Book Review: Singa-Pura-Pura is Present, Plural and Problematises Tradition

Singa-Pura-Pura is necessary reading for anyone remotely interested in any given configuration of ‘Singapore’, ‘Malay’ and ‘literature’. From academics more accustomed to poring over manuscripts to even non-Malay neophytes, there is something for everyone to chew on in this especially colourful anthology of short stories. Responding to the dearth of Singaporean Malay authors writing in English, the project as spearheaded by Nazry Bahrawi is said to lay the seeds for a loose, non-organised aliran (movement), anticipating an imminent flood of more bilingually proficient writers.

Framing its thirteen short stories as works of speculative fiction, the carefully curated collection provokes both timely and timeless questions. As an editor, Nazry employs Margaret Atwood’s understanding of speculative fiction as “things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely”[1]. Despite sharing a healthy tolerance for the fantastic with the adjacent genre of science fiction, there is perhaps a preponderance on more pressing, contemporary issues.

PRESENT
Specific to Malay experiences in Singapore, the anthology reaches back into a living, breathing past, ponders looming futurities all while pointing to societal wrinkles very much persistent in the present. Indeed, it is hardly coincidental that half of the short stories adopt the rather marked present tense to detail the trials and tribulations of their protagonists. These authors are not writing of a stable past set in stone, but the events they relay seem to occur in real time and thus invite an equally immediate response. The boundaries between present and future are then blurred too as the problems plaguing these imagined futures are readily familiar now.

Pasidah Rahmat grappling with the loss of “privacy of personal information and freedom of movement”[2] in favour of an intrusive “Chip” is well-trodden territory about the cost of technological convenience. Likewise, the pastoral power already exercised by the paternalistic Singaporean state is exacerbated in Ila’s Mother Techno as it reduces matchmaking processes to the pairing of “male and female bodies”[3], underscoring the continued primacy of the heterosexual Famili Nuclear. The damaging effects of this existent, hegemonic rhetoric are made explicit as 30-year-old Siti is deemed “biologically impaired… incomplete”[4] on account of such a punishing metric.

In spite of Singa-Pura-Pura’s oft-dystopic overtones, one need not look further than the mobile applications weaved into the fabric of modern living to realise that what Siti calls their “algorithm[isation]” of human interactions is the natural consequence of our innately utilitarian relationship with technology (Siti “only talk[s] to machines so that they can serve [her] better”) – one which arguably worsens the uglier tendencies of society.

Hassan Hasaa’Ree Ali’s Doa.com also broaches the tried and tested topic of overreliance on technology but its specific intersection with ritualistic Islam prompts urgent considerations about memory and language. In Hassan’s distant future, the underground Pusara Abadi, now in its fourth iteration, will reportedly be “entirely air-conditioned” while graves come furnished with purchasable, pre-recorded supplications: Surah Yasin, doa selamat, tahlil, the whole works. For all these material comforts however, a certain sense of alienation haunts the cemetery and Lukman the Muslim-raised character, whose visits are further adorned with a “fancy grey blazer”, complete with “pricey $300 shoes”[5]. The commodified doa or supplication still provides a “comforting tune” and makes “him feel safe” yet physically, he is awkwardly “inert as the tombstones he had erected for his parents”, unmoved as he is unable to fully inhabit the grief he wants to experience. The elderly Wak Paiman who prefers old fashioned cleaning apparatus like the mop and broom, calls this anomaly out, “Why aren’t you in tears?”[6]. Could the fact that Lukman having “no idea what he was reciting”[7] even as a child have played a part? Wak Paiman sagely argues for a democracy in tongues when praying to an all-knowing God, but perhaps solely rote memory was never sufficient to begin with.

The artificiality of technology is thus positioned against phenomena that are said to be natural – a prescient and prevailing anxiety considering how the cerpen (short story) was originally published in 2013. What gets naturalised, including the significance accorded to inherited rituals, languages, and the way such knowledge is received, warrants re-examinations as well. Simultaneously, the “decrepit” book of supplications which Wak Paiman offers Lukman might not be as shiny as the slot-machine-equipped grave, but surely there is something to be said about a corporeal text that passes through both time and human hands.

PLURAL
If part of editor Nazry’s endeavour is to shift popular notions of Malay literature away from the mould of social realism and any similarly singular thematic preoccupations, Singa-Pura-Pura succeeds in provisioning readers with an abundance of plural possibilities for what such writings could look like. Between novel vignettes of mythical revisionism and the embrace of decidedly more posthuman imaginaries, the anthology zigzags from one vivid vision to another, forming a multivalent mosaic bound to intrigue.

For instance, Beginning by nor is a syncretic amalgamation of different origin narratives, primarily combining elements of Abrahamic geneses with their Southeast Asian counterparts. The folkloric figure of Sakatimuna, a “great cosmic snake”, easily doubles as the very same serpent who precipitated the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden although in this case, it is the progenitor of human “s-s-s-sad[ness]”. When abbreviated as “Saka”, a loose comparison could be made to the primordial Javanese legend of Aji Saka who is said to have introduced civilisation and the Javanese script to the southern corner of the Malay Archipelago – a tale involving a giant snake, too. Finally, Korma the bumi turtle is a nod to the avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu unflatteringly relegated to being a shell “formed out of Sakatimuna’s skin”[8]. Even in a diverse, multicultural narrative, it appears inevitable that some stories will rise to pre-eminence at the expense of others. Indeed, the creation myth of Sakatimuna in itself is already characterised by a brand of syncretism that Beginning clearly takes inspiration from. “Let there be light” is then transformed from an imperative made in isolation to a collaboration between at least two agents, revealing that the visible spectrum has always comprised of a multi-coloured rainbow as well.

Further, Singa-Pura-Pura offers a plurality in perspectives to the extent that it carves out space for less anthropocentric paradigms. Bani Haykal’s Isolated Future #2: MacRitchie Treetops wonders about the limited resource that is land in Singapore, envisioning a literal bottom-up restructuring of society which hopes to arrive at kinder, more plateaued communities whose care extend beyond just selfish humanity. The diaristic mode that Bani adopts feels welcoming, allowing for reflexivity (he catches himself “romanticising this episode”) and qualifications (“I might be wrong”) which tamper the supremacy of the authorial self. Isolated Future #2 aspires towards utopic inter-species relations[9], stretching the limits of human empathy to include “spiders [who] would send help messages when other predators were closing in,”[10] while also presenting more sensorial forms of communication (“if your hardware cannot smell, you cannot speak”) as solutions to problems of legibility.

Additionally, Tuty Alawiyah Isnin inquires, “What is a robot and how is it different from a human?” in (A)nak (I)bu. The hubris of anthropocentrism is what fuels the apparent anger of Adam, indignant at the very idea of a robot psychiatrist. He views it as a disruption to hierarchised labour – “robots have been invented to lighten the menial daily tasks”[11] only, not automatically attain doctorates when “human beings are made to struggle through all kinds of tests to attain academic qualifications from the ivory tower of educational institutions”[12]. For all the venom he displays however, Adam still has the capacity to develop a strong, even familial attachment to “Sarah, a robot resembling a female person”[13], who fostered him as a child. Considering the human tendency to create things in our own image, it is both paradoxical and predictable how much of technophobia revolves around anxieties over artificiality and the threat of obsolescence at our own hands.

PROBLEMATISING TRADITION
Singa-Pura-Pura also takes on the theme of tradition, but staying true to its title, the collection is not content to blindly adhere to existing hegemonic structures. In other words, it engages in storytelling that “do[es] not participate in the process of mimicking reality”, opting instead to propose re-imaginings of the familiar that are often barbed with less than subtle “jabs at contemporary social phenomenon”[14], questioning long-held prejudices in the process.

At the centre of Transgression by Diana Rahim is a contestation of Malay- Muslimness – an interrogation of the forces that attempt to fortify the hyphen as if a strict delineation can be drawn, clearly distinguishing one from the other. Diana turns her attention to the classical Malay dance of ulek mayang which ironically hails from the conservative Malaysian state of Terengganu. The accompanying narrative usually performed in song tells the tale of a fatal attraction between a sea-princess and a fisherman which culminates in conflict and an eventual separation. In Transgression, the character of Cahaya is the offspring left behind by both parents to contend with the trauma of severance all by her lonesome. Where there is cahaya (light) however, there is also darkness or rather, the shadow of the past which stubbornly attaches itself to or otherwise informs the present. History can neither be denied nor can it be so doggedly pursued that it comes at the price of an extant reality. Cahaya describes the supernatural vestiges of her mother tugging at her as “the feeling of being torn apart from herself”[15] symbolic perhaps of a past that is palpably and insistently intertwined with the present. In any case, can maternal love truly be considered transgressive, against “the natural laws”[16] or even supposedly religious ones? Like its kuda kepang counterpart, the unsur-unsur (elements) or even pengaruh (influence) of syirik (shirk) is an accusation that is readily lobbed at pre-Islamic traditions like the ulek mayang in a misguided attempt to somehow attain a purified Islam. Regretful of his past, it is telling how the absent Ayah accuses the sea-princess of stealing his “very spirit and certainty paradise”[17], before repenting by “begin[ning] to pray consistently,” “fast[ing] on Thursdays and donat[ing] to mosques,”[18] as if heaven was ever guaranteed or that his performance of piety is the definitive barometer of Muslimness.

Similarly, Nuraliah Norasid’s Prayers From a Guitar sets its sights on a distinctively patriarchal brand of normative Islam intent on sapping any joy life has to offer by decrying everything (especially in the hands of women) to be sinful. On the surface, the entry’s thorny focal point appears to be the “idolatory of musical instruments” that are reportedly “tribal and base in their nature”[19], but the figure of Ustaz Hazrali is really what deserves lampooning, and Nuraliah delivers. The ostensibly pious character is of course a caricature of that one Quran thumping, Zakir Naik-watching uncle everyone knows, whose overbearingness naturally comes from a long line of patriarchs (“Hazrali’s own father had forbidden all music from the household”), proving that it truly is an entrenched problem. Exhibiting the audacity that only a man could get away with, the good ustaz’s claim that “God forbid he let another impressionable woman lose her path”[20], not only points to a self-serving delusion but one that also takes God’s name in vain. Jurisprudential debates aside, the short story lambasts predominantly male practitioners of an Islam historically inflected by phallogocentrism, meeting their match and possible emancipation in the form of autonomous, unabashed femininity.

On the other hand, Tujuh is Nazry’s own addition to the anthology which challenges an altogether different though no less malicious system of accepted beliefs. The hypothetical For-None-Desk (FND), which aggregates and publishes only “the most popular” news items, mirrors the Singaporean myth of meritocracy and its majoritarian contours. Cherry-picking news items that are meant for mass consumption and sweeping unsavoury crimes under the rug leads to the death of journalism but against all odds, Eli the fine arts aficionado manages to rise through the ranks. Nevertheless, the acceptance of his highly sought-after position dictates the need for the protagonist to supplant his own cultural identity for something more palatable to the majority – a fact that he is not unaware of, resenting how Malays like him are still said to be “cut from a different cloth, a fabric of inferior quality”[21]. Living in someone else’s shadow as “the new Chris Kuan,” little wonder then that there is a latent “animality” aroused only during bouts of feverish sexual release and more appallingly, the string of serial killings wrapped up in esoteric references to various masterpieces of art. Thus, Tujuh warns readers of the symbolic violence it costs to foreground certain stories, discursive fields and even whole groups of people over others.

CLOSING THOUGHTS
With the already constraining word limit of this review, one cannot hope to encapsulate the sheer wealth in inquisitive imagination that Singa-Pura-Pura brims with. There is barely space to mention Noridah Kamari’s Nineteen Eighty-Four inspired meditation or to flesh out the translation of Farihan Bahron’s Emas, Kertas dan Hampas that tackles the gamification of retirement according to market forces, and the value accorded to life’s ephemera namely the accumulation or hoarding of any given form of currency. If there was ever any doubt, these are all important stories narrated by those who have mostly been relegated to the margins, whose vibrant voices deserve to be foregrounded now and in the future. A closer reading or three is more than warranted. ⬛


1 Atwood discusses the distinction between science and speculative fiction in addition to her inability to separate utopias from dystopias; refer to: Margaret Atwood: the road to Ustopia. 2011, October 14. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/14/margaret-atwood-road-to-ustopia
2 Bahrawi, N. (ed.) Singa-Pura-Pura. Ethos Books. 2021. p. 72
3 Ibid, p. 147
4 Ibid, p. 139
5 Ibid. p. 60
6 Ibid, p. 63
7 Ibid, p. 60
8 Ibid, p. 21
9 A parallel could be drawn back to ‘The Chip’, wherein progress is presented as a product of initial inter-species collaboration before devolving into subsequent discrimination and exploitation at the hands of humans.
10 Bahrawi, N. (ed.) Singa-Pura-Pura. Ethos Books. 2021. p. 158
11 Ibid, p. 123
12 Ibid, p. 125
13 Ibid, p. 130
14 Ibid, p. 178
15 Ibid, p. 30
16 Ibid, p. 31
17 Ibid, p. 40
18 Ibid, p. 37
19 Ibid, p. 46
20 Ibid, p. 44
21 Ibid, p. 101

 


Solihin Samsuri is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. He recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Literature from Yale-NUS College. His thesis on Salleh Ben Joned examined the intersection between language, Islam, and Malayness.

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