by Carolyn Lau
Ann Ang, Bang My Car, Math Paper Press, 2012. 132 pgs.
Cyril Wong, Straw, Sticks, Brick, Math Paper Press, 2012. 58 pgs.
I first experienced the force of Singlish, an English-language creole with its signature lilt widely spoken in Singapore, in the film I Not Stupid back in 2002. To me, the film is a dazzling linguistic showcase. It is not an exaggeration to say this movie that satirises the obsession with meritocracy, elitism and pragmatism in all social sectors in society remains one of the most memorable introduction of this dialect to Hongkongers. The film is also still a reference point in understanding the national mentality and habits of our competitive Asian neighbour. It is often simplistically and lazily defined as a squeaky-clean, almost invincible bureaucratic machine that churns out envious statistics of a highly professional population and endless clean and spacious blocks of government subsidised housing estates (an impossible feat in Hong Kong where the government team up with real estate developers in pumping up land sales).
Born and raised in Hong Kong, a former British colony with a predominantly Chinese population highly receptive to Western social and cultural values, I was quite taken aback by the film's depiction of the imperviousness of autocracy backed up by the traditional feudalistic Chinese family values of obedience and filial piety, in which the parent and the state are in some ways interchangeable. This became even more obvious after I read up on the history of Singapore, which also had its share of British colonial rule and an even shorter history as a young and independent state after its separation from the United Kingdom and Malaysia in 1963. Of course, being a satire, the film pokes fun at the tyranny of a helicopter parent (read ‘state’), whose only wish seems to be securing a place for her son in an elite secondary school so that he can proceed smoothly to the best universities and land a high-paying job and a comfortable life. Authority figures are ridiculed unabashedly. Cocky mothers, fretting fathers, disciplinarian educators prance around the feast of meritocracy that serves a palate of crushed confidence, nipped independence and caned bottoms.
Singapore remained a well-oiled, chillingly efficient society manned by ruthlessly manipulative authority figures in my limited imagination. That was until I met the Uncle, a peculiar, paradoxical species that even earns an imaginary dictionary entry in Ann Ang's ambitious debut collection of short stories Bang My Car. Like most of the other stories in the collection, Ang employs written Singlish, the dialect peppered with Hokkien slang, Malay, Arabic and Mandarin terms and unusual renderings of British slang, a mixed-breed offspring of cultures converging at this Southeast Asian trading port. The government and English language educators frown upon Singlish, even though it is undeniably an authentic vernacular of the nation.
The Uncle makes his first appearance in the devious title story, a brief, episodic sketch of what looks like an account of a minor car crash. The Uncle, an unseemly sixty-year old P.E. teacher, aggressively declares at the outset, "What I do and how I do I don't need to tell you" but nevertheless proceeds to spin a yarn of victimisation. The Uncle also immediately distances himself from the man who purportedly hits his "Honda like squashed bread" by reprimanding him for still daring "to Speak Good English" after the accident. He labels the antagonist at fault as a leisurely middle-class man who drives a "BM-dubew" ("his kind so rich") as opposed to his own hardworking, modest image. Snobbery is synonymous with proper English, or so it seems. In the end, the Uncle plays dead when the police come. He turns out to be the perpetrator. But it comes as no surprise for he has been sizing up the situation all along, making snide remarks about the Westernised driver and putting up the appearance of a reconciliatory, casual man with Singlish as a prop.
The Uncle is not entirely despicable despite his deceit. He has his moments of vulnerability, especially when he is in the wrong. For example, in front of the smartly dressed stranger who speaks perfect English and when he desperately buffs himself up by recalling how he intimidates his students. Here, social inferiority and scheming aggressiveness coexist. Somehow, the bungling, clamorous, sing-a-long chimes of Singlish works as a curious and effective concealment of schizophrenic incongruence.
If the logic of a language reflects how a nation and its people think, then the ambiguity of the Uncle can shed some light on the psyche of Singaporeans. Rather than simplistically extolling Singlish as either a Chinese nationalistic stronghold or harmless dabs of provincial colour, Ann Ang shrewdly suggests another side of Singlish. The official (so-called) third-rate dialect can be a disarming weapon for the passive-aggression epitomised by the Uncle and his species.
What makes Ang's story collection significant in the growing genre of Singlish writing is her nuanced assessment of the perplexing nature of the debatable language. To the People's Action Party, the ruling political party that has dominated the government since the country's independence, Singlish is a shameful remnant of British rule where the Chinese majority failed to master the English language and it remains a persistent reminder of Chinese cultural inferiority. To purge the tainted dialect, propaganda campaigns have been launched, the most notable being the ongoing Speak Good English Movement inaugurated in 1999. The then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong denounced Singlish as "English corrupted by Singaporeans," and "broken, ungrammatical English." He later stressed the need to speak proper British English in order to interact effectively with foreigners when doing business and to help retain Singapore's competitive edge as compared to its more inland, commercially backward neighbours.
Speaking grammatically correct English with Received Pronunciation then has nothing to do with connecting with the grandiose British cultural and literary heritage. It is out of completely pragmatic considerations that the government coerces educators, students, workers to speak the English they find useful in maintaining the country's international standing as an economic power. Like the Uncle who deploys homely Singlish to diffuse the simmering hostility of the linguistically and socially superior, albeit in vain, to Speak Good English is to become an equal with foreigners worthy to trade with, in particular English-speaking ones.
Profit cannot be made in a business deal without strategic maneuverings. Each party uses whatever means at hand to gain the upper hand. If proper language use in Singapore means impressing foreign business partners with good English, the ability to wield the language of the former coloniser to extract money from their hands could then be understood as a silent insurrection. Ang does not shy away from this calculating, reductive take on language by the government in their influence over education institutions. In the only story with the complete absence of Singlish in the collection titled "Everybody Uses English," a stern language educator reprimands a young female student for her lax learning of proper English.
You can almost imagine a crisp, British accent enunciating wily proclamations of overcoming the history of colonisation by "using English more accurately than the English themselves," or as the speaker simply puts it, "we must take back the English language for our own." It is apparent Ang is trying to construct a balanced view of the unresolved language debate. This story reflects the official perspective towards Singlish sandwiched between tales with strong local flavours seasoned with a spoonful of bad grammar, broken syntax and botched vocabulary. The heavy-handed defense of proper English as a national language in "Everybody Uses English" makes it a mockable and clichéd propaganda announcement. This parody effect might be precisely what Ang is trying to achieve but this does not alter the fact that the story remains the flattest of the collection. A treatise disguised as a story does not always make for good fiction.
The English educator vehemently rejects Singlish as too lowly for the purposes of literature and art. Instead, he invokes the names of famous British poets like incantations to ward off the accursed dialect. A successful education system in Singapore, it seems, is one that produces an army of English-speakers who are authorised to commit linguistic treason by using the literature of the former coloniser to reclaim the lost ground of cultural equality.
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Cyril Wong's meticulously crafted prose poetry in Straw, Sticks, Brick establishes him as a commander of this genteel combat. Prose poetry popularised by the French Symbolists since the fin-de-siècle has been favoured for its loose form, thus liberating poets from structural restrictions, making way for experimental, liberal use of imagery. Contrary to the rebellious and even shocking social commentary of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Ginsberg, Wong conjures a subdued, melancholic state of meditation with wit, a far cry from the agitated minds that exude an enveloping nervous energy in the modern tradition of prose poetry.
This is not to say that Wong's poetry is sedated and withdrawn—far from it. As Blake said, "Without contraries is no progression." One of the duties of poetry is to articulate irreconcilable paradoxes of the fundamentals of life and confront them without the fear of not unearthing the final answer. It is only through this cross-examination that previously inexpressible truths can be revealed. Although each prose poem in the collection could stand on its own, I enjoyed pairing some of them up and discovering subtle and surprising juxtapositions. "Language is A House" and "On Reading" evoke the air of the inevitable solitude of an individual in everyday life, even upon the intrusion of death. In "Language is A House," Wong muses, "Upon one's calling forth of life, death arrives uninvited, not bothering to raise a hand to knock…head lowered, an elegant presence, almost kind." The meek and gentle yet brutally determined death here recalls both Emily Dickinson's chivalrous death-bridegroom riding on a hearse and the slightly comic grim reaper covered with a stark white bed sheet in Woody Allen's "Love and Death," who barges into a dinner gathering and begrudgingly removes each guest from the table and brings them into the unknown. "On Reading" also has an unsettling atmosphere of stillness as Wong's world-wise voice discusses his love of reading novels "about other people's lives because they reminded me of my own; not that they made me feel less lonely, nothing as convenient as that; but that when I waded from one life into another, I discovered how loneliness was far from a solitary matter." Just like the above paradox of death's undeterred arrival upon the calling forth of life, loneliness is defended as an unlikely virtue that offers a sense of communal bonding, although such consolation can only be obtained when one leafs through pages, enters other rooms, eavesdropping and speaking other voices.
Phrases that may sound too much like adages murmured by a bearded sage make frequent appearances in Wong's work ("for if there is love, this meant that it possessed other aspects too, such as bottomless hatred, hopelessness and despair"). This might create the unfavourable impression that this is a new-age self-help pamphlet or a collection of whimsical reflections. Indeed, a religious teacher appears in "A Magician and the Monk." The monk's parting words "Keep an open mind; and always continue to learn" may tempt readers to close the book. The piece is redeemed by the enigmatic Kafka-esque lack of resolution. The attractive notion that there are convenient answers decreed by an authority, be it a god, a government, a sage suggested throughout Wong's work is in the end repudiated by the poet.
"Kahneman's Experiment," a Borgesian parable that follows "A Magician and the Monk" ("Kahneman's subjects placed their hands in the icy water for sixty seconds and later for ninety seconds; after a minute in the ninety-second trial, the water was warmed by one degree, and when asked which episode they would rather repeat, participants chose the longer session"), spirals into an uncertain conclusion about history: "What is the past but maps of good, not good, perennially better or simply hell on earth, drawn out to bury the present…no longer any whisper of doubt and recalibration; hope or fear, a distant flicker now-what would be so terrible about that?" The promise of nothingness to Wong is almost celebratory.
Glimpses of the life-affirming strength of his work reside in the specks of glittery stardust in the void of darkness. This is best represented in "Blanchot's Death." Maurice Blanchot's survivor's guilt as a result of his escape from a Nazi firing squad during his years as an active member of the French Resistance plagues him for the rest of his life. Wong ponders on the curious state of Blanchot as a man "still dying, never dead," a survivor with no relief as death to him has been degraded to a "non-happening." The poem ends with the haunting, even anguished echoes of a voice, "Someone has to die, so why not let it be me; since nobody dies, so why not let it be me." This could be Blanchot lamenting, or it could be the poet's courageous venture into an unknown realm.
Wong's poetry performs its duty as art. It chronicles the courage and perseverance of man in face of the impending end and reminds him of his ability to choose good over evil. It transcends dated political bickering and essentialist notions of language. For what is triumph in the war of Englishes if it has no relevance to man's search for meaning?