Reclaiming a Name: On Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches

YZ Chin

That Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches (ASMS) begins with a story centered around a non-Malay man signals the amorphousness of identity. Thus, from the first page ASMS responds to its namesake, colonial administrator Frank A. Swettenham’s Malay Sketches (FSMS). As colonial texts are wont to do, FSMS attempts to pseudo-scientifically observe and categorize “the native” to derive sweeping generalizations as to his innate nature, his bloodthirst, and so on. ASMS’s beautifully subtle answer to Swettenham is a collection of flash fiction detailing the rich, diverse inner lives of mostly Malay Singaporeans, through which Alfian Sa’at dismantles the monolithic caricature of what a Malay is or ought to be.

ASMS was first published in 2012, and is this year being released in a U.S. edition by Gaudy Boy, a new independent press publishing Asian voices. The book comes ahead of planned SG200 events next year (the “SG” stands for Singapore). Although Singapore obtained independence in 1965, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that it was “the government’s intent in 2019 to commemorate the bicentennial of Sir Stamford Raffles’ founding” of the country. This announcement is not without contention, because Raffles was, of course, a colonizer acting on the interests of the British Empire.

It is timely, then, to examine artistic responses to the colonial legacy. In its bite-sized pieces, ASMS is largely devoid of boisterous drama and overtly high stakes, with many micro-stories instead describing half-hidden fears and private yearnings, or micro-aggressions and the often-melancholic responses to such transgressions. In some ways, this may be read as a response to FSMS, which depicts violence or death at the hands of Malays in fully half of its so-called objective essays. The nuanced introspections of ASMS’s characters layer on, piece by piece, the daily brunt of being seen as something less-than, set against the background of outwardly mundane everyday events, as in “The Boy at the Back of the Bus,” in which the narrator sees a young Malay boy and feels a powerful desire to watch over him:

            “I suddenly felt this terrible tenderness towards him…

            “I wanted, if I could, to hook a fish at the end of his line,                           with rainbow-coloured scales, so he would wake up from                       one dream and stumble in astonishment into another.”

There is so much subtext in this story to unpack. Alfian Sa’at repeatedly gives life to worlds in his deceptively simple stories. The “if I could” in the passage above speaks to the helplessness experienced by the narrator, a helplessness that echoes what many downtrodden minorities feel when they say to each other: Something ought to be done—but what? The narrator’s urge to protect stems from a shared danger, though we never get explicit information about the narrator’s ethnic or religious background. The implication, too, of the last sentence is that the current “dream” is inadequate, if not full of horrors, necessitating the existence of a better, astonishingly wonderful new dream. ASMS is full of masterful sketches such as this one, in which Alfian Sa’at imbues stories with spectrums of emotions while leaving so much unsaid.

As in the story above, many other pieces in ASMS deal with the plight of being an ethnic and/or religious minority in a country that views minorities with condescension, if not scorn. The Malay’s position in Singaporean society has its corresponding similarities to that of the Chinese in Malaysia, as brought up in ASMS’s “Two Brothers”:

            “ ‘I used to think that things were different in Singapore. I                      thought we had different rules, different standards                                    [than in Malaysia]. But I realized we’re the same. When it                      comes down to it, it’s all about race. Sons of the                                          soil, sons of the Yellow Emperor’.”

Both minority roles occasionally feel like that of a second-class citizen. As a minority and now immigrant writer, reading ASMS felt like looking into a funhouse mirror, where the base reality is distinctly recognizable, and yet certain much-maligned features are smoothed away, while prized features are distorted into comic ugliness. This is to say ASMS hits home in many ways about the minority experience, and has much to say beyond life as seen by Malay Singaporeans.

In the opening story in ASMS, titled “The Convert,” Jason is a Chinese Singaporean who converts to Islam when he marries a Malay woman. He is excited to embrace the cultural implications of this conversion. But once the wedding is over, reality descends, and he finds himself demoted apparently due to his new identity. Others now see him as Malay Muslim with a rigid finality that does not resonate with how he views himself:

            “ ‘I never went around telling all of you to call                                               me “Jamal.” I’m still Jason.’ But was he?”

The story ends with Jason/Jamal evincing apparent patriotism in a National Day montage, wearing his army uniform and vowing to serve and protect his family, tears in his eyes.

Complexities abound under the surface of this slim story: Is Malay identity tied mainly to religion? If “becoming” Malay is not an instantaneous transaction that occurs at the time of conversion, when does it happen? What is required for a new identity to take hold? As perceived by others, or as felt by oneself? And how does this translate to one’s relationship with a country?

Contrast this with Ho Sok Fong’s “Never Mention It Again,” a story about another convert written by a Chinese Malaysian writer who now lives in Singapore. In Ho’s story, a Chinese man converts to Islam in order to advance in Malaysia’s social hierarchy. Upon the convert’s death, a tussle occurs between his Chinese family and Islamic religious authorities, who rule that Muslims cannot be buried by non-Muslim hands, and have thus arrived to take the body by force. The story ends with the corpse defecating and soiling everyone within reach.

The funhouse mirror shows us that in ASMS, Jason is punished because he converts into a religious minority, but his suffering enhances his familial ties. In Ho’s story, on the other hand, the convert attempts to “trade up” through conversion, but ends up causing his family distress and quite literally smears his legacy. But the striking commonality between these stories reminds us that those who dare seek fluidity in identity are often punished.

If the bruisings of being a minority come to seem repetitive as the book goes on, then it is only a faithful rendering of lived life, in which minorities walk about in what feels like someone else’s country, holding on to muted dread. This is powerfully shown in “Losing Touch”:

            “When I reached the post box later that day, I found                                 myself confronted by two different slots: ‘Singapore’                                 and 'Other Countries’. It made me pause for a while.                                 My sister had asked who I was. What kind                                                     of country did I want for myself? I wasn’t different                                     for the sake of being different. And being different is not                         the same as being difficult.”

So who is the Malay? ASMS answers the question with ambiguity, and that is profound in the context of a people who have been unfavorably stereotyped by colonizers and ruling majorities both. In all of the stories they are their own complex person, with their human triumphs and their mortal failings. They are hikers, drivers, engineers, smokers, bodybuilders, drug addicts, and grieving parents. Though there could be more inclusivity wished for in some respects, particularly in portrayals of sexual orientation, there is no doubt that ASMS is a book that tasks itself with nothing less than the painting of rich inner lives with incalculable hues and tones.