Singapore Annotated Bibliography
Bryant, Shelly. “Rewrites,” Fish Eats Lion, Math Paper Press, 2012, pp. 99-110.
This short story, set in the near future, acknowledges the global destruction of ecosystems and presents the idea of rehabilitating these systems by replacing the organic structures with synthetic copies, called ‘rewrites.’ The synthetic rewrites are capable of evolution and reproduction, but lack organic materials, and are therefore supposed to be easier to control, manipulate, and monitor. However, this goes awry when the main developer shows potential investors his synthetic coral reef and discovers all his animals destroyed by a single hagfish (the evolutionary calculations had been misjudged by several thousand years, and other species did not adapt as quickly). While most of the international delegates and the developer desire to keep the synthetic hagfish out of the oceans, the American successfully purchases the hagfish to use as a threat when bargaining for international trade. Despite that the intentions of the characters (except the American) are generally good, the story still critiques their actions and assumptions. The idea of controlling an entire ecosystem is driven by an amazing hubris, and parallels can be drawn between this story and Singapore’s practice of reclaiming land. This story insists that humans are unable to control natural environments and interactions, despite best efforts and intentions. Instead of rewriting the entire planet, this story implores humans to critically consider the ecological damage they are facilitating and to renegotiate their engagements with the land. Additionally, the theme of control and governmental planning of ecosystems can be mapped onto social interactions between humans, and methods of social control used in Singapore. The preface of the anthology this story appears in references Singapore’s position as a “‘Fine’ Country,” a title the government promotes and that describes the fines levied against litterers (13). Singapore enforces cleanliness as a means of enforcing social order, and the story “Rewrites” takes these contemporary principles of governance and applies them to an ecological setting.
Keywords: Environmental Degradation, Water, Transnational Trade, Sustainability
Genres: Fiction, speculative
Chow, Clara. Dream Storeys, Ethos Books, 2016.
This collection of short stories arises from Chow’s interviews with various architects about their dream buildings. These buildings were then used as inspirations for settings and stories. Most of the chapters are arranged with a transcript of the interview followed by the short story connected to that interview, though one has two interviews, another has two stories, and the epilogue is a story on its own. The interviews all contain a version of the question: Disregarding physics, money, etc., what is your dream building? Instead of distinctly science fiction answers (such as a floating building) the architects tend to answer with more plausible building designs with the buildings put to interesting uses or incorporated into Singapore in a meaningful way that gestures toward the natural landscape. For example, Michael Leong answers that his dream building would be an integral part of its surroundings and would have a distinct function, such as a carpark (75-7). Another example is Olivia Tang’s idea to build a tree house safe for children and elderly people, so that they can interact with each other (131).
The stories that emerge from the interviews often show the failure of the buildings or how society uses the buildings and then discards them. For example, Dr. Lai Chee Kien’s dream building would encourage the resurrection of open-air markets and mingling of various peoples (58). Chow begins with that premise being realized after the discovery of a massive dinosaur fossil in Singapore, but the concept quickly succumbs to capitalistic exploitation where the markets and fairs are all controlled by a central group and aimed for tourists, as Singaporeans have become fatigued by the incessant dinosaur-themed fairs (61-71). Seemingly disparate, some characters appear across stories, and by the epilogue it is clear that all these stories are set in the same alternate version of Singapore, separated only by time. Many of the stories blend human folly and environmental development/destruction to thwart the good intentions of the architects’ dreams. Underlying and accompanying themes are the notions that plans will go awry when the government attempts to control the development of the nation too strictly and that capitalist exploitation of buildings will result in the downfall of those buildings. This story collection does not argue that these elements be eliminated, but rather that they should both be limited. Good planning should contain room for growth and encourage multiple approaches and uses of buildings and sites.
Keywords: Environmental Degradation, Architecture, Multiplicity, Landscape/Skyline
Genre: Fiction, speculative
Goh Poh Seng. If We Dream Too Long. 1972, National University of Singapore, introduction by Koh Tai Ann, 2010.
Dr. Goh’s book If We Dream Too Long is often hailed as Singapore’s first literary novel, that is, a novel with equal parts attention given to plot as to craft. Published in a time where poetry was considered the highest written artform in Singapore, and by a medical doctor (a literary outsider), this novel was initially ignored or dismissed by critics (xxvi). If We Dream Too Long follows Kwang Meng, an average Singaporean and recent graduate of a stream designed for white collar workers who finds a job as a desk clerk (the same job his father works, which leads to familial tensions as the father believes his son could do better). Kwang Meng eschews tradition and what is expected of him until his father falls ill and he is forced to confront the inescapable reality of providing for his family. The novel ends with Kwang Meng’s father giving him money for a night out, presumably a gesture meant to understand the difficulty of Meng’s situation and the high expectations his father previously had for him. Throughout the novel, the Kwang Meng grapples with his ‘fate’ as repeating his father’s life, a fate he first rebels against by engaging in a relationship with a ‘bar girl’ and then almost accepts with Anne, a young woman who would make a proper wife. Most constant through the book are Kwang Meng’s fascination with the sea and his derision of his menial job. To Meng, the sea becomes his private escape, a place where he can watch the boats and imagine that they might be the same boats, that within his rapidly changing world—friends moving on, aging parents, expectations of marriage—there is at least one constant found in the sea and the evening boats.
Often criticized as too epitomic of a coming-of-age tale, If We Dream Too Long offers insight into Singapore circa 1960s and the socioeconomic stresses of the middle-lower class during Singapore’s establishment as a nation-state, which makes this bildungsroman particular to a burgeoning post-colonial Asian setting, rather than the European models that most likely provided guides. This novel relies on fluid timelines, where a present moment bleeds backward into the past before continuing forward, a trait common throughout Singaporean literature and still used in contemporary novels.
Keywords: Post-colonialism, Multiplicity, Water, Social Status
Genre: Fiction, realist
Lim, Charles. SEA STATE. Singapore National Arts Council, edited by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, designed by Philipp Aldrup, for the Singapore Pavilion at the 56th Biennale in Venice, Italy, 2015. www.seastate.sg.
This book accompanies an art installation shown at Singapore’s Pavilion in Venice, Italy, for the 56th Biennale in 2015. The display featured a mix of videos, 3-dimensional pieces (such as a recreated lost buoy from the Island Sajahat, which has also disappeared), maps (altered or otherwise), and photographs. The project has been ongoing since 2005 and links the distinct projects together by the title theme. “Sea State” as a phrase refers to both the state of the sea— the ecological, spatial, and climatic conditions of the ocean—as well as Singapore as an island. Singapore is a nation governed by the sea (in terms of size, environmental disasters, etc.) and a state that insists on governing the ocean surrounding it through the GRID, reclamation, and underwater excavations, in addition to trading with other countries and personal and commercial fishing, and the title of Lim’s project allude to these multiple layers of understanding and experience.
The GRID is a system designed to literally grid the ocean with coordinates blocked into 1-square mile and that square divided into 4 equal parts and labelled A-D. Each lettered block is further subdivided by latitude and longitude to allow for pinpoint locations to be given to port authorities when fishermen or leisure boaters anchor their vessels. This GRID is included in Lim’s work as maps, but also as an interview with its creator, Captain Wilson Chua, that is printed in the bound book (122-30). The GRID now encroaches on Singapore’s land, thanks to the practice of land reclamation combined with an unchanged map (125). The book version of Lim’s work includes photographs of his pieces, a few interviews about the inspirations Lim draws on (such as the GRID), and essays about his work by: Ute Meta Bauer, Prasenjit Duara, Kevin Chua, Anselm Franke, Foo Say Juan, Ahmed Mashadi, and Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, who also edited the book. The two forewords are by Eugene Tan and Kathy Lai, respectively.
Keywords: Water, Transnational Trade, Reclamation, Multiplicity, Mapping
Genre: multi-media, audio-visual and textual
Lundberg, Jason Erik, editor. Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction, Math Paper Press, 2012.
This collection of short fiction offers a buffet of speculative works, from apocalyptic to mythic to aliens to time-travel to near-future versions of Singapore, these stories investigate similar themes and anxieties about contemporary life in Singapore. All the stories are set in some iteration of Singapore and as such most are concerned with Singapore’s rapid expansion, place within global politics, and the future course of development.
For example, The Centipede Collective’s “Chapter 28: Energy” introduces a Singapore that harnesses energy from recently deceased human corpses to power the city in the style of an informative text meant to relay historical events and to convince the future to uphold the energy solution (323-35). This story cleverly plays with Singapore’s tendency to acronymise institutions by inventing new government agencies—ie: the “Regenerative Humanity Action Board” becomes “ReHAB” and the “Energy Market Bureau” becomes “EMBr”—and this wordplay offers a critique of the involvement of governmental bodies in Singapore (331). This story and others question the level of governmental involvement in Singapore’s progress, often underscored by the thought of developing too rapidly; the stories ask: is unsustainable resource and land consumption worth gaining socio-political ground on the global stage? While some stories are satirical or more readily judge Singapore’s development and expansion, others merely present the questions and ask the reader to critically assess the situations for themselves. Please see the annotations for Ng Yi Sheng’s “Agnes Joaquim, Bioterrorist” and Shelly Bryant’s “Rewrite” for more in-depth analyses of particularly relevant works.
Keywords: Nation Building, Re/development, Technology, Government Intervention
Genre: Fiction, Speculative
Mam, Kalyanee. Director and producer, Lost World, Go Project Films, Emergence Magazine, 2018. https://emergencemagazine.org/story/lost-world/?utm_source=Mekong+Eye&utm_campaign=2379ce6973-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_10_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5d4083d243-2379ce6973-527541357.
This short documentary follows Phalla Vy, a Cambodian woman, as she sees firsthand the dredging of sand from Cambodia and traces it to the shores of Singapore and the botanical gardens built of similarly sourced land. Phalla Vy and her family rely on fishing and trapping crabs along the coast and mandrake forests of Cambodia for their livelihoods, and the practice of dredging is a direct threat to those occupations. The constant removal of sand creates an unstable environment for fish and crabs, and as a result those populations have dwindled and many of the fisher-families have been separated as family members leave their homes to find work elsewhere. The women who are left behind are forced to fish and trap further from their homes, which takes them away from their children, sometimes even for days as they must travel greater distances than ever before. Phalla Vy shares her stories and thoughts about land reclamation in her native language, and English subtitles are provided. Facts, such as Singapore’s importation of 80 million tonnes of sand from Cambodia since 2007, are presented as block texts over shots of the changing landscape and dredging equipment. The documentary raises questions about human relationships to land and ideas of nature/ ‘natural’ in the face of globalization and capitalist endeavors.
Keywords: Ecofeminism, Environmental Degradation, Landscape/Skylines, Reclamation, Transnational Trade, Water
Genre: nonfiction, documentary, visual media
Markasan, Suratman. Penghulu, translated by Solehah Ishak, Epigram Books, 2012.
This novel follows Pak Suleh, the former penghulu of Pulau Sebidang, and his family as he attempts to reclaim space on his lost island. Pak Suleh and his wife and children are Malays, displaced from their traditional homeland and relocated to Singapore (often called ‘the mainland’) in 1990 and live in the HDB flats for five years before Pak Suleh decides he will return to his homeland with his wife and youngest daughter. The book incorporates Islam teachings and morality as a counter to Singapore’s rapid development (the impetus of which is unholy human greed). Pak Suleh spends the beginning parts of the novel grappling with his belief that city life produces sin and pollution and his worries that his children are being corrupted by this. His concerns are not unfounded, as the book begins with his youngest daughter’s disappearance and subsequent reappearance as inhabited by a jinn, and his youngest son develops a drug addiction and is incarcerated as a result of this addiction.
In opposition to Pak Suleh are two of his sons-in-laws, one of whom aspires to the highest appointment of the Islamic faith in Singapore, and the other who desires (and obtains) a seat as a member of parliament. The novel argues for the return to traditional family values and worshipping of Allah to combat the ills of globalization and metropolitan expansion. After Pak Suleh reaches his homeland, his son-in-law attempts to remove him, as no one is allowed on that island (it is slated for development as an oil refinery, after first being considered for a hotel resort). However, the son-in-law is stumped when Pak Suleh seemingly vanishes, with all traces of himself, his family, and their hut erased from the island. This is credited as being an act of God—Pak Suleh and his family were honoring Allah, so Allah hid them from a corrupt government that wished to disrupt their lives. Suratman’s novel ends with the observation that all news reports on the incident quieted quickly because such divisive media reports run counter to Singapore’s goal of creating a unified nation from disparate ethnic groups (243). This novel is not subtle in its critiques of Singapore, though does complicate some judgements by offering insight into the sinful character’s minds (each character truly believes they are doing their best and are acting in accordance with God’s will), though the ending firmly sides against capitalist and nationalistic expansion.
Keywords: Indigenous Peoples, Re/development, Nation Building, Government Intervention
Genre: fiction, some elements of speculative fiction, but primarily realist
Martens Wong, Kevin. Altered Straits, Epigram books, 2016.
This novel has two parallel stories and universes, one that follows Titus Ang in 2045 in Singapore, the other following Naufal in Singapura in 1945. The timeline in 2045 appears to be a future version of contemporary Singapore, with historical references to the World Wars. In this story, a cybernetic hive-mind called the Concordance threatens all of humanity and Singapore is one of the last hold-outs. To combat this enemy, biologists have bioengineered several species, among them a merlion, but for the species to develop to a useful point, they had to send it back in time. However, when they time-travelled the merlions (and other species), the scientists inadvertently sent them to a parallel universe. Titus and his crew are tasked with travelling to the other universe to retrieve the merlions to use against the Concordance. When Titus and his group travel to Singapura, the Concordance notices the disturbance in the universe and follows them into the other timeline, driven by its need to obtain all knowledge, as it gains a subject’s knowledge and intelligence as it consumes them.
In Naufal’s world, the merlions have been military allies with Singapura for the last century. The merlions are pair-bonded with select human soldiers (those who have a specific biological trait to allow this) which enables the humans to access the gestalt, the hive-mind the merlions share. Rarely, merlions distinguish themselves, meaning they become more individualized, with the ability to share their thoughts with the group or the hide them or to only share with the individual human they are bonded with. Naufal, like his brother, has a distinguished merlion, Bahana, and is conscripted to fight a war with a neighboring country that uses the Anteboga as their main weapon.
In addition to the large-scale conflicts in both timelines, each has subplots that introduce key themes and provide motivations for Titus and Naufal. Titus wants to protect his family—mom, dad, and younger sister—from the Concordance, as well as his boyfriend, Akash. His relationship with Akash is seen as treason in his Singapore, because homosexual relationships do not produce children, and the Concordance has produced a population crisis. Criminals in Singapore are fed into a meat grinder and used as slop for livestock to prevent them becoming victims of the Concordance and to scare the population into adhering to the government’s policies (these ‘executions’ are publicly broadcast weekly). Both these situations raise questions of sacrificing the few for the many and testing the limits of ethics in the face of the destruction of humanity. This leads to the questions: what is humanity, and where/when does humanity end?
The other timeline draws on similar themes but approaches them through a different lens. In Singapura, Naufal is a child soldier, drafted to the war after his older brother is discharged from suffering a mental breakdown. Naufal’s parents, distraught at losing their ‘golden child,’ resort to gambling and drinking to numb the horrors of war and personal loss. Unable to cope, Naufal’s father decides to sell his eldest son to the circus where his deteriorated mental state can entertain others, and where he will be considered little more than an animal. This reiterates the ethical questions of the limits of humanity but filtered through a more intimate scenario.
Extrapolating to contemporary Singapore, Altered Straits questions the position of the city-state in relation to its citizens, the pursuit of knowledge and technological advancement for its own sake, the obligations of humans to each other and animals (those ‘naturally’ occurring and those potentially created), and the limitations or boundaries of humanity and how Singapore defines these (in terms of gender/ sexual orientation and mental health issues).
Keywords: Merlion, Re/development, Technology, Environmental Degradation, Liminality
Genre: Fiction, speculative
Norasid, Nuraliah. The Gatekeeper, Epigram Books, 2017.
Deeply entrenched and invested in Singapore, this novel offers intense critiques of that city-state’s development through a defamiliarized version of that city. Manticura, Singapore’s stand-in, is a city-state occupied by Humans, Cayanese, Feleenese, Tuyun, and Scereans. Each of these humanoid races has its own history, hinted at in the story proper and more explicitly explained in a timeline presented as “Appendix I” (281-90). These races can be interpreted as the various cultural and ethnic groups that inhabit contemporary Singapore, among them Malays, Indonesians, Chinese, Japanese, British, Indians, and other immigrants, though the races in the story-world cannot be mapped one-to-one onto these ethnic groups. The story-world of Manticura shows social striations—upheld by racism—between the various races (despite legal equality) and layers this with class-based prejudices, resulting in the Human colonisers being the wealthiest and most influential members of society. Manticura itself is a city booming with technology and industry; skyscrapers occupy the skyline and the streets are kept clean through stringent fines and penalties.
The worldbuilding is expansive, but operates in the background of the story that follows Ria, a medusa, and Eedric, a survivalist. Medusas are not among the common races and are generally considered either myths or animals by all people except those in the underground city Nelroote, where Ria and her sister take refuge and integrate themselves into society. Survivalists, also known as Changers, appear Human, but in times of stress can change into another race, and have mixed racial backgrounds. Eedric spends most of his life as a Human, until encountering Ria who, by being so alienated from society so as to be a fugitive, helps him reconcile the ‘undesirable’ aspects of himself.
Through these characters and their interactions in their settings—Manticura and its underground-mirror Nelroote—The Gatekeeper draws attention to contemporary social issues within Singapore. A theme running throughout the novel is the impact of rapid land development on the surrounding jungle—it is the impetuous behind Ria and her sister’s flight to Nelroote and commented on each time Ria is outside that city.
Keywords: Re/development, Immigration, Colonialism/ Post-colonialism, Ecofeminism, Environmental Degradation
Genre: Fiction, speculative
Ng Yi-Sheng. “Agnes Joaquim, Bioterrorist,” Fish Eats Lion, Math Paper Press, 2012, pp. 31-45.
This short story presents an alternate history where from 1894-99 a woman named Agnes Joaquim traversed the globe and assassinated world leaders. Her weapon of choice was a species of orchid she discovered—this orchid told Agnes: “only you can change the world,” which prompted Agnes to biologically engineer the orchid into a weapon (36). Running parallel to the story of Agnes’s work, is the subplot of revolution in Singapore. The masses of labourers were eschewing the government sanctioned opium in favour of a cheaper drug called Joaquimine. This new drug was developed from the orchid Agnes uses and conveys the same message to the users as the flower whispered to Agnes. This make the working class rebellious and industrious, with their efforts aligned against the British Empire’s. Eventually the drug is smuggled to the rest of the world, Queen Victoria is killed by the flower, and Agnes is found dead from a tumour.
Instead of a Marxist take on revolution and revolt, this story presents a world where change is accomplished through individuals’ beliefs that they alone can inspire that change. Extrapolating outwards, this story argues that colonized nations, such as Singapore, deserve the right to be self-governing and self-determining, but tempers this position with the acknowledgement that such responsibility can result in self-destruction. However, the possibility for hardship is not an excuse to allow colonialism to continue, as throughout the story the ruling British Empire is seen as ineffective both in Singapore and abroad. Instead, the story cautions Singapore against becoming a nation like Britain and asks for a more local solution to problems arising in the developing country. The historical setting of this story foregrounds Singapore’s potential without the constraints of the development that has already occurred. This setting and the deaths of major world leaders allows for the possibility of redefining Singapore or reconceptualizing how Singapore will advance without pressures from other global powers (or, at least, without the same pressures Singapore faced in reality).
Keywords: Nation Building, Colonialism/ Post-colonialism, Ecofeminism
Genre: Fiction, speculative
Shiau, Daren V. L. Heartland, Ethos Books, 1999, reprinted 2002.
This novel follows in the tradition of Goh Poh Seng’s If We Dream Too Long, with the protagonist, Wing, being a listless Singaporean on the cusp of adulthood. In the mid-1990s, Wing is part of a generation born after the Japanese occupation and after Singapore has gained independence. He feels class differences more acutely than ethnic divides, which leads to conflicts with the parents and grandparents of the girls he dates and with his own mother who insists on performing traditional rituals, such as those for qing ming. Wing’s obliviousness and lack of ambition continually frustrate his efforts, but he does not recognize this, and so does not change. This lack of ambition is connected to his feelings of displacement within his home—Wing is incapable of leaving his childhood home, but also feels like an outsider as all his family except his mother lives in Malacca, not Singapore, and his mother decides to move to be with the rest of the family near the end of the book.
Throughout Heartland the multiculturality of Singapore is highlighted, as well as its position as becoming a global force. Students who can afford to or who have high enough marks leave to study abroad, various ethnicities populate the food stalls and markets, the rise of the internet is frequently mentioned, and multiple languages and religions are represented. Running alongside the main story is a historical/mythical recounting of the events of Singapore’s original founding, starting with Alexander the Great and leading through Sand Nila Utama (Alexander’s heir, born to a sea princess, and inheritor of lands) until the British colonization and Resident Crawford’s decisions to build roadways through traditional Malay lands. Additionally, perspectives from peripheral characters are shared to give contrast to Wing’s outlook and experiences.
This novel critiques colonialism and the erasures of history enacted on Singapore by first the British and later the Japanese, not blaming either of those nations in particular, but rather the entire practice of colonization. This erasure produces the feelings of rootlessness embodied by Wing.
Keywords: Colonialism/ Post-colonialism, Japanese Occupation, Social Status
Genre: Fiction, realist
Tan, Sandi. The Black Isle, Grand Central Publishing, 2012.
The Black Isle draws primarily on Malay supernatural beliefs, with some Japanese myths woven into fictitious landscape resembling Singapore. The small island located in Southeast Asia, and known as the Black Isle, or the Isle, throughout the novel begins as a British colony, is then invaded by Japan during WWII, returned to Britain after the war, and becomes, finally, an independent state. Though the dates of Japanese occupation within the novel align with those of Singapore’s, the Black Isle gained independence a full five years earlier than Singapore. The discrepancy of dates prevents a reader from interpreting the novel as a complete and accurate representation of Singapore’s history, which allows the book to perform as any good novel should: as a fiction that speaks truths without being true.
The Black Isle is the narrator’s, Cassandra’s, story; her life as it entwined with that of the island. The protagonist immigrates from Shanghai with her father and twin brother to the Black Isle as a young child in 1929 and records her story in Tokyo in 2010 after finding all mentions of herself slowly erased from history. This recording of events is also prompted by an unknown professor who reaches out to tell Cassandra she’s in danger and that the professor can deliver Cassandra’s deepest desire in exchange for her story. Thus, the novel begins as a mystery story. In her retelling of her history, Cassandra inadvertently tells the becoming of the Black Isle. From its beginnings as an island home to the indigenous Malays to its colonization and subsequent status as a ‘promise-land’ of good fortunes (when Cassandra arrives), through her work on a plantation, her cozy life as a fiancée to a wealthy man’s son, her captivity as a Japanese lieutenant colonel’s ‘wife,’ time spent in a resistance communist camp after the war, her lucrative position as a ghost hunter, and her final occupation as a librarian, the book touches on a variety of socioeconomic realms, all navigated and filtered through Cassandra’s experiences of them as a Chinese woman.
These plot points invariably struggle with reconciling issues of immigration and progress, with the post-war chapters also introducing anxieties of social decorum and presentation on a global stage, as exemplified in the character Kenneth Kee and his many redevelopment projects—among them multiple reclamations, replacing older dwellings with new (and displacing/murdering residents to accomplish this), and the destruction of sacred spaces for the island’s advancement. While the novel does not pass judgement on the oftentimes heinous actions of it’s characters, it does maintain a strict policy of consequence. The most striking example of this is the response to Kenneth Kee’s insistent development of the Isle at any cost. His early expansions of the island and destruction of the jungle occur without incident, and emboldened, Kee disregards a promise he made and desecrates a graveyard to build an underground transit station. The ghosts of the graveyard rise up and kill many of the workers (mostly immigrants), until Kee intervenes by agreeing to meet them in the cavern of corpses his workers have hollowed out. Unsurprisingly, the ghosts exact their revenge on Kee for all the disruptions across the island that caused many to be displaced from their resting grounds. However, the ghosts are not simply figures for a prelapsarian version of the Isle, against all development, as they exist throughout time and the Black Isle is presented as never having had a perfect origin (though Issa’s character believes in one). The ghosts, literal and metaphorical, are the embodiment of consequence, a reminder that any change—good or bad—results in other ripple effects or exacts a payment not necessarily obvious. Through the ghosts, we can explore beyond questions of whether development—social, economic, geographical—on the Black Isle (which extrapolates to include contemporary Singapore) is simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and can question what does ‘development’ mean and look like? What impacts will this development have, and at what costs?
Keywords: Colonialism/ Post-colonialism, Japanese Occupation, Immigration, Indigenous Peoples, Myths, Nation Building
Genre: Fiction, speculative fiction
Tham, Claire. The Inlet. Ethos Books, 2013.
This novel, loosely based on a true story (as stated in its synopsis), follows the story of a young woman who drowns in a rich man’s pool in Singapore. Told through multiple perspectives, the novel offers insights into the cultural milieu of contemporary Singapore while reflecting the at-times paradoxical nature of the city-state in the novel’s structure. Most of the chapters occur chronologically, though each digresses into flashbacks that establish the focal characters’ backstories. However, the chapters that follow Wang Ling (the woman who dies nearly at the novel’s outset) are set prior to her death, and the timeline is indicated in relation to the ‘present’ narrative. The juxtaposition of two timelines (and the continual interruption of the present narrative with tidbits of the past) demonstrate a social anxiety regarding Singapore’s rapid development and transformation, as each of the characters are intimately connected to this changing political/social/economic/geographic landscape.
On a surface level, The Inlet shows the intricacies of human relationships and the cause/effect one life has on multiple others. At a deeper level the text grapples with questions of ‘what is natural?’ with many of the characters either referring to the metaphorical masks they wear for various types of social interactions or questioning if other characters they interact with have a put-on persona. This investigation of self is the novel’s conceit for the self-questioning of Singapore as a relatively new nation state; does a ‘genuine’ Singapore exist? how should Singapore interact with other countries? do all countries present a façade on the global stage?
Further problematizing these questions in the novel are the preoccupations regarding immigration and the place of immigrants in Singapore. Wang Ling is a Chinese immigrant in Singapore with a work visa, and other characters hail from Hong Kong, India, New York, Malaysia, or else are Singaporeans who attended British or American universities or have attained citizenship in Singapore after leaving their birthplace. The very idea of who is Singaporean becomes muddled by these subtle distinctions which the characters use to hierarchize themselves and each other. Further complicating this notion of national identity is the confluence of multiple languages (English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay, etc). While the novel indicates a tension between individuals who view themselves as Singaporean and others as immigrants or interlopers, those same characters often recognize the value of speaking multiple languages—in other words, there is a value in what outsiders bring to Singapore, but those doing the bringing are not often welcome.
The Inlet offers a possible explanation for this in the paradigm of daily living that benefits from the influx of language, goods, and capital, and the nostalgia for changing landscapes that inevitably emerge with new developments. Many of the born-and-raised Singaporean characters return to old haunts only to realise that in their absence—often while they were making money in international trading or development—the space has been irrevocably changed, whether it be whole communities demolished and rebuilt, the change of demographics (ie: an area that use to house lower-class elderly people has changed into a hub for urban business), or the geographical change of the coastline through reclamation. Weaving through all these facets of Singaporean identity is the prevalence of wealth and the looming threat of bankruptcy, a feeling of intangibility, that anything gained can be lost without warning.
Keywords: Immigration, Social Status, Nation Building, Languages
Genre: Fiction, realist
Thumboo, Edwin. Ulysses by the Merlion. Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1979.
This poetry collection melds the personal with the political—making each relevant to the other—within the context of Singapore’s establishment as a nation. Some poems capture the “ordinariness” of everyday, and the balancing of emotions and economics (“Words II” l. 9), or the comfort in speaking with old friends (“Conversation with my Friend Kwang Min at Loong Kwang of Outram Park” and “John”). While personal in nature, these poems are infused with social commentary. For example, “Relc” relays a story of two amicable neighbours, but in doing so acknowledges the vast differences—particularly linguistic and ethnic—between people living near each other (p. 20-21). On the surface, this poem merely observes one neighbourhood, but deeper, it speaks to the multi-racialness of Singapore and the need for people to approach one another with compassion when living in such confined spaces.
Other poems are more overtly political, such as “May 1954”, which directly addresses “white man” throughout and calls for the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore (p. 14-15). However, this large-scale issue is contextualised within the speaker’s desire to establish friendship with the white man, making the poem operate on an intimate level of two individuals speaking to each other, and as two nations conversing (p. 15). Both “Relc” and “May 1954” are examples of the personal and political meeting, a trait shared by the entire collection, with some poems seeming more personal on the surface or more political, with the subtext as the opposite.
The simultaneity of the personal and political speaks to Singapore’s self-fashioning during the period in which these poems were written. As a ‘new’ nation, Singapore needed to define itself while establishing itself within the context of global powers. Thumboo’s poems speak to the uncertainty and optimism of this task while grounding the words and images in the actuality of everyday encounters. Further emphasising this is the thread of religions and mythology throughout the poems—Gods from a multitude of cultures make appearances in various poems, speaking to the multicultural milieu within Singapore.
Keywords: Transnational Trade, Colonialism/ Post-colonialism, Immigration, Languages, Merlion
Tiang, Jeremy. It Never Rains on National Day. Epigram Books, 2015.
This collection of inter-connected short stories highlights Singapore’s position as a global city through the characters each story follows. Some characters, such as Sophia, Joy, and Calvin, leave Singapore to study or travel, but return to their homeland, their disparate stories coalescing in the book’s last story as they gather to celebrate National Day. Other characters, Li Hsia and an unnamed woman, have no solid plans of returning, both having escaped their jobs. An unnamed and failing writer in New York crosses paths with the unnamed Singaporean and celebrates National Day with her by drinking Coca-colas and smoking cigarettes. While the other characters embody various tensions and negotiations of Singaporean identities, this outsider provides another perspective, one of misunderstandings and awkwardness underscored with a desire for communication/ human connection in the face of the other (a reciprocal desire experienced by both the Singaporean and the American).
The various settings show the performativity of the characters—they each attempt to meld with the cities they find themselves in, often speaking languages other than Singlish, though each self-conscious about their façade. This insecurity of finding a sense of belonging that plagues each character in individual forms acts as a metaphor for Singapore’s own insecurity of being a new nation attempting to compete on the global stage economically, culturally, and militarily. These anxieties are brought to the forefront during the scenes of the National Day parade (which some characters watch from a distance, on a tv, or avoid) and during which the propagandist idealism of the country becomes more overt in its role of uniting a nation of mixed ethnicities and histories into a cohesive whole.
Keywords: Nation Building, Languages, Communication, Emigration, Immigration, Architecture, Government Intervention
Genre: Fiction, realist, short stories
Tiang, Jeremy. “National Day.” It Never Rains on National Day. Epigram Books, 2015, pp. 151-66.
Told in first person plural, this story follows a group of migrant workers from various countries who build the skyscrapers of Singapore. In the story, the group takes a small ship to St. John’s Island off the coast of Singapore, so they can watch the fireworks and celebrations of Singapore’s National Day from a distance. The story balances itself on liminal spaces and separations: the gap between the workers and the residents, the workers and their home countries, the Island and the mainland, the structures the workers build but cannot afford to enter, the workers’ dreams and reality, the lush greenness of the land and the oily/ debris filled ocean. In an instance of confrontation that highlights the stark separations in the story, a Christian camp leader approaches the workers and asks them to leave, claiming they are camping illegally and will make the Island dirty, to which the workers remark that they “have seen how dirty the streets are each day” and watch as other migrant workers clean up after the residents before dawn (164). References to cleanliness and pollution abound, and this story highlights the ways Singapore hides evidence of its functioning where only outsiders who are integral to the city can see.
Keywords: Immigration, Nation Building, Landscape/ Skyline, Transnational Trade
Genre: Fiction, realist (short story)
Shiau, Daren and Lee Wei Fen, editors. Coast: 53 Works Titled Coast, A Mono-Titular Anthology of Singapore Writing. Math Paper Press, 2011.
As the title suggests, the editors of this anthology asked Singaporean writers to submit pieces titled “Coast” in an effort to examine the impact of this geographical space on writers in Singapore, where the coastline is ever shifting as a result of waves and reclamation. The anthology includes poetry, fiction (from realist to speculative/ supernatural), creative non-fiction, drama, and a critical introduction (also titled “Coast”). The repeating title mimics the shushing lull of waves on a beach, the reader knows the title will repeat, will be brought back to us, but as with waves, the accompanying stories will vary, like seaweed or bracken or dead logs. The refusal to differentiate the written pieces based on either theme or genre further compounds on this idea of the book itself as a representation of the coastline, because the reader does not know what will come next.
Sometimes, this uncertainty over the next work is benign, like a story enclosed in a bottle washing ashore, as in Sudev Suthendran’s poem that features a speaker and her lover in the only landscape that can contain them: the sea (208-09). While ripe with emotion and imagery, this poem (and others like it) refuses to comment specifically on Singapore and instead takes the idea of ‘coast’ as an internal rumination. These moments in the anthology are benign insomuch as they hide their politics and focus on the personal (however, these personal pieces demonstrate how the idea of the coast shapes individual lives with the subtext of the Singaporean state’s exertion of control over the shape of the coastline through reclamation, and so, by extension, some amount of control over the internal lives of its inhabitants).
Other, more obviously politically motivated pieces appear like the barges dumping sand onto the coastline, demanding attention and recognition. For example, Leonard Ng’s poem directly questions “Where is the sea…/ Where are the turtles…?” (ll. 1, 5) first crafting an image of a landscape lost, then ending with the knowledge that younger generations already don’t know what has been lost (50-1). This sadness permeates this piece and others and draws direct attention to the reclamation projects along Singapore’s coast, but does not cast this construction as inherently evil. Change becomes tinged with nostalgia in this collection designed to curate a distinctly Singaporean body of literature hemmed in by the notion of coast.
Keywords: Water, Reclamation, Myths, Multiplicity, Landscape/Skyline, Liminality
Genre: written text, cross-genres
HIGH TIDE/ IN BETWEEN
Wee, Jason. Labyrinths, 17 August 2017- 1 October 2017, site-specific installation and mixed-media wall art, Yavuz Gallery, https://www.artsy.net/artist/jason-wee/works?medium=installation&page=1&sort=-partner_updated_at.
This art installation features a display of partial fence links arranged in a maze-like order on the floor and various wall hangings, also made of fence pieces. These repurposed barricades speak to the creation of borders, both physically as well as politically, as Singapore has a tradition of fencing various public spaces to ensure their uses comply with their defined purposes. The fence complicates binaries of freedom/confinement and safety/privacy by being a medium simultaneously visible and transparent. Transparent in that the metal rods on the fences are thin and spaced, therefore enabling a viewer to look through them. However, in this display, looking through the fences, a viewer would only see more fences, until, looking to the back wall of the gallery, the viewer is confronted with white space and more fences, displayed on the walls and decorated with various evidences of use. For example, one of the wall hangings, Living Rooms, displays a fence with a shelf affixed to it that holds placards which allude to a high-tension public debate over Lee Kwan Yew’s Oxley Road House (Chloe Ho). In Obstacle Course, another of Wee’s wall hangings, the knit rope and watercolour print on the fence are reminiscent of the fencing off of Singapore’s Pink Dot festival in 2017 (Chloe Ho), as many of the attendees (or the foreigners who were unable to gain entrance to the LGBTQ event) took to tying ropes and pieces of knitting to the barricades as an act of defiance and solidarity. Wee’s installation does not moralise or provide solutions for political tensions in Singapore, rather, his display brings attention to the complicated nature of defining an organised and cohesive ‘public’ and the fraught geo-political negotiations that this produces.
Keywords: Nation Building, Liminality, Government Intervention
Genre: mixed-media, visual art
Yap, Arthur. Commonplace, Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1977.
In this book of poetry, Yap explores minute and regular daily observations both in Singapore and during his travels in the United Kingdom in 1975. The foreword by Ee Tiang Hong places Yap’s work apart from the works of Edwin Thumboo and others who saw poetry as a vessel for social commentary (ix). While Yap’s work does not overtly criticize or comment on the sociopolitical or socioeconomic conditions of Singapore, his precise choices of images and words can provide insight into daily activities that comprise social life in Singapore. For example, his poem “the coffee house, cockpit hotel” describes a bride, “her eyes, downcast” (l. 8) as she waits a floor above her wedding reception with a chaperone (42). The speaker then imagines a scenario where the young bride interrupts the reception on the lower floor to claim “her domain” (l. 24), but this scene is governed by the opening line: “not a daily occurrence” (l. 1). While the wedding in general could be the uncommon occurrence, more likely the chance for the bride to establish herself as an autonomous being is the irregularity. This reading then comments on the place of women in Singapore in the mid-1970s and demonstrates that Yap’s poetry does offer quiet critiques in its descriptions of mundane activities.
Alongside the poetry in this collection are a series of 16 images titled “black & white series no.” with the number in the series indicated for each painting. Ee Tiang Hong argues that the inclusion of these images recalls a Chinese tradition linked to calligraphy where “the picture and the poem inscribed on it reinforce the mood of each other and both are integral to the total visual effect” (xi). The paintings follow two similar veins, one of black and white geometric shapes, where each block of an image has it’s opposite (a mirrored image with the colours swapped) (no. 2, 4, 11, 12), and a blur of black and white that seems almost like a smudged photograph of a landscape with angular blocks overlaid (no. 1, 3, 5, 6, 10, 13, 15, 16). The paintings are separated from the words in that poems are not situated on the same pages as the images, but the interspersion of the paintings with the poems forces the paintings to be read like poems and within the Chinese tradition that artform emerges from, as indicated by the introductory preface.
Keywords: Multiplicity, Liminality
Yap, Arthur. “dramatis personae.” Down the Line, Heinemen Educational Books (Asia), 1980, 6-11.
Yap’s collection of poems titled Down the Line follows similar themes to those found in Commonplace (annotated above) or else engage in playful disruptions to grammar, and as such, the book in its entirety is not annotated here. However, “dramatis personae” is of note to this project because of its fascination with the liminal quality of public green spaces—areas that are city planned and regulated but designed to display and preserve natural flora and fauna. “dramatis personae,” a poem in three parts, describes in each part a public ‘green’ space (presumably in Singapore), including a “public park,” “public beach,” and “public pond” (ll. 1, 24, 45). This poem opens on a consideration of a public park, where people are able to observe flowers but cannot touch, this lack of action “humanizing the landscape” as much as plucking the flowers would (l. 8). Part two picks up on these ideas of the fallacy of a ‘natural space’ or of removing humans from nature while juxtaposing harsh images of “the neat, sharp smell of petrol,” a “sewer,” and “cement” (ll. 28, 36, 37). Part three rounds out the poem by casting the reader in the role of a pond that becomes too abstract for “little boys” who drown in the waters while searching for evidence of the lessons they’ve learned about “waterlife” during the week days (ll. 50-9). “dramatis personae” presents the reader with interactions between humans and designated public green spaces and emphasises the presence of human lives and activities without outright condemning these ‘man-made’ ‘natural’ environments.
Keywords: Liminality, Environmental Degradation, Government Intervention
Planning and Legal Documents
Ministry of National Development. “Land Use Plan.” Singapore Government. https://www.mnd.gov.sg/landuseplan/.
This webpage provides a table that documents how much land (in hectares) is being used for various purposes (such as: industry, parks, ports and airports, defence, etc) as of 2010, and the projected amounts of land needed for each purpose by 2030. A colour-coded map accompanies the table and illustrates projected locations of the different land uses and indicates areas for possible future reclamation beyond the 2030 plan. A brief explanation of the table and map states that to accommodate the projected population growth in Singapore, the government must reclaim land, develop some reserve lands, ensure all new developments support densification, and redevelop low-density land (such as golf courses) into high-density housing. For a more detailed annotation of this plan, see the following entry, which is an e-book that can be found in a link on this webpage.
Ministry of National Development. Land Use Plan to Support Singapore’s Future Population. Singapore Government. https://www.mnd.gov.sg/landuseplan/e-book/files/assets/basic-html/index.html#page1.
This e-book contains the detailed development plans for Singapore until 2030 (to find online, please visit the webpage for the above annotation and click the link to view this e-book online). Each chapter is divided into headers and sub-headers followed by detailed breakdowns for all land use developments. Some of these include public transit planning (LRT lines, train cars, buses, and bus/train stations), greenery (ie: rooftop or balcony gardens), foot paths, densification plans for apartments, and future reclamation projects. Where applicable, these details are accompanied by artist renderings or colour-coded maps to indicate the proposed changes. This document also addresses economical issues that intersect with land use and argues that the airport will be expanded to accommodate the needs of citizens and businesses for greater air travel, and to help provide new jobs during the construction and after completion of the project. This airport is one of the projects that relies on reclamation. The creation or further development of new communities is detailed, with attention paid to where commercial and nature hubs will be located, and how various transportation routes will connect those communities to the existing regions. These future communities and redevelopments are designed to integrate multiple functions, so that the areas become places for living, working, learning, creativity, and leisure. Research and development is proposed for creating floating facilities for waste disposal and power stations, underground developments and transportation corridors, and for ways to reduce travel times for people between work and home. While there is a lot of concern for reducing travel times, most of this concern is aimed at controlling vehicular congestion and making the city more liveable for residents, with reducing emissions being a potential side-effect but not priority. However, the ‘liveability’ of Singapore does indicate sustainability as a key factor for high-density living, so environmentally friendly practices are encouraged in future developments and redevelopments of existing communities, though no policies or guidelines for ecological planning are indicated in this document.
Boundaries and Survey Maps Act (Cap 25, 1998 Rev Ed Sing). https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/BSMA1998.
This Act defines all terms related to land surveying and stipulates the responsibilities and powers of the Chief Surveyor. The Chief Surveyor can survey any land not in use, create boundaries for new development zones, order land owners for surrounding areas to clear the new boundary lines, is responsible for ensuring the survey plans are appropriately filed, and can designate any surveyor some of these responsibilities. All boundaries are to be drawn with straight lines. The Act also details what documents or versions of documents are considered legally binding, so that even a document lacking the Chief Surveyor’s signature can still be in effect. Provisions are also listed in the case that corrections need to be made to either the written survey documents or the maps. Additionally, boundaries can need corrections due to changes in neighbouring zones. For example, if an area is being reclaimed for additional land, the existing land boundary will need to be adjusted to accommodate the new land. In these situations, the Chief Surveyor must publish a notice in the Gazette describing the alterations and the reasons behind them.
Foreshores Act (Cap 113, 1985 Rev Ed Sing). https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/FA1872.
The Foreshores Act allows the government of Singapore to develop wharves, jetties, etc., along the shoreline or in any river and to create ports and grants the power for the government to reclaim any land in any water, so long as the reclaimed land totals less than 8 hectares (or under 4 hectares when beside a port) without any additional approval or public input. The Act prohibits any person from suing or otherwise pursuing legal action against the government regarding reclaimed lands and the loss of waterfront views. The only compensation persons are eligible for is in the case of direct property or personal damage caused by the reclamation, and in this case, the Minister has absolute power to determine if the complainant is eligible and the amount of money for reparations. The government is granted the power to lease any reclaimed lands for terms not exceeding 100 years. Additionally, certain shoreline areas can be rented for trial periods of up to one year for individual use, and if public use is not disrupted, then those leases can be renewed, again for a short-term. Some shoreline areas can be rented to farmers, who can then rent out that same land to other tenants who will farm or fish in that area, provided that the farmer does not collect more rent money from his tenant than he pays to the government.
Land Acquisition Act (Cap 152, 1985 Rev Ed Sing). https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/LAA1966.
This Act specifies the steps taken during the government’s acquisition of new lands, availability of compensation, and legal recourse interested parties can take regarding disagreements over land divisions or compensation. Specific courses of action are detailed with reference to other acts, depending on the position of the person making inquiries or objections to governmental land acquisition. For example, corporations must fill out forms found in The Building Maintenance and Strata Management Act to received authorisation to launch a claim under this Act. Further, regarding any “non-lot acquisition” (the government’s acquisition of previously common property) only management corporations can launch complaints or apply for compensation, and anything filed by other persons can be dismissed without consideration. The Act also allows for the Collector (the person responsible for acquiring the lands) to summon individuals and corporations to provide statements regarding the impact of the transfer of the land and lists consequences for failure to acquiesce.
Urban Redevelopment Authority. “Concept Plan 2011 and MND Land Use Plan.” https://www.ura.gov.sg/Corporate/Planning/Concept-Plan/Land-Use-Plan.
This webpage provides a coloured map showing the projected distribution of land uses in Singapore for the following decade (2011-2021). The caption declares that this plan hopes to balance affordable homes, green spaces, access to transportation, and the economy with the expected population growth that would see Singapore reach 6.5-6.9 million people. This webpage does not go into details about how it will achieve any of this. The colours on the map shows what areas are allocated for what types of activities, but these are only in broad-strokes, such as “Residential,” “Commercial,” “Industry,” etc. This webpage should be read in conjunction with the “Master Plan 2014” webpage, which provides more specific details for what types of land use are permitted where. See also the annotations for the Ministry of National Development’s “Land Use Plan” and Land Use Plan to Support Singapore’s Future Population.
Lim, Ting Seng. “Land From Sand: Singapore’s Reclamation Story.” Biblioasia, 4 April 2017. http://www.nlb.gov.sg/biblioasia/2017/04/04/land-from-sand-singapores-reclamation-story/#sthash.6RyKQsH4.33j1LjZA.dpbs.
This article details Singapore’s history of reclaiming land, first by leveling mountains and hills on the islands and transporting the sand to the coast line, and later by importing sand from other Asian countries. The British began colonising Singapore in 1819, and by 1822 the first reclamation project was underway. This article details several reclamation projects and includes how much land was gained with each project. Maps and diagrams are supplied to indicate where expansion occurred, and photographs or paintings show before and after shots of various locations. Many of the reclamation projects have sought to join disparate islands together or to create a more accessible port area for commercial imports.
Genre: Journalism, investigative
Keywords: Reclamation, Colonisation, Maps, Coast line, Islands
Keywords: Architecture, Colonialism/ Post-colonialism, Communication, Ecofeminism, Emigration, Environmental Degradation, Government Intervention, Immigration, Indigenous Peoples, Japanese Occupation, Landscape/Skylines, Languages, Liminality, Mapping, Merlion, Multiplicity, Myths, Nation Building, Reclamation, Re/development, Social Status, Sustainability, Technology, Transnational Trade, Water