Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Recognising Racism: Nuraliah Norasid's The Gatekeeper

by Wong Wen Pu


Nuraliah Norasid, The Gatekeeper, Epigram Books, 2017. 312 pgs.


A recent brouhaha over a microaggression has thrust race to the forefront of Singaporean social discourse. An Indian actor, Shrey Bhargava, was asked at the casting call for a local movie to act like "a full blown Indian man" for comedic effect. Bhargava acquiesced to the demand at the time, but his subsequent reflection on the inappropriateness of such a request, posted on Facebook, invited a blistering wave of criticism. The milder attacks accused him of being unable to stomach a harmless joke; the more vicious ones charged him with attempting to incite racial discord.

What Bhargava faced is symptomatic of everyday racism in Singapore. Despite Singapore often being lauded as a multiracial, multicultural society, racial discrimination occurs on a regular basis. We have seen it in the job advertisements seeking bilingual workers actually looking only for people who can speak English and Mandarin. It happens when one member of the Singapore Parliament blithely called our foreign workers in Little India "walking time bombs." These instances of discrimination might not rise to the level of tiki-torch-wielding-Confederate-flag-waving racism, but they are acts of racism all the same.

Multiculturalism has been official ideology in Singapore since the inception of our city state, and has been brandished around as a catch-all term to describe Singaporean racial relations. By declaring from top-down that Singaporean society is "multicultural" as a social fact, the Singaporean government has ensured that our conversations on race have been largely limited to papering over racial fault lines, rather than acknowledging differences and disagreements. Inter-racial tension and racial discrimination rarely form part of the public discourse. To attempt to speak about racism in Singapore, as Bhargava did, is then to potentially open oneself up to charges of rabble-rousing, as such a conversation will supposedly destabilise the fragile constitution of our multiculturalism and multiracial peace. In this way, the ideology of multiculturalism often discredits legitimate conversations on race in Singapore.

Yet there are concerns on Singaporean race relations that ought not be brushed aside or trivialised. When members of the social minority step out and speak of their social marginalisation, they speak from the position of people outside of the hegemonic race discourse in Singapore. They speak of things that we in the racial majority often have no access to, except by the testimony of the marginalised. So when they do speak, as Nuraliah Norasid does in The Gatekeeper, it is imperative that we listen.

Winner of Epigram Book Prize 2016, The Gatekeeper is set in the fictional country of Manticura, where humans and non/part-humans have come to live uneasily together. Ria is a medusa that lives with her sister in the outskirts of a human town in Manticura. One day, after she methodically petrifies the entire village, Ria and her sister flee to and take up residence in an underground ghetto, Nelroote. Time passes, and Ria becomes gatekeeper to the enclave, where her deadly ability is a valuable asset against encroachers. In this way, the sisters and Nelroote live in relative peace until one Eedric Shuen seduces Ria, with disastrous consequences, back into the sunlit world.

The fantastic premises of The Gatekeeper might seem wildly inventive, yet when we set the cosmetic differences aside, many of the social dynamics portrayed in the novel between human and non/part-human species bear similarities to Singapore's racial dynamics.

First, there is the self-loathing of the social other that we find in both Singaporean and Manticurian society, generated by the societal affirmation of racial/species hierarchy. Despite Manticura being a multi-species country, dominant social discourse drives those who fall outside the boundaries of human normalcy to self-loathing. Reminders to the other that they are intrinsically worth less are everywhere: Eedric's part human mother was casually put down "like a sick pet" because she was unable to control her Changer form, while Eedric's girlfriend views the non-humans as "people not like [herself], but as mutant[s and] social outcast[s]". In such a world, one must wonder: what sort of racial narrative had Sani, a young Tuyunri denizen of Nelroote, encountered in his occasional excursion to the outside world to make him ashamed of his life, his family and the largely non-human community he grew up in? And what sort of racial/species marginalisation by Manticura's human race has led him to the acceptance that "the more animal you look, the more people will treat you like shit"? Analogously, what sort of racial narratives has Singapore nursed so that Singaporean Indians would jump to defend the casual racism of insensitive casting directors, or for Malays to laugh when jokes are told, upon the opening of a new cornerless building in Singapore, about the place having nowhere for them to lepak (loiter)?

And then there is the comparable language politics of Singapore and Manticura. In Singapore, English, ostensibly racially neutral, is deployed as our administrative language, as a way of reassuring Singaporeans of our racial equality. After all, if everyone has to learn a "foreign" language, no race is particularly advantaged. However, Singapore has always been unabashedly described by our political leaders as a society of Asian (read: Confucian) values. While Singaporeans might speak in the same language, the cultural direction we gravitate towards is often Chinese. Therefore, English usage in Singapore creates the illusion of social cohesion and glosses over our racial differences, while hegemonic discourse quietly imposes Chinese culture onto the Singaporean racial minority.

In Manticura, a similar project is attempted: "Sce' 'dal, the lingua franca of the Layeptic region," has been largely replaced by Ro' 'dal, the colonial tongue used by the classy, educated, big city dwellers of Jankett Town. Remnant speakers of Sce' 'dal, as we find amongst the Nelroote dwellers, have been literally driven underground, and those that want to leave Nelroote for the outside world are forced give up Sce' 'dal for Ro' 'dal. Like in Singapore, the ability to speak in the common tongue confers the right to assimilate in the cultural mainstream. Yet this belonging would, as Ria's Cikgu astutely points out, lead to minorities "dying out of their traditions." Like Singapore's deployment of English as a way of co-opting minorities in the eradication of their own culture, Manticura's Ro' 'dal aims at homogenising the Manticurian populace by eradicating species differences, and bringing what it sees as racial aberrance to heel through the implementation of a common language policy.

Early reviewers have called The Gatekeeper a world-building novel. And to non-Singaporean readers, this might very well be the case. After all, The Gatekeeper draws on many characteristics of the world-building genre: there are the charmingly hand drawn map of Nelroote and the Layeptic regions, fantastic anthropomorphic races and a small, constructed lexicon of the dying Tuyunri language, complemented with an appendix chronicling a brief history of Manticura. But for this reader, the many correspondences between Norasid's Manticura and Singapore complicate his reading of The Gatekeeper simply as a fantasy/speculative novel. Too much of the novel is presently lived reality.

The Gatekeeper is not what might be called an exceptionally well-crafted novel. Norasid's narration is smooth, but her use of language is unremarkable, and there are few memorable or quotable lines. Characterisation is not particularly effective: Ria is understandably defensive, being a feared social outcast in both Nelroote and the outside world. However, like a tightly clenched fist, she never opens up emotionally to other characters or readers. Her reserve translates into inscrutability; her motivations, so important to the events of the novel, are opaque to us. Eedric, on the other hand, is a privileged, petulant, unlovable softboy with little emotional depth. But overlooking the plainness of its craft, The Gatekeeper is an accomplished novel. If a top-down concept of "multiculturalism" has stifled important national conversations on race, Norasid's novel speaks hard truth to power. Its biting exploration of the power structures set up by the ideology of multiculturalism exposes discriminations enabled by the ideology.

For the Greeks, recognition is famously the passage from ignorance to knowledge. But importantly, recognition constitutes the acquiring of a special kind of knowledge. To recognise is not to gain new knowledge, but to become reacquainted with something we already knew deep in our hearts but had forgotten about. To read The Gatekeeper is to come into one such recognition: the racism in plain sight in our lives. Norasid's novel holds up a mirror to Singaporean society and pries our eyes open to the realities of our racial complacencies. Drawing on the lessons from The Gatekeeper, we learn to see again.


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