An interview with Alfian Sa'at

Nazry Bahrawi

A prolific literary figure in Singapore, Alfian Sa’at is renowned for the body of plays, poems, and prose he has penned, tackling topics considered taboo in the tropical island-state, namely race, sexuality, and politics. His critical bent has not precluded him from receiving a slew of national literature awards, including the 2001 Young Artist Award and three Life! Theatre Awards for Best Original Script.

In the past few years, Alfian has tried his hand at translation, making the Malay-language novels of Malay Singaporean writers accessible to an English-speaking readership.

The word “displacement” strikes me as particularly characteristic of his oeuvre. Former opposition Singapore Democratic politician Vincent Wijeysingha once described
Malay Sketches, Alfian’s sardonic collection of character vignettes exploring the Malay experience in Singapore, as “the narrative of displaced native people all over the world.”

While this is an undoubtedly lofty claim, one cannot deny that puncturing holes in “The Singapore Story” is among Alfian’s signature achievements—disrupting the narrative of Singapore as a model for other postcolonial states to follow, as an idyll whose visionary leaders managed to transport the nation from the third to the first world in a single generation.

Alfian is a translator in more than one sense of the word. Translators constantly traffic in the perils of displacement. The act of translating—between languages, cultures, and class—is fraught with misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and manipulation. The theme of displacement pervades Alfian’s work, which centers on the narratives of groups that are marginalized in Singapore, particularly the ethnic Malays—as with
GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet), his Malay-English play exploring Singaporean racial politics—and the LGBTQ community.

We corresponded by email about literary craft, multilingualism, and the unique fragmentation of Singapore’s literary scene along linguistic and ethnic lines.

Your compendium of short stories in Malay Sketches offers readers a glimpse of the minority Malay experience in Singapore. What about this experience is identifiable, and hence translatable, to someone who is not a Malay Singaporean? And what about it is untranslatable?

I think when one lives in a multicultural society like Singapore, there will always be a need for translation—not just linguistic translation but cultural translation, which I see as the act of making certain cultural practices legible for those outside the culture.

As for whether certain aspects of experience are identifiable to non-Malay Singaporeans, this is not something that I worry about. I know that certain experiences are universal because they deal with what any human being is familiar with—falling in and out of love, birth, death, etc. We all die, but there are definitely cultural differences in how we mourn and carry out funeral rites.

So I don’t think there are aspects of Malay culture that are resistant to “translation” for outsiders. And quite frankly I think the moment one thinks that there is something unique and intransigent about one’s culture is when one might begin to exaggerate, even commodify, its potential exoticism for the outsider’s gaze.

Literary arts in Singapore is classified according to its languages—Mandarin, Tamil, Malay and English. This may have created an impression among some that communal issues are best expressed in their respective communal tongues. For example, issues concerning the Malays are best expressed through a play or poem written in Bahasa Melayu. Your works such as Malay Sketches do not fit into this mould. Was this a conscious decision?

As you’ve mentioned, because of this kind of language-stream classification, I think the situation in Singapore is one of “four solitudes,” where the literature of each ethnic community is somehow detached from that of the others. There have been recent attempts at translating into English works written in the vernacular languages, but considering how Singapore trumpets its multicultural credentials, this is still a trickle rather than the generous torrent that it should be.

So what has been happening is that the writer who writes in Malay, Mandarin, or Tamil has a specific readership in mind, and considering how closely language is tied in with ethnicity in Singapore, this readership will tend to be of a certain ethnicity. I don’t think this is a healthy situation, because this sense of the audience shapes and even circumscribes the literature that is produced.

For example, quite a bit of Singapore Malay literature deals with the loss of the kampung (rural and semi-urban “village” communities). But much of it takes on the form of nostalgia, because there is a sense that the (Malay) reader is also lamenting these losses. But what if the writer is addressing a reader who does not possess the same kind of cultural knowledge about the kampung? I suspect that one might write less about the neighborliness, the childhood games, or the floodings before the festivals, and perhaps train one’s eye on the conditions that gave rise to its loss: land seizures and expropriations, forced resettlements, top-down urbanization. And perhaps even enter a mode of criticality that is sometimes absent from these works.

So when I was writing Malay Sketches, I became very aware that I could not rely on certain cultural shorthands. I cannot use the word kampung and expect it to trigger a host of associations: nostalgia, romanticism, a prelapsarian Eden. It forced me to think deeper about what I mean when I use that word, to describe it, to make it legible.

What do you make of the parallels drawn between American white privilege and Singaporean Chinese privilege?

I think privilege theory is actually useful in describing why inequality exists in society and why not all of it can be attributed to culture. In Singapore, the “cultural deficit” theory is the dominant form in sociological discourse—Malays are economically depressed, for example, because they do not have the immigrant entrepreneurial drive, or did not have ancestors who weathered wars, famines, and cold climates. So I think of privilege theory as something of a corrective to cultural deficit theory. Which is to say that one reason why Malays are economically depressed is because they do not have the social capital that allows them access to various resources.

However, I’m also aware that it is not possible to map “white privilege” perfectly onto “Singaporean Chinese privilege.” There are two reasons for this. First, because the Chinese were mainly of sojourner stock, who arrived in Singapore as indentured labor serving the needs of colonial capitalism, they do not have a self-image as an imperial people who transplanted an indigenous population (they believe that they were escaping the Qing government, not extending its reach). Thus, many Chinese do not possess the kind of liberal guilt that one might expect from those who have colonial baggage. They do not see themselves as settler colonialists but as settlers imported by a colonial administration.

Secondly, there are many Chinese who actually feel disprivileged because of the fact that they are Chinese-speaking and Chinese-educated. This is because of various incidents of social trauma brought upon by the ascendancy of English as Singapore’s lingua franca. These incidents include the closing down of Nanyang University, at that time Southeast Asia’s largest overseas Chinese-medium university, the fact that their school certificates were rendered worthless by employers seeking English-language proficiency, and the kinds of humiliations that they endured because Chinese-ness became associated with Communism, backwardness, and obsolescence.

Bearing the above in mind, I tend not to use the term “Chinese privilege” loosely in Singapore. In my mind, a more accurate description would be “Anglophone Chinese privilege,” or even the more neutral “majority privilege.”

While your poem “Si Tanggang Pura-Pura” is primarily penned in English, you’ve included some lines from Malay such as “Aku tidak kenal siapa perempuan ini” (“I do not know who this woman is”). Can you tell us about the role of multilingualism in your work?

“Si Tanggang” is a character from Malay legend, a poor boy who has prospered in life and who later claims that he does not recognize his own mother. It is also known as the tale of “Malin Kundang” in Sumatra or “Nakhoda Manis” in Brunei. I felt that to capture his voice in the poem, it had to be in Malay, for reasons of authenticity. But Tanggang’s voice is also one that intrudes into the general voice of the poem, a voice from the past, specifically Singapore’s Malay past, which is often buried and disavowed. So the use of Malay is also a political act that reminds the reader of a past which is yet to be claimed and acknowledged by many Singaporeans.

In many of my works, especially in my plays, characters code-switch between English and Malay. This is a natural result of the bilingual education system that we have in Singapore. So I use multiple languages in my plays as a reflection of how Singaporeans speak. However, I’m also aware that in Malay theatre there are factions that believe theatre should play a didactic function, in that one should present a “correct” form of Malay and not mix the dialogue up with words from other languages. That said, it’s very clear to my audiences that I don’t belong to this faction. As a playwright whose main works are in the mode of social realism, my primary allegiance is to the integrity of my characters and not to purist or conservative concepts of language use.

Several of your poems incorporate footnotes—“Si Tanggang,” for example, makes use of them to provide translations from Malay, and “Mr. Chia Sits in His Dark Cell” to explicate Chia Thye Poh’s detention. They certainly facilitate reading by shedding light on language, concepts, and events that might be unfamiliar to your readership. But what would you say to critics and writers who argue that the best literary works are the ones that make readers work for meaning?

Footnotes are always controversial, and very often it’s a tussle between myself and my editors whether or not to include them. I think for me these footnotes are provided for the convenience of the reader—it saves them the extra step of having to perform a search for what might be unfamiliar terms or historical events. The general rule for me is that if it is contextual information, then I do not mind providing it. But I do not provide footnotes to explain, in literary terms, the meaning of a poem.

Your oeuvre of literary works has attempted to lend voice to two marginalized groups in Singapore—the Malay and the LGBTQ communities, as Malay Sketches and The Invisible Manuscript illustrate. Many Singaporeans believe that these identities are at odds and that the mainstream interpretation of Islam, which is closely intertwined with Malay identity in Singapore, is hostile to LGBTQ rights. Take, for example, the Wear White campaign, launched by Muslim religious teacher Noor Deros in 2014 to protest the Pink Dot movement, which promotes LGBTQ equality. As someone who writes about both communities, how do you negotiate any perceptions of “discrepancy”?

I don’t see queer identity and Muslim identity as irreconcilable, even as I’m aware that there are those who do. I don’t expect some of those who enjoy Malay Sketches to also enjoy The Invisible Manuscript. The problem only arises when someone might suggest that those works are somewhat compromised because they originate from the same author. If we’re going to police, for example, which writer has the authority to write about Muslim issues, then it will never end. One can make the claim that a non-hijab wearing woman, or a convert to Islam, or a non-Arab Muslim has less authority to write about Islam than a hijab-wearing woman, or one born into the faith, or an Arab Muslim. This then becomes less about the writing than ad hominem attacks.

In a 2008 interview with The UrbanWire, you said, “I've tried not to be defined as a political poet, but it's a difficult position because I don't see a lot of other writers in Singapore dealing with social, political, or historical contexts, so I want to be the one to do something.” How does the complexion of the broader Singaporean literary scene shape how you define yourself as a writer?

I think as a writer it’s very important to know what your peers are doing. Because one’s writing is not simply a dialogue with the reader but a dialogue with other writers. So in Singapore, I’m often conscious of the fact that with the exception of playwrights (a long list that includes Tan Tarn How, Haresh Sharma, Russell Heng, Ovidia Yu, Eleanor Wong, Elangovan, Chong Tze Chien, Joel Tan), writers in the other genres like poetry and prose often eschew the political in their writings. (There are notable exceptions, like Teng Qian Xi, Koh Jee Leong, Ng Yi-Sheng and to a lesser extent Cyril Wong, Tania de Rozario and Boey Kim Cheng.) 

Because I’m also part of the theatre scene, which is very political, and which has had numerous brushes with censorship, the kind of absence that I notice in Singapore poetry becomes much more apparent. I think this has to do with the fact that in Singapore, theatre traces its lineage to those such as Kuo Pao Kun, who was imprisoned for four years under the Internal Security Act as well as members of the Third Stage, who were arrested on trumped-up charges under the same act. By contrast, Singapore’s poetry pioneers, such as Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng, and Arthur Yap were all academics who worked within the system, with Thumboo being noted especially for his pro-establishment views.

You've worked on some translations of the works of Kuo Pao Kun, an iconic cultural figure in Singapore. Why did you want to translate him? What makes his work special?

I’ve translated some of Kuo’s works into Malay because he himself was committed to the task of translating works from other languages. An example was his theatre company, The Theatre Practice, staging a translation into Mandarin of Kala Dewata’s Atap Genting Atap Rumbia (Tiled Roof, Thatched Roof) in 1989. So I think that my work of translating Pao Kun’s plays into Malay is the kind of tribute that would have mattered to him: that of continuing his legacy.

Which other Malay Singaporean writers do you admire / draw inspiration from / discuss craft with?

The Malay Singaporean writers that I admire most are playwrights, such as Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Aidli “Alin” Mosbit, and Zizi Azah Abdul Majid. There’s also a new generation of playwrights such as Irfan Kasban, Nessa Anwar, Jon-Jon Zahari, Nabilah Said, and Sabrina Dzulkifli. As for poets, there’s a Malay-language poet I like called Rafaat Hamzah as well as an English-language poet called Abdul Hamid Roslan.

Can you tell us more about your upcoming projects?

I’m researching a figure known as the “Japanese Schindler,” who saved close to 2000 Chinese lives during what was called the “Sook Ching massacre” during the Japanese Occupation. His name is Mamoru Shinozaki, and little is known about him in Singapore’s history. It is going to be a difficult story to tell, because I don’t want to stand accused of trying to rehabilitate the image of the Japanese as aggressors during World War II (some of that image rehabilitation has already happened because of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Nevertheless, I think it’s important to acknowledge these acts of mercy during such a monstrous era.

I also would like to write another book of poetry, but that requires a mental clearing that I can’t afford at the moment because I’ve been so occupied with writing plays.

What are the formal advantages and constraints of drama, poetry, and fiction respectively for you? Do your works more often originate as formal ideas or conceptual ones?

If it is a character that takes up residence in my head, in all likelihood I will end up writing a play. Sometimes a short story. But if the character is especially loquacious, then a play.

Poetry has a different kind of genesis for me. It often begins as an image. Or emotion attached to an image. Or a sensation of time speeding up or slowing down. Or sometimes a line that haunts me. So it can be either formal or conceptual.