On the Nation's Margins: The Social Place of Literature in Singapore

By Holden, Philip | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2000 | Go to article overview

On the Nation's Margins: The Social Place of Literature in Singapore


Holden, Philip, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


In May 1995, an article in the Straits Times suggested a decline in literature enrolment for "O" level studies in Singapore. A growing trend, it was reported, was for schools, required by the Ministry of Education to offer literature as a compulsory subject for the first two years of secondary school, to offer the subject as an option only for Secondary 3 or 4 students. The trend resulted, it was suggested, from a desire by the schools to "protect and improve on their positions in the annual ranking of schools" (Nirmala and Mathi 1995, p. 3). Since the ranking is influenced by the number of distinctions obtained by students, and literature is perceived as a difficult subject in which to score distinctions, the decision reflected a pragmatism on the schools' part. The statistics, indeed, seemed alarming: "O" level literature enrolments at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and Victoria School had halved in five years.

The numbers of students taking Literature in English for "O" and "A" levels still appear to be on the decline, but the news item provoked a moment of reflection about the role of literature in Singapore society. Public figures commented on the usefulness of literature; school teachers, engineers, and doctors wrote letters, and Straits Times columnist Ravi Veloo proposed that "O" level literature be made compulsory for all students.(1) Arguments in favour of literature were essentially twofold. First, literature was seen as a repository of humanistic and spiritual values which might resist the pragmatism and increasing materialism of everyday Singaporean life. Second, it was promoted as encouraging higher-order thinking skills, the kind of creative or critical thinking necessary for Singapore's future as an economically developed nation.

Surprisingly absent from the debate, however, was any discussion of what type of literature might be taught, or what methods might be used to teach it. Everybody seemed to know what literature was: literature seemed to stand unproblematicaily for canonical British literature, with a token reference or two to Catherine Lim. Ravi Veloo's article referred to Romeo and Juliet and was accompanied by a picture of Shakespeare. The playwright was mentioned by approximately half of the Straits Times' correspondents, and other writers made reference to Beckett and Trollope.

More than thirty years after Singapore's independence, then, literature still seems very much associated in public perceptions with canonical British literature, rather than a growing body of Singaporean and Southeast Asian writing in English. Paradoxically, in a nation which has now surpassed the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of its former colonial power, literature in English is still largely associated with Englishness, preventing it from having a central role in national life. This paper first explores, historically, the historical reasons for literature's current status by reviewing the rise in the study of English literature as it was originally conceived in Singapore as part of the process of installing allegiance to English nationalism within the colonial state. Towards the end of the colonial period, there was a certain "forgetting" of the origins of English literary studies, a rhetoric of universality which covered over literature's affiliation to nationalism, converting national values into universal values, without any fundamental transformation or thought about literature's social function. This, I wish to argue, is the paradoxical attitude towards literature which persists in Singapore today. The second part of my paper considers the possibilities for-reconceptualizing literature's place in contemporary Singapore, especially within the space opened up by present initiatives in National Education. As a comparative model, I will briefly look at post-colonial revisions of literary studies in Canada.

Historicizing English Literary Studies

Literature in Singapore is a seemingly natural part of the secondary school curriculum, so natural in fact that its presence is rarely given a second thought. …

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