Taking A Second-Guess at Singapore History

BY
JOJO TUNG

Published on
November 24, 2020
Memorandum Book Review Panel

Revisiting the days in a Chinese secondary school, I remember flipping through the social studies textbook just to find the page which had mentioned my school’s involvement in the anti-colonial student protest. It admittedly felt gratifying that an institution I was a part of had a role in shaping history, no matter its scale.

The sheer significance of my alma mater’s history didn’t fully register until Memorandum, where I managed to grasp how intertwined the lives of my alumni were with the narratives chronicled in the book’s short stories.

Delving deep into Sinophone Singaporean literature, Memorandum is an anthology of translated short stories, featuring works by 22 authors, produced over a span of 70 years. It backtracks to the transformative days of Singapore, recounting distinctive moments in history, all in relation to the Chinese-speaking community.

The following stories stood out as the most striking pieces to me and are just two out of the many deserving reads packed into Memorandum.

‘No More Than Her And Him / At The End(s) Of The Day’

Clinching the top prize at the Singapore Golden Point Awards 2011, this masterful short story by Tong Nuan extracts the plight of senior citizens being strangers in their own land. The story is intendedly set in 1987, the same year Singapore’s education system was entirely anglicised and speaking in topolect was publicly discouraged. In turn, it had thrust the straggling Chinese elderly into a linguistic predicament.

The author introduces the backstories of nine low-income Chinese elderly, detailing their jobs, their role in the family and the respective hardships they faced. In an endeavour to upskill, they enroll in a vocational training course where they are assigned a western name, each starting with a letter from the word, Singapore.

This would take on a symbolic meaning as they reflected the people’s version of the Singapore Story. It was a bitter discovery that the course, which was meant to upgrade workers and help improve their command of the English language, instead existed to instill an inferiority complex in the seniors.

I was left with a deep impression, where the insightful depiction of life during the 80s took a deeper dive to unveil a collective anxiety incited by language. Without a doubt, it’s a thought-provoking piece that questions any underlying intentions brought about in the name of nation-building, and one that deserves multiple reads as you discover hidden meanings artfully crafted with every line.

‘Jen Mu Chih’

This narrative piece by Teoh Hee La adopts mental illness as a metaphor to dissect the scars buried deep within the Chinese-educated population.

It starts off with an excerpt of the morning news, reporting the suicide of Jen Mu Chih, the former vice-principal of a secondary school. The story picks up, taking on the perspective of Lum Yin Fei, Mr Jen’s psychiatrist, who feels a pang of guilt for neglecting his cry for help just the previous evening.

As she reflects upon the tragedy, readers are taken through waves of flashbacks uncovering past events that had ultimately led to Mr Jen’s demise. It would highlight the gradual loss of significance of the Chinese language in Singapore society and how the Chinese-educated population dealt with the sense of helplessness and failure to protect their culture.

As a student who had repeatedly neglected mother tongue classes over the years, I felt awfully remorseful that I had failed to embrace my roots. Especially belonging to a school heavily infused with Chinese culture, I couldn’t help but carry the same sense of guilt relayed by ‘Jen Mu Chih’. It’s a reflective piece that re-evaluates the importance of language and culture in our lives and calls to those who have lost touch with their mother tongue along the way.

In the Singapore today that so proudly preaches cultural diversity, Memorandumchucks unprecedented chapters of history back at us and questions our authenticity. Memorandum provides access to seven decades of Sinophone Singaporean literature and is a must-read for all who truly believe in a land that is regardless of race, language or religion.

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