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Multilingual Literature of Singapore

By Audrey Golden. Apr 8, 2017. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Literature, Literary travel

Have you read any literature from Singapore lately? This city-state is located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, and it has long been along various trade routes throughout Southeast Asia. As a result of its geographic location, as well as its status as a British colony through much of the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century, Singapore has attracted immigrants from across the region. Indeed, there are four national languages in Singapore, including English, Malay, Mandarin (Chinese), and Tamil. Given the wide range of national languages in the region, the literary history of Singapore is also a multilingual one. We thought we’d suggest some texts you might read to familiarize yourself with this multilingual region of the world.

A Brief Multilingual History of Literary Singapore 

map-of-singaporeHow, exactly, did Singapore become such a multilingual region of the world with literatures in Chinese, English, Malay, Tamil, and other languages? An article in Words Without Borders explains that “Singapore was a multilingual island long before the concept was formally enshrined in its constitution in 1963.” Indeed, the article notes that, according to “a short story by literary pioneer Makadoom Saiboo published in 1888 . . . to succeed on the island, one had to be fluent in Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Boyanese, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannadam, Telugu, Marathi, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Turkish, French, Spanish, Italian, and English.” The four official languages adopted by Singapore upon its independence reflect the history of immigration that resulted largely from the country’s colonial history, with speakers of Tamil and English, as well as its position along trade routes from China.

So, what recent works of literature should you explore from Singapore?

Latha and Singaporean Work in Tamil

There are a number Tamil writers in Singapore. One of the most prominent contemporary Tamil writers is Kanagalatha (Latha), who has written both poems and short stories. In 2008, her short story collection Women I Murder [Naan Kolai Seiyyum Pengal] (2007) won the Singapore Literature Prize.

Her work reflects a long history of British colonization and the harm associated with imperialism. For instance, in her short story, “There Was a Bridge in Tekka,” the narrator’s interior monologue questions, “Do you expect me to get into trouble with the British? Do you have any idea how many people have been detained for resisting them? There’s a trial going on now in India. If we are captured, they’ll take us to India too. Do you want to rot in an Indian prison? Such a sacrifice would at least have been worth it had they treated us better in Netaji’s army.”

Her fiction and poetry has been featured in literary magazines that have appeared in Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, and parts of Europe. In addition, her work has recently been translated in Words Without Borders. The selection quoted above was translated by Yamuna Rajoo and Dan Fen Tan. 

Chinese Literature in Singapore

noel-barber-singaporeIn addition to Tamil writers, many Singaporean novelists, poets, and short story writers pen their words in Mandarin Chinese. For instance, you might explore the work of Yeng Pway Ngon, who has won the Singapore Literature Prize three times, and was also awarded the Cultural Medallion for Literature. His short story, “Opera Costume,” translated by Jeremy Tiang, recently appeared in an issue of Words Without Borders. We’ll give you a taste of the translated work:

Helpless before the heavens we part, what sorry, what rage; the farewell heart cling to the drooping willow, goodbye tears splash the flowers—The old man struggles to remember the lyrics to Revisiting the Long Pavilion Willows, humming bits and pieces. It’s been too long since he’s sung anything, too long since he heard this tune.”

These literary examples are just a couple of the many that you can find in Singapore. Now that you know about the robust literary scene in the city-state, we recommend doing more exploration of Singaporean literature in translation.

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Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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