting you brought up hijau because hijau also reminds me of the story of Nyai Roro Kidul and also the Javanese sea queen and there’s so much parallels in the Nusantara region.
I think Nazry you brought it up in the afterword, right, this Roro Kidul is also a sea queen, there’s also like a mystical element where people say there’s a hotel, like someone created a hotel with this Nyai Roro Kidul and then she comes. When I was preparing for today I was listening to Ella’s version of the song Diana brought up.
Image: illustration of Second sea-princess in Ulek Mayang
Hazirah: I don’t know whether you know Ella, but she’s like Ratu Rock. It’s interesting because I came across this video where she was like jo joget gedik? Like flirtatious?
Diana: Christina Aguilera?
Hazirah: Ya lah like the ang moh equivalent of Christina Aguilera right? But it’s so interesting because it’s such a traditional song, and yet she’s like a Ratu Rock. In her album called Simbiosis and that’s interesting right, she actually performs this song but rockified it! So this is actually a drawing I found by an artist on Devian Art.
This is the story, you know, of a spirit who enchanted a fisherman. It originated from Terengganu, right, and we know that Terengganu is on the coast and therefore this ritual is meant to separate the fact that the fishermen were enamoured. I guess in some way, this is about Malays’ coping mechanism too? Because when you go fishing, people get lost in the sea and part of dealing with trauma or grief is to come up with an explanation to “how could they have been lost?”
Diana: Yes, and folktales tend to respond to certain very fundamental anxieties. So in a sense, there are a lot of similar stories across cultures. The Japanese also have a similar story of a fisherman who was pulled under by a Siren. In a sense, this is also a story of someone pulled down by a kind of Siren.
Hazirah: Finally, I really love the play of light and shadow in the story. It’s also mirrored in Noridah’s story, Second Shadow. They are similar but different. The idea of light, shadow, wayang kulit really permeates through. So thank you for sharing with us this slice of your reinterpretation.
Image: Boston Dynamic robot used to encourage safe distancing
Hazirah: This is a picture of a Boston Dynamic Dog at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park. Have you seen it? It’s like really creepy. It tells you to socially distance from each other. I've also seen the robot at PLQ (Paya Lebar Quarter), and the robot, like, patrols. I was walking, right, minding my own business, then the robot came and like, stayed. Did I kick the robot? Cannot, very expensive. Later there’s camera. But basically, they are here. They’re already here. In case you think this is fantastical, they are here, guys. Not to be scary about it, but they are here. So Hassan, maybe you would like to share your thought process behind Doa.com? And then you also just now mentioned briefly the tombstone, right? How has it changed? Or how has things become even scarier many years after you initially wrote the story.
Hassan: Many years ago, when I initially wrote this story, tech was still developing. But then one of the stories was that with the introduction of technology itself, it’ll make our work much lighter, much better. But as we can see now, it is lighter, but it requires fewer people. And if you read the story, one of the lines is that you have a minister saying, “You need to embrace technology, it will help with your work, with your innovation, lighten your load.” But what we are seeing now is that with the introduction of technology, work is getting cut out. People getting retrenched, replaced by technology as well.
One of the repercussions you see is that technology itself is a double-edged sword. It can help you in a way, it can also bring a bit of sadness, stress, anxiety, especially in these kinds of conditions. That’s for me lah, that’s my thought process.
Hazirah: I love the ATM aspect of the story, it really brings in commodification of religion, how doa is transactional and you can buy doa, pre-load it, and what really struck me at the end of the story was that the pakcik gave the protagonist an old, dog-eared version of the doa book and asked him to read. It immediately brings back my weekend madrasah days. You used to bring the buku and memorise doa and then the ustazah test you. One thing that really got to me was that he said he couldn’t read Arabic and the pakcik said, read it in your own language, it’s fine. So, H, you want to comment on that? Is that a commentary on the Arabisation of Islam and commodification of religion?
Hassan: When I wrote it, one of the things I want to bring across is that not everything that is Arabic equates to Islam. Especially their culture, some of their cultural practices, and the other things that I want to bring in now if you look into this context, with the introduction of social media and the activeness on people on social media itself, we shouldn’t be too gullible towards someone who wears a scarf, wears an Arabic jubah or the cloth over the head with a beard and then recite a couple of Quranic verses or a couple of hadiths without understanding the context. We are gullible to what we are seeing. We need to know what is the actual context of it, we shouldn’t be gullible to these kinds of things online.
Hazirah: It’s scary right with the Taliban, which is now media-savvy. They know how to manipulate media, present an image. And there was news about Malaysian politicians celebrating the fact that Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan.
I think you can criticise America without praising the Taliban ah, it’s very complex right now, especially in such uncertain times like a pandemic. That’s why people looked towards certainty. Right, Hassan? Oh my god this is really disorienting for me, you know, I look at Nazry and Diana but I know that I must look at H, but he’s not responding to me in real time. Maybe this situation is a good example of (how) technology can never replace humans. While it has enabled Hassan to join us. It’s like a simulacra of a real conversation. So it’s really a double-edged sword like he says.
Paintings (top, bottom, right): Reclining Nude by Affandi, National Language Class by Chua Mia Tee, Epic Poem of Malaya by Chua Mia Tee
Hazirah: Moving on to Nazry as author - you’ve included yourself in this anthology, in your story “Tujuh”, or seven, right? I read this review by Stephanie on QLRS where she said they looked askance at an editor including his own work in the anthology. What do you have to say about that Nazry? What do you think your voice adds to this anthology that couldn’t have been said by somebody else.
Nazry: Thank you for asking that question and I think it’s actually a very important question. I agree that editors including their own story raises doubts, right? So I’ll just explain that the structure of the whole book was that I was looking for stories that were new and old but in the form of the short story, and in particular when I was researching short stories that were already published by Malay writers in English, there were very few of them. The ones I’ve found were actually the result of a sprint writing workshop that saw the involvement of not just myself but also Bani, who’s here at the back. Thanks for coming Bani, and also Ila, whose stories are excellent. I’m really quite blown away by those stories as well.
There were writers who were writing speculative fiction in English but (do so) in the novel form and it’s very hard to reproduce that in this book. So I thought of presenting whatever I could find, which were the stories by Ila, Bani and myself. I could have not included myself now when I think about it, maybe it’s something I should’ve done right? But at the same time, one of the critiques about that story I’ve read is that it’s a very difficult story to read and that maybe I should have included some kind of content warning about what this story was about because the other stories did not go the way of gore or violence right, whereas my story really went straight into that. Although I’m still thinking about whether stories should include content warning or not. Still, I can see the merits of including it.
Hazirah: I mean since we jump ahead to gore and graphic, I thought that if I was going to be traumatized, I should traumatize the whole lot of you also. Unfortunately for me, your character commits murders based on paintings, right? I mean like in the scene of a painting, it’s like the Da Vinci Code. You offended that I compare you to Dan Brown is it *laughs* Formulaic 101, So anyways, I have seen these paintings unfortunately, and I didn’t expect Nazry to write like that. My image of Nazry is like, academic, very smart mamat. I read this book and I was like “oh my god, is this what Nazry is like on the inside?” That’s kind of scary. So we have National Language on our bottom left, we have Epic Poem of Malaya on the right, and then, the final murder that was going to be committed in the form of Affandi’s Reclining Nude.
It's so interesting for me because I went to the Affandi museum in Yogyakarta and I saw he had a painting of Ibu which I love, because the mother’s face is like my mother’s face every time she has to deal with me doing things that Malay girls are not supposed to do. Apparently [Reclining Nudes] is one of the rare nudes he did in red? So maybe share with us, why these paintings, Nazry? And of course, National Language Class and Epic Poem of Malaya is by Chua Mia Tee, right? Chinese, from the Nanyang school, maybe you can share a bit with us about that.
Nazry: So the story is about hidden violences right. I mean, you can interpret it on your own but when I was thinking about writing this, it was because of the prompt, the prompt was “write a story about stray nanobots” and so I was inspired by Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go which is actually a science-fiction story that focuses more on the human aspect than the technological aspect.
I wanted to write a story that does that, where the technology is maybe just an element of it instead of being at the forefront. I’m a big fan of the true crime genre actually, it’s a guilty pleasure, which is actually the theme of SWF this year. So I was thinking of writing a story that talks about hidden violence.
I don’t want to hide that even within the Malay community, that there are violences that happen within, and that some of these violences have no answers, and in fact, are incomprehensible. Maybe that’s why there’s a lot of that happening in this story. That’s the basic part of it. At a more abstract level, I was also thinking about the idea of the pursuit of beauty in art which is actually a very violent process.
The definition of art in an artist’s mind takes place as a hard-won battle, maybe, in an arena that we don’t see but it happens within the artist’s own mind, right? And sometimes to pursue that ideal of beauty or aesthetics is to actually give up and in fact put into peril your own relationships, and with Affandi himself, if you look at his biography, there were a lot of things happening. He went through a lot of turmoil and struggles to get to his perfect idea of beauty.
I think artists will never be satisfied. I’m not saying that all artists are like this, right, with the end product of it. It’s really to show, on an abstract level, this kind of, to materialise a battle that is immaterial in the mind to show that in the form of crime fiction and at the same time to show that violence happened, there are hidden violences, of several things that are peculiar to Singapore.
Such as, I brought up a little bit about in our earlier conversation, the notion of meritocracy, that’s one of my motivations.
Hazirah: Ya you brought up santan itu setan which means basically coconut milk is the devil, right? For Malays who are cued into this narrative right? Just recently, again, most privileged Chinese man in Singapore, saying Malays have attained progress in education but need to work harder, and there was a very disturbing report trying to explain why Malays are overrepresented in Normal Technical stream, I was like: “Lily Zubaidah Rahim answered that question in 1998 sia. Why we need to commission another study?" Anyway, and the study design was of course problematic. But that aside, right, Nazry, did you, when you wrote this story, and the idea of santan and excess, did you worry that people did not get it or did you write it specifically for a Malay audience in mind?
You know, if you’re Malay and you've lived through this hidden violences right, in fact, I would actually say that the real monster is meritocracy, you know, in terms of the dynamics of how the characters interacted with each other. Did you specifically code it for the Malay audience or was it what have you? If you want to know why I said santan itu seitan, you have to go and find out that campaign about Kita (Dah) Cukup Manis, for example. Who did you write it for in mind?
Nazry: The story was, of course, published in English, so I had an audience who were more familiar with English in mind, but I also have the idea that the reader would be a Malay person who’s also well-versed in English. A Singaporean Malay person, but also someone who doesn't know Malay culture at all. So I'm hoping that someone who doesn't know Malay culture at all, or is not familiar, would see that this story is so fantastical that they would think twice about the content of the story.
And so when I say santan itu seian, I hope that they see this through, in a way of, re-thinking what this sentence actually means. Of course, I was thinking along the lines of very real campaigns by the government that try to look at certain aspects of Malay culture as being the problem.
I mean, the drug campaign, the drug awareness campaign, Dadah Itu Haram. Dadah is impermissible. And also health data showcasing Malays being the least healthy and stuff like that. So I was playing on that idea of categorisation, data use and the interpretation that comes with it. It's about the methodology of it all.
But if you look at the story you will see that the individuals in the story, Elly, Tujuh, etc. they do very horrible things, but they also have elements about them that are not as horrible. For example, Elly was thinking about the MeToo campaign right at the start, right, and at the same time, in the end it turns out that he is most capable of committing the most horrible, atrocious acts.
And so I was trying to draw attention to the idea that the monster is not the individual but actually the system itself. Like, these individuals are part of a machinery and the issue is that maybe we don't change the individual, maybe we should change the machine.
Hazirah: Hmm, okay so going back to your earlier point about the fact that a non-Malay audience will still appreciate it beyond. Diana, I know you watch Korean dramas, right? It’s like watching Korean dramas; you get entertained, but actually there’s a deeper layer sometimes that we don’t get because we’re not born into the culture. So it’s like extra bonus for Malays right, if you read it, you get 13.5 stories, or 14.5 since we have the cover also right. And I think that there's so much subversion in your story also actually in all three stories, in a way, right? Of the sacred and profane.
Diana, yours is the offering, right? The nasi, which is in - not nasi, pulut, that's coloured, right? It’s interesting that your story originated, I mean Ulek Mayang is in Terengganu, the origin of the song / ritual. And now Terengganu is one of the most religiously conservative Malaysian (states). We were discussing who is the political party in power and if I'm not wrong it is still PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) but nevertheless it is one of the most religiously conservative states in Malaysia. But of course, people always find ways around it right? And in Nazry's story I had to read about malaikat fucking it up and the fact that the murderer Tujuh, is female? Then Elly talks about MeToo messaging right, but who's really committing the murder, Tujuh or Elly?
Diana: Even though the title of my story is Transgression, I really did not see it as an essentially transgressive story. There is this element of soul border crossing but in terms of the speculative I think it's very inherent in the literary tradition in Malay literature. And not just like our literature, but just the stories that we grew up with, the ones that are disseminated through oral tradition, our folktales. It's - you know I was thinking of Gabriel García Márquez, he's a Latin American writer and he's usually categorised under magical realism.
And I was thinking like, it's actually kind of similar in our tradition. This element of exploring. I guess why we think of it as transgressive is because we live in a time where our way of understanding, or framework of understanding, is very delineated. There’s this very strict divide between what’s real and what’s not. What is spiritual, and what is provable? What is science, and what is not?
I think in Malay culture that was not really our norm, not what was dominant for a very long time. And I think even in the present, we don't live our lives like that. Most humans don't live our lives in a very strict way, right? In terms of how we are categorised, how we experience our reality. So, I did not, to answer the question, seek to be transgressive, I think I was just writing a very normal human story and the story of a human and a Bunian. I was just talking to Fazilah just now, she said it's a very Malay story. Indeed it's a story that has been written about many times, it's been written about in like films, in like TV shows. When I told my mum I was writing this, (she was like) “oh, someone has already written about it, I watched a TV show about it.” I was like “Ya I know, but I want to write my own version right?” I feel like I'm just participating in this like larger stream, a very fun and wonderful stream that is very rich, that does not have such strict delineations.
Nazry: Yeah, so when I think of the division between the sacred and profane, the story that really jumps out at me is not my own story but actually nor's story, right, and nor has two stories in there. Which is great because when I first read nor's submission, she wrote about a kind of retelling of the myth of creation. It's kind of like an Abrahamic myth of creation but I also see it as Islamic and also quite Malay and I was so quite impressed by that story that we had a conversation about possibly, because she wrote about "The Beginning", maybe she can also write about "The End" and she said that “yeah, already have a story like that.” So I thought these would be a nice bookend, to start and end it.
Hazirah: Yeah, and the duality.
Nazry: I don’t know if that was purposefully transgressive, we have to ask the writer herself for that. But certainly that jumped at me as toggling between the two (profane and secret), which is so great. So thanks for that! She’s also here today.
Hassan: When I wrote this, it was not intentional. There was no sense of transgression. I just wanted to write a fun, engaging story in itself. But then when I were to read it again at this current climate, with more usage of technology, you have zoom, you have microsoft teams, you have home-based learning and we are seeing that with more involvement of technology people think that it's much simpler. But then we forget that the other end, we are going to have fatigue, technology fatigue. I’ve spent meetings and conducting classes from morning to evening and at the end of it, I just want to get away from the computer, just get away from the screen.
Hazirah: Thanks, Hassan! Now we have questions on slido. It’s voting system, we do it democratically. Feudal days are over.
Q: Why do you think there is so little Malay representation in SingLit written in English?
Nazry: It's very hard to answer why. You see, without a sociological study it's hard to say why there is a lack of representation. But I just think that it's emerging, more and more Malay writers are writing in English. It’s maybe the result of our bilingual policy that even Malays today are going, a bit, even my nephew has problems with (Malay). (They) speak English more often at home than Malay so I think we will see more and more works emerging in English. It’s not that there is no representation, there could be more. I think increasingly there will be. I think the majority of Malay writings, the richness of tradition comes from within the Malay language sastera in Singapore.
Hazirah: Maybe just to add, you know, there’s also book selling, whether we like or not, it’s a capitalist endeavour because in some ways you need to sell the books. If you can’t sell the books, you don’t publish. It’s a chicken and egg, right? Which comes first? Does the writer need to write first or the market needs to exist first?
And I think books like Suffian Hakim’s The Minorities. It’s a roller coaster! There's like Jewish philosophy, there's hantu at Changi hospital, there's a pontianak who's the main protagonist. And who wouldn’t want to read about a pontianak? When I first read the book I was like apa ini? But it’s brilliant! And then you ask yourself, would a non-Malay enjoy this book? My answer is yes, who wouldn’t wanna read about pontianak right? And something that I noticed this seventh month right, you know we always see seventh month (Hungry Ghost Festival) as a Chinese thing.
I was at the MRT, and I swear, I heard an auntie narrate to her friend about a ghostly encounter, involving an Ustaz. And I joined a cycling group, and the Malays were in on it too during seventh month. It’s not state sponsored racial harmony, but when my Chinese friends say, “oh sorry I don’t go cycling during seventh month” it felt like Malay hantu stories were more active, and it ties into the narrative of spirits being stronger, so maybe that’s the direction of that. Who knows?
Diana: I don’t think it’s just Malays right. I think in general minorities have a very poor representation in the Singapore Literature scene and only recently we are seeing more of them. It’s not just about pure representation or cool representation but also what kind of stories can be appreciated or what stories are elevated. So I think the nature of the industry also plays a part but that’s a very long conversation.
Hazirah: Hassan do you want to say something about why so little Malays in SingLit?
Hassan: I agree with what Dr Nazry says, lah. As we see more youngsters conversing more in English rather than Malay, I feel that we will see more writers writing in English. For me I primarily write in Malay because I’m not that confident writing in English, I think my grammar is all over the place. My O Level English, I think I got D7 if I’m not mistaken. That’s why I write in Malay. But I agree with Dr Nazry. We are hoping to see more Malay writers, either writing in Malay, or perhaps we can get more translators to translate Malay works into English.
Hazirah: That’s an excellent point because you did translate some of the works and they translated really well. I’ve read them in Malay, for me who has read them in both (languages), it’s interesting to see how they change and how they remain the same. Maybe Nazry can comment on the translation process
Nazry: Yeah I try to maintain the essence of the text and sometimes I don’t translate word for word lah. Basically, I don’t go for linguistic equivalence, I go for the essence of the text. I don’t know if...it can sometimes be controversial, but that’s the way I go about doing it.
Hazirah: Hassan, how do you feel, reading your own story in Malay and English? What was lost, what was preserved, or enhanced, even, through translation?
Hassan: I think when I read it in English, I was very excited. It was nicely written. The heart of the story was there and there was not much difference from the Malay version. The main character is there. The essence of what I want to bring forward to tell the audience is captured nicely. Thank you, Nazry, for that.
Hazirah: I enjoyed the story so much and I wouldn’t have known it was written in Malay. It felt like watching I am Robot, but the Malay version of that because the datuk is the evil one, right?
Q: Following the earlier discussion on the story of Ulek Mayang, the "Islamization" movement has curbed the practice and ritual of Ulek Mayang in Terengganu. Do you know of other examples where the adoption of Islam may have led to the erosions or watering down of Malay pre-Islamic stories/rituals/narratives? And can we preserve or revive some of these narratives in modern Malay literature?
Diana: I mean, Ulek Mayang isn't the only ritual, right? So there's really quite a lot of other rituals and dances that are under threat. Because I'm not Malaysian so I'm not as tuned-in to like, the politics but I really wondered if the presence of these rituals actually gave political parties like PAS more incentive to campaign there. But anyway, there are a lot of rituals under threat, and not just practices, but I think, certain ways of relating to the world, or how we see things.
In Malay culture, from what I understand, I’m not an expert so I feel nervous answering this question. I guess our relationship to land and nature before this was a lot more different, a lot more tuned-in. Things like, believing that elements of nature are alive, that they have their own essence or spirit or semangat or whatever, and so you would give a certain sort of respect to them but then of course this is seen as un-Islamic now. My mum often says this kind of thing because I find it interesting so I talk about it constantly but she’s like “oh yeah that’s like Malays in the past, they were not Muslim so they didn’t know better.” So, there’s this sort of rewriting what our ways of being and relating to the world, that it was actually wrong and that now we are on the right path and for me that’s one of the sadder things.
Even if you were not to believe that these elements of nature have their own spiritual essence and that they are alive, I think it’s very valuable to see the world in that light. Then we wouldn’t lose 97% of our primary rain forests. Actually you know when my minister goes door knocking I ask, “Why all the forests in Sembawang kena cut down?”
Hazirah: Then what did he answer?
Diana: He said “need to develop. Now young people like to do things. Cannot like sit down at the kampung, do nothing.” He said that. Then I said, “I don’t think last time people sit in the Kampung do nothing.” Then he (got) nervous; he started walking back.
Hazirah: Makyong Kedek is another good example of a ritual that’s almost disappeared. It’s no coincidence that Makyong is in Kelantan, which is also controlled by PAS, and one of the most religiously conservative states in Malaysia.
Diana: That’s interesting so Makyong cannot perform that dance at home right? So I actually saw a Makyong dance but in KL. So these troupes have to go to other states to be able to perform their dances.
Hazirah: So can our narratives reclaim? I say why the heck not? There was a really good Makyong performance at Taman Warisan in Singapore and then the practitioner actually said that he modernised the story and the story was about the tension of not being able to perform the Makyong. So it’s like meta, meta, meta. So many levels right? But, he said that he has not been able to perform this at that time in Malaysia. Now it's preserved under some cultural heritage, that's the way to circumvent, right? So they're like "oh this is culture, not religion" so that's also a very smart way of getting around it.
Nazry: Even in Singapore, the Kuda Kepang, I think. Kind of like, in the past when there were performances. I remember growing up at Aljunied Crescent watching a performance of the Kuda Kepang performer eating glass so that was quite interesting. As a young child, I saw that. In an Ethos newsletter, I talk about an exorcism that I’ve actually attended because I was asthmatic as a young boy and my parents thought that because maybe we’ve tried western medicine, why don’t we now try exorcism?
And then I actually saw a very ‘The Exorcist’ kind of thing right unfolding before my eyes. It really traumatised me as a child. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to dark stories or something, I’m not sure.
Hazirah: Did it cure your asthma, that’s the most important thing?
Nazry: Yeah I don’t have asthma anymore now.
Hazirah: Wow! You just needed to be shocked out of your system! Ok, so final question, maybe we can end off with this.
Q: What would you like to see next in Singapore/Malay spec-fic? Also, what continuities can we find with spec-fic in Malaysia, Indonesia, etc?
Diana: More translations, I guess. I think it’s very natural as mentioned earlier - was thinking of Mohammad Latiff Mohammad - The Widower For me, it’s a very good book because the main character is like a political dissident who was jailed for his political activities as a leftist in the past and then he’s grieving his wife and his grieving is so intense that it defies the laws of the natural world. He prays constantly. The burial area comes alive, the wind and rain and flowers talk to him and in a sense, it’s speculative, and it’s decades ago. I’d like to see more translations so that there’s more engagement with those who write in our mother tongue and also more engagement with our own stories like in our own tradition.
Nazry: I agree! And I think actually like part of the story, part of the idea is that this is part of a long line of richness of tradition that goes all the way back to Sejarah Melayu. I mean to answer that question about what is different about spec-fic in Singapore Malay narrative compared to Malaysia and Indonesia is for the simple fact that the residents of Singapore who are of Malay ethnicity do not belong to the majority, so there are certain aspects of that that produces itself in these stories in the form of things like invisible glass ceilings, the need to conform to neat little boxes. I've mentioned this as well, all the negative things in the book but there are also positive things that came out from the story - this notion of care for others, you know, a sense of building of solidarity among the downtrodden. That recognition, that tradition, is not all bad, right? There is a richness to it that you can, you know, enhance that. So I would like to see more writings in this area but of course, this is not up to me, this will have to be organic.
But going back to some of the modern Malay literature that do engage in speculative fiction…. For example, I actually translated more stories from Hassan and Farihan, and Farihan was challenging because he plays with words. tukang tujuk telunjok, for example. How do I aliterate that into English, you know, and try to translate the beauty of that sentence, that phrase, right? It was hard, so it's tough like that.
So I think like, engage with modern Malay literature to show that there's a kind of continuity or a precursor to this (aliran).
Hazirah: As an ending, as in Bani’s story "Isolated Future #2: MacRitchie Treetops", humans always find a way. So, thank you for being with us today. Thank you Ethos. We hope to see you physically soon, maybe in the next launch. Thank you everyone.
About the Speakers:
Hassan Hasaa'Ree Ali is a Registered Nurse and is currently working as a nursing lecturer. Hassan was a graduate of the National Arts Council Mentor Access Project under the mentoring of Singaporean Author Mr. Anuar Othman. Hassan won the 2011 Golden Point Award (Malay Short Story) with his story titled 'Homeostasis'. Two of Hassan's short stories collection were shortlisted for the 2014 & 2018 Singapore Literature Prize. Hassan received the Promising Award (Anugerah Harapan) from The Malay Language Council, Singapore (MBMS) in 2015 and Hadiah Sasterawan Muda MASTERA in 2017.
Nazry Bahrawi is a literary translator, critic and academic. He translates to introduce Anglophone readers to the rich tradition of Bahasa literature. Trained in comparative literature, Nazry specialises in the study of non-material cultures through literary texts and films of the Malay Archipelago as part of the Indian Ocean cultural sphere. He is an editor-at-large at Wasafiri magazine and the essay & research editor for Journal of Practice, Research and Tangential Activities (PR&TA).
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