Saturday 1 November 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: History Day

Highlights from the second day of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) included two sessions on history.

In the panel discussion The World Before Singapore moderator Lai Chee Kien initiated a conversation that ranged from the myths surrounding Singapore’s past, to the continuities between the Singapore of the 1840s, and of today, to ethical dilemmas faced by historical novelists.The panellists were: John Miksic, an archaeologist, and the author of many books, including, most recently, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea; John Van Wyhe, an historian of science who has written extensively on Alfred Russell Wallace, the great 19th Century naturalist who based himself in Singapore for several years, during which time he explored the region, resulting in his famous book, The Malay Archipelago; Malay novelist Isa Kamari, some of whose novels, including 1819, are available in English, through Malaysian publisher, Silverfish.

Miksic addressed head-on the myth that before Raffles landed on Singapore the island was a barely inhabited haunt of pirates.  Van Wyhe pointed out that every branch of knowledge has its own myths, commenting that if people think they know anything about Wallace at all, then what they think they know is usually wrong.  Isa Kamari considered a problem faced by historical novelists everywhere: to what extent, if any, should they stick to the (so-called) facts?  

Later in the day another history-oriented panel made reference to Salman Rushdie's 1982 article The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance. How did, or how do, post-colonial voices respond to their experience of colonialism?  That, roughly, was the subject of The Empire Writes Back, moderated by Neil Murphy, who is currently writing a book on John Banville and art. The three panellists were: Singaporean Walter Woon, whose novels explore the experience of the Straits Chinese community in Singapore in the lead up to independence; Australian Dawn Farnham, whose novels are set in colonial Singapore; Kamila Shamsie, the UK-based Pakistani internationally-renowned author of Burnt Shadows, and more recently of A God in Every Stone, set in Europe and Peshawar, during the early part of the last century.

Members of the audience asked some really interesting questions.  One person seemed to be asking whether it was time for us to start re-evaluating the legacy of colonialism, and to look for the good things it brought to colonised people.  This prompted a politely angry response from Shamsie, who made the point that colonialism was a morally bankrupt system – she added the fact that some men were nice did not render patriarchy morally acceptable.  Who would disagree?  But I thought the questioner was trying to suggest that we should consider the way colonial innovations / impositions - perhaps such as railways and the civil service? - brought continuing benefits to local communities, and opening up that conversation, rather than shutting it down by invoking the moral bankruptcy of colonialism might have been interesting. There was also much discussion of when we’ll move on from talking about post-colonialism. Shamsie said she thinks if people applied to her the label post-independence writer that might be more accurate than post-colonial writer.  It might be even better if people stopped applying labels to writers at all, but that's another story...