Diverse Cultures, Distinct Literature
Thoughts from a Four-Sided Literature
Cultural diversity is seen increasingly as not just a hallmark of some societies but also an inevitability in global culture. The shift in understanding is the result of a growing awarenesss that the issues of social convergence and tolerance that will define tomorrow’s world depend on it. This awareness is helped in turn by what is learnt through ever-expanding commerce, travel, technology, and knowledge.
Singapore’s own embrace of cultural diversity has an older and more straightforward reason. Diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities had already populated the island by the time it became a British trading post in the early nineteenth century. This condition put stress on what must become one of its central concerns when it achieved full political independence in 1965. The Singapore today – which enshrines equality for all, regardless of race, language, and religion – is a product of that early pragmatic resolve to protect Singaporeanness.
To say that Singapore is characterised by different coexisting communities is therefore a simplification of this fact. The fundamental truth is that, without cultural diversity, there would have been no Singapore. Indeed, this key feature is one over whose sanctity the city-state fights and wins regular mental battles. As much as Singapore can be understood as a microcosm of some global village that may feel elusive for now, these battles are always being fought and won for a universal value.
After all, multiculturalism – if encouraged aright – supports rather than destroys distinct community identities. It also creates something else: what appears through genuine interaction among communities as an intercultural identity. Every society has, over and above its potential for its own multicultural formation, this potential for a unique intercultural identity. Through Singapore’s literature with its four sides, its four official languages of English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, what we get is a glimpse of world literature, with its thousands of sides or speech-forms, at an emergent stage.
Each literary culture in Singapore brings with it its own classical influences as well as its own ways of experimenting with, and transforming, writing. Each of these literatures is a receptacle for the community’s reference points, that is, for what it sees when it sees words: its experiences, dreams, values, symbols, and perspectives. Each word, in the context of the language that articulates it, carries a piece of the group’s and the nation’s soul, both a small and a large humanity.
What is further shown to be as fascinating as this uniqueness is the commonalities across the cultures. In all of Singapore’s literary traditions, there are writings about its history in independence, engagements with current social and political realities, reflections on a shared, urban home, and poems about that half-fish, half-lion national symbol called a Merlion. Every time the language barrier is overcome by means of good translation, Singaporean readers find themselves surprised and moved by familiar thoughts and sentiments in a new story, poem, or play. Each time someone explores outside of his or her own literary culture, he or she finds concrete proof of what outward or ceremonial differences and insular living obscure: the fact that the other is always no different from a brother or a sister.
Imagine this effect of a discovery, and the relationships underpinning it, taking root everywhere in the world. Imagine a nation being able to perceive every other nation through such a glass that challenges conventional typecasting to redefine the word “international”. More radically, imagine how, once political shapes are lost, we can see interculturalism meeting interculturalism, a dynamic through which is experienced something grand, bold, and beautiful that is contained entirely through formations of mere humans. What kind of hope will the pursuits enabling this have brought into the world where very few things are ultimately new?
Literature itself, in its smallest unit, has always only been an encounter between two humans, a writer and a reader. This encounter takes place before the window of the imagination, ordinarily a wall of opaque words that the writer’s hand somehow unlocks. If our greatest wish in the magical meeting through books is to gaze into all the manifold faces humanity can reveal, then this must be the surest way forward. Literature is intrinsically a lover of diverse cultures, of infinite selves.
Gwee Li Sui