Alfian Sa’at’s “Malay Sketches” (Book Club, August 2021)

Hallway of a HDB flat in Singapore

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These are the discussion prompts and notes from the August 2021 book club, when we discussed Alfian Sa’at’s “Malay Sketches” (https://nlb.overdrive.com/media/5549676).

1. Which was your favourite story/stories? And in general, how did you feel about the book?

  • One did not really like it, not because of the content but because of how “personal” the book felt. Some themes were too relatable and/or raw. There was a realisation about the diversity of the Malay population in Singapore, including class and race transitions, and the stories spoke to that diversity (e.g. “Cold Comfort”).
  • A feeling of “having let the community down” by taking a different path, in terms of managing community or racial/ethnic expectations.
  • The stories did not overlap, each reflecting a different aspect of the community (e.g. “His Birthday Present”). They were well-curated and non-repetitive. The snippets of an ordinary day interspersed throughout the longer stories were highlighted.
  • The book could not have been written by another Malay Singaporean (writer). It was very parochial and in tune with the pulse of the community, such as speaking to the gaze placed upon the racial/ethnic community.

2. The themes of race, racism, religion, and religious discrimination feature prominently (“Cold Comfort”, “Shallow Focus”, “A Howling”, “His Birthday Present”, “Reunion”, “The Drawer”). Given what has transpired recently in Singapore and drawing from personal experiences, how do you evaluate the present discourse and how do we do better?

  • “A Howling” read like a criticism of the Malay community, who can also make race- and/or class-based judgements. In addition, there was a related sharing about why dogs were not permitted at workplaces in Singapore.
  • “Cold Comfort” does not provide information about the other Chinese doctor, but the Malay doctor may have already or implicitly drawn some conclusions about her. Tangentially, discussions about microaggressions are not common in the country, and yet there’s also been a paucity of quality conversations, resulting in a continuing cycle of misunderstanding and misapprehensions.
  • Any discursive advances are still important. For ministers to call on the majority Chinese Singaporeans to be cognisant and to act is significant, but much more can still be done especially at the structural and policy levels.
  • For instance, Malay-Muslim women often must navigate both racial and religious considerations and other expectations and/or contradictions.
  • The overall narrative from the government is that race relations have been getting better, framing progress as linear or continuous, but the book contains counter-narratives and/or alternative views of history.

3. Relatedly, there are criticisms of the criminal justice system (“Proof”) and capital punishment (“The Sendoff”). To what extent do they still resonate today?

  • Some of the stories cannot be read without knowledge of the context in Singapore, for instance in terms of detention and investigations of the individual and/or the family about religion and/or radicalisation.
  • The film “The Apprentice” (2016) was referenced as also providing a good depiction of the criminal justice system, capital punishment, and being on death row in Singapore. In general, the public knows very little about the processes, even though it happens in a very bureaucratic state. The process can sometimes be opaque, and the (initial) controversy over the mandatory death penalty was referenced too.
  • Finally, public support for capital punishment or the supposed status quo can vary or change with access to more information.

4. Also relatedly, socio-economic progress, inequality, and class relations featured in many stories (“Overnight”, “The Morning Ride”, “Second Take”). Many of these intersected with race/racism too. How do you evaluate the themes and stories?

  • “Overnight”: Subtly weaving in the theme of homelessness.
  • “The Birthday Present”: The themes of poverty and inequality are not just about the numbers or objective social mobility trends, but also subjective measures. The story also prolongs the moments of anxiety, for example, of the mother having to buy an expensive gift, navigating awkward interactions at the birthday boy’s house, and almost sitting through the opening of the gifts.

5. “After the Dusk Prayers” was an example of a pushback against the costs of development and urbanisation. What did you think about the story and other stories which alluded to that theme?

  • “Overnight”: The desire to go to the beach was motivated by desires to be closer to nature.
  • However, the costs of development and urbanisation are not exclusively Malay experiences. There are also linguistic implications because some Malay language proverbs draw from traditional kampung living.

6. What other significant themes or topics or story/stories stood out to you?

  • The relationship between Malaysia and Singapore, for example with the stories about visiting relatives in Malaysia and deciding between careers or one’s future in Malaysia or Singapore.
  • There is very little public discourse and limited knowledge about Malaysia, from the perspective of Singaporeans. Singapore also features rarely in Malaysian public consciousness, perhaps besides characterisations as a boogieman even though the degree of actual people-to-people exchange is high (pre-pandemic).

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