Singapore: no man’s land

This was one of the books picked out for me by Rafidah and the bookseller at Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur. Part of the Quintessential Asia series published by Singporean company SNP, it’s the sort of thing I would have been very unlikely to have found sitting in my south London flat googling ‘Singapore+writer’ (even though it won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1992).

The novel follows art teacher Suwen as she struggles to break out of the bland routine into which her life has settled since she returned home from studying in the UK. Eager to create something significant, she embarks on a project to ‘marry history and art’ in one ambitious installation that will capture the character of her complex and multifaceted homeland. But as Suwen researches ‘the strands of different histories and cultures woven into [Singapore’s] modern fabric of many hues and textures’, she finds that the conflicts and contradictions in society are sewn into her own personality too, and is forced to confront the reasons for her withdrawal from the world.

Suchen Christine Lim’s great talents are her abilities to evoke experiences, conjure voices and tells stories from a wide variety of perspectives. Whether she’s describing the crushing hardships endured by Singapore’s rickshaw coolies 100 years ago or the existential crises of art students, she has the knack of making the reader live and breathe the narrative with her.

This large empathy enables her to enter into complex cultural issues more fully than many other writers manage to do. And in Singapore, a land jostling with Eurasians and Chindians where Singlish is the most common language, the search for identity and common ground is a particularly rich seam.

As a British reader, I was especially interested by the presentation of the UK and its colonial legacy in the book. While some of it, such as references to ‘those patronising asses from the British Council’, made me smile, there was a lot to ponder and be challenged by and I was intrigued by the difference in thinking Suwen identifies between people who studied in the Eastern education system and ‘English-educated malcontents’ like her. Perhaps most thought-provoking of all was her angry accusation to Scottish colleague Mark, the man she secretly loves:

‘You British always pride yourselves as playing cricket and being fair. But deep down, you’re all racists to the bone.’

The British nationality is by no means the only one to be dissected in the novel. Malaysians, Indians and Chinese, among others, all have their turn in relation to the no-man’s-land of mid-20th-century Singapore and are all shown to be riddled with conflicts and compromises.

Shifting between so many perspectives, timeframes and stories – not to mention Suwen’s own personal history – requires some fancy footwork on Lim’s part. This is usually well-handled, although the scenery for the next act does occasionally come crashing down abruptly before the characters have quite left the stage.

Similarly, while the many complex discussions of nationality, identity, art and history succeed in feeling natural nearly all the time, people do once or twice step away from the action to deliver a Brechtian monologue.

Overall, though, this is a fearless and engrossing book that goes to the heart of human fears and insecurities. While presenting a picture of a specific place in a particularly rich and turbulent period of its history, it throws the door open to shed light on humanity all over the world. I loved it.

Thanks Rafidah and Silverfish Books. If I’m ever in Kuala Lumpur, I’ll definitely be stopping by.

Fistful of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim (SNP Editions, 2003)